On D-Day, Let’s Also Remember WWII’s Women Pilots

D-Day, June 6, 2019  75 years!

This morning, I received a call from John Leicester of AP (Associated Press). He was calling from France where he was battened down in a hedgerow somewhere in Normandy. As a reporter, he was there as part of the intensive coverage — today — of the 75thanniversary of the Normandy invasion.

I was temporarily in a time warp. I, a journalist in the 1960s-’80s, was talking to a reporter on the anniversary of D-Day in 2019, giving him information on the women pilots of WWII.

My WASP friend Jean Harman had given him my name as a contact. He wanted the story of the first American women pilots to ferry Piper Cubs, known as Army Liaison planes, in 1942. Liaison aircraft were identified by the letter L followed by a number. Piper Cubs, built in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, carried the L-4 designation.

I gladly filled him in on the first WASP squadron — then known as WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) — who delivered their first six Piper Cub L-4B liaison planes on October 22-23, 1942. Here is that story from Chapter 9 of my first book, THE ORIGINALS: the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of WWII.

From The Originals: Chapter Nine

On October 22, 1942, six WAFS were assigned to deliver six L4-B’s, or Cubs, from the Piper factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, to Mitchel Field on Long Island. Nancy Love, leader of the original WAFS, appointed her second-in-command, Betty Gillies, flight leader. With Betty would be Cornelia Fort, Pat Rhonie, Helen Mary Clark, Del Scharr and Teresa James.

The six ferry pilots, anxious to shake the down from their wings and fly for real, boarded a Boeing twin-engine transport for the short flight to Lock Haven. The pilot was none other than their commanding officer, Colonel Robert Baker. “Black Bob,” as they called him because of his black mustache, had taken pity on them. He decided to send them off for their first trip by flying them to Lock Haven. This was far better than the six having to spend four hours in a Pullman car then rising at five in the morning to get off the train in Lock Haven.

Even though the Piper factory employed numerous women, the arrival of women ferry pilots was a big deal. According to Teresa, “necks stretched and eyes popped. They couldn’t have stared any more had we been freaks from the circus side show.”

‘Clark had never flown such a light ship’

The six pre-flighted their ships, climbed in and prepared to take off. A twenty-five-mile-an-hour wind was blowing from the west, promising them a hefty tail wind all the way to Long Island. “Those little four-cylinder go-carts actually leaped into the air,” Teresa recalled. “Clark had never flown such a light ship and we laughed when she said later, ‘Jeepers, I just couldn’t keep the thing on the ground.’”

They headed east, but ran out of daylight. They RONed (remained overnight) at a hotel in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

As per Betty’s orders, they were up at sunrise the next morning. Nancy Love had already warned them not to fly in formation like the men. Her instructions were, “Stay at least five hundred feet away from each other and anything else as well — and that includes clouds — and high enough over towns that you can deadstick outside them in case of emergency.” Deadstick means no power. If the engine quits, the pilot hopes to be high enough to spot an open space in which to land the little ship and then establish a glide path to get her there.

The flight leader’s job was to assign the navigator for each leg. The navigator led until she was about ten miles from the airport destination, at which time she was to throttle back so the flight leader could come forward to take them into the airport. “From then on you move in echelon formation,” Del Scharr recalls Nancy telling them. “Fly single file with each airplane a bit to the right of the one in front of it.”

Warning, Bombing Practice Ahead!

The night before, when Betty talked to her husband, Bud, he had warned her that bombing practice was planned the following day in the area where they would be flying. All flying was ordered grounded during the bombing. So Betty wired Mitchel Field operations to let them know the WAFS were coming in with deliveries that morning. She asked them to call off the guns until they could get the planes safely on the ground.

Cornelia navigated the first leg, but when they got to New Jersey, Betty, being familiar with the look of the greater New York area from the air, took the lead. “When we got over New York, I couldn’t tell Brooklyn from Coney Island in all that mass of buildings,”Teresa says.

“They were expecting us at the airport and every man who could leave his post was outside to watch us land. I can just imagine the remarks. ‘Those dames! Why don’t they get smart and let the men run this Army.’ ‘Steady, men, we’ll probably see some high bouncing and modernized ground loops!’ ‘Line up, fellas, and protect the buildings.’

Teresa James and Betty Gillies

“Well, six little Cubs came in and made six perfect landings. We had made the trip in sixty-five minutes. Betty was so pleased!”

Flight leader Gillies then signed over the planes to a thunder-faced officer, who told her — in no uncertain terms — that he needed them two months ago, not now.“That’s not my problem,” she said, sweetly. “I’m merely following orders. You may speak to my commanding officer, Colonel Robert Baker at New Castle Army Air Base, or call Colonel Tunner himself at Ferrying Division headquarters.” She gave the man a big smile.

Betty Smiles Sweetly Between Clenched Teeth

Considering the man’s rudeness, and knowing Betty, the others knew that her smile was delivered around clenched teeth. About then the phone rang. It was the telegram Betty had sent asking them to call off the bombing until the Cubs were safely in. Only it was a couple of hours late being delivered.

“Betty paled when she heard the news,” Teresa recalled.

“But the Cubs were safely in, no thanks to either Western Union or Operations at Mitchel Field.”

Thus ended the WAFS’ first ferrying assignment in 1942.




The Originals — Second edition: 2017, Braughler Books, Paperback $22.95, on Amazon.


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