WASP of the Ferry Command
Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds
By Sarah Byrn Rickman
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2016 Sarah Byrn Rickman
All rights reserved.
The world in the late 1930s waited, poised on the brink of war.
After World War I, U.S. Army Air Service Brigadier General Billy Mitchell predicted that the next war would be won in the air. This heresy got him court-martialed. But not all of the Army brass thought Mitchell was wrong. One such man was H.H. "Hap" Arnold, who went on to serve as Commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Another was William H. Tunner, a member of the West Point graduating class of 1928.
"The Air Corps was considered the lunatic fringe," General Tunner wrote in his memoir. But he opted for it anyway. Five flights in five different airplanes in one week's time during his senior year had shown him that "man could fly."
In 1938, with the threats of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan on the rise, Captain Tunner saw the growing need for a corps of reserve pilots. He began to recruit local pilots in Memphis, where he was stationed, and built a sizeable group of Reserve flying officers.
Women also recognized the coming need for more pilots. Cecil "Teddy" (Mrs. Theodore) Kenyon, a founder of the Ninety-Nines — the international organization for licensed women pilots — suggested in 1936 that women could assist in wartime by ferrying planes. Betty Huyler Gillies, another Ninety-Nines founder and the organization's president from 1939 to 1941, advised the membership to sharpen their skills and build their time. "Be ready to fly for your country if she needs you."
In 1939, Jacqueline Cochran — founder of Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics, a record-setting racing pilot, and a Ninety-Nine — wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to suggest a plan to use American women pilots in a national emergency. Women could fly ambulance planes, courier planes, and commercial and transport planes, "thereby releasing male pilots for combat duty. ... We have about 650 licensed women pilots in this country. Most of them ... could be of great use a few months hence if properly trained and organized."
In 1940, another well-known aviator and Ninety-Nine, Nancy Harkness Love, wrote to Lt. Col. Robert Olds, in the Plans Division of the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, about the possibility of women ferrying airplanes for the U.S. Army. Mrs. Love had gained experience delivering airplanes that she and her husband, Robert M. Love, sold to their customers at InterCity Aviation in Boston. Olds asked for a list of women pilots holding commercial ratings. Using Aero Chamber of Commerce lists, Nancy Love gave him forty-nine names. "I really think this list is up to handling pretty complicated stuff."
That summer, Olds considered using "approximately 100 women pilots as co-pilots in transport squadrons and for ferrying single-engine aircraft thereby releasing a number of [male] pilots" for other duty. General Arnold turned down the proposal.
The United States was still a neutral country, but civilian crews employed by the Atlantic Ferrying Organization (Atfero) were moving aircraft from Canada across the North Atlantic for the British. Then in March 1941, Lend-Lease — through which the United States supplied the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Free French, China, and other Allied nations with materiel between 1941 and 1945 — went into effect. The Army Air Corps began to plan how the United States could deliver aircraft to England and, in doing so, give its ferry pilots on-the-job training and experience.
On June 20, 1941, the Army Air Corps ceased to exist, replaced by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and Colonel Olds was assigned to set up its Ferrying Command. Major William H. Tunner was the second man Olds brought on board. Immediately, Olds began to establish routes by which the new Ferrying Command could move aircraft overseas.
"Our knowledge of the world was expanding to be followed by the continual expansion and increase of our actual flying operations," Tunner wrote. His job was to find ferry pilots to fly planes to various destinations. He tried to fill the ranks with National Guard and Reserve pilots, but there weren't enough, so he asked for the loan of pilots from tactical (planned/strategic) units. This practice would continue until fall 1943.
The United States expected to build 12,000 training-type aircraft by December 1942. Two hundred pilots were needed to deliver those aircraft. Fifty women had at least five hundred hours; thirty of them had more than a thousand. Using those women would solve one-quarter of the Ferrying Command's needs, but Arnold again said no.
Four months later, Pearl Harbor changed everything.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the United States' military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, destroying much of the Navy's Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. On December 8, the U.S. declared war on its attackers, the Japanese, and also Japan's ally, Nazi Germany. Everybody who was anybody when it came to moving men and supplies by aircraft gathered in Washington, D.C., on December 14, 1941, to get ready for a war that was already upon them.
Logistics was the problem, wrote Lt. Col. Oliver LaFarge, Air Transport Command historian. "America and her allies were weak in men, ships, aircraft, and munitions of all kinds."
As they were meeting, General Douglas MacArthur's forces in the Philippines were under a fierce Japanese attack. Though no supply route yet existed, the aircraft movement brain trust sent the few heavy transports the U.S. could muster to supply MacArthur. Not one plane had reached its destination by the time MacArthur was forced to retreat to the Bataan peninsula in late December. Some planes got to the Dutch East Indies in time to load their munitions on submarines; others never got beyond India. Three reached Australia. There was no good news from the Pacific.
"We forget how feeble we were in the beginning of 1942, and how black the picture was," LaFarge wrote. The lack of long-range transport was perhaps the worst problem, but already the Ferrying Command was using its "handful of specialists who had learned how to fly oceans and unexplored continents" to train more ferry pilots to do the same.
"They were charged with creating and operating the ferry routes across the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and Africa and across India to Burma and China," says Iris Cummings Critchell, aviation historian and one of the early WASP ferry pilots. And, she pointed out, if the Ferrying Command and its successor the Ferrying Division hadn't been effective, many other commands would not have succeeded in their missions because the Ferry Command was the supply line.
"That is my view of the historical record of some remarkable planning by those early military aviators who had been active in the previous 20 years in aviation and came back to serve in World War II as the leaders. They had to have an appreciation of not only the limitations of the human beings and the need to train them, but also the capabilities of the human being to do a full job. These men understood what it took to be a pilot and they placed confidence in the new ferry pilots who were challenged by the times and the circumstances to do their best. And they did."
* * *
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Tunner's "borrowed" ferry pilots were called back to their units. In January 1942, the total strength of the Ferrying Command stood at a mere 934 men: 386 pilot officers and 548 enlisted, men who had come from the National Guard or the Reserves.
On January 6, President Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress. He promised that, in 1942, the United States would produce 60,000 airplanes. In 1943, it would produce 125,000 — 100,000 of them combat aircraft.
All those new aircraft would have to be ferried and Tunner and Olds did not have nearly enough pilots to do the job. Finding ferry pilots became a priority. Olds, who had been promoted to Brigadier General, decided to resurrect Nancy Love's idea. He was ready to hire women pilots, right then, as civilians — the same way he was hiring male pilots where he could find them. But Jacqueline Cochran — with the backing of General Arnold — had made an unbreakable commitment to the British to supply them with twenty-five of America's best women pilots for ferrying duties. She immediately wrote the following note to Hap Arnold dated January 18, 1942.
General Olds has informed me that he is planning on hiring women pilots for his Ferrying Command almost at once. His plan, as outlined to me, is not only bad in my opinion from the organizational standpoint, and contrary to what you told me yesterday but is in direct conflict, in fact, with the plans of a women's unit for England. In addition, it would wash me out of the supervision of the women flyers here rather than the contrary as we contemplated.
Arnold was aware of Cochran's political clout with the Roosevelts (her wealthy husband, Floyd Odlum, was a financial and political backer). Arnold wrote to Olds and told him: "You will make no plans or re-open negotiations for hiring women pilots until Miss Jacqueline Cochran has completed her present agreement with the British authorities and has returned to the United States."
Reluctantly, Olds put his idea on the back burner.
* * *
At this point, the idea of the AAF's Ferrying Command using women pilots appeared to be dead.
That, however, was not the case.
Yet to come was the fortuitous, and consequently historic, meeting of minds and purpose of four high-ranking Ferrying Command officers and one civilian woman who were about to change everything.
* * *
All airfields within fifty miles of the U.S. coastline were shut down after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nancy and Bob Love's InterCity Aviation in Boston was one of the operations affected. Concurrently, Bob Love, an Air Corps Reserve officer, was called to active duty in Washington.
On January 5, 1942, Maj. Robert H. Baker arrived at Logan Field near Baltimore, Maryland. Baker had been a flying officer in World War I. He entered the flying service in April 1917, and became a flight instructor at Ellington Field, Texas, and at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. He served as officer in charge of flying at Post Field, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and left the service in June 1919. In June 1927, he joined the Arkansas National Guard where he served as Captain and Operations Officer of the 154th Observation Squadron. Baker was called up in June 1941, commissioned a major, and sent to Detroit with the newly formed Ferrying Command. As part of President Roosevelt's Lend Lease program, bombers were being ferried from there to England.
In Baltimore, Major Baker's orders were to set up the Northeast Sector of the Domestic Wing of General Olds's Ferrying Command. The Domestic Wing was, as it suggests, responsible for flights within the United States. The Foreign Wing handled overseas flights.
Olds recommended that Major Baker hire Nancy Love, who had joined her husband, Bob, in Washington. Through her work with her husband's business, she was experienced both in ferrying and running air operations. Nancy went to work for Baker in the Operations Office of the Northeast Sector on March 11, 1942. Her job included mapping ferry flights and routes, learning military procedures, and helping find sources for pilots.
That same month, Bob Olds, whose health was problematic, collapsed at his desk. Hap Arnold brought in Col. Harold L. George, a recognized strategic bombing expert, as a temporary replacement. In the 1930s, George had helped shape America's bomber strategy for the war by assisting Air War Plans Division with the development of a complete aircraft production and bombing strategy. But Arnold knew what he wanted and he thought George was the man to head it up.
General Arnold's major concern in the spring of 1942 was the building of a globe-encircling military airline. "The attack on Pearl Harbor brought us renewed pleas from all parts of the world for personnel, airplanes, engines, parts, and supplies," Arnold wrote in his memoir Global Mission. "Airplanes, as weapons of war, must not be held on the ground. ... We had to keep them in the air and keep them moving. This required supplies and replacements in a constant stream."
When Arnold learned that Olds's recovery would be slow, he relieved him of his command and asked Colonel George to take over the Ferrying Command. George was expecting an overseas command, not the stateside job of running what amounted to a major airline. He told Arnold he knew nothing about moving men and supplies by air. Nor did he know anyone in the Ferrying Command who had the expertise to create the worldwide air transport system the Army needed to accomplish the daunting task.
Did George know C.R. Smith? Arnold asked.
George knew of him — the president of American Airlines — but didn't know him personally.
Arnold knew Smith, called him, and set up a meeting in Washington. The chemistry was right. George and Smith could work together. Arnold made George a brigadier general and offered to make Smith a colonel and name him George's chief of staff. Forty-two-year-old Smith agreed. He would serve as Harold George's deputy commander and eventually became a general himself.
"Once I had George and Smith running our military air lines, I didn't have to worry about that problem any longer," Arnold wrote. "No matter what mission I gave them, I could count on its being carried out one-hundred percent. The two officers complemented each other in ability, experience, and judgment — they made a perfect team."
Smith quickly solved any staffing problems George might have had. He had in his possession the names of several airline executives and, with George's nod of approval, he began to recruit these men to do the job the command needed done. Bob Love was one of them.
Major Baker was confronted with two problems at Logan Airport. His pilots were responsible for ferrying the twin-engine B-26 bombers built at the Martin plant in Baltimore, but the runways at Logan — 3,400, 3,000, and 2,000 feet long, respectively — were too short for safe operation of the big bombers. The other concern was the constant B-26 traffic on the runways and parking areas interfered with private aircraft traffic, which created problems for Baltimore's civic leaders.
New Castle Army Air Base was under construction outside nearby Wilmington, Delaware. Already, the Army had built two new 7,000-foot runways there. Baker liked what he saw. The Northeast Sector of the Domestic Wing, Ferrying Command's move to New Castle AAB was announced April 18, and was completed on May 29, 1942.
Meanwhile, Nancy Love, from her key role with Baker's Baltimore operation, had been observing, first hand, the ever-increasing production of military aircraft. Baker's pilots also were responsible for ferrying primary trainers, PT-19s, built at the Fairchild plant in Hagerstown, Maryland, and PT-19 production was humming.
To Nancy, it was clear that there were not enough qualified male pilots eligible to move all of those planes. Again, she proposed, this time to her superiors in the Northeast Sector, "that a group of highly-qualified women pilots be recruited to aid the Domestic Wing in its ferrying activities and as a test group to determine the feasibility of using women pilots."
Though staff of the Domestic Wing opposed the idea, General George and the Ferrying Command supported it.
In the three months that lay between March 11, when Nancy started working in Operations, and June 11, conversations among General George, Colonel Tunner, Major Baker, Major Love, and Nancy Love, must have been not only lively but intense. June 11 is the date of the earliest written mention of General George's decision to use women pilots.
In a June 11, 1942, memo that George wrote to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Personnel, AAF Headquarters, he stated that, "It is desired to use commissioned officers of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps [WAAC] for the ferrying of airplanes in this Command, to replace and supplement male pilots in so far as qualified women may be available." The idea of placing women ferry pilots in the WAAC was under discussion.
Working with the WAAC did not materialize, but by then the genie-of-an-idea — women ferry pilots — was out of the bottle. (Continues...)
Excerpted from WASP of the Ferry Command by Sarah Byrn Rickman. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Byrn Rickman. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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