Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 4, 2019

"Even a girl ..."

An observation by husband Art and a letter from his brother Tommy connected the past with the present in a way that prompted me to research a topic I knew little about.

When World War II began, the U.S. military didn't even rank in the world's top 10, so building military equipment and training people to use it became a priority.

The role women were expected to play was to keep the home fires burning or work in a factory. So when aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran approached the military after the Pearl Harbor attack about training women to fly, she was rebuffed. Undeterred, she found 25 women interested in helping in the war effort, and accompanied them to England where they moved aircraft as needed, thereby releasing men for battle.

By the time of her return, the Women's Air Ferrying Service (WAFS), headed by Nancy Harkness Love, was in operation, moving planes in the United States. Cochran convinced Air Force chief Henry Arnold that the program should be expanded, and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) came into being. In 1943, the two organizations were combined into the WASP - Women Airforce Service Pilots.

Headquartered in Sweetwater, Texas, WASP members underwent the same training as the men, except for combat-related flying. They flew aircraft from factories to overseas bases, towed targets for live anti-aircraft practice, transported cargo and test-flew repaired planes at U.S. bases before they were returned to battlefield service. Of the 1,074 women who graduated from the program, at least 38 died.

An "American Experience" piece on the Public Broadcasting Service website mentioned that in the summer of 1944, Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the man who would later fly the Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was in charge of training pilots on the new B-29. Tibbets' men resisted because the B-29 hadn�t been as thoroughly tested as the older B-17. The article described the trouble Tibbets was having:

... Initially engine fires were one of the major problems. The planes' Wright engines were often called the Wrong engines. ... Although engine improvements were made over time, fires remained a problem throughout World War II.

Tibbets decided that the way to convince the men to fly the plane was to show that women could do it ...

Dora Dougherty and Dorothea "Didi" Moorman were the pilots he selected. The plan worked as intended. In three days, they began runs from Alamogordo, New Mexico, ferrying pilots, crew chiefs and navigators across the state.

... After watching the women fly the four-engine bomber, the men stopped complaining about the plane. Air Staff Major General Barney Giles brought the demonstrations to an abrupt halt after just a few days, telling Tibbets that the women were "putting the big football players to shame." .... The two women were sent back to Eglin Field, Florida, and never flew a B-29 again. But the plane they'd demonstrated went on to play a decisive role in the Allied victory in World War II.

After reading about these women, I checked to see if any WASP was from Kansas. I immediately discovered Mildred "Mickey" Tuttle. She was born near Coffeyville. The neighboring farm was the home to the Inman Brothers Barnstorming Flying Circus. Mickey rode in their Curtiss Jenny when she was 11. After high school, she enrolled at the local two-year college and transferred to what became Kansas State University, earning a degree in general science and a teaching certificate. She returned to Coffeyville, where she taught chemistry at the same two-year school she had attended earlier, while also enrolled as the only female in the pilot training program. During the war, she joined the WASP, but resigned when her mother became ill so she could return home. But with Wichita so close, she applied for work at Boeing and became the first woman to fly the B-29.

Ola Mildred Rexroat was born in Ogden, less than 10 miles from where I live today. She was a Native American, her mother being an Oglala Sioux. She obtained a bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico and then worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Gallup. Later, taking a job with a company that built airfields, she wanted to learn to fly. Since she didn't have money to buy a plane, she joined the WASP and became the only Native American in the unit. When the war was over, she joined the Air Force and became an air traffic controller at Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque. After leaving the service, she worked for many years for the Federal Aviation Administration.

But after the war, the role these women played in it was largely ignored. Because the WASP was not part of the military, the women were denied the benefits available to others who served. In the early 1970s, Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had also helped ferry planes during the war, supported a measure to recognize the WASP. But the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization lobbied against it, stating that the change would "destroy the special status of veterans and do irreparable damage to veterans benefits." Despite such objections, the bill eventually passed and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

This searching on my part was the result of the letter Tommy had sent which contained a lengthy article about the WASP in the American Legion magazine. "A fine story!" Tommy noted alongside the article. "Female courage and patriotism."

But a few days earlier, Art had been grumbling about a story he had seen about two youngsters who were learning to fly. The reporter asked the girls, ages 12 and 13, if they had any message for other young people who might be interested in being a pilot. One said, "It's not that hard if EVEN a girl can do it."

"My God," Art exclaimed, "They've already drunk the Kool-Aid. They already identify as being less-than their male counterparts."

Yes, the perception of women has changed ... but we still have a way to go, even in how we see ourselves.

Bottom-left: (l-r) Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Dora Dougherty, "Didi" Moorman and the flight crew of the B-29 "Ladybird"; top-left: retired Brig. Gen. Tibbets and Moorman at a 1997 function honoring the WASP. She had helped him prepare for the Enola Gay mission, but had not seen him in years before this reunion; top-right: Mildred "Mickey" Tuttle in the 1940 KSU Royal Purple yearbook; bottom-right; Ola "Sexy Rexy" Rexroat in her WASP uniform. Image sources in order: United States Air Force, AP, KSU, Wikipedia

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