WASPs reflect on roles as aviation pioneers

  • Published
  • By Carl Bergquist
  • Air University Public Affairs
Three members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots reminisced about their World War II experiences as part of this year's Squadron Officer College Warrior Symposium series March 26 at Maxwell AFB, Ala.

The WASPs were a select group of women pilots who by becoming the first women in history to fly American military aircraft, became pioneers, heroes and role models.

The ladies who spoke to Squadron Officer School Class 09C were Dawn Seymour, Mary-Helen Chapman-Foster and Doris Tanner -- three of about 1,070 pilots who received their wings, ferried aircraft and participated in troop training during World War II.

Dawn Seymour
Mrs. Seymour said Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, then the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, was responsible for forming the WASPs in August 1943, and she was part of the first group of 23 women to go to the training facility at Sweetwater, Texas.

"I received orders for Texas, and was off to Sweetwater. West Texas is something else. It is a place where the sky is bigger than the earth," she said. "I remember after my first flight, I got out and kissed the ground. It was a great feeling to be back on earth."

Following her training, Mrs. Seymour was assigned to Wilmington, Del., to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress. She said, in her estimation, the B-17 was the best aircraft ever made.

"Can you imagine jumping from PT-19s to B-17s, and can you imagine working around pilots who had just returned from combat," she said. "I remember one flight we were doing figure-8s when suddenly the No. 3 engine caught fire. We put the fire out and continued the training mission. I knew this was the plane for me."

Mrs. Seymour said she later went to the Florida Everglades to help train gunners for the D-Day invasion and duty in the Pacific Theater. A B-26 Marauder would drag a long cloth sleeve behind the plane, and gunner trainees would shoot at it with color-coded bullets that would leave marks on the sleeve. The number of hits on the sleeve was their score for the session. She said after about four hours of training, the gunners graduated and were sent off to combat.

She was later assigned to the Army base at Roswell, N.M., where she conducted flights that tested changes made to existing aircraft. Mrs. Seymour said she thought it was "quite a remarkable thing" to have been accepted by her government to do what she did so long ago.

"However, we suddenly received word in December 1944 that the WASP program was over," she said. "General Arnold said we completed the job and were successful. We went home, and the door closed on the WASPs until nearly 30 years later."

Mary-Helen Chapman-Foster
Mrs. Foster said she is often asked what motivated her to join the WASPs and said an experience with flying during a vacation prompted her to go to the local flying school to take lessons.

"I was not the type to want to fly, but after the vacation I wanted to learn," she said. "When I returned home, I went to Brown's Flying School and told Mr. Brown I wanted to go up. He took me up reluctantly, and when we returned, he told me I wasn't the type for flying. My reply was that I was the type, and he was going to teach me."

Mrs. Foster said after she got her wings, she decided to start a flying club with other women pilots. The famed woman aviator, Jackie Cochran, a pilot who held speed, altitude and distance records, was in the process of helping set up the WASP program, and she came to help establish the club.

"I had read a newspaper article about Ms. Cochran and how she was setting up the WASPs, and three of us applied for the program," Mrs. Foster said. "I flunked my first physical because I didn't weigh enough but was able to gain just enough weight to make it through the second time. We were all sent to Sweetwater, and to look out and see all the planes on the field, well, we were so excited."

Mrs. Foster said at Sweetwater trainees lived in bays with six women in each bay, and two bays shared a bathroom. They got up at 6 a.m., wore khaki pants and white shirts as uniforms, marched everywhere.

"Twelve women trying to share a bathroom was quite remarkable," she said.

After graduation, Mrs. Foster was sent to Malden, Mo., where she encountered a less than enthusiastic commander.

"When I arrived, I was proud of my wings and my snappy salute, but the commander told me he had not asked for a woman pilot. I replied that I had not asked to come to Missouri," she said. "He later asked me what I could do, and I told him I could fly anything the Army had. His reply was, 'I doubt that.'"

Ms. Foster was eventually assigned to do maintenance check flights on aircraft that had undergone maintenance procedures, and there she became acquainted with the C-47 Dakota twin engine troop carrier.

"I'll tell you for a fact the C-47 was the best airplane we had," she told the audience. "They would do what you wanted them to do."

Mrs. Foster said on one occasion she had to make an emergency landing at the field with one engine on fire. She said she had so much confidence in the airplane, she didn't get nervous until she saw the ambulances and fire trucks on final approach.

Doris Tanner
Mrs. Tanner said she arrived at Sweetwater with "a little bit different attitude" than many of the other women. After all, she was from Texas.

"I came in with the attitude that we were going to have a good time," she said. "I'm from Dallas, Texas, and Texas girls are different. We don't wear hooped skirts."

Mrs. Tanner said her time with the WASPs was one of the best times of her life. She said people were always talking about how courageous WASPs were, but she "had a ball." She was surrounded by men.

Mrs. Tanner said a trip to the local airport with a friend resulted in her first flight, and that was it. She was hooked on flying. Her favorite airplane was the B-25 Mitchell. 

All the ladies agreed they enjoyed their time as WASPs and would do it again. Mrs. Seymour said due to the sudden deactivation of the WASPs, with so little fanfare, she was surprised at the invitation to come to SOC to speak.

"We were civilian pilots during the war, and we can't quite believe what's happening here today, considering we were so abruptly asked to leave the service," she said. "It's wonderful to be invited here because we thought the WASPs were long ago forgotten."