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WASP pilot recaptures legacy of Fifinella

Nov. 10, 2012 - 04:20PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 10, 2012 - 04:20PM  |  
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DENVER — The first female military pilots in U.S. history — women including Lucile Wise of Arvada — signed up during World War II and trained to fly bombers and fighters such as the legendary P-51 Mustang.

The U.S. Army Air Forces didn't have enough pilots, so women were recruited for military flying jobs stateside to free up men to fly combat missions overseas.

Seventy years after her pilot training, Wise strapped herself into the open cockpit of a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane, used as a military trainer during the war.

The 92-year-old wore goggles, a headset and a borrowed leather bomber jacket. Excited, she grinned as the pilot fired up the engine.

When the canary-yellow biplane roared down the runway, a former Air Force pilot watched in awe.

"Fifinella flies again," said Greg Anderson, president and chief executive of Wings Over the Rockies, as the plane rose into the warm afternoon sky earlier this week. "The legacy lives on."

Fifinella — a female gremlin designed by Walt Disney that appeared in many World War II cartoons — was the official mascot of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Her image appeared on the noses of bombers and on the flight jackets of 1,074 women, including Wise.

"These ladies were way ahead of their time," he said. "Individually, and as a group, they have a piece of history we will never be able to experience. They paved the way and proved it could be done."

These women will be honored at the 10th annual gala of Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum on Dec. 21, which will feature many WASP pilots, including seven who live in Colorado. The traveling exhibit, "Fly Girls of WWII," runs through March at the museum.

In an era when the dominant role for women was to stay at home serving as wives and mothers, the opportunity to train as military pilots opened a door to women like Wise, who had dropped out of Colorado Women's College and was working in Wichita.

"We all wanted to do something to help the war effort. All my women friends were joining the military," Wise said. "I did it for a lark, to add a little excitement to my life."

She took her first flying lesson Dec. 6, 1941 — the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor — because someone had taken her up in a Piper Cub.

Once behind the controls, Wise was hooked.

By 1943, Jackie Cochran — a beautician who became America's top female pilot — had established the WASPs at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt.

More than 25,000 women applied to the program, and fewer than 1,900 were accepted into the training program at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

Wise's classmates included Gertrude "Tommy" Tompkins, whose fighter went down along the California coast soon after takeoff Oct. 26, 1944, and has never been found.

"We never dwelled on it," said Wise. "We were too busy."

The pilots flew a total of 60 million miles in two years. Thirty-eight women died during their service, an accident rate comparable to male pilots doing the same job.

WASPs flew military planes from factories to bases, trained male pilots, towed targets for gunnery practices and tested planes.

Two WASPs were also used to convince male pilots it was safe to fly the B-29. Men resisted flying the new heavy bomber because it hadn't received rigorous testing, and its engines tended to catch fire.

Col. Paul Tibbets recruited two WASPs to serve as demo pilots, and after three days of training, the women powered up the four-engine bomber and ferried around the men.

"They flew it, no problem," said Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in military history, now president of the board of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. "They thought it was great. That ended the (men's) fear of flying that plane."

The WASPs were disbanded in late 1944, receiving a letter of thanks from Henry Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces.

The war had reached a point "when your services are no longer needed," he said. "The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men."

Most WASPs returned to traditional roles.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. I felt lost," Wise said.

Although the women had been promised that they would be adopted into the military, that never happened. Bills in Congress to militarize the WASPs hit fierce opposition, so they were disbanded with no military benefits and "largely ignored by the U.S. government for more than 30 years," according to the teacher guide of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Wise, who married and raised two children with her husband in Washington, D.C., got fired up in the late 1970s when the Air Force announced that women would be allowed to become military pilots for the first time.

"We got very annoyed," said Wise of the WASPs, who realized they had been totally forgotten by history. "We got organized."

Wise fought for their rights by volunteering in a tiny office at the Army Navy Club in Washington, D.C.

Their demand to be recognized as military veterans faced a united front of tough opponents, including the Veterans Administration, President Jimmy Carter, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"Those groups had so much power, and they feared this would open the floodgates," said Wise.

If the WASPs were granted military status, opponents feared, then the other civilian organizations that worked in the war effort would also demand military recognition.

But the WASPs refused to quit, calling their congresspersons and talking to supportive reporters. They gained some key advocates.

"The Pentagon testified in our favor," said Wise. "It was pretty unusual for them to take a position opposite the White House."

Col. Bruce Arnold, the son of commanding Gen. Henry Arnold, also fought for them, as did Sen. Barry Goldwater, himself a World War II pilot.

In 1977, the House and Senate passed a bill that gave WASPs military status and veterans benefits.

And in 2010, the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Barack Obama.

"I've been fortunate enough to know a number of WASPs," said Vaught. "They're a breed among themselves. They have a spirit of adventure that just won't quit."

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