Frances Green, Margaret “Peg” Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn during WASP ferry training on the B-17 Flying Fortress (U.S. Air Force photo)
By George Morris
There was a lot the U.S. Army Air Forces couldn’t have imagined on Dec. 6, 1941. One was Marion Brown.
After the next day, eyes and minds started opening rather quickly.
There was no doubt that, for the first time in history, a major war would involve a significant contribution by air forces. It was planes, not ships, that attacked Pearl Harbor, and it was German fighter planes, dive bombers and heavy bombers that blitzed through Europe and pounded England. It took little imagination to envision that airmen would have an enormous role.
But women? They would have a part to play, too, even if not in combat.
When the smoke still rose from Hickam Field and the sunken battleships in Hawaii, the thousands of aircraft needed to defeat Japan and German hadn’t been built, yet. And the factories that would build them weren’t located at the air bases that would train combat crews or launch attacks. Someone would have to deliver those planes to where they were needed, and every combat-capable man doing so was one less available in the desperate struggle.
Gen. Hap Arnold, USAAF commander, nixed the idea in 1940. Two years later, the math was obvious. So, the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (or WASPs) were formed.
Their main duty would be to ferry airplanes to training fields or debarkation ports for shipment overseas. Brown (then Marion Schorr) was sent to Houston’s Hobby Field to be part of the second WASP training class.
“It was kind of an experimental thing, still,” Brown said. “You had to be between 20 and 24, have a college education, in the beginning not be married and supposedly have 200 hours of flying time. I barely had 50, but the class was running kind of low. They couldn’t get the numbers … so I took a little Air Force acceptance test, and that was satisfactory.”
Although pilots like Amelia Earhart had shown what women could do, aviation was an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Brown had learned to fly at age 19 in a special program at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and was 20 when she made her first solo flight in 1940. Only one woman was allowed into the program for every 10 men, and the dean of women had asked Brown if she was interested.
After graduating with degrees in physical education, fine arts and biology, Brown taught at New Orleans’ McDonogh High School and did bookkeeping for Higgins Industries, which would become famous for producing landing craft, PT boats and other naval vessels for the war effort.
In the meantime, there were already efforts to involve female pilots the spreading war. Jacqueline Cochran, whose fame as a racing pilot was almost the equal of Earhart, had taken 25 volunteers to England to help the British, who were using women pilots to ferry aircraft. In 1942, Nancy Love persuaded the Army to start the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service to train women to fly military aircraft. The military invited Cochran back to expand and administer the organization, which received a new name.
More than 20,000 women applied to be WASPs, from which 1,830 were accepted. The 1,074 who completed training were paid $250 a month.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Brown said. “Here I was teaching high school, and it was very competitive to get to teach at McDonogh High School, which then was an all-girl high school. My last salary was going to be $120 for 10 months. So, doing what I wanted to do and getting paid to do it was a real treat.”
Not to her father.
“I was an only daughter, and my dad said, ‘She shouldn’t do this. She shouldn’t get in the military,’” Brown said. “That was the old thinking. I said, ‘Oh, Dad, I probably won’t go any farther than … Dallas.
“Where did they send me? Detroit. It took a lot of talking. My brother helped talk me through that one.”
From Romulus Army Air Base, Brown ferried planes all over the country, including fighters, bombers and transport planes. She flew into major cities and isolated training fields, where heads would turn when men saw a woman climb out of the cockpit.
A pilot never knew what airplane she would be flying or where she would take it from one day to the next. The pilots couldn’t use their radios because they were were not licensed for operation. The aircraft also weren’t heated, so when planes had to be delivered from Detroit to British Columbia, the route would be through El Paso, Texas, then up the West Coast to avoid the bitter cold and rough winter weather.
Some West Coast deliveries were fighter planes being sent to the Soviet Union. With war raging in eastern Europe, Russian pilots didn’t have time to familiarize themselves with the aircraft before returning home.
“The manuals were all in English, the gauges all in English,” Brown said. “I wonder how many of them were lost and crashed.”
Brown had a close call of her own. She was among four pilots taking AT-16 trainers from Montreal to Newark, N.J. when they ran into bad weather. The other pilots, all men, ducked below the clouds and followed the Hudson River. Brown decided to get above the storm and fly by dead reckoning, using her compass, watch and airspeed indicator instead of visual landmarks.
“I’d never been to New York, so when I thought I was there, I let down to Newark Airport,” Brown said. “As I am letting down, right in front of me came this massive, massive head. This was in the clouds. Honestly, I thought I saw God. It was that big.”
Brown abruptly peeled off and climbed. When she got above the clouds and got her bearings, Brown realized what she had encountered was not God. It was the Statue of Liberty. Fortunately, Brown had turned to the right. Had she turned to the left, she likely would have crashed into the statue’s upraised arm.
Thirty-eight WASPs died in crashes during the program’s two years. Such casualties are an understood risk of military aviation. The difference, however, was in how the Air Force treated the WASPs.
“I don’t know about the later (training) classes, but in the early classes, there were no arrangements for paying for their burial or anything,” Brown said. “We had to actually collect money to send the bodies home.”
Without warning and with war still raging in Europe and Asia, the WASPs were told to go home on Dec. 10, 1944. The program was being shut down. Brown said WASPs in her unit were not even provided transportation home.
“The girls got kind of bitter,” Brown said.
The WASPs received no military recognition or benefits for their two years of service. That was not changed until Congress did so in 1979, long after WASPs could have profited from the GI Bill’s educational benefits.
Brown stayed in aviation, competing in the Angel Derby international air races and Powder Puff Derby transcontinental air races. In 1956, she won the international race from Hamilton, Ontario, to Havana. She later became a flight examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Women’s roles in military aviation continued to grow, news of which always delighted Brown.
“I imagine they’ll do well,” Brown said of the introduction of women pilots aboard the USS Eisenhower in 1994. “It’ll be a very select group.”
As it was from the beginning.