My Mother Flew Bombers

In 1939, at the age of 17, Geraldine Hardman found her dream job.

Thirty-eight WASPs died in service. Mary Hartson (left, with Jerry Hardman, center) was killed in a BT-13 crash in 1944. (Courtesy Melissa Jordan)
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Mom graduated from training at Avenger on September 11, 1943, and was posted to the Air Transport Command at New Castle Army Air Base. During her time in the WASP, she flew Vultee BT-13 trainers, Cessna AT-17 Bobcats, Douglas C-47 transports, and, later—much to her delight—North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. “Most of us would never have gotten near these planes any other way,” my mother once said. “Who would have had enough money to put gas in a B-25?”

On occasion, the women’s challenges were compounded by chauvinism. With great amusement Mom told me a story in which she and several other WASPs delivered aircraft to a coastal base. After approaching the field in tight formation, the pilots executed a series of flawless landings. When the women hit the hangar, the mechanics were laughing. The ground crew explained that a rather blustery Navy officer had watched the WASPs approach and land. He’d declared that because of their precision and skill, the group had to be Navy men. When the women started hopping out of the airplanes, the officer’s face burned red. Embarrassed, he didn’t stay to commend the pilots on their expertise.

But sometimes the bigotry led to sabotage, as my mother wrote in a letter home:

“Yesterday it cleared up enough for me to take off so I tore into my zoot suit, snagged a Red Cross car for my bags & went out to the line—no PT19A—no little silver ship in sight ever—nothing but B26’s and dive bombers! An hour later when it was too late to take off, I finally located my baby in sub-depot minus a prop & with a big hole in the wing which 2 mechanics & the cap’t in charge were frantically covering. I’ve never yet gotten the story but somebody sure did me dirt!”

Thirty-eight WASPs died in service, including several of my mother’s classmates. Paula Loop, one of her dearest friends, died in the crash of a BT-13 near Medford, Oregon, and Mom was dispatched to escort her body home to Oklahoma. As civilians, the WASPs received no benefits and had no right to a military funeral—not even a flag for the coffin.

When Mom’s brother Franklin, a naval aviator, was lost in the Pacific theater late in 1943, she requested a transfer to a western base to be closer to her family. But coming back to New Castle after a ferry mission early in 1944, she discovered the WASP barracks empty; her entire unit had been assigned to another base to fly pursuit aircraft. She had not been sent on to pursuit school because she’d already requested a transfer. For her whole life, my mother regretted the decision. “I opened my mouth when I shouldn’t have. I would have been in fighters otherwise. People make their mistakes. I wish I hadn’t made that one.”

While waiting for her westward transfer to go through in the spring of 1944, Mom was chosen to go to Orlando, Florida to participate in the WASP’s first Officer’s Training Course. Efforts were under way to militarize the program and grant commissions to the women. But male civilian pilots, fearing a loss of their draft-deferred status, lobbied hard against the militarization bill, and opposition grew in Congress. The press railed against the women, calling them “the powder puff brigade” and questioning their value to the war effort. By June 1944, the militarization bill was defeated in Congress, and by October, the remaining WASPs were informed that the program would be shut down in December.

While the training course in Florida kept my mother from the chance to fly fighters, it opened another door for her. Just a few days after arriving in Orlando, she met a young officer on a weekend trip to Daytona Beach. A whirlwind romance led to a June wedding, and in just a few weeks, my mom was expecting her first child. She didn’t want to stop flying, but a side effect of her pregnancy was altered depth perception; she found herself landing airplanes above—and not on—the runway, so she tended to overshoot the landing. “Hard on plane and pilot,” she explained. WASPs had married and gotten pregnant before, but while other women in those circumstances had been granted a leave of absence, Mom wasn’t told that she could take one. With no other alternatives, she resigned from the WASP in August 1944. She was not allowed to write—or even sign—her own resignation letter. In a box of my mother’s papers, I found a copy of that cold form letter, stating that she wanted to quit simply to be with her husband. Years later, her frustration over the resignation boiled over, and in 1979 she wrote a letter to the Air Force noting that she “resented the implication that [she] would quit for a frivolous reason.” The only response she got was a form letter and instructions for applying for her honorable discharge.

On December 20, 1944, the WASP organization was disbanded; the women had to spend their own money to get home. Their groundbreaking, patriotic work swept into the footnotes of history, many of the pilots were embittered. It would take 33 years for the women to be granted veteran status through an act of Congress.

By 1950, my mother had three young children. She had not given up her aviation ambitions, though. She told me that on the day she took the exam for a commercial license, she had no money for a babysitter. The only woman in the room, she took the test with an infant over her shoulder.


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