The Unsung Heroes of World War II: Women Flyers

By Randy Abraham

FORT LAUDERDALE — For their service to the World War II war effort, four Broward County women who had served as noncombat pilots — Tex Meachem, Shirley Kruse and Florine Maloney from Pompano Beach and Pembroke Pines resident Helen Wyatt Snapp — were honored by the Gold Coast chapter of the Air Force Association.

The military established the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program due to a shortage of male pilots; the thinking being that using females in noncombat operations would free up the men for combat duty.

The women flew bombers and fighters, ferried planes, equipment and personnel; towed targets in exercises held to train gunners to shoot, flight-tested planes, instructed male cadets and flew radar tracking missions.

The four women who were honored are among the 300 survivors of the WASP program, which between 1943 and 1944 had more than 1,000 female pilots assigned to noncombat duties. During the two-year life of the program, WASPs flew a collective 60 million miles on various missions.

Kruse, who received her pilot’s license at 19, said she was eager to join. She said she became intrigued with aviation when, as a child traveling with her parents, saw a sign at an airport that read “Fly for $25.”

She wanted to try it but, “My dad told me, ‘Girls don’t fly.’ But my mother and I didn’t believe it,” said Kruse.

WASPs “flew every World War II plane that was made and we were in almost every plane field in the country,” said Kruse.

Meachem said her arrival for her first assignment was less than auspicious. “Nobody there knew we were coming, and we spent the first night in the nurses’ quarters,” she said. However, the WASPs’ capabilities were soon recognized. “Our commanding officer was delighted to see us, because some of his pilots had been transferred out and he was short of pilots.”

WASPs were required to possess a flight license and have completed at least 100 hours of flying to be accepted into the training program. Meachem said she gained her hours while a member of the Civil Air Patrol unit, in which she helped look for German submarines off the Florida coast.

More than 25,000 applied for the WASP program, and less than 1,900 were accepted. More than 1,100 of those completed their training, and Meachem noted with pride that the pass rate for WASPs exceeded that of male pilot trainees.

Meachem also noted that WASPs flew the fearsome B-26 Marauder — dubbed the “widow maker” — over a two-month period without adverse incident. “A lot of the men had their tails between their legs over that, because a lot of them were afraid to fly it. They had quite a few accidents with it,” she said of the accident-prone bomber plane.

Kruse recalled her early interactions with male soldiers. “Some felt it was a great idea and some thought that women shouldn’t fly. Some were resentful, and we had to prove ourselves. We knew we had to fly as good as or better than the men. But after a while we were accepted.”

Of the female pilots who served, 38 lost their lives in training or in active service. However, because of their civilian classification, fallen WASPs were sent home at their family’s expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be put on their caskets.

The women also were not issued uniforms. Meachem recalled that she had to wear a man’s fatigues, and was issued a size 44. “The shoulders hung down to my elbows and the crotch came down to my knees,” she said laughing.

Kruse remembers finding out in late 1944 that the WASP unit was soon to be discontinued. “If we could have stayed on we would have flown for free,” said Kruse. “It was one of the most wonderful times of my life.”

Despite their contributions to the war effort going unrecognized at the time — they were classified as civilians and their military records were kept sealed for over 30 years — they expressed fond memories of their service careers.

“Some had reservations about women pilots when we got there, and at the time we didn’t expect recognition,” said Maloney. “We felt sooner or later it would catch up to us.”

Snapp said she treasures her memories of being a WASP, even though some men initially said they would not fly the planes she ferried. She also recalls being refused service in a restaurant while in military garb, and being accused of impersonating an officer. “At first my commanding officer didn’t now what to do with us, but finally he came to love us because we were eager to serve and follow orders. We didn’t complain because we knew we were being tested. We finally proved ourselves and the men became glad to have us there. I loved every minute of it. It was a different time; everyone was patriotic and we all felt we had to do something, and we all did everything we had to do,” said Snapp.

The existence of the unit was revealed only after the Air Force erroneously announced in the mid-1970s that it was about to admit women pilots for the first time. “That’s when we came out of the woodwork and pushed for recognition,” said Kruse.

Meachem added, “We made a fuss over that announcement.”

In 1977 the WASPs were formally recognized and given veterans benefits. Last year surviving WASP members were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Snapp discounts the suggestion that she was a trailblazer. “We only knew we were doing something we loved.” Meachem echoed her sentiments. “We weren’t thinking of being pioneers or heroes; we were just thinking what a thrill it would be flying.”

Said Meachem, “Who could have thought that a little country girl from Winter Garden, Florida would grow up to fly a plane?”

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