September 11, 2009 11:09 PM
Muriel Martin struggles these days to remember the years she spent as a World War II U.S. Army Air Force pilot.
The dates have run together in her mind and the details of her training and experience long ago faded into the background of a life filled with child rearing and community service.
But some days, the memories push through and she finds herself back in her 20s and in the cockpit again.
“I was flying to Dallas earlier this year and looking out the plane window at clouds just like they were back then,” she said. “It brought back so many memories.”
Martin, now 87, blames her fading recollections on age and the full life she has led since leaving the service.
When it comes to the rest of the country, though, she and the 300 other surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots corps question how America could have largely forgotten what they describe as the “best-kept secret of the war effort.”
For years, the group has fought for recognition of their contribution. Between 1941 and 1944, more than 1,000 women from across the country were trained as military pilots and dispatched to bases such as Mission’s Moore Air Field.
They ferried weapons cross-country, delivered planes from manufacturing plants and towed targets during anti-aircraft gunnery practice, freeing up the men who traditionally held those jobs for combat on the European and Pacific fronts. All told, they piloted 78 different types of military aircraft and logged more than 60 million flight miles.
But when the Army disbanded the corps in 1944, the women went back to their pre-war lives without any of the honors or benefits their male counterparts received.
Just this year, President Barack Obama signed legislation awarding the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal — one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.
And for Dorothy Lucas — an 86-year-old former WASP at Moore Field who now resides in San Antonio — the tribute couldn’t have come soon enough.
“I hoped it would happen soon,” she said. “I’m not getting any younger.”
‘WE CAME FROM EVERYTHING’
In August 1943, the Germans had just withdrawn from North Africa, U.S. Gen. George S. Patton had completed a successful invasion of Sicily, and Lucas was a 20-year-old secretary working at the Pentagon.
“Everyone was in uniform,” she said. “And everyone wanted to do their part.”
A friend mentioned that the Army was recruiting female pilots for domestic training and Lucas knew she had stumbled on a way to satisfy her recently acquired flight bug.
“My older brother, who I adored, was in the Army Air Corps then,” she said. “I just sort of got into it somehow and just loved it.”
More than 25,000 women volunteered for the newly formed WASPs but fewer than 4 percent made the cut. Because the Army required each candidate to have logged several flight hours and to maintain an active pilot’s license, many of the young women that made it came from affluent backgrounds and families that could afford flight lessons.
But upon arriving in the Abilene suburb of Sweetwater — where all the WASPs received their training — the women were introduced to others from around the country and a form of military discipline they had never encountered before Muriel Martin — then Muriel Kiester — had grown up on a sprawling patch of land in La Feria and had access to her family’s private aircraft. She learned to fly with her grandfather’s backing in 1944.
“Doesn’t everyone want to fly?” she said. “Growing up in La Feria, I just wanted to get way far away. I wanted to see the world.”
“We came from everything — schoolteachers, mothers, secretaries,” said former WASP Ann Hazzard.
Hazzard, now 88 and co-owner of the Holiday Village Mobile Home & RV Park in Pharr, realized right from the start that her gender would be a constant issue during her time in the service — if not always a problem.
When she arrived for her first Army physical in Fort Wayne, Ind., male soldiers weren’t quite sure what to do with a bunch of women in undergarments waiting for a doctor.
“They looked at us like we were oddities,” she said. “They brought out some towels and made us wrap up in them until we could get to another room.”
Other members of the female corps were ordered to report their menstrual cycles to their training sergeants amid ill-founded fears that menstruation affected a woman’s stability and ability to pilot an aircraft.
And while many former WASPs reported stories of strained relations with their male students and counterparts, most said that the men treated them with respect despite their gender difference.
It was a distinction that Jacqueline Cochran — the most famous female pilot of her day and eventual leader of the WASPs — took pains to emphasize.
When she pitched the idea for a women’s pilot corps to Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, she won one battle for women’s equality. But she emphasized among all of her fledgling pilots the importance of feminine dress and deportment while serving on a military base.
Cochran herself is said to have never left the cockpit of an airplane without reapplying her lipstick and fixing her hair.
Lucas, the San Antonio WASP, said the emphasis on appearance definitely drew attention from the male pilots but also gave the women plenty of opportunity to surprise them — such as a flight she took from Mission to St. Louis with a male officer in 1943.
“I could tell he was very nervous flying with a girl,” she said. “But he was so happy we didn’t crash, he asked me out to dinner at the officer’s club that night.”
‘MY OLD LIFE’
The service did have its risks. Thirty-eight members of the corps lost their lives in the line of duty — some brought down by gunfire in training missions, others by faulty plane mechanics.
Those deaths provided the women with their first glimpse at how the rest of the country viewed their efforts. Because they were members of a civilian auxiliary corps — and were not considered actual military service members — the bodies of those who died were sent home in plain pine boxes at their family’s expense.
The next hurtful indication came in 1944 — when Congress decided to disband the group amid pressure from male pilots who had begun to return home in the final days of the war. All records of the WASPs were ordered classified and sealed for nearly 35 years.
“There was a knock on the door one day, and an officer was there,” said Hazzard. “He said, ‘OK, kids, you can get dressed, get packed, and go home.’
“He turned on his heel, walked out and that was it.”
Many — like Lucas — went back to their former lives searching for something that would recapture their war-year adventures only to be squeezed back into their old jobs and routines that now seemed hopelessly dull.
“I was very disappointed,” she said. “I was young, cute and thin. And suddenly, I had to pay my way back to my old life.”
Others — like Hazzard — only got into a cockpit once or twice more before giving up flying for good.
It was not until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill recognizing their efforts and awarding the women status as veterans — which entitled them to health care benefits and GI Bill education opportunities.
For Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, that recognition came about 30 years too late for the women — many of whom were then in their 50s.
She helped author the bill this year that awarded the women their congressional medals and is currently planning a ceremony to honor them in Washington, D.C.
“The valor and service of the WASP is only one part of their legacy,” she said in a March statement. “Their success in the line of duty paved the way for armed forces to lift the ban on women attending military flight training in the 1970s, and their efforts eventually led to women being fully integrated as military pilots.”
But as Martin stands in her La Feria bedroom a good 60 years after her first military flight, she says she has never felt much like a pioneer.
Despite the pilot’s wings encased on her wall, the painting of the T-6D plane she used to fly and the medal she was given upon her induction to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, she has always looked on her wartime experience as just another adventure.
“I don’t know,” she says, rubbing her hands in modesty. “I had never been thrown off a horse before. I figured I wouldn’t get thrown off a plane, either.”
Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.