Thursday, November 5, 2009

The WASP guest star on Cold Case

I don't often watch Cold Case these days but Sunday was an exception. I enjoy the cases where the crime is decades old and this one delivered. It featured a P-51 Mustang, like this one, found under water with remains of the pilot still on board. They were of a WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) that disappeared in 1944. Examination of the aircraft showed two of the fluid lines had been switched causing it to crash, and launching a murder investigation that blended historic facts with plot devisees.

This is not the sort of story I would have preferred to feature the WASP. Sadly Hollywood doesn't think their real story was excition enough to keep us slobs glued to the TV or in line at the theater. Movies and TV feature a never ending array of fantastic advnetures they never had while ignoring their real accomplishments.

There are holes in the Cold Case story line to be sure. Personally, I don't see a Mustang even getting off the ground with the sort of sabotage they suggested let alone covering any distance. The characters were also blends of the real, good and bad.

I was an undistinguished first year college student in the fall of 1972. One of the social studies class discussions centered on the proposal of expanding the draft to include women. The attitudes toward war and the military at the time, even at our little Texas junior college, led to a lively and barely civil debate. The instructor mentioned the women who chose to serve but it was a hard sell. In response to the suggestion women had only been placed in safe positions I asked "What about the WASP?"

"Exactly," the instructor said. "Mrs. Watson, in the business department, flewing everything from trainers to fighters and heavy bombers during the War"

I nearly fell out of my seat, and when class was overI cornered the poor man with more enthusiasm than he was accustomed to. With in the hour I had found the office of Mrs. Watson, head of the business department, and checked her scedule. I was waiting when she arrived for office hours. For the rest of that year and all of the next I spent more time there than her students.

During the War her name was Florene Miller. She had been one of the orginal 25 women to form the WAFS under Nancy Love. I am embarrassed to admit I didn't understand the significants of that at the time. (See end of post.)

Pilots in the Ferry Command would take one of two paths. One was to graduate from Advanced Trainers to the heavy, high performance Pursuit Planes, read fighters. The other was to study in Multi Engine Trainers and then go up the latter to Transports and Bombers. Mrs. Watson put in the extra time and work to do both.

I can still recall the stories she would share. Women tend to need more clothes than men. When delivering a Transport, Bomber or Trainer there was plenty of room for a bag, but fighters weren't designed to carry luggage. The solution was a collaspsible canvas suitcase. Shoes, makeup, and extra clothing would be tucked iont the wing boxes intended for machine gun ammunition. The problem was remembering where you had stashed everything once you landed.

A lead pilot was always listed when a number of planes were being delivered to the same place. These coveted assignments went to the most experienced pilots who were usually the best navigators. This was before a lot of the navigation aids we take for granted today. That didn't stop egos from being bruised when hot shot guys were expected to follow a girl cross country. Sometimes Florene would let one of the guys lead the formation. If they stayed on course there wasn't a problem. Other times she had to keep track of where they actually were when the formation drifted off course. When the time came she would bank away on a new heading to their destination. One by one the other pilots in the formation would join up on her. Once on the ground the 'lead' would drift over and just say "thanks." The planes were delivered in good working order, mission accomplished. Nothing else need be said.

The stories I heard from Mrs. Watson and the other ladies I have been fortunate enough to interview don't bear much resemblance to the atmosphere shown on Cold Case. To be sure there are detractors who didn't believe women could actually fly such planes. There still are, which puzzles me.

An airplane is a machine and the pilot is its brain. The airplane doses not know, and could care less, the sex, or skin color or religion of its pilot. Some of the hottest combat pilots the Russians had during World War Two were women.

As for the WASP getting a cool, or hostile reception from some of their male counterparts, it happened but they were in the minority. These were kids, boy and girl type kids that had one big thing in common. They all loved airplanes. Many who weren't already married met their future spouses while with the WASP. They all made life long friends.

Please don't assume from this they lived lives of steamy romance. Were there one night stands? Frankly it's none of my business, or yours! Again those ladies would have been in the minority. They were serving their country and living the great adventure to boot. They flew all over the country in brand new, expensive, state of the art, high performance aircraft. And the Army bought the gas! There was just too much to loose.

But loose they did. Out of the blue word came that the WASP would be disbanded December 20, 1944. I won't go into the details but they are well worth looking into. "This should give the girls time to get home for Christmas." They had joined the WASP to "free a man to fight." Now they were to get back to their choirs. For years the WASP remained the best kept secret of World War Two, be it unintentional.

I'm happy that Cold Case had an epsoide featuring the WASP even thou it doesn't sound it. Perhaps that will send a few more kids to the library, or these days the internet, to learn more about their real history. A one paragrapy filler in my hometown paper when I was 13 had that effect on me.

All three photograpys feature Florene Miller Watson, my good friend

x x x

There were two groups of Women pilots formed in 1942. The WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was 25 experienced and high time female pilots recruited by Nancy Love to work with the Ferry Command delivering planes where needed. It was never intended to be a large unit and took only women already trained and ready to work.
The WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) was a much larger group under Jacqueline Cochran. The WASP still insisted its recruits be licensed pilots in the beginning but did not require the standards of training set by the WAFS.
Two entirely different units commanded by very different women. I won’t get into “Saints and Villains” here. I will say that Nancy Love was interested in allowing qualified women to serve the War Effort where they could do the most good. The Ferry Command was begging for pilots and these ladies would already have been in uniform had they not been…ladies.
By the time the WASP disbanded on December 20, 1944 Jacqueline Cochran had over 1800 women in her command. They served not just the Ferry Command but also as flight instructors, towed targets, at least one was a test pilot, and numerous other flying jobs. But Cochran was also into self promotion in the extreme. Read up on the various “promises” she extracted from General Hap Arnold early in the war, as well as events that led to the sudden end of the WASP program and make your own conclusions.


  1. I enjoyed your reading about your personal connection to the WASPs. I can imagine you hanging out in Mrs. Watson's office talking airplanes.

  2. Also enjoyed the read. It reminded me of some other women. Hangman's gran put together bombers. My grandmother(my mom's 2nd adopted mother) and her daughter, Doris made bandages for the Red Cross.

    Mrs. Hang

  3. Greetings from Falls County,
    Women stepted up and covered a wide range of jobs because the men were off to the War. I have told Hangman I would like to have a photo of his Grandmother for my displays. I would love to have a wartime photo, but any photo would be great. I need to ask Hangman what kind of planes she helped build. I believe it was B-25 but want to be sure.