Letters and Articles Written by WASPS and WAFS
At the Twilight's Last Gleaming by Cornelia Fort
I knew I was going to join the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron before the organization was a reality, before it had a name, before it was anything but a radical idea in the minds of a few men who believed that women could fly airplanes. But I never knew it so surely as I did in Honolulu on December 7, 1941.
At dawn that morning I drove from Waikiki to the John Rodgers civilian airport right next to Pearl Harbor where I was a [ill.] pilot instructor. Shortly after six-thirty I began landing and take-off practice with my regular student. Coming in just before the last landing, I looked casually around and saw a military plane coming directly toward me. I jerked the controls away from my student and jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane. He passed so close under us that our celluloid windows rattled violently and I looked down to see what kind of plane it was.
The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes.
I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God...
Then I looked way up and saw the formations of silver bombers riding in. Something detached itself from an airplane and came glistening down. My eyes followed it down, down and even with knowledge pounding in my mind, my heart turned convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middles of the harbor. I knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could. A few seconds later a shadow passed over me and simultaneously bullets spattered all around me.
Suddenly that little wedge of sky above Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor was the busiest fullest pieces of sky I ever saw.
We counted anxiously as our little civilian planes came flying home to roost. Two never came back. They were washed ashore weeks later on the windward side of the island, bullet-riddled. Not a pretty way for the brave little yellow Cubs and their pilots to go down to death.
The rest of December seventh has been described by too many in too much detail for me to reiterate. I remained on the island until three months later when I returned by convoy to the United States. None of the pilots wanted to leave but there was no civilian flying in the islands after the attack. And each of us had some indication [ill.] brought murder and destruction to our islands.
When I returned, the only way I could fly at all was to instruct Civilian Pilot Training programs. Weeks passed. Then, out of the blue, came a telegram from the War Department announcing the organization of the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and the order to report within twenty-four hours if interested. I left at once.
Mrs. Nancy Love was appointed Senior Squadron Leader of the WAFS by the Secretary of War. No better choice could have been made. First and most important she is a good pilot, has tremendous enthusiasm and belief in women pilots and did a wonderful job in helping us to be accepted on an equal status with men.
Because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the army, officials wanted the best possible qualifications to go with the first experimental group. All of us realized what a spot we were on. We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn't ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.
We have no hopes of replacing men pilots. But we can each release a man to combat, to faster ships, to overseas work. Delivering a trainer to Texas may be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa if you take the long view. We are beginning to prove that women can be trusted to deliver airplanes safely and in the doing serve the country which is our country too.
I have yet to have a feeling which approaches in satisfaction that of having signed, sealed and delivered an airplane for the United States Army. The attitude that most non flyers have about pilots is distressing and often acutely embarrassing. They chatter about the glamour of flying. Well, any pilot can tell you how glamorous it is. We get up in the cold dark in order to get to the airport by daylight. We wear heavy cumbersome flying clothes and a thirty-pound parachute. You are either cold or hot. If you are female your lipstick wears off and your hair gets straighter and straighter. You look forward all afternoon to the bath you will have and the steak. Well, we get the bath but seldom the steak. Sometimes we are too tired to eat and fall wearily into bed.
None of us can put into words why we fly. It is something different for each of us. I can't say exactly why I fly but I know why as I've never known anything in my life.
I knew it when I saw my plane silhouetted against the clouds framed by a circular rainbow. I knew it when I flew up into the extinct volcano Haleakala on the island of Maui and saw the gray-green pineapple fields slope down to the cloud-dappled blueness of the Pacific. But I know it otherwise than in beauty. I know it in dignity and self-sufficiency and in the pride of skill. I know it in the satisfaction of usefulness.
For all the girls in the WAFS, I think the most concrete moment of happiness came at our first review. Suddenly and for the first time we felt a part of something larger. Because of our uniforms which we had earned, we were marching with the men, marching with all the freedom-loving people in the world.
And then while we were standing at attention a bomber took off followed by four fighters. We knew the bomber was headed across the ocean and that the fighters were going to escort it part way. As they circled over us I could hardly see them for the tears in my eyes. It was striking symbolism and I think all of us felt it. As long as our planes fly overhead the skies of America are free and that's what all of us everywhere are fighting for. And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to help keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known.
I, for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge, flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That's all the luck I ever hope to have.
Excerpts from Madge Rutherford Minton's letters home
Wed. P.M. 2/25/43
Dearest Mother & Dad:
I'm honestly too worn out to write about this day in the detail it deserves - but - there are 100+ girls (I seem to have less hours and experience, age, etc. than any) - we fly 175 hsp. Fairchild trainers every day we're issued flying jackets, helmets, gloves and goggles (I like mine better). I have a good chance of getting my April leave but it will be short. I like the girls I've met. The food is excellent, our barracks promise to be comfortable. There are swarms of army cadets on the field, we get paid $165 per month and they take out $12.15 for everyday's room and board. I have to study now before lights out at ten - I got a couple of cheerful letters from the Doctor - I'm a bit homesick, but need sleep, chiefly - I love you both very much.
Friday, A.M. 3/5/43
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Well, little 6'3" Mr. Jones admitted yesterday in his Texas drawl that "Baby, you're doin' bettah! But there's a H- of a lot room for a H- of a lot more improvement." He is mildly profane as all Texans seem to be here in Sweetwater. We took P.T. 114 off the line at 10:00, trundled her through clouds of dust and sand down to the take-off line and I took off from a half-ground loop along with 3 other planes simultaneously. The traffic here is terrific. I haven't made a landing "solo" yet. It can't be helped with 40-50 planes going off and coming back at approximately the same time in our flight (II) and as many cadets in flight at the same time, also. You have to feed in right rudder on your sewing machine during takeoff until you're holding it on all the way when she leaves the ground. Well, we got off, and trudged manfully up into the air at about 90 knots, turned at 300 ft, at 500 ft and brushed off various sister bugs to rise to 2500 where I stalled and stalled and banked and stalled until I thought surely he would wash me out of the course for lack of coordination. But he simply snap-rolled it a few times to loosen me up and I did much better after that. When I would skid turns, etc. he'd sing to the tune of "I can't give you anything but love, Baby" - "Oh, How I'd like to see you shake your bank, baby." I feel better about the whole thing today. But I can't fly because about 20 ships are in the shop for minor repairs and since I have as many hours as any, they are taking girls who are behind in their time.
Last night spring came to Texas. We had a real old-fashioned thunder storm which brought the first dampness here since last November. It was just like home to see the lightning, etc. Everyone in the barracks was at the doors or windows. We were very excited about it all. For the first time, I woke up without sand in my mouth and the damp odor of clay and old rain permeates the flight room here as I write. The sunrise this morning was chiefly green.
Another navigation test this afternoon but I think I'm ready for it. If someone wants to send me a box of stationary for my birthday, it would be greatly appreciated.
I've written you'all almost every day. You are getting my letters, O.K., aren't you? Sometimes the mail doesn't go out here and we all are very irritated about that.
Say! How about that box of candy you mentioned. I'm afraid I can't hold myself much longer.
To clear our minds and refresh our souls, some of us congregate for 40 minutes + or - every evening in the canteen to hold a good gripe session. That + sunsets + letters from home + the airplanes compensate for army discipline which I do not like. Forgive me please.
It's good to have all the details, mother. Don't let the submarine get you under too far.
Friday P.M. 3/13/43
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Reported to flight line this afternoon but no flying. There is a southeast wind, about one mile visibility and a five hundred foot clear space between us and the soup. Instead, we had a lengthy if humorous lecture on patterns by Mr. Jones who told me that I was loosening up better and improving. I was more than grateful for these pearls.
You see we have a pattern, a very definite field pattern, and the student that skids merrily into it and across it at a foreign angle can expect to pack his bags and take the next train out. For Dad's information, it's about like this on any tee setting.
That's what I practiced for about an hour on auxiliary field #1.
This afternoon, later the sun came out full force and now the airport is steaming like a Turkish bath. We are dismissed and I am all showered and relaxed, ready to dress for dinner.
For Papa's pride, another perfect Math test paper returned this morning. But they're getting tougher.
I sincerely hope my present arrived in perfect condition. In case you wonder, it weighs 18lb. It is cured, but not cooked, I don't think, and I got it quite legitimately through the head of the kitchen here at the field. I suppose he got a rake-off, I don't know.
A party tonight for the graduating cadets. And tomorrow morning we have that awful inspection. I'm satisfied with my lockers, I only hope that the Lt. is. Since I didn't bring much and have acquired very little since arrival, I don't have to worry like some of the girls. One brought 13 pieces of luggage and a steamer trunk.
Give my love to Mama Rossell and everyone.
Glad you like your new job, Mother. You and I get paid the same now, except I don't get all mine. Am also very glad to find Dad bestirring himself concerning the Navy. Good luck, Dad. See you upstairs.
Dearest Mother & Dad:
We had four lovely ships come in yesterday in spite of fog and almost instrument condition. Imagine the thrill of meeting a P-40 at the flight line plus its pilot who proved to be an understanding chap and who helped me into the cockpit where I messed around, very confused by the variety of unfamiliar gadgets. The gun-sight was especially interesting. not to be outdone, the pilot of a P-51 of Mustang took me over to his ship which was even lovelier and sported a bombsight. Then a B-25 same in and Taylor and I ran cockpit checks in it, too. It was throwing a lot of oil from its Wright radial engine and I got some on my slacks but I expect the cleaner will take care of that.
Tuesday, P.M. 6/1/43
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Weary I am, practically doped, if you understand what I mean. Last night I reported to flight line at 2300 (11:00 P.M.) for a night x-country of approximately 350 miles or about three hours. The ships were late coming in, getting in about 12:30 and we were not able to get gassed until 1:30. We took off into a star-studded sky at 1:45 and flew a lighted line of light beacons to Mineral Wells. Just as we arrived at our destination an overcast closed in and we had to fly on instruments 80% of the time, praying that we could gauge the wind correctly and hit our own beacon. We did very well for, when the overcast thinned out over our airplanes, we were only about 5 miles south of course, which, after night, is pretty good. We continued on across the Sweetwater Airport which was set in the earth like jeweled brooch of red, green amber lights and continued to Westbrooks where we ran into another overcast and I was plenty lucky to find and fly the course back. The airport has never looked more beautiful than it did at 4:00 A.M. this morning when we entered our dive at 6300 feet and began our letdown. My landing, my first at night, was pretty bouncy but we stayed down. I got to bed at 4:50 and slept through to 11:45, missing ground school but none of us were supposed to go, thank goodness.
I have flown already this afternoon one hour under the hood with Fran Rohrer in the front cockpit. She is a former Link instructor and is mighty fine for buddy rides. I didn't do too badly.
There was no moon last might and we were on and above the overcast; you had to keep a close check on your instruments in order to be sure you were right side up and straight. I certainly wanted a moon. It would have been a great help.
Here comes that man again. The photographer from the Life Magazine. He has taken 6 pictures of me already and now into eight. Poor chap, he likes my grin. I hope that at least one of those is used. I'm beginning to take an awful beating from the girls because of this sort of thing. The newsreel cameraman had me climbing into BT's and grinning for them last Friday.
I go up solo next period. Thanks for the wonderful candy for me and my bay-mates who think there is nothing in this world so delicious as your cinnamon roll. The fruit cake certainly tasted like home.
If you need sugar, you can use mine. Uniforms here are khaki tan slacks, white silk blouse and overseas cap. Since we aren't officially in the army, we haven't any other official uniform.
Now for a solo period.
Letters from Long Beach Army Air Base, Long Beach, California, while assigned to the 6th Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command, August 1943-April 1944.
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Tonight I am here in El Paso. Yesterday morn I was unexpectedly put on orders to pick up a BT at Blythe, Calif. and deliver it to Enid. I rode on the back seat of a BT as far as Blythe, then pushed up my own ship and conveyed it to Tucson. I stayed at the Pioneer Hotel in one of those converted miniature crystal ballrooms with 8 other girls. We saw "Madame Curie" which I recommend highly to you.
I had hoped to deliver today in order to get back to Long Beach in plenty of time but the ceilings on east were low and the weather in Oklahoma foul. If it does not clear tomorrow I shall have to wire for instructions.
We took off from Tucson this morning at around nine. Four of us, two Sts and two Wasps flew an irregular but amusing series of formations as far as Cochise where I was forced to break up the formation by leaving it in order to stay on course. The hind ship was headed towards Amarillo by then. I was astonished to note how the desert has changed these past five days since I flew over it the last time. The cacti has a new fresh yellow green color and great patches of yellow and purple flowers make the ground look like a beautiful crazy quilt.
The mountains are almost free of snow and when one flies over the Canyon, one can see a torrent of ice-blue water rushing thru them. Even the pines look greener.
On arriving at El Paso we encountered a thick hazy condition and were forced to curtail our flight whose destination was originally Midland. We RON'd and came to town where Hazel Pearce and I are rooming together in a fair hotel. I spent the last two hours of daylight wandering around Juarez but didn't buy anything. I guess I've bought all the Mexican goods I want and unless you want anything, I'll not get much else.
If the truth were known I really went over to look at a fence. It is composed of great ornate hoops of iron grill works and is quite the loveliest fence you can imagine. Each elaborately costumed hoop is set like a jewel in a mountain of white washed adobe. And the house that this remarkable fence surrounds has windows that are all circular and protected by a master-craftsman's art in wrought iron. I never miss going to see it if possible.
It seems we are to leave a few weeks respite now while the bill goes thru Congress and is signed by Mr. Roosevelt. Somehow I can't give up hope that it will be stopped somewhere along the line; I hate to consider quitting but on the other hand I guess the prospect scares me. It wouldn't be the little things like drill and saluting that would bother me so much as the knowing that if one of you should be ill, I probably couldn't come, or if Shay should come back for a spell of shore duty after a year or so at sea I wouldn't be able to be with him. No one seems to be able to get a very clear idea as to how long this will last and the prospect of being in for the duration is frightening. I suppose I'm being a coward standing on a woman's prerogative. Sometimes I wonder why with Shay gone I would even consider getting out and other times the very idea of being militarized is unbearable. I have never been so wishy-washy about anything in my life. It's disgusting.
Well, 'night now and pleasant dreams.
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Like horses of the apocalypse, a tread of inspecting colonels beats down our barracks hall. I have locked my door against this invasion but sleep is not possible. We have finished our required pre-flight course now and work half days only, but Colonels do not respect our emancipated status.
Guess I'm out of the Putt-putt class now. Yesterday I finished P-40 training and then spent hours in the P-47, and airplane that's all it's cracked up to be and more. She cruises at better than 230 and if you point her on one heading for more than ten minutes you're lost without a map. I just fly a big circle between Port Isabel of pirate fame and the mouth of the Rio Grande. It's a fast life.
I hope that your garden is doing nicely. Perhaps I'll be seeing you when I start ferrying P-51's to Newark, New Jersey.
Excerpts From Mary Anna Martin Wyall's letters home
Letters from Avenger Field, 318th AAFFTD [Army Air Forces Flying Training Department], May 1994 - December 1994.
Dearest Mother & Dad:
Gee, what a long day this has been. We came out in 2 huge semi-trailer trucks with benches arranged in the trailer, and have spent the entire afternoon marching here and there and in lengthy lectures from the chief of staff, the primary training (flying) officer, the flight surgeon and the physical training teacher. So far, I'm thrilled beyond measure.
Got a glimpse of the flight line when we went down to the hangers to get our flying "zoot-suits" (Army fatigues) and other flying equipment.
Just got back from getting the rest of our uniforms. The stuff has cost me only $15. This is everything I believe.
Betty Phillips met me at the hotel and has been over quite a few times today.
Dearest Mother, Dad, Louise, Grandma and Berney Dean:
Well I've certainly had a taste of Army life. It's really rugged. We hardly have time to see the inside of our bays — Even our evenings are full of meetings and lectures.
We go on the flight line every day and I get thrilled about flying each time. Today they closed the PT flying during my period, hence, I didn't get to fly. Mr. Bingham talked to us students (5) for about 1 1/2 hours which was just as helpful as actually flying. The wind velocity gets very high here, that's why we didn't fly today.
I eat sand here all the time, but that's 100% better than battling with hot weather and insects. (I even like the snakes down here).
The other day I saw my first black widow spider. There are quite a few around here.
We had a fire drill last nite. It was quite complete. The fire engines even came around and hooked up the hose — just to wash the sidewalks which [sic] we stood out in the field in formation freezing to death.
You've never seen such whiz kids as we are in our bay. This morning we were up at 6:00, cleaned up the bay, made our beds, dressed and were in formation for breakfast at 6:25. At seven were sitting in class. Ground school was over at 10:00. 10:15 we went to drill. Then we were free to read our mail from 11:45 - 12:00. We changed our clothes and reported for the flight line at 1:30. At 7:00 left the flight line and ate dinner at 7:30. After dinner we thought well, we can rest until morning, but the officer of the day announced "There will be a meeting of all trainees at 21:00". This is my day!! For the life of me I can't see where I've had the chance to gain 5 lbs. (I weigh 118 now).
Maybe Saturday I'll have a chance to mail my laundry bag back home.
Goodnight and love,
Thursday, June 15
Happy Dad's day! I've got some good news for you. I hope it will compensate for flowers or somepin.'[sic] I soloed yesterday. It was a wonderful feeling and made Mr. Bingham quite happy. Today I soloed again which makes my total solo time 20 minutes and total dual 9 hrs and 56 minutes. We have been really hep on flying this week. The instructors are all anxious to get his students soloed. Mr. Bingham's five were all soloed by today. It's a grand old feeling to be up there alone.
The most thrilling thing just happened a few minutes ago. Three B-17's (Flying Fortresses) buzzed the field in formation and then peeled off to land one at a time. A jeep rushed out to the planes and took the pilots to the O.D. [Officer of the Day] office. By that time everyone had rushed to the flight line to get the deal. Guess why they came. To pick up the girls from W-5 for a dance tonight. The girls in the graduating class were guests of honors. Wouldn't that be wonderful to go to a dance about 100 miles away in a B-17. I hope that happens to W-10 around in December.
I'll let you in on a little military secret (supposedly). Miss Cochran was here this week. She ate in the dining room with W-10 this noon. She's very charming and makes you at home.
Dad — I hope you have a happy Dad's Day. I'll be thinking of you. Last Sun. it was Louise now it's Daddy.
Courtesy of The Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University