Decades later, three alumnae receive their due as WWII heroes
Barbara (Willis) Heinrich ’40 has a sly, almost mischievous voice. “Well,” she says, trailing up, “it was dangerous, sure, but we had a lot of fun in that time, too. The barrel rolls, for example. You weren’t supposed to do that with the planes, but the temptation was there. So, we would go up, sometimes turn the lights off on the plane, and do them. Then, like good little girls, we would come quietly home.”
The “good little girls” Heinrich is referring to are her fellow WASPs—Women Airforce Service Pilots—who represent a lost chapter of American military history that has only recently been rediscovered. In its resurrection, the contributions of these women prove just how “good” they really were: without their unconventional and groundbreaking spirits, American success in World War II would have undoubtedly suffered.
Established in the early 1940s, the WASP program sought to address a shortage of pilots given the number of male aviators who were fighting combat missions abroad. Jackie Cochran, a pilot herself and strong advocate for women, believed that women could play a vital role in the war effort by addressing that gap. Cochran initially pitched the idea for the WASP program to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939, explaining it not only as a way women might demonstrate their patriotism but also, in taking on crucial domestic flight responsibilities, free male pilots for battle. Cochran’s proposal was met with deep resistance by the armed forces’ top brass, who believed that it was inappropriate for women to be pilots. It was only when the war strained the military’s resources that her idea was revisited and approved, albeit lukewarmly.
What wasn’t lukewarm was the response to Cochran’s call: 25,000 women answered. Barbara Heinrich was one. “I always wanted to fly. My dad said that when I found a competent instructor, I could do it.”
Heinrich did find that instructor during her grad school years at the University of Chicago in the Civil Pilot Training Program and saw the WASPs as uniting both her passion and her patriotism.
For Elizabeth “Betty” (Haas) Pfister ’43, the affinity for flight began at Bennington. “There was an aerial show one Parents Weekend,” she recalls. “For a dollar, you could have a ride. My parents said they didn’t want me to go up in the plane. I told them ‘of course not,’ and then when they left, my friend and I squished into the front seat, and I was struck. I made a deal with my father afterward that I would stay in school if he paid for lessons.” He accepted the deal, and throughout her time at the College, Pfister alternated between coursework and flight training.
Pfister and Heinrich are two of three Bennington alumnae who became WASPs; the third was Heinrich’s friend, Marion (Carlstrom) Trick ’42, who died in 2009. It was Heinrich who was responsible for encouraging Trick to give the WASP program a try. She wrote Trick, who was then in Chile on a yearlong sabbatical. Trick had learned to fly during her South American year from “a boy she was going with in the Army. They were more lenient there,” says Heinrich. Upon receiving her friend’s letter, Trick flew back to the U.S. to join the effort.
Both Pfister and Heinrich have a modest way of seeing their accomplishments, eschewing the label of “trailblazer.” Such self effacement seems common among WASPS and makes it easy to see why it took 30 years for the government to recognize these women as precisely that.
In 1976, the U.S. Air Force Academy announced that its coed class of graduates would include the first women to fly military aircraft. Several WASP members who saw the announcement knew that it was wrong and decided to speak up. Their letters opened up sealed files; inspired a bipartisan bill to honor the WASPs, which President Obama signed; and in March of this year, their service finally received its due with the conferring of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given, at a ceremony in Washington. The gathering was hosted by then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
However unassuming Pfister and Heinrich are, the barriers they broke, as the Medal suggests, became historically significant. Even if they started from very personal places.
“I always wanted to be a boy, ”Heinrich jokes. “It was a dirty trick that I turned out to be a girl. I always regretted that girls couldn’t get on a boat and be a deckhand. I found another way by flying.”
Pfister tells a similar story, her “envy” directed at one particular person: her older brother. Long in admiration of him, Pfister says she spent much of her youth as his “copycat.” In fact, it was through emulating him that her interest in the WASPs began. A year ahead of her, he had recently become a Navy pilot when Pfister answered Cochran’s call. In the middle of her WASP training, she found out her brother had been killed: “His catapult didn’t work on an aircraft carrier,” she says quietly.
When recounting this, it’s hard not to see Pfister’s WASP service in the proper context: not of women pursuing hobbies, but of women as soldiers in a time of war.
In her remarks at the Washington ceremony for the WASPs, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who co-sponsored the legislation signed by the president, said, “Today we right a wrong and acknowledge our debt to these great patriots, women who are so worthy of this award and this recognition. They blazed a trail in the sky. We are closing a circle today of unrecognized achievement.”
When it began in the early 1940s, the WASP program was very much about achievement—high achievement. It was, first and foremost, an assembly of women with exceptional flying abilities: only 1,800 women, out of the 25,000 who applied, were accepted as WASPs; of those, only 1,100 graduated. The training, says Heinrich, was intense. “It was required to have 200 hours of flying but of course military training was different from civilian. There were very specific maneuvers you had to learn. We had some hairy moments.”
Although the women were prohibited from engaging in combat missions, their work was not without danger. The pilots learned on a wide range of aircraft, including fighters and bombers. They shuttled manufactured planes from the factory to bases across the country. In addition, some of the women helped men prepare for combat by dragging targets behind their planes to provide artillery practice for shooters on the ground.
Aside from the more obvious wartime sacrifices the WASPs made (discontinuing education, leaving family, and facing prejudice), there were indirect ones, as well. In spite of the nationalist boosterism of the period, the service the WASPs provided did not come with much appreciation. WASPs were not compensated well, and they paid for their own housing, food, and training. They were also not granted veteran status until 1977, which meant that those women who died prior to 1977 were not eligible to have flags draped on their caskets, a slight some WASPs cite as the most hurtful. And, when the program was disbanded in 1944 (due to men returning from the war), the WASPs were let go unceremoniously, often having to pay their own way home. “We would have stayed forever,” says Pfister. “We offered to fly for free, and they still said they didn’t need us.”
The world outside the military bases was no more welcoming. “The only way a girl could travel was as a stewardess,” says Pfister, who did just that after she left the WASPs. Heinrich seconds that impression. “Oh, yes, when we disbanded, we tried to get on airlines, but they felt that women as pilots were beyond the pale. The passengers, they felt, wouldn’t take it.”
Only 300 of the original 1,100 WASPs are still alive. For many of the women, aviation had to become recreational if they hoped to continue it. Pfister bought her own plane—a “beautiful P-39 called Galloping Gertie”—that she recently donated to the Smithsonian. She also became an accomplished helicopter pilot, competing as a representative of the United States in the World Helicopter Championship.
Heinrich says maintaining her interest in flying was a financial challenge, given that she was, at the time, raising five kids. Plus, she says, “after flying a P-51, just looking about the countryside is kinda boring.” Still, when she and her husband lost their boat off the coast of Texas, she flew him around on a “cute little Cub” to look for it.
Although barrel rolls, flying 500 or 600 mph, and “playing in the clouds,” may be a thing of the past for Pfister and Heinrich, both still have the insouciance and the perspective of those who have not only lived an adventure but see life as one, as well.
My advice,” adds Heinrich, “is to keep doing what you want to do because life is too short to go on with what you don’t like. I know it’s so hard to follow that because you have to make a living, but it’s important.” “I was the kind of lopsided student Bennington was made for,” adds Pfister. “Bennington accepted a girl who was no good at French or math but who had a burning, passionate desire to explore something.”
On March 10, 2010, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II—the first women to fly military aircraft—were formally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by the United States. The ceremony was the result of a bipartisan bill signed by President Obama, paying tribute to these “great patriots” and their “unrecognized achievement.” Three Bennington women answered the call to be WASPs.