Exhibit presents WWII Fly Girls

Oct. 16, 2007

Laurisa Lopez/Lariat staff
The "Wings Across America Presents: Fly Girls of WWII Exhibit" showcases the female pilots of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
By Christine Bolanos

In September 1942, 1,830 women quit their jobs, said goodbye to their families and paid their own ways to Texas to learn to fly "the Army way."

The Women Airforce Service Pilots became the first women in history to fly America's military aircraft.

The Mayborn Museum Complex is bringing their memory back to life through "Wings Across America Presents: Fly Girls of WWII Exhibit."

According to the exhibit, the pilot group formed because of the U.S. Army Air Forces' desperation for more pilots after severe U.S. losses.

Nancy Parrish, a 1980 Baylor alumna and PBS producer, has been working with "Wings Across America" since 1998.

Her mother, Deanie, is a former pilot.

"It wasn't until 1979 that an Air Force P.R. came out announcing the first graduating Fly Girls. When my mother found out, she knew something had to be done. This information was just not right," Parrish said. "I thought the way to get the truth out was through Baylor."

Parrish and her mother began working on "Wings Across America" to promote awareness of the history of WASP. There are about 400 former female pilots alive today, all over 80 years old. They have interviewed 110 of them in 19 states.

Parrish took a picture of every WASP smiling or laughing during the interview. A collage of their pictures is on display at the exhibit.

In the center of the exhibit, there is a display case with the United States map on it. Blue darts on the map represent the places a female pilot has been interviewed. Red darts mark areas where there are pilots yet to be interviewed.

The exhibit also features mannequins, one of which wears a blue flying uniform donated to the exhibit by the only Native American WASP interviewed, Parrish said.

The white dress shirt and khakis on another doll were donated by the family of the only Chinese-American pilot, who was one of the 38 women who lost their lives serving the country, Parrish said.

The walls of the exhibit are covered with pictures of the women during their years of service, including a life-size picture of Deanie Parrish.

Parris said her mother was 5 feet 2 inches tall, but in order to qualify for training, women had to be 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall.

"She was persistent though, practically begging to be recorded as 5 feet 2 1/2 inches," Parrish said. "She just wanted to fly. She knew she could do it and she did."

"These women didn't know if they were going to live or die. They tested the planes for safety before passing them on to the men. They were guinea pigs. Yet they didn't care. They wanted to serve their country," Parrish said.

According to the Wings Across America Web site, www.wingsacrossamerica.org, 25,000 young women applied for the Women's Flying Training Detachment in September 1942. Only 1,830 were accepted.

On Dec. 7, 1944, General Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, gave a speech to the last graduating WASP class. "You and more than 900 of your sisters can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. I salute you and all the WASP. We of the Army Air Force are proud of you. We will never forget our debt to you," Arnold said.

The speech is on display at the exhibit, in addition to the Web site. Thirteen days after Arnold gave the speech, the group was disbanded, and the caskets of the fallen flyers were not draped with American flags. According to the Web site, their military records were stamped as "classified" or "secret" and filed away in government archives for 33 years.

"The women were asked not to talk about the WASP. Their records were top secret. World War II historians just had no way of looking at their information, and so their story didn't get in history books," Parrish said.

Now history that had virtually been buried is under the spotlight at Mayborn Museum Complex.

"Soundbites of the WASP," a video that plays constantly at the exhibit, features clips from the pilots' interviews. Among the items on display at the exhibit are sunglasses and uniforms the women wore, journals they wrote in, medallions they received decades later after reaching legal veteran status and even a food ration slip.

The traveling exhibit will be on display at the Mayborn Museum Complex until Nov. 28 during regular museum hours.