Monday, February 13, 2012

Ann Gleszer: Pioneer Pilot, And A Military 'Secret'

From the Hartford Courant: Ann Gleszer: Pioneer Pilot, And A Military 'Secret'
Ann Gleszer was literally one of history's silent heroes — records of the essential work she and other women performed during World War II as Air Force test pilots were buried and stamped classified.

She was a WASP, a member of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, the first group of women to fly military aircraft. It wasn't until 1977, 30 years after the WASPs were unceremoniously disbanded and forgotten, that women were again allowed to train as pilots in the United States military.

Gleszer, 95, of Danbury, died on July 7.

She was born on June 21, 1916, and grew up in Columbia, where her parents, Frank and Catherine Golick, were Polish immigrants who had a farm. She had two sisters and a brother.

She attended the University of Connecticut and, as a student, took flying lessons and obtained her pilot's license. After graduating in 1938, she worked for Pratt & Whitney and became an air traffic controller at Rentschler Field in East Hartford in the experimental flight division. She also married Tom Griffin.

After the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941, the military quickly became aware that there were not enough military pilots to fill the demand for combat, training, testing and transporting aircraft. Jacqueline Cochran, a well-known pilot who held many records, tried to convince Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, that women could help with some of the flying jobs, which would release male pilots for combat. Even Eleanor Roosevelt weighed in, supporting the WASPs.

The program was controversial, despite its evident usefulness.

"Every WASP took the place of a man. Because she was doing that job, he could go overseas and win the war,'' said Nancy Parrish, executive director of Wings Across America, a project at Baylor University that is preserving WASP history.

As the deaths of male pilots increased and the need to test new planes grew, Arnold reluctantly agreed to give women a chance. He authorized the WASP program, recruiting women who already had pilots' licenses.

More than 25,000 women applied, but only 1,800 were accepted; more than 1,000 completed the training program and were assigned to air bases between November 1942 and December 1944.

Gleszer became a WASP in 1944 and went through training at Avenger Field, in Sweetwater, Texas, where the WASP museum is now located.

She, like the other WASPs, paid her own transportation to the base and back home. Even though some WASPs went through Officers Candidate School, they received none of the officers' privileges. Considered civilians, they were nevertheless subject to the same rules and requirements as the men in the military.

"They flew every kind of mission flown by a male pilot, whether it was simulated strafing missions or towing targets, being shot at by live ammunition," Parrish said.

"It was both unusual and dangerous," said Gleszer's son, Doug Griffin.

Thirty-eight of the 1,000 WASPs died during the war.

In some cases, the women showed the men up. In 1943, male pilots were refusing to fly the B-26 Martin Marauder, which they nicknamed the Widowmaker because of its high fatality rate. Arnold ordered Cochran to choose 25 WASPS to fly the B-26 to prove to the men that the planes were safe to fly. "They quietly, carefully, flew the B-26, better than the men," Parrish said.

Integrating women to the military culture was sometimes awkward. They were given used mechanics coveralls in size 44 as flight suits, although designers from Bergdorf Goodman eventually produced a stylish dress uniform in women's sizes. Women had to pay for their uniforms. If they died in service, families had to pay for the burial and for someone to escort the body home. They were not allowed to drape American flags on their coffins as other military did.

Gleszer performed a variety of tasks. Stationed at Cochran Army Air Field in Macon, Ga., she took planes up for a test flight after mechanical problems had been fixed. "She 'wrung it out' — going high, going fast and making sure it was safe to fly," said Parrish.

Male pilots resented the women, and claimed the newcomers were usurping positions that men were entitled to. Gleszer once landed a plane with some difficulty because of a problem with a fuel tank. It turned out that the fuel had been contaminated — by jealous male pilots, everyone believed.

Popular columnist Drew Pearson attacked the program and male pilots lobbied against the women being accepted into the military, though that had been the plan when the pilots were recruited. The program ended abruptly in December 1944. The records were archived, labeled "secret."

After the war, the women's contributions and experiences were ignored. Gleszer tried repeatedly to get a job as a pilot with a commercial airline, but was repeatedly turned down. "They weren't taking women. The men took the jobs," said Gleszer's son, Glenn Griffin.

While Gleszer was living in Simsbury, she got to know a neighbor, Charles Kaman, who at the time was developing a helicopter with counter-rotating propellers. She became a test pilot for the K-190 and K-125 helicopter, and was featured in a 1948 Life Magazine article that purported to show how easy the planes were to fly. In the piece, Gleszer was identified as a "simple housewife," able to take the helicopter up after only 36 minutes of instruction. It omitted her professional training, background and war experience.

In 1955, she and Tom Griffin moved, with their two young sons, to Switzerland, where Griffin had a sales job. The family lived in Trelex, a small town near Geneva, where Gleszer and the boys learned French and Alpine skiing.

By the time they returned, Gleszer knew fluent French and began teaching at Simsbury High School, where she also taught Spanish and was head of the world languages department.

Gleszer and Griffin built a house on Okemo Mountain in Vermont in the style of a Swiss chalet, and ran it as a bed and breakfast. Many of her students would come for the weekends or on school vacations. She also kept a small plane at Simsbury airport.

The couple later divorced, and in 1968, Ann married Kenneth Gleszer, a pilot and flight instructor, and they used to fly Piper Cherokees on long trips together. They lived in Danbury and she taught at Newtown High School until 1983.

She maintained her license until her mid 60s, and she died of complications of congestive heart failure. In addition to her sons, Douglas and Glenn Griffin, and her husband, she is survived by one grandchild.

In 1977, the U.S. Air Force Academy proudly announced the graduation of 10 women pilots, saying they were the first women to fly American military aircraft. The WASPs were infuriated. Many, including Gleszer, wrote letters and lobbied for the equal treatment they had been promised. Finally, in October of that year, Congress retroactively granted the WASPS veteran status, though no former pilots were invited to the signing ceremony of P.L.95-202. It took seven more years for medals to be delivered — in plain brown envelopes, and there were no G.I. benefits.

In March 2010, nearly 35 years after the end of World War II, the Congressional Gold Medal was sent to the women who had received military training, towed targets for air to air gunnery practice with live ammunition, and were fired on with live bombs, were recognized. At that time, Gleszer was 93, and only 300 WASPS were still alive. The award is the highest award Congress can give civilians.

"They were pioneers," Parrish said. "They were above average. They pushed boundaries. They were curious, determined, patriotic. Their lives were extraordinary."

No comments: