Sweetwater museum salutes Women Airforce Service Pilots
By JUDY WILEY / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
SWEETWATER, Texas – They are women with names like Shutsy and Deanie, Betty and Ruth. In the black-and-white photos from World War II, they're wearing aviator caps and goggles, all sparkling eyes and proud, devil-may-care smiles.
JUDY WILEY/Special Contributor
The mascot Fifinella appears in many of the museum's exhibits. These members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots earned that sparkle and pride by flying airplanes for their nation when almost no one thought they could. Some of them gave their lives in the effort. Most of them went largely unrecognized, without even GI Bill benefits. In March of this year, finally, the WASP – including six women from Texas – were honored with Congressional Gold Medals. All of the surviving WASP are 75 and older.
They were aviation pioneers, the first women to fly American military aircraft. The civilian organization's aim was to free male pilots for combat roles by using qualified female pilots to ferry aircraft from factories to military bases and to tow aerial targets. The women flew aircraft ranging from fighters to heavy bombers.
JUDY WILEY/Special Contributor
The women's sleeping quarters were spare and cramped. The museum that pays tribute to them sprawls through Hangar One on Avenger Field at the edge of Sweetwater, just a few minutes off Interstate 20. The same hangar, built in 1929, was used for maintenance during WASP training from 1942 to 1944.
The metal building and grounds still are immaculately kept in the Spartan military way, simple and clean and largely unadvertised but for signs high beneath the curve of the hangar's roof. Even a die-hard wanderer attuned to exploratory travel would be unlikely to stop, or even to come here in the first place, without knowing first what lies inside.
The National WASP WWII Museum, however, tells a story. A collage of photos in the lobby and gift shop shows training for their brief service. The WASP were active for only two years, partly because of pressure from male pilots who wanted to fly for the war effort and felt the women were taking their spots.
Inside the cavernous museum, more than 100 portraits lining the walls filmstrip-style give glimpses of faces that make a visitor stop to think about dreams and determination. Some women are uniformed, some are in bomber jackets; some demure, some steely-eyed.
A red, single-engine Piper PA-16 was donated by U.S. Air Force Maj. Bridget McNamara, a B-1 bomber pilot who credits the WASP for opening doors for women in military aviation.
Visitors should start by watching a short film outlining the history of the women fliers. Next would be a stop at a mock-up of the sleeping bay where the WASP lived (they slept six to a room on narrow beds).
The emblem of the winged gremlin Fifinella, the WASP mascot created by Walt Disney, is on many exhibits.
Large posters and biographies on the walls describe three people instrumental in creating the WASP program: aviator Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran, Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold and Nancy Love, commander of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, who eventually oversaw WASP ferrying operations.
Cochran was already famous for breaking speed, altitude and distance records for both male and female pilots when she became involved in the WASP program.
The museum also offers an educational component, including programs for different age groups (see www.waspmuseum.org for details).
Another exhibit holds plaques and photos of some of the pilots, their palm prints pressed into cement.
Near the front, steps lead up to a Link trainer, the mechanical flight simulator used to train pilots before computers.
At the back, near a detailed timeline of the WASP, is a model for a sleek, climate-controlled addition. Museum executive director Sharron Davis says the plans are there, and so is the need: "We have artifacts we can't put on display: uniforms, jackets, hats, documents."
As with most nonprofit endeavors, the funding – about $4 million – is the missing component. The museum is funded largely with private donations along with a few grants, Davis says.
While the WASP museum won't take a day to explore, it's definitely worth a stop on a trip West. If you're hungry or thirsty, however, stop for refreshments before you visit. The museum doesn't stock food or beverages.
Judy Wiley is a freelance writer in Grapevine.
When you go
From Dallas, drive west on Interstate 20 West for 180 miles and take Exit 241. Merge onto Loop 432; turn left at Loop 170. The museum is on the right.
The museum is open 1-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Contact: 325-235-0099; www.waspmuseum.org.
The WASP Homecoming 2010 will be May 29. WASP pilots will talk about their training and service during the event, which begins at 8 a.m. with a fly-in of modern and vintage aircraft. A patriotic parade begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Sweetwater courthouse square. Special exhibits and re-enactors at the museum start at 10 a.m. Also planned are a luncheon, origami, dinner and dancing, and a flyover and memorial service at sunset. Call the museum for tickets to the luncheon and dinner.
•More than 25,000 women applied to become WASP in 1942. Only 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 graduated. Thirty-eight died in training or while flying in service.
•The program began in 1942, during World War II, and ended in 1944.
•The pilots flew only in North America, usually ferrying aircraft from one base to another.