This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Oklahoma Magazine. Betty Riddle, one of the WASP pilots interviewed, died on June 8, 2012. She was 88.
Everyone did something. The men went to war. The women went to work. The kids recycled candy wrappers for the aluminum. And the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) zipped up their oversized mechanics’ uniforms, cinched the baggy waist, rolled up the long cuffs and slid into the cockpit with an adventurous smile under their pin-curled hair.
They took to the skies and, for those 1,074 WASP and the women who have followed their brazen legend, the skies haven’t been the same since.
Finally, A Medal
“We didn’t realize we were blazing a trail. It never crossed our mind. We weren’t blazing a trail, we were helping to win the war,” says Deanie Parrish, WASP and associate director of Wings Across America, who stood on a platform in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, and accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the WASP.
At last, acknowledgement had come.
“Over 65 years ago, we each served our country without any expectations of recognition or glory,” Parrish said in her acceptance speech on Capitol Hill. “And we did it without compromising the values that we were taught as we grew up – honor, integrity, patriotism, service, faith and commitments. We did it because our country needed us.”
She spoke to a crowd of more than 200 WASP and their families who had traveled to the nation’s capital to attend, like WASP and Tulsans Betty Ferrol Riddle and Elizabeth “Betty” Smith.
Parrish spoke for them, as well as for herself, and the courage of all the WASPs, once young women in an unheard of military experiment, who did what no one expected – made history.
License To Fly
It was a different time. In many ways glorious, in many ways gruesome.
The world was at war for the survival of liberty, and as the Allied Forces proved their valor and moxie abroad, their families and friends had a job to do back home. They had to keep their military armed, their airplanes staffed.
The war needed all hands, even the softer, more petite ones. The women now had different shoes to fill. Airplanes needed to be built. Industry needed labor. America needed pilots.
A few gutsy women had proven their worth in the skies, women like Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran, a famous female pilot in the 20th century who proposed the concept of a military pilot training program for women. WASP was her brainchild.
WASP would combine the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) with a military pilot training program and fly stateside missions, eventually flying more than 60 million miles. The women would be trained to fly nearly every plane in the Army Air Force inventory, all 78 different types, from transports to cargo ships to bombers to pursuits.
However, to be accepted in the WASP seven-month training program, there were a few prerequisites, including education, age, even height and weight.
“I remember one girl who ate a bunch of bananas to make the weight,” says Riddle, who graduated from WASP training in 1944. “A couple of others hung on tree limbs to stretch their height.”
But if you weren’t a wisp of a girl, were at least 5’2 1/2” and could pay your way to and from training, you only had one hurdle left. You had to be a licensed pilot with a required number of flying hours.
Out of the 25,000 women who applied, only 1,830 were accepted, and only 1,074 graduated. The training would put them through everything their male counterparts endured. And the perception of the 1940s woman would forever change.
Parrish worked in a bank in the afternoons during her Florida high school days, cashing checks for good-looking flight instructors who only wanted to talk about flying.
She didn’t know of a single girl taking flying lessons and wanted to know why. So she asked the cadet flight instructor.
“‘Just because I’m a girl, why can’t I learn to fly?’ He had no answer.”
But her challenge intrigued him. He used his private Piper Cub plane to give Parrish lessons. By 19, she was the first girl to earn her pilot’s license in her small hometown of Avon Park, Fla.
Up in the Air
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, the Piper Cub plane was exactly what Elizabeth “Betty” Smith would, eventually, own herself. Or, better stated, own a quarter share.
First, however, she had to get her license. And at the airport, then located at 61st and Yale where the KingsPointe Shopping Center now resides, Smith – age 19 – entered the Civil Pilot Training Program (CPT). Sponsored by the University of Tulsa, the CPT program trained pilots to be ready in case they were needed. The class would accept 20 students, and only two of those could be girls.
In October 1940, Smith and Margaret Ann Hamilton began their training.
Smith says she doesn’t know what put the idea of flying in her head. Her father hated to fly. Her mother, however, had been flawlessly supportive as her daughter collected flying artifacts, hung airplane posters on her bedroom wall and eventually asked permission to learn to fly.
“I wanted to spend all my extra time at the airport, whether flying or not,” says Smith, who believes her father agreed to the class thinking she would only learn about flying. “I remember sitting with my back against the (airport) office wall on a beautiful, autumn day and just watching the activity, watching the planes come and go.”
By January 1941, Smith had her license. She was a pilot. And her mother was her first passenger.
“She was scared because it was a very small plane. She was holding on. But she was game,” Smith says.
A fellow classmate eventually approached Smith, along with her fellow CPT female classmate Hamilton, with a proposition. He would come up with half the money to purchase a Piper Cub, if each girl could come up with a quarter share. Owning a plane, or at least a share, gave Smith the flight time that would very soon be required when she reached age 21 and took a place in history she had no idea she’d fill.
Born To Fly
Betty Ferrol Riddle, however, didn’t need much help acquiring the necessary WASP flight time. Or her license. In fact, by the time she entered the training program at 19, the age requirement now having been lowered from 21, Riddle had 335 hours of flight time, a commercial license, and had passed the written exam to become a flight instructor.
Growing up in Wetumka, Okla., Riddle had been raised around airplanes. Her father was an airplane mechanic, having built one himself using a set of blueprints and his ingenuity when Riddle was only a child. By age 8, she had already had her first airplane ride.
Riddle earned her pilot’s license through the CPT program, taking lessons early in the morning and late at night to fit around her schedule since she was still in high school. Once she had her license, Riddle could rarely be separated from the skies. She flew, often throwing her younger brother in the back for the necessary weight, until age 70, declaring at that age it was probably time to stop.
The Cattle Truck
They had passed their physicals, passed their interviews, passed all the requirements. Now all they had to do was get to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, to begin the training.
“It felt like a world away. There were no commercial airplanes. I had to ride the train, and it took two days to get from Florida to west Texas,” Parrish says. “I can’t remember how many times I had to change trains. It was quite the adventure.”
Sweetwater, Texas, Parrish says, was basically sand, gravel and rattlesnakes. It was barren and dusty and being converged upon by a gaggle of young girls from across the United States.
When it was time to be transported to Avenger Field for their first day, all the ladies – dressed in their usual attire of skirts and white gloves – were herded into the back of a cattle truck.
Smith, in an earlier class than Parrish, was one of the few classes trained in Houston, Texas, before Sweetwater became the WASP permanent home. Nevertheless, the mode of transport was the same: a cattle truck. Benches along the sides. Canvas over the top. And there the women would be hauled to and from training every day for seven months.
This wouldn’t be the only adjustment.
“I grew up in Wetumka. We didn’t have much in the way of sports for women,” Riddle says. “Suddenly, I had eight other women in the barracks with me.”
Two barracks shared one bathroom, which consisted of two showers, two sinks, two toilets, no privacy and 15 minutes to be ready in the mornings.
“Your inhibitions went away and you learned to go into the shower with other women,” Riddle says.
Parrish says she chose to wait until everyone else was sleeping and shower during the night.
The training was exactly like what the men experienced, including the marching, all the marching, lots of marching, marching everywhere they went.
“As we marched, we sang,” Parrish says, explaining how the women were thrilled to be in training, to be helping their country, and took every duty as a chance to excel. “We were proud. We each tried to be the best in marching.”
They took the challenges in stride, like the jumping and squatting and calisthenics. Even the chin ups, though the women still remember them as grueling and nearly impossible.
The hardest part, Smith says, was waiting to fly. Since she was in Houston, the fog occasionally kept them grounded and waiting in the ready room. She wanted more time in the air. After graduation, she got her wish.
Given two weeks at home to say goodbye, Smith returned to Tulsa and shared the news that she would be heading to Love Field in Dallas to work with the 5th Ferrying Group, a mission she couldn’t wait to start.
“I was eager. We were all very eager. We were doing this by choice. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” Smith says. “We all loved to fly, wanted to fly.”
Her first mission was taking a PT-17 Stearman, a bi-plane, from Wichita, Kan., to Blythe, Calif. With an open cockpit, Smith crossed plains and mountains and varying topography until she reached her destination and her next assignment.
Soon, she had been transferred to Palm Springs, Calif., to a school that trained ferrying pilots how to fly pursuits, what are now referred to as “fighters.” She learned to fly the P-40, P-39, P-47 and the P-51, which she flew the most, usually taking it to Newark, N.J., where the plane would then be shipped to the European Theater.
Parrish ended up at the Greenville Army Base in Mississippi as an engineering test pilot, although her WASP journey would eventually take her into the skies flying a plane called the “Widowmaker” as a target for live ammunition.
Initially, however, she was commissioned to test planes for cadets in training. If a plane crashed or needed repairs, before it could be released for cadet use, Parrish had to fly it and give it her okay.
After two months in Greenville, the director of operations wanted Parrish to attempt piloting a twin-engine plane, although her training had been only in single-engine aircraft. He took her into the air, had her land a few times, then ended the test.
“‘That’s enough,’ he said. ‘I have three officers that need to go to Baton Rouge. You’re taking them.’ So I did,” Parrish says. “I took those officers to Baton Rouge and came back to Greenville and never told them I hadn’t been in that airplane before.”
Then she got the news. They needed her in Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City for four weeks of training on the B-26, also known as the “Baltimore Prostitute,” also known as the “Widowmaker,” since so many had been lost. She couldn’t tell her parents about the mission, only about the training.
They weren’t happy.
With her training completed, Parrish spent the next five months in Panama City piloting a B-26 over the Gulf of Mexico. With an assigned spot, an assigned altitude and a specific pattern issued, a target like a large wind sock would be released out of the tail of her plane while training gunners, in a four-engine B-24, would fire live ammunition at the target.
A stray bullet found her aircraft once, but she didn’t sweat it.
“I never got nervous. I had a job to do and I did it without question,” Parrish says.
Back in Oklahoma, Riddle was at the Altus Air Force Base. Graduating six weeks before WASP was disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, Riddle arrived in Altus to find her sleeping quarters inside the psychiatric ward in the local hospital. Her room, specifically, was inside the security room surrounded by wire with a one-way lock door. If it shut, she was stuck inside. So the door was always propped open.
With seven other WASP, Riddle worked as an engineering test pilot on double-engine planes, checking out the airplane mechanics’ work – always excellent, she recalls – before giving the planes over to the students for instruction.
When deactivation came in December 1944, it wasn’t welcome. The women had achieved so much, and now it was over.
“We were terribly disappointed,” Smith says. “The war wasn’t over, but we knew it was going to be. The fellas were coming back.”
They were coming back to resume their previous lives, their previous positions, their previous jobs. The women, so desperately needed before, were now released without fanfare.
“One day we are flying for the Air Force. The next day we were riding a Trailways bus home,” Riddle says. “We would have stayed in if we could have.”
But WASP had never been militarized despite plans to do so. No legal means existed to commission the female pilots into the military, though General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commander of the Army Air Forces, had been instrumental in starting the program.
WASP remained under the Civil Service Commission, despite their military training, military orders, military barracks, military aircraft and military missions. When 38 WASP died during their service, families never received government life insurance. The women remained outside of the military.
The end was the final chapter. The women disappeared into their civilian lives, a whisper of a story untold.
“I hung up my parachute and paid my way back home,” Parrish says.
Time To Remember
As the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian, the WASP’s Congressional Gold Medal is adorned with the smooth, dewy face of a young girl in flying gear with various aircraft on the flipside. The inscription reads, “The first women in history to fly American Military Aircraft.”
It’s that history, not only of her country, but of her mother, that prompted Nancy Parrish, Deanie Parrish’s daughter, to embark on a journey with her mother through time and through the political process that finally brought about the WASP’s long-awaited place in history.
“It was time for America to say thank you,” Nancy Parrish says, referring to a quote by President Abraham Lincoln who said, “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”
After the death of her father, a World War II veteran and the “hero in the family,” Nancy says she began focusing on her mother, who never made a big deal of her WASP service.
In 1998, while working for Public Broadcasting Service, Nancy began studying the WASP and their history, initially considering making a documentary. What she found was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
“No one had anything on them. Nothing. They were mentioned in one textbook in one line,” Nancy says.
That’s when she set off on a journey with her mother, traveling across the United States to meet and interview these women in their homes, more than half a century after their service.
Nancy says WASP founder Jackie Cochran “believed airplanes don’t know the difference between men and women.” And she was right. But what she found was a faction of American history quickly dying with its heroes.
“These women had to not just be good, they had to be better. They were scrutinized every time they climbed into a plane,” Nancy says. “There could be no bumpy landings.”
Gathering the history of the WASP, as told through the women from within, Nancy and Deanie Parrish launched the Wings Across America project and website, also developing a WASP museum in Sweetwater, Texas. Nancy additionally began working under the umbrella of Baylor University as a volunteer to revive the history of these women.
In the process, she worked to create a traveling display that would eventually end up in Washington D.C., and grab the attention of Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female USAF Thunderbird Pilot.
Malachowski, a WASP fan, attended the grand opening of the traveling WASP display in D.C. where she met Deanie and Nancy Parrish and eventually drafted the original bill that would ultimately honor the WASP with the Congressional Gold Medal and long-awaited recognition.
“Today is the day when the WASP will make history once again,” said Malachowski, who spoke during the official ceremony in D.C. “If you spend any time at all talking to these wonderful women, you’ll notice how humble and gracious and selfless they all are. Their motives for wanting to fly airplanes all those years ago wasn’t for fame or glory or recognition. They simply had a passion to take what gifts they had and use them to help defend not only America, but the entire free world, from tyranny. And they let no one get in their way.”
The bill was introduced on March 17, 2009, supported by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Rep. Susan Davis of California and Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and approved quickly.
“These exceptional women did not receive the recognition they deserved during World War II and not even for decades later,” said Sen. Hutchison, who was instrumental in the Congressional Gold Medal process. “But on this beautiful day in our nation’s capital, in front of their families, members of Congress and the servicemen and women who have followed in their patriotic footsteps, they finally heard the words they have waited so long to hear: ‘On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service.’”
Parrish stood between the two forces of power in Washington, D.C. – Republicans and Democrats – and united them in their shared history as she accepted the Congressional Gold Medal from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader; Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader; and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.
“All we ever asked for is that our overlooked history would someday no longer be a missing chapter in the history of World War II, in the history of the Air Force, in the history of aviation, and most especially, the history of America,” Parrish said during the ceremony.
It only took all they had, all they could give, and 65-plus years of patience, but the WASP are finally, once again, making history.
To learn more about the WASP and their individual stories, visit www.wingsacrossamerica.us.