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Wasps of War
I clearly remember the day in January 1935 when it was announced that Amelia Earhart had completed her solo flight across the Pacific between Honolulu and Oakland California. I was 16 at the time and was helping knead the dough for our dinner bread when the announcement was broadcast on the radio. I had always been intrigued with flying, my dad had taken me up in his small engine plane quite a few times. I loved the smell of the leather seats and feeling the rumbling vibrations in my chest as it roared down the runway for takeoff. I desperately wanted to become a pilot myself. I admired Amelia Earhart for her courage, and it was that day, the day she became the first woman to make that solo flight, that I knew I was somehow going to have a future in aviation.
At 16 I was your typical teen, I woke early to do my chores, got to school and on the way home from school my girlfriends and I would stop at the soda shop. I would always get a Charleston Chew for myself and Candy Buttons for my little brother. At night when my brother and I were done with our homework our family would gather around the radio and listen to live games and music. My day had brought home a game called Monopoly and my family would often spend nights playing. I always had to fight my brother, who was 3 years younger than me, for the airplane game piece. Never fail, he would grab my fist which was tightly wrapped around the game piece and tell me that I should give him the plane because girls couldn’t be pilots anyway. I knew this wasn’t true, but I did know that he was partially right, because aside from Amelia Earhart, female pilots were few and far between.
My dad was a tall man with a lean build. He had learned to fly in the 20’s and then worked for the air mail service. It was a well-paying position and allowed him the chance to purchase his own plane. My dad was very aware of my desire to be in the air, and I was always the first one he asked to join him for a ride when he took his plane up in the crystal blue skies. I would always tell him that after I got out of school, I was going to become a pilot. He would look me in the eye and say, “Charlotte, I have no doubt you will become whatever you put your mind to.” My dad passed away when I was 17 from a heart attack and it wasn’t until I was 21 that I stepped foot in a plane again. This time it wasn’t as a passenger, but as a student pilot.
After I graduated high school at age 18, I began attending St Butler University, an all-women’s school in Indiana. The campus was brimming with excitement. Female students studying to be teachers and nurses. I had my heart set on pilot’s school, but it was not a popular profession for women. My mom begged me to drop my pilot dream and attend college to study to become a teacher. She said that teachers were the real hero’s. After my dad’s passing I was sensitive to upsetting my mom. She had really struggled with him not being around, so I pleased her and enrolled in the teaching program and left my pilot dream behind.
Even before the official start of World War II in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany, St. Butler students paid close attention to the events leading up to the war and were aware of Hitler and the developing hostilities in Europe. Every morning when the newspapers were dropped hot of the press at the newsstands, the girls would race to grab a copy to learn about the new wartime developments. When the United States entered the war in 1941, my brother was drafted. This literally tore my mother’s heart out. I worried about him every day and felt guilty for not doing anything to help my country and get my brother and all the other brave soldiers back home.
My best friend at school was Ellie Watson. We had met on campus in the library when we were both studying for our mid-term exams. Ellie was small with blonde hair and had a personality twice her size. Her upbeat energy and easy-going attitude sucked me in immediately. I needed a friend like me that found all the possibilities of life exciting. After meeting that day in the library, we pretty much became best friends and were inseparable from that time on. We did everything together and one day when Ellie and I were flopped on my dorm room floor listening to the news on the radio our world was turned upside down. We heard an announcement about the WASP organization that would ultimately change our lives.
The engaging voice on the radio spoke about how The Women AirForce Service Pilots (WASP) were a brave and dedicated group of female aviators who could help the U.S. win the WWII battles in the air. My green eyes grew wide as I listened intently to the radio announcer rattle off the requirements: WASP recruits had to be at least 21, possess a pilot’s license, and have 500 hours of flight time. I had just turned 21, but didn’t meet any of the other requirements, but that was not going to stop me. I looked at Ellie and said “We have to become WASPS.”
I was lucky to have found a friend as adventurous as Ellie, if it were anyone else, I do not think I could have convinced them to postpone their studies, scrape up their savings to go in on a small engine plane and begin taking pilot lessons at the local air base. Ellie, whose brother also was drafted, was a brave adventurer and she dove in with me. She was also fueled by the feelings of helplessness of not being able to contribute during this time of war. It took us 8 months of grueling flight lessons and 500 hours of airtime to meet the requirements after which we were officially accepted as trainees in the Wasp Program in 1943.
Ellie and I headed to training in the hot and humid state of Texas. We trained in the grueling heat on military aircrafts and were supervised by Janet Elliott, the Director of Women Pilots. Janet was a hard-ass. She never allowed excuses and always set the bar as high as possible. The training was rigorous. Often the gear and equipment were so big for us, we had to prop ourselves on pillows in the cockpits in order to reach the control pedals. The training lasted about 27 weeks. By the time Ellie and I graduated we were able to fly all types of military aircrafts. I later came to find out that a total of 25,000 women applied for admission to the WASP training program and 1,074 completed the course and were assigned to operational duty. We were 1 of 18 graduating classes.
WASP’s were not considered military service members, but were civilian employees. Even though our training was nearly identical to male pilots except for the combat-related portion of the instruction. After graduation, Ellie and I awaited our assignments. We prayed we would be stationed together. We had put so much sweat (and tears) into our training and really wanted to continue to support each other.
Thankfully we were both stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. I received my first mission. It was to pick up an aircraft at a factory, test fly it, and then fly it to its military base. The whole reason for women doing these duties was that it freed up the male pilots to fight in combat. Ellie and I ran numerous ferrying missions. It may have sounded easy, but there were a lot of scary situations that arose. Twice, during night flights I was mistaken as the enemy and shots were fired at my plane. To this day I can still remember the sound of the bullets whizzing by the cockpit. Sometimes I had to fly in an open cockpit where the temperature was below freezing, my hands were blue and my teeth chattering from the extreme cold. I even had ice form on my eyelashes. However, the hardest thing to deal with was the sabotage and disrespect that our male counterparts demonstrated toward us. They consistently reminded us that flying was their territory. There was no doubt that the WASP’s were women in a man’s world.
I never let this get the best of me. I loved flying and I knew what I was doing was having a meaningful impact. I was responsible for delivering military aircrafts that would ultimately help my country defeat the enemy and bring my brother home. I also always kept with me the memory of my dad saying “Charlotte, I have no doubt you will become whatever you put your mind to.” With every take off, I would be sure to take notice of the planes rumbling in my chest. This was my way of knowing my dad was with me.
Ellie and I flew numerous ferrying missions over the months. Delivering planes all over the country to various military bases. Criss crossing the skies, morning flights, mid-day flights, you name it we flew them. Ellie and I always made time to meet up when we both were back on the base and one day, to our surprise, we were summoned to the main office by our flight leader. We thought that we were going to be told that our missions were over and that we were no longer needed. But instead, we were told that the male pilots were less willing to fly the difficult planes, specifically the Super Arrow and the Super Fortress. There was no doubt these planes were difficult to fly, but they were also 2 of the most powerful aircrafts when in the sky. They were needed for wartime activities.
The General had summoned for two WASPS to fly these planes, hoping that if the men saw women flying these planes successfully it would cause the men embarrassment and they would begin taking these planes willingly on their missions. Ellie and I didn’t even hesitate. We jumped at the chance to fly these incredible planes.
It was a beautiful morning when Ellie and I took off, her in the Super Arrow and me in the Super Fortress. The planes were incredibly powerful, and it took all our strength and skill to keep them from getting the best of us. My grip on the yoke was so tight my knuckles were white. One slip and the plane would get the best of me. We flew to New Mexico where there was a huge crowd waiting for us to land. We were greeted by the roar of the giant crowd as we stepped from the stealth planes. Everyone was cheering for the two brave female pilots that had crossed the sky in the impressive aircrafts. We were written up in the newspapers and our pictures were splashed across the magazines. We were given a lot of attention. The General’s plan worked. From that day forward the male pilots never complained about flying those planes again.
Ellie and I became two very well-known WASPS after our New Mexico flights, but that wasn’t always a great thing. The male pilots became more hostile toward us. The attempts at sabotage became more severe. Fellow WASPS reported finding acid in their parachutes, flight controls that were loosened and some reported having their tires tampered with so that they would blow out midflight. There were suddenly more forced landings than ever. These men believed that the cockpit was no place for a woman.
Because Ellie and I had kind of become known as a dynamic duo ever since the successful Super Arrow and Super Fortress flight they kept us together on missions. We were sent off to Camp Peter where we were tasked with towing shooting targets in the air for the men on the ground to practice shooting at targets in the sky. Ellie and I were a little wary of Camp Peter. Rumor had it that Camp Peter had a reputation for not being very friendly to the WASPs. We took off into the air towing the targets behind us. The men below were shooting at the targets, and everything was going great, until I heard a loud crack and felt an excruciating pain in my foot. It took me a few moments to realize that a bullet had come through the plane floor and right into my left foot. The pain was so severe I thought I was going to pass out. I managed to turn the plane back toward the runway and make a safe landing. My flight boot was split wide open, and you could clearly see a bullet hole in my foot. The bullet had gone in clean but wreaked havoc inside my foot. It shattered several bones and landed me in the Camp Peter infirmary where I would spend the next several weeks recuperating.
There were questions swirling around about if the shot into the floor of my plane was intentional, but nobody ever came forward. That was always the case. Even when people knew the truth about the abuse and sabotage of the WASPs, nobody was ever brave enough to come forward for fear of the retaliation that would be unleashed by the men. Ellie came to visit me after each of her flights. She mentioned how things at Camp Peter were getting worse and the tensions were rising further between the men and the WASPs. She said she was becoming afraid to tow targets any longer for fear she would be shot at intentionally. She also mentioned that she was now standing guard at her plane to make sure nobody tampered with it. Going as far as setting up camp and sleeping under the wing at night.
It took 6 weeks before I was ready to get back to flying. I was going stir crazy watching all the planes coming and going. I was grateful when I was told I was cleared to fly again. My first mission back in the saddle was to ferry a plan to a base in Colorado. The morning the flight was scheduled my foot had been giving me a little trouble, it felt numb and tingly and if I stepped wrong there was a sharp pain that traveled from my toe to my heel. The doctors saw I was walking lightly on my foot and insisted on doing one last check before clearing me for the 2-hour flight. They had to be certain that I was strong enough to work the pedals and controls. They pulled and prodded and tested the strength and though I was able to do what they asked me, it was clear that my full strength was not there, and the pain was still excruciating. They banned me from flying the mission. I was devastated. I wanted to get into the sky. I was going crazy. Ellie happened to be there when I was given the news and she stepped up and said she would take the mission and fly the plane to Colorado for me. I was devastated to not be able to fly yet, but there wasn’t anyone else I would want to take over my mission.
I watched from the hangar as Ellie taxied to the runway. I thought to myself how incredible it was that the two of us had made it this far. When I first met her at St. Butlers, I never imagined that this would be the path we would have taken. I was certain she was going to be a nurse and I was going to be a teacher. I saw her plane rise and disappear on the horizon as she headed toward Colorado and I headed inside to rest my foot.
I must have fallen into a deep sleep because all I remember is a hand on my shoulder gently shaking me. I woke up to find my WASP leader looking down at me with a concerned look. Her face was pale, and her eyes were brimming with tears. Something was very wrong. I sat up in my bed and got my bearings. “What is it?” I asked. She said that there had been an accident. That the engine on Ellie’s plane had stalled out mid-air and the plane had crashed into an open field. Ellie did not survive.
The WASP program ended in 1944, 8 months before the war ended. Thirty-eight members lost their lives in accidents, eleven died during training, and twenty-seven were killed on active-duty missions. I had only flown 3 more missions after Ellie’s crash. They did an investigation into her crash and found that there was sugar in the plane’s gas tank. It was clearly sabotage, but nobody was ever found responsible. Of course, I think about how it could have been me on the plane if I had gotten the clearance to fly. I have lived with that guilt every day.
I'm now 60 years old, happily married, with 3 kids. After the war ended, I finally got to see my brother again. We spent months together never leaving each other's side, sharing all of our war stories. The fear I once felt at him being gone was forever forgotten at his return. Today is a big day for me and my fellow WASPS. My brother is currently driving the car to Washington DC where the WASPs will officially be recognized as part of the military. As we drive along I think back to the war, how Ellie died. I think about how I and all of the other WASPs scraped together any spare money we had to transport her body back to us because we were not recognized by the military so they did not pay for the transport or burial of any of the wasps that had died during missions. Now no other WASPS will have to experience that. When my brother parks the car I step out and see all of the fellow WASPS I had worked within the war. It had been years since I had seen them. We hug each other and reminisce on our days at the air bases as we wait to step inside and finally be recognized as military veterans. All of our hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance are finally being respected.