Dorothy Scott earns her wings and flies — this is what she loves. Her country is at war. She joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and flies military aircraft for her country. She dies in a fiery crash. She is 23. By the time the war is over, few will remember her. Her story is almost lost.
Her devoted twin brother must go on without her. He lives his life — a wife, two sons, grandchildren. His greatest wish is to have Dorothy’s story told. He has saved her letters home — written to family during her year of active service. They are the only real documentation of Dorothy’s life. In his final days, he donates her letters to the WASP Archives at Texas Woman’s University.
Not long ago, I contacted the Archives about this WASP. An email asks: “Are you still interested?”
The letters lie in archival folders, fragile but intact. Experiencing the letters is like taking literary communion. They beckon: “take, read.” On the first page is the winged insignia of the Air Transport Command. The date: Thanksgiving, 1942. “Dear Mom, to attempt to set down in writing all the events of the past two weeks seems a Herculean task, but here goes.”
Her voice, silent since December 1943, speaks to this writer — who listens.
Dorothy Scott was one of the first 28 women to fly actively for America in wartime. Civilians, they were hired by the military to ferry small trainer aircraft from the factories to the World War II training fields. By fall 1943, she was on the fast track to learn to fly the Army’s swift, powerful, single-engine, single-seat (no copilot or instructor) fighter aircraft.
On the third day of fighter school, Dorothy, flying in a training plane with an instructor, was on final approach, preparing to land. A fellow student, flying a fighter, approached from above. He overtook Dorothy’s slower aircraft. The tower failed to warn both pilots. He came down on top of her. The resulting crash killed all three pilots.
The day I began reading Dorothy’s letters, Finding Dorothy Scott was conceived. Today, thanks to my editor Joanna Conrad and Texas Tech University Press, Dorothy’s story lives. Subsequently, it won five literary awards, including the prestigious Sarton Women’s Book Award from Story Circle Network.
Here’s Dorothy’s voice in a letter to her father.
“When we landed, we were mobbed. Hearing me on the radio, they knew it was girls. In five minutes we were dated up for the rest of the week. We were escorted to the officers club. During dinner we couldn’t eat a bite for being talked to. We planned to take a 7:15 bus to Memphis, but during dinner our escorts, a major and a captain, said they would fly us to Memphis. We could catch the earlier 11 pm airliner home instead of the one at 4 in the morning.
“It was all planned. The Major and Florene and the Captain and I climbed into two planes. Remember, Pop, it was night. To do it up right, we made a formation take off between smudge pots lining the runways. I’ll never in all my life forget that ride! We were nearly touching the other plane — guided only by small lights and the flare of the exhaust. I was so busy watching the other plane I forgot to look around. When I did, the rapidly fading field looked like a million small fires.
“We cruised in close formation, then we separated. All of a sudden we were in a snap roll! I tightened my belt. From there to Memphis, I had trouble telling when we were right side up and when we weren’t. Loops, slow rolls, Immelmans. It was a clear night but dark, so the stars above looked a lot like the small clearing fires below. I had to check the instruments to believe anything.
“Memphis, from a distance, looked like a patch rug painted with luminous paint. What a sight! As we drew near, it got brighter. We came in right over it at 6,000 feet and spiraled down. All too soon we landed. We shocked the natives by walking into the Terminal, wearing our flying suits — women in PANTS! — and on the arms of a couple of handsome officers.
“Oh Pop, after that night ride, anything else was an anti-climax.”
Material for this blog post comes from my 2016 National League of American Pen Women, Inc., Vinnie Ream Award-winning essay and from a “slightly edited” Chapter Four of Finding Dorothy Scott — containing Dorothy’s letter home describing this spectacular night flight. Enjoy!