SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The pictures in the worn scrapbook tell much of the story.
Betty Brown, a young woman of 20, wrapped in a leather and sheepskin bomber jacket, leans cockily on the wing of a fighter plane in one old black-and-white photograph. In another, she waves from the cockpit of an AT6, which she still calls “my dear airplane.”
There’s Brown’s graduating class: 20 young women, arms around one another, smiles as big as the sky on their faces. They called them Yankee Doodle Gals, or Flygirls.
There’s a sepia-toned formal portrait of Brown, her wings pinned proudly to her collar, the same wings she now wears as a bracelet, and there is one of the group of groundbreaking women pilots mooning the camera.
“I guess we needed a bit of fun,” Brown said.
More than 63 years after being dismissed from her service with the Women Airforce Service Pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 63 years after flying upside down in an open cockpit during training missions, 63 years after towing targets for ground gunners to practice on, Brown still recalls it as “the time of my life.”
“It was a time when we were valued,” she said. “We were valuable to the World War II war effort.”
Brown, now 84 and living quietly in Skowhegan, has no trouble recalling the stories of her WASP service.
“It was groundbreaking,” she said. “The women that are flying now are so grateful that we made that first step.”
When the doors initially opened for female military pilots after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 25,000 applied. Only 1,100 were selected for the program, and of those, fewer than 250 are still alive, according to the WASP Web site. Brown believes she is the only WASP who is a full-time resident of Maine.
Each female pilot freed up a male pilot for combat service and duties. These were the women who trained the men to fly, who moved the planes from coast to coast to make them available for the male pilots, who flew the planes from the factories to the bases.
The women pilots were certified in an astounding 77 types of aircraft. When performing target towing they often landed with holes in their planes from live rounds fired at the target. When asked whether the male pilots found it hard to take instruction from women, Brown said no.
“They wanted to fly,” she said simply, adding that often at military gatherings and reunions, WWII male pilots still come up to the WASP tent “often with tears, just to thank us.”
Brown said her flying career began in Michigan, where she lived near a small grass-field airport.
“I got very curious about those little planes and wanted to know what the world looked like from up there,” she said. After she took her first ride, she was hooked. “It was even better than I had thought.”
Although she was still a teenager, Brown began taking instructions — a half hour for $4. Then, when a Life Magazine cover showed a WASP recruit seated on the wing of a fighter plane, “It really hit me,” she said. “It was a way that I could fly and help the war effort.”
At only 20 — a year shy of the age requirement — Brown altered her birth certificate, traveled to Chicago for an interview and was accepted into the WASP program. Brown went to Texas, paying her own travel expenses, along with 1,830 young women pilots from all over America who quit their jobs as dental assistants, professors, teachers and secretaries, all for the chance to fly.
“It turned out to be the time of my life,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that I was in this program. I got to fly every day.” She said that her first instructor, however, mirrored society’s attitude.
“He said ‘I’d rather have you in the kitchen, but I’ll teach you to fly anyway.’ But the boys that we trained were happy because they could get over-seas. It was the first time ever that females flew military aircraft.”
The women wore “zoot suits,” a mechanics’ coverall that only came in size 42, Brown joked, but they also had dress uniforms and the traditional leather-and-sheepskin bomber jackets worn when flying. In the sixty-year-old photographs, the beauty of these young women is stunning. The photos could be Hollywood promotion stills.
The women lived six to a room in a former Army barracks with one bathroom and one mirror for each dozen pilots.
“But it was OK. Our concentration was on flying, really,” Brown said. “We were such a bunch of determined women. We were quite a sisterhood, and even after all these years, we have stuck together.”
After their training, the WASP were stationed at 120 air bases across the United States assuming flight-related missions and relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew more than 60 million miles from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulating strafing missions and transporting cargo.
Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft, according to their Web site.
“We had a purpose here, and we fulfilled that in good shape,” Brown said.
But the program, despite being a part of U.S. Army training, was still considered civilian. WASP fliers were not recognized as having served in the military until the mid-1970s. In what Brown calls “a shameful act,” the 38 female pilots who lost their lives during the war were sent home at the expense of their own families without any military honors or even a flag for their coffin.
Today, WASP members are honored at Arlington National Cemetery, but Brown said that glory is not for her. “I feel that there are so many men that gave so much,” she said. “We were just one group that helped out.”
After the war, the U.S. Government disbanded their group and sent them home with no fanfare or ceremony. “It felt like we were discarded,” Brown said. “It seemed such a waste. But, of course, the boys were coming back.”
Brown tried a number of jobs, including being relegated to secretary status at an airline training school in Florida. It was there, more than 60 years ago, that she met and married Ron Brown, who was a United Airlines pilot. Eventually they settled in Maine and raised three children — none of whom fly. Up until about a year ago, the couple each flew their own small planes out of the Norridgewock airport.
Brown feels that even though the WASP opened the doors for female pilots in the military and private sector — today there are about 4,000 female commercial pilots, most in the U.S. — many do not know the WASP story.
“When we finally got military status in the 1970s, it was so nice to finally be respected for our service,” she said. “I know that it was a war and all, but, in a way, it was a marvelous experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”