Veterans Day 2003: Female pilots were World War IIĂs Šbest-kept secretĂ

November 11, 2003
By Lisa Harrison Rivas
Copyright 2003 San Antonio Express-News

Theirs was among the untold stories of World War II - an elite squad of pilots soaring through the skies in PT-19s and other planes as the first group of American women trained to fly military aircraft.

About a thousand women flew as members of Women Airforce Service Pilots units during the war. Fewer than 500 are still alive, by one estimate.

˘I was just as qualified as any of the males,÷ said 80-year-old Dorothy Lucas, one of about five surviving members of WASP units living in San Antonio. ˘I would have gone into combat if they had asked me to.÷

From 1942 to 1944, women from all walks of life were trained to ferry aircraft, test planes, transport cargo and even tow targets so male cadets on the ground could practice shooting at moving objects.

Thirty-eight women pilots lost their lives. Still, there was no shortage of volunteers. About 25,000 women between the ages of 21 and 35 applied, but only 1,830 were accepted. And of those, 1,074 graduated and earned their wings.

˘Our purpose was to free the men so they could fly overseas and fight,÷ said Ann Holaday, 84, of San Antonio. ˘So we were replacing the men over here.÷

Nancy Parrish, the executive director of Wings Across America, said these women have not been given the recognition they deserve.

Congress did not give WASPs veteran status until 1977.

˘This is important for children, this is a history that has not been told,÷ Parrish said. ˘A lot of people have never heard of WASP. They were the best-kept secret of World War II.÷

Wings Across America, based at Baylor University, is dedicated to preserving that history.

Parrish, whose mother was a member of a WASP unit, is overseeing a fund-raising drive for a WASP museum that is to be built at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, where most of the pilots were trained.

All of the women were required to have at least 35 hours of flying time before entering the training program, which was organized by aviator Jacqueline Cochran and Gen. Henry ˘Hap÷ Arnold, who was chief of the Army Air Forces.

Holaday had taken flying lessons with her husband and earned her pilotĂs license in 1939.

After he joined the Navy as pilot in 1942, she decided to cure the loneliness she felt when he was away by joining the new unit of women military pilots sheĂd heard so much about.

She still remembers the scorching hot summer and bitter cold winter of 1943 at Avenger Field where she and the other trainees were housed in barracks and underwent seven months of rigorous training.

Holaday made her first solo flight in a PT-19, and her fellow trainees honored her afterward with the customary dunk in a nearby fish pond.

In 1944, a year after Holaday earned her wings, Lucas, who had been a secretary for the War Department in Washington, arrived at Avenger Field after hearing about the program from a friend.

A month into her training, she learned that her brother, a navigator in the Army Air Corps, had been killed while flying over England in a B-17 bomber.

The news left her afraid to fly, but an understanding flight instructor helped her conquer her fears and gain the confidence she needed to graduate.

˘He was great,÷ Lucas said. ˘He gave me nine hours to solo instead of the usual eight.÷

After she earned her wings, Lucas reported to Moore Field, near Mission, where she met her future husband, a flight instructor.

Holaday and Lucas flew numerous types of aircraft, including the B-25, P-17 and the AT-11, but their favorite was the AT-6.

˘You could put it in a spin and let it go and it would get itself out,÷ Lucas said. ˘It was great!÷

Both women said their husbands were very supportive, but they remember meeting men who did not think women should be pilots.

˘I never felt intimidated,÷ Holaday said, ˘but a lot of the girls did.÷

When male pilots began returning from Europe in 1944, the women were told that they were no longer needed.

Lucas said many were disappointed, but at the same time many looked forward to getting married and having children. Holaday and Lucas became homemakers; Holaday has two children and Lucas has five.

˘I felt I had the best of both worlds,÷ Lucas said. ˘We did try to do something for our country, and we did accomplish that. We were happy to do the job, and it was a wonderful experience.÷