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Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II

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She flew the swift P-51 and the capricious P-38, but the heavy, four-engine B-17 bomber and C-54 transport were her forte. This is the story of Nancy Harkness Love who, early in World War II, recruited and led the first group of twenty-eight women to fly military aircraft for the U.S. Army. Love was hooked on flight at an early age. At sixteen, after just four hours of instruction, she flew solo "a rather broken down Fleet biplane that my barnstorming instructor imported from parts unknown." The year was 1930: record-setting aviator Jacqueline Cochran (and Love's future rival) had not yet learned to fly, and the most famous woman pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart, had yet to make her acclaimed solo Atlantic flight. When the United States entered World War II, the Army needed pilots to transport or "ferry" its combat-bound aircraft across the United States for overseas deployment and its trainer airplanes to flight training bases. Most male pilots were assigned to combat preparation, leaving few available for ferrying jobs. Into this vacuum stepped Nancy Love and her civilian Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Love had advocated using women as ferry pilots as early as 1940. Jackie Cochran envisioned a more ambitious plan, to train women to perform a variety of the military's flight-related jobs stateside. The Army implemented both programs in the fall of 1942, but Jackie's idea piqued General Hap Arnold's interest and, by summer 1943, her concept had won. The women's programs became one under the name Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Cochran as the Director of Women Pilots and Love as the Executive for WASP. Nancy Love advised the Ferrying Division, which was part of the Air Transport Command, as to the best use of their WASP ferry pilots. She supervised their allocation and air-training program. She proved adept at organizing and inspiring those under her command, earning the love and admiration of her pilots. Her military superiors trusted and respected her, to the point that she became Ferrying Division commander Gen. William H. Tunner's troubleshooter. By example, Love won the right for women ferry pilots to transition into increasingly more complex airplanes. She checked out on twenty-three different military aircraft and became the first woman to fly several of them, including the B-17 Flying Fortress. Her World War II career ended on a high note: following a general's orders, she piloted a giant C-54 Army transport over the fabled China-Burma-India "Hump," the crucial airlift route over the Himalayas. Nancy Love believed that the women attached to the military needed to be on equal footing with the men and given the same opportunities to prove their abilities and mettle. Young women serving today as combat pilots owe much to Love for creating the opportunity for women to serve.

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Chapter 1: Learning to Fly

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1

Learning to Fly

annah Lincoln (Nancy) Harkness was born on February 14,

1914, in Houghton, Michigan, the daughter of Dr. Robert

Bruce and Alice (Chadbourne) Harkness. Alice wanted to name their daughter for her sister, Hannah Lincoln Chadbourne

Denton. Mrs. Denton’s first daughter, also named Hannah, had died in childhood. The name Hannah Lincoln was a family tradition and Alice wanted the tradition to carry forward. Precedent carried some weight with Dr. Harkness; however, he disliked his sister-in-law. Finally, he relented sufficiently for “Hannah Lincoln” to go on his daughter’s birth certificate. But the name he chose to call her—Nancy—is the name that stuck.

Alice Graham Chadbourne’s family originally came to North

America from Norfolk, England, in the 1630s, settling first in

Hingham, Massachusetts. In the 1870s, Alice’s parents, Thomas

L. and Georgina Kay Chadbourne, moved to the town of

Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Houghton lies in the northern-most part of the state, the scenic Keweenaw Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior. Their move to this western outpost coincided with the growth of copper mining in that region and the attendant economic boom that began in 1865.1

 

Chapter 2: Learning to Live

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Learning to Live

ancy had a big decision to make. “What do I do now?”

The love of her life was aviation. She wanted to fly, but flying was expensive. How could a young woman barely twenty parlay her growing expertise in aviation into a job? Make flying pay her rather than her paying to fly. And this when male flyers found jobs few and far between.

Her uncle Thomas L. Chadbourne came to the rescue. In order to help her become “employable” he offered to send her to

Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York. Not thrilled with the prospect, but out of ideas, Nancy agreed.

She prepared to enroll in the school but also developed a plan, which she wrote to him. She proposed dropping economics, business English, and spelling, all of which she had taken at

Vassar, and concentrate on shorthand, typing, and filing. “I will leave school early two days a week. On one of these days I plan to go to Newark Airport to take a course in blind flying. The other weekly lessons I would take on Saturday or Sunday. This work, which is necessary if I am to keep up to date in flying, will require a total of about fifteen hours out of the week.

 

Chapter 3: Stretching Her Wings

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Stretching Her Wings

omance was one thing, but Nancy Harkness wasn’t ready to settle down. Just twenty, she was too busy establishing her name in the world of aviation. For now, her job with Bob entailed demonstrating and selling airplanes like the

Beechcraft models on a commission basis, plus being a general airport Girl Friday. In those Depression days, sales were few and far between.

By early 1935, changes were in the air.

Nancy had made good on her desire to meet Eugene Vidal,

Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce. In December 1934, he was the guest of honor at the Boston Aero Club dinner held at the Hotel Lenox. A photograph taken at the dinner, of Nancy and Vidal with Aero Club member and pilot, Mrs. Teddy Kenyon, appeared in the Boston Herald on December 15, 1934.

On February 2, 1935, Vidal wrote to Nancy at Inter City. After some opening chitchat, “talking with Amelia and G. P.” (Amelia

Earhart and her husband George Palmer Putnam) about Nancy possibly working with them on a project, Vidal concluded his letter with the following: “As to a government job, you’d better

 

Chapter 4: Tricycle Gear Test Pilot

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Tricycle Gear Test Pilot

ancy Harkness Love knew and flew with many of the men who made aviation their life in the 1930s—men like

Crocker Snow, Henry Wilder, Clyde Pangborn, Jack Ray, his friend Johnny Miller, and of course Bob Love. Aviation was a small close-knit community. By 1935, she was on first-name basis with Eugene Vidal and John Wynne. Men liked and respected

Nancy and Nancy liked and respected men. She preferred men who shared her adventurous spirit and love of flying.

Bob Love, descended from two solid midwestern families, had a purposeful ruggedness about him that set him apart from the eligible males of the Eastern social set. Spirit of adventure aside, from the beginning he was a businessman and a good one.

“Laugh crinkles set off his glacial blue eyes,” says Hannah.

“Mum called him homely-handsome,” says Marky. “He was very attractive to women.”

Bob was completely at home with himself. He was as open and outgoing as Nancy was guarded and in control. He was like no one Nancy had ever known. Likewise, she was completely unlike any woman he had ever met. After that first shaky encounter in his office, things obviously smoothed out, but the

 

Chapter 5: War in Europe!

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War in Europe!

ermany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. World

War II had begun in Europe. Gen. Billy Mitchell’s prophecy that the next war would be won in the air was about to be tested. Aviation had grown from its barnstorming adolescence in the 1920s, to a robust young adulthood by the late 1930s as commercial aviation caught hold. Now it was to become a powerful machine of war in its maturity. Pilots became a necessary commodity and, for all the press they had received in the 1930s, there weren’t nearly enough of them for wartime needs.

Adventure-seeking U.S. male flyers—drawn by the allure of one-on-one combat in the skies over embattled England in

1940—rushed to fly with the Royal Air Force (RAF). At home, they had the Army Air Corps Reserve. Though it didn’t promise combat in the near future, the Reserve did give young American flyers a place to train, hone their skills, and do their bit for their country. Bob Love already had taken that approach. On July

3, 1937, he accepted an appointment and commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve. He served two weeks of active duty in January 1938, 1939, and 1940, doing mostly

 

Chapter 6: Wanted: Ferry Pilots

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Wanted: Ferry Pilots

fter the attack on Pearl Harbor, all airfields within fifty miles of the U.S. coastline were shut down. That included East Boston Airport and, consequently, Inter

City Aviation. Bob Love was ordered to Washington, D.C., as part of General Olds’s Ferrying Command. The Loves prepared to move to the D.C. area to accommodate his new job.

Maj. Robert H. Baker arrived at Logan Field, Dundalk, Maryland, near Baltimore, January 5, 1942. His orders were to set up the Northeast Sector, Domestic Wing of the Ferrying Command. Baker had been a flying officer in World War I and prior to assignment to the Ferrying Command was with the 154th

Observation Squadron of the Arkansas National Guard.1

On March 11, 1942, with General Olds’s recommendation,

Nancy Love went to work for Baker in the Operations Office of the Northeast Sector, located in the Martin Plant (where the

B-26 bomber was built) in Baltimore.2 Her job included mapping ferry flights and routes, learning military procedures, and helping find sources for pilots. Since gas for the family automobile was hard to get, Nancy commuted to work in the Loves’

 

Chapter 7: Two Women Pilot Groups

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Two Women Pilot Groups

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The following footnote in Lt. Col. LaFarge’s “History of the

Air Transport Command: Women Pilots in the Air Transport

Command,” tells it differently.

Miss Cochran suggests strongly that the establishment of the WAFS was slipped over on General Arnold…. This is hardly possible. As indicated above,

General Arnold acted on General George’s memorandum of September 5th, which set forth the plan fully.

The original plan was that General Arnold, himself, should make the public announcement, and General

George and Mrs. Love were invited to his office on the morning of September 10th to meet the press when it was made. When they reached his office, they were advised that he had been unexpectedly called out of Washington, and that the Secretary of War would make the announcement. They proceeded to the latter’s office accordingly. (Interview, Mrs. Love with Lt. Col. Oliver La Farge.)2

Cochran drafted a memo to Arnold dated September 11 that stated, “The use of a few of our women pilots to ferry trainer planes is just one segment of a larger job to be done.” Failing to properly coordinate all the women pilot resources would be wasteful, she claimed. Besides, she reminded Arnold, “The top job is what you told me I would do and is the one I have been preparing to do during the past year…. The announcement made yesterday will throw this larger plan into confusion unless you clarify immediately.”3 Handwritten below the typed contents is the following: “It was this broader phase President

 

Chapter 8: The Originals Gather

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The Originals Gather

irst to arrive was Betty Gillies, age thirty-five, of Syosset,

Long Island.

Betty and her husband Bud knew the Loves socially through the Aviation Country Club on Long Island and the annual seaplane cruises. The two women had begun to establish a solid friendship. Both were active in East Coast chapters of the

Ninety-Nines. Love served on the nominating committee for the

New England Section in 1937 and then as a voting delegate for the Section during Betty’s two-year term (1939–1941) as international president.1

On receipt of Love’s telegram, Betty asked her husband, Bud

(B.A. Gillies), “What should I do?” And he answered, “Isn’t that just what you have been preparing for and wanting to do?

Go, of course.”2

Bud Gillies was a vice president and engineering test pilot for

Grumman Aircraft and Betty was listed as a utility pilot, flying a Grumman Widgeon twin-engine airplane. Her job was to fly the engineers and the Navy inspectors to their urgent wartime meetings. She also picked up needed parts from satellite manufacturers and flew them back to the factory on Long Island.

 

Chapter 9: Growing Pains

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Growing Pains

hile Nancy Love was building her squadron that would eventually number twenty-eight, Jacqueline

Cochran was in Ft. Worth working with the Army

Flying Training Command (FTC) to organize and implement the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). General Arnold wanted 500 women pilots qualified for ferrying duty by the end of 1943. Training those women pilots fell to the Training Command. The ATC would employ them once they were trained.1

The ATC wanted recruits to have a minimum of 300 hours flying time to qualify for acceptance into the WFTD program.

ATC lost that battle at the September 15 meeting. The compromise was 200, though Cochran said she didn’t think there were more than 150 women pilots with 200 hours and that the ATC’s demands were “ridiculous.” She later denied using the word ridiculous.2 That requirement was quickly dropped to seventyfive hours. “Limitations of hours will not be published. Individuals will be selected based upon their own qualifications,” said an October 7, 1942, directive from the commander of the Training Command.3 By April 1943, the entrance requirements had

 

Chapter 10: Killed in Service of Her Country

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Killed in Service of Her Country

117

were proceeding East in formation, in the vicinity of Merkel,

Texas. Of these seven ships, one BT-13A flown by Civilian Pilot

Cornelia Fort and [a] BT-13A flown by F/O Frank E. Stamme,

Jr., were involved in a mid-air collision.”

The report continues to say that the landing gear of Stamme’s aircraft apparently struck the left wing of Fort’s aircraft, causing part of it to break off. The left wingtip of Fort’s airplane was wood, and the right wingtip was metal. Stamme’s aircraft did not go out of control but Fort’s rolled and went into an inverted dive. There was apparently no attempt to recover or to use the parachute. The emergency latch on the hatch release was found to be locked. Judging from the condition of the propeller blades, power was completely retarded after control was lost. 2

Stories circulated that the young male flyers were horsing around and harassing Fort, who may have had more flying experience than they did but did not have the formation flying or advanced aerobatic training they had. However, Barbara Erickson, Fort’s squadron commander at Long Beach, says: “They were in two or three airplanes out there in the middle of nowhere trying to fly formation. I don’t think there was anything malicious about it. I think it was a plain accident.”3

 

Chapter 11: Transport and Transition

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Transport and Transition

o date, there was no transport system in place to return ferry pilots to their home base after they delivered a plane, which meant that days could be wasted as these pilots made their way home by any means possible. Male ferry pilots were allowed to hop—or hitch—a ride in a military airplane.

WAFS were required to return via commercial airliner, train, or some other mode of public transportation.

The regulation specified that WAFS were not “to solicit rides in bomber-type aircraft either for local flying or for crosscountry flying without specific authority from the Group Commander.” This was to protect their reputations. The problem was not concern over the moral character of the WAFS, rather that the newspapers would publicize this fact and give gossipmongers a chance to question the women’s reputations.1

“If the WAFS are to succeed, our personal conduct must be above reproach,” Nancy Love told her women pilots early on.

“There cannot be the faintest breath of scandal. Among other

 

Chapter 12: A B-17 Bound for England

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A B-17 Bound for England

n his memoir Over the Hump, General Tunner recalled that in early summer 1943, the Command was getting static from male pilots who objected to ferrying B-17s over the North Atlantic to the United Kingdom. “These flights had become almost routine and there was no reason for complaint. I decided to let a couple of our girls show them just how easy it really was.”

Before his promotion to brigadier general in July, Tunner called Nancy Love into his office and told her that he was assigning her and Betty Gillies to ferry a B-17 to England. “Our number one and number two pilots leaped at the chance to be the first women to ferry a plane overseas. We had scheduled a blitz movement of two hundred B-17s and I assigned the two women to one of those planes.”1

Though he liked both women and respected them as pilots,

Tunner was not out to make heroines of Love and Gillies. That was the farthest thing from his mind. Already he had used the women ferry pilots to prove to the men how routine most jobs in the Command could be. Four WAFS had ferried PT-26s from

 

Chapter 13: Change in the Air

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Change in the Air

n September 7, 1943, Brig. Gen. C.R. Smith wrote a memo to Maj. Gen. Barney M. Giles, Chief of the Air

Staff, justifying the Love-Gillies trans-Atlantic flight.

Such flights were considered routine, he said, and given the number of women pilots in the Ferrying Division, more were probable in the future. Both women were capable pilots with no qualms about making the flight. And he thought it wise to reconsider sending the two women pilots over the Atlantic in another of the badly needed B-17s.1

Jackie Cochran took particular note of the cancelled flight. If she had felt—in the light of her own troubles with the gear of the twin-engine Lockheed Hudson—that a woman couldn’t fly a B-17, she knew now that a woman could. Marianne Verges writes in On Silver Wings, “The woman who made her mark with individual aviation records and who was forever proud of being the first—and only—woman to deliver a bomber to

England during World War II, reported on her agenda for the

WASP, ‘Individual comet-like achievements should be avoided, graduation into important new assignments should be not by exceptional individuals but by groups.’”2

 

Chapter 14: Pursuit School

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Pursuit School

roduction of trainer airplanes dropped thirty percent in

May and June 1943 and continued to decline.1 Pursuit planes were rolling off the factory assembly lines in evergreater numbers. General Tunner still needed ferry pilots, but now he needed pilots capable of handling pursuits, because pursuit ferrying had become the number one job of the Ferrying

Division. One potential source was the WFTD graduates.

By the end of June, the Ferrying Division had received sixtyfive WFTD graduates—the total number of women trained in the first two classes in Houston. On June 26, 1943, Nancy Love wrote to General Barton Yount, commanding general of the Flying Training Command, that the flight training of those early graduates had been “thorough and well adapted to their duties as ferrying pilots. Their attitude and conduct have been generally excellent.” The Ferrying Division did request additional training related to cross-country flying and in group flying as many Ferrying Division deliveries still were made in groups of five to nine.

 

Chapter 15: The Quest for Militarization

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The Quest for

Militarization

ilitarizing the women ferry pilots by making them part of the WAAC was the original plan. However, the WAAC was not yet militarized when the WAFS squadron was formed. The WAAC was an auxiliary and the legislation that created it lacked provision for flying status or ratings. Next, in the spring of 1943, the idea of commissioning the WAFS directly into the Army of the United States was suggested, but went nowhere.

Why militarize the women pilots? Military status would give them military insurance, death benefits, hospitalization, and pensions. And continuity of their service would be ensured.

Consequently, when the WAAC was militarized and became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) on July 1, 1943, General Tunner contacted Colonel Hobby and requested the WAFS be incorporated into the WAC. Jacqueline Cochran, named Director of

Women Pilots June 28, 1943, opposed the incorporation of the women pilots—soon to carry the name WASP—into the WAC. She recommended that “militarization be withheld until the WASPs’

 

Chapter 16: In Pursuit, Coast to Coast

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In Pursuit,

Coast to Coast

lying pursuits was dangerous duty. Those women who qualified to fly them knew this. Some of the women ferry pilots opted not to take pursuit transition. But 134 of those who tried, qualified. Included in the 134 were 124 pursuit school graduates, 9 original WAFS who did not go through pursuit school, and Helen Richey—an experienced pilot who flew Spitfires for the ATA in England before entering the Flight Training School in

Sweetwater in 1943. She was exempted from pursuit school.1

On January 6, 1944, the ferrying of pursuit planes became the number-one priority of the women assigned to Nancy Love’s squadrons. When Love met with her squadron commanders

January 1944 in Cincinnati, the main topic of conversation was pursuit training. “The ships we are most needed to fly are P-47s,

51s, 39s, 40s, P-38s, and A-20s. So we are setting our training program with that in mind,” Betty Gillies noted in her diary.2

The first fourteen WASP graduates of pursuit school returned to their squadrons in January ready for pursuit ferrying duty.3

 

Chapter 17: Militarization Denied

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Militarization Denied

n June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day, the Ramspeck

Committee presented its report to Congress. The committee’s verdict was that the WASP program was “unnecessary and unjustifiably expensive.” The committee was opposed to militarization and recommended “the recruiting of inexperienced women and their training as pilots be terminated immediately.”1 On June 21, fifteen days after the Allies landed in Normandy and began the push that would end the war in Europe eleven months later, Congress voted down the WASP bill.

Militarization was denied. That did not mean that the WASP were out of a job. Not yet anyway.

Five days later, General Arnold announced that the recruitment and training of all additional WASP would cease. No new classes were to begin after July 1, 1944. Young women already on their way to Sweetwater for the class scheduled to begin July

1—designated 45-1—were to be sent home. There was, however, more to Arnold’s statement. Those women already in training at

Avenger Field would be allowed to finish. The WASP operations would continue and the women already on active duty would continue to serve.2

 

Chapter 18: Denouement of the WASP

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Denouement of the WASP

ancy Love had known for some time that General Tunner was to be reassigned. He left Cincinnati to take command of the ATC’s Hump Operation in the China-Burma-India

Theater on August 1, 1944. Before he left, he wrote the following commendation for her: “I wish to express my appreciation for the loyal, devoted, and cooperative efforts which you have put forth in the interests of the Ferrying Division since 12

March 1942.”

Tunner emphasized that Love was responsible for the organization, supervision and operation of a unit for which there was no precedent in military annals, and which necessarily involved duties with which she was unfamiliar at the time. He noted that she devised policies and procedures that not only served the immediate present, but became a standard for similar organizations during succeeding years. He praised her work on his staff as Executive for WASP and her familiarity with the mission policies and operations of the Ferrying Division. He concluded with the following:

 

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