Fly in footsteps of WASPs

Ken Beaton

Ken Beaton

A stunt pilot, Frank Hawks, unknowingly changed the direction of history for half of America’s population on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1920. It seemed so innocent. He took a 23-year-old former tomboy who defied normal female behavior for a 10-minute flight. “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly,” exclaimed Amelia Mary Earhart. She invested $1,000 in flying lessons to become America’s 16th female pilot in 1922, the second person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Derry, Ireland and set 15 flying records. She changed attitudes.

One day during the 1934-35 school year at a junior high school in Bayonne, N.J., the students had a choice of two assemblies, Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, a radio show like American Idol, or Amelia Earhart. Amelia changed the life of at least one eighth grade attendee, Hazel Marjorie Stamper.

After the assembly, Hazel and several female classmates met and asked Amelia for her autograph. At that moment, Hazel was consumed with flying! When she graduated from Lincoln High School in June 1939, she wanted to attend an aeronautical college. Her dad insisted she attend Pace Secretarial College in New York City. He told her, “The main reason a girl should go to college is to meet a good husband.” Hazel commuted from New Jersey to Pace, “as if it were in prison.” She flunked out of Pace Prison.

Needing a job to pay for flight lessons, she was hired as a secretary at Prudential Insurance Company in Newark, NJ. Earning $18 a week was a challenge for Hazel because flight lessons were $8 an hour.

She dated a pilot with a seaplane based in Ridgefield Park, N.J., gaining more flight hours. Her first solo was in his sea plane. “I participated in the usual ritual of buying Cokes all around over at Gus’ Restaurant. I had finally joined the ranks of all my aviation heroes, especially Amelia.” Hazel joined the Civil Air Patrol in early 1942. At the same time all the military airports were moved 200 miles inland for security, another challenge.

Hazel read Look magazine to discover the Piper Aircraft Corporation had converted a factory to building L-4 liaison planes for the Army Air Force. After two weeks of training, Hazel was a welder. She welded on the graveyard shift and took flying lessons during the day. The reason she applied to Piper was because flying lessons were $1.12 an hour for employees.

After six months, Hazel celebrated her 21st birthday. She and several female Piper employees traveled to New York. They enlisted in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, WASP.

At Mitchell Field she received the same physical as male pilots. She passed her physical and reported to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, on Nov. 1, 1943.

Hazel wrote in her diary, “Jacqueline Cochran, the foremost woman pilot in America, took 25 American women pilots to England to study the ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, whose women were already ferrying British fighters and bombers.”

Hazel wrote about WASP training, “We would be instantly sent home if we dated instructors. But at one point, so many good students from our class were washing out, we knew something was wrong. Something was. There were male personnel who were trying to get rid of as many of us as possible. We marched to flight line singing the Funeral March. Every day we thought would be our last, so when a group of our instructors found out we were going to a cabin at Sweetwater Lake on weekend, they met us openly, put our luggage in the cars, and we had a party that night at the lake. I had a big crush on my instrument instructor, but had never dared date him. But this was not a formal date, and we ‘smooched’ for hours, as did everyone else. That was my one and only time with Jerry. The excessive washout rate stopped, and things got back to normal when they fired the one or ones who were responsible.”

Hazel’s Class, 44-W4’s graduation was Tuesday, May 23, 1944 at Avenger Field. Her mom’s heart was filled with pride watching Hazel as a member of the honor guard. General Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Force, “liked to pin on our wings at graduation (before Cochran stopped that).”

Flying is dangerous! Thirty-eight WASPs died serving their country. Two were Hazel’s classmates. Trainee Mary Homes Howson was killed in a mid-air collision on April 16, 1944 at Avenger Field. Peggy Wilson Martin was killed test flying a BT-13 on Oct. 13, 1944 near Marianna, Fla. FYI, during the War the USAAF lost 88,000; 73,000 on war missions and 15,000 in training.

After the war, Hazel married and became a mother, raising two sons and two daughters. Her world turned 180 degrees. How ironic, she flew planes hundreds of miles an hour, but never drove a car. Wise decision!

Today’s women fly in the footsteps of WASPs. You may decide to read, THOSE WONDERFUL WOMEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES by Sally Van Wagenen Keil. Sally’s aunt, Mary Parker Audrain, was a WASP.

Major Fred Wilson accompanied Mary Parker when she soloed a B-17. After the flight Major Wilson asked Mary’s flight instructor, Lt. Logue Mitchell, “I’ve never seen a student so proud of soloing that thing. By the way, who’s Charley Parker?”

Lt. Mitchell responded, “Her father, I think. Why?”

Major Wilson responded, “We got out on the runway, were cleared for takeoff and just before she hit the throttle,” she said, ‘I’ll show you, Charlie Parker!’ Those gals are something.”

Every WASP had something to prove, and they loved to fly. Mary Parker’s dad was wrong about her. She was one of 13 WASPs who ferried B-17s from the factories to an assigned base.

1977 was “The year of the WASP.” After 33 years, with the help of USAAF General Arnold’s son Col. Bruce Arnold, Congresswomen Boggs and Heckler introduced H.R. 3277 and Senator Barry Goldwater introduced S 247. The legislation passed by unanimous consent and was signed by President Jimmy Carter on Nov. 23, 1977. Besides their veterans benefits, WASPs who had passed away, have an American flag placed next to their grave marker on Veterans Day.

Hazel lost her battle with cancer in 1992. Her youngest daughter, Susan, was one of my students and loaned me Hazel’s diary. Susan has proudly represented her mom at a couple of WASP reunions at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.


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