Pioneering female pilots trained at a West Texas air base
By Sheila Scarborough
A wooden sign three miles west of Sweetwater marks the site of a remarkable story of patriotic women who soared into bleached-out West Texas skies from herae during World War II. Avenger Field was the training facility for Women Airforce Service Pilots—better known as WASP—the first large-scale program in American history that involved women flying military aircraft.
If you stand in Hangar One, the 1929 Sweetwater Airport building that now houses the National WASP WWII Museum, you can hear a “thoomp-rattle” as incessant winds nudge the metal hangar-bay doors. Sheesh, the wind. It never stops, which explains the region’s booming wind-power industry in recent years. Close your eyes, and listen to the planes that still occasionally buzz overhead, shooting approaches on a nearby runway just as 1,830 WASP trainees did from February 1943 to December 1944.
Hundreds of women arrived in Sweetwater from around the United States. All of these eager fly girls were armed with civilian pilot’s licenses as required by the program, all were ready to learn to fly “the Army Way” and help relieve a severe shortage of male military pilots, and all hoped to eventually earn a coveted pair of silver wings. Thirty-eight of them would die in aviation-related accidents and wouldn’t see the end of the war.
They trained at Avenger Field six to seven months and then scattered to assignments at 120 different air bases.They eventually logged more than 60 million miles of operational flights as post-repair and overhaul test pilots, towing targets for live-ammunition target practice and ferrying every sort of aircraft in the military arsenal then. Considered civilian employees during the war, the WASP finally gained official status as veterans in 1977.
The National WASP WWII Museum pays them homage, and shares their intriguing stories and artifacts with visitors. There’s a short explanatory video to watch, displays about aviation record-setter and WASP founder Jacqueline Cochran, a restored PT-19 (a training aircraft), one of the Congressional Gold Medals awarded to the WASP in 2010, a Link flight simulator, and even a “Molly” American Girl doll dressed as a WASP and donated by the granddaughter of one of the base instructors.
One display recreates a typical sleeping bay with six metal cots; narrow, wooden lockers; blue-ticking mattresses; standard-issue wool blankets; and a study area with student memorabilia in protective covers set out on the tables. Several pairs of shoes are neatly lined up under cot springs, as though a busy trainee had just stepped out to the latrine showers to wash off the day’s dust, sweat, and fuel smells. A photo shows one young woman standing near her locker with improbably perfect—given the primitive living conditions—dark hair and lipstick, wearing her Santiago Blue dress uniform and about to don a tie draped over the locker door. The look in her eye says that if wearing a dadgum silly tie was what it took to get her into the air, then that’s what she’d wear.
As a Navy veteran myself, I marveled at the obstacles and “no, you can’t … ” platitudes that these women kicked aside with their drive and professionalism. One display board relates former WASP “Marty” Martin’s tale of having a male flight-surgeon Colonel refuse to send in her completed physical report. His reason: “Well, young lady, I don’t think women should be in the military, so I did not send in your form.” She convinced him to forward it regardless of his personal opinions.
Women like Martin were not deterred by such requirements as paying their own fares to Sweetwater and having their room and board deducted from their salary of $150 a month (unlike the men in aviation training). The women shrugged off the indignities of pinning and rolling the surplus fatigues and jackets worn by male pilots, to get them to fit. The WASP even had to buy their own uniforms when they successfully completed training at Avenger.
As I read these anecdotes in the displays, I overheard one male visitor mutter, “What these women had to go through is an embarrassment.” Yes, but thanks in part to those pioneering aviators who pushed through the hassles on a windy airfield in West Texas, I found a much more welcoming atmosphere in the military when I served at sea more than 50 years later.
While in Sweetwater, drop into the Pioneer Museum downtown to see more WASP memorabilia. It’s also full of other Nolan County treasures: gear from the area’s annual Rattlesnake Roundup, a re-created judge’s chamber, a 30 x 27 oval wreath made in 1907 of human hair interwoven with seed pearls (“made from 114 heads representing five generations of the Fleming family”), and two collections of more than 800 arrowheads.
Museum boardmember Franzas Cupp pointed out a small collection of WASP items displayed in one of the rooms. “We want to bring the story to a new generation,” she said. “Can you imagine the excitement these young women brought to this sleepy town when they arrived in the 1940s?”
My favorite item was donated by former WASP Lyda Dunham Keefe: one of the yellow pillows that a few of the shorter women put in the pilot’s seat so that they could see out of the cockpit.
Be sure to save time for a lunch stop at Allen’s Family Style Meals, a converted house where you’ll sit elbow to elbow with other diners as bowls and platters arrive at your table, filled with goodies like fried chicken, pot roast, summer squash (with a pinch of sugar), okra gumbo, creamed cold peas, beans, potato salad, sweet potatoes, corn, and coleslaw. The waitstaff will bring you endless refills of iced tea. One of the people seated next to me said, “If you don’t get full here, it’s your own fault.”
I saw all sorts of folks, from a balding grandfather to a mom with a Bluetooth blinking in her ear. Be warned that on Sundays, the church crowd hits right about 12:03. Your meal is rung up on an antique manual cash register at one end of the dining area; if you’ve missed hearing that old-timey “cha-ching” sound the last few years, you’ll feel right at home.
Come to town on a weekend, and catch a first-run movie at the partially restored 1935 Texas Theatre, the same venue that entertained WASP trainees almost seven decades ago. The theater’s exterior looks much as it did then, and serves as another reminder of Sweetwater’s World War II heroines.
Note: To order a DVD of Fly Girls, which tells the story of the WASP and originally aired on PBS in 1999 as part of the American Experience series, call the National WASP WWII Museum at 325/235-0099, email
, or visit the website at www.waspmuseum.org.
The museum also offers the book Letters Home, 1944-1945, Women Airforce Service Pilots, written by WASP Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu. It includes more than 100 photographs. Each item sells for $20, plus $4 shipping and handling. Look for other WASP-related items in the “Store” section of the website.
From the November 2011 issue.