World War II Women Aviators Reminisce About Flying Army Aircraft
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., March 28, 2003 Ninety-one-year-old Julie Stege was a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl trying to dance and sing her way to stardom on Broadway when World War II broke out. Then, suddenly, patriotism struck her.
An intense desire to do something to help her country caused her to kick off her dancing shoes and join the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. The pretty showgirl, who already had a civilian pilot license, became one of the first women in U.S. history trained to fly military aircraft.
"I joined the WASPs as fast as I could, and Ed Sullivan wrote in his column, 'Poor Julie has volunteered for the Air Force. She thinks she can fly. Doesn't she know she's a dumb chorus girl committing suicide?'" the former showgirl said with hearty laughter.
"They say bad publicity is better than good," quipped Stege, who flew here from Chicago to attend a special showing of the film "Above & Beyond: 100 Years of Women in Aviation" at the Women's Memorial at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. Several other former WASPs also attended the event, like Ann Darr, 82, Toby Felker, 83, and Lorraine Z. Rodgers, 82.
Calling herself a "born and bred New Yorker," Stege said she knew people like Sullivan, columnist Walter Winchell and novelist Ernest Hemingway "before his beard" through her husband, a publicity agent.
"Whenever we have a reunion, I get up and dance and sing, because I go back to my stage days," she said. A chorus girl on Broadway for 10 years before becoming a WASP, she said, "I still love to be on the stage."
Asked what was so exciting about becoming a WASP, she said, "How many girls you know that flew?" Always the joker, she said, "Now they ask, do you still fly, and I say, yes, when I get high enough."
Stege said she married and raised three children after she got out of the WASPs. "Raising the children was the happiest days of my life," she said.
Darr said she, too, had a pilot's license in Iowa City, Iowa, when she became a WASP. "I joined because I wanted to do my part in the war," said the University of Iowa speech major. "What fun it was to fly." Darr said it's hard for her to remember things these days because her memory is failing.
Pointing out that her mother has Alzheimer's disease, Deborah Darr of Chicago stepped forward with her mother's 1994 book, "Flying the Zuni Mountains," in hand. She said the book contains a lot of information that her mother doesn't remember anymore. The book of poems about flight is dedicated to "all women pilots, particularly to the WASP members of (Class) 44-W-3, on the 50th anniversary year of their graduation and receiving of their wings."
Alzheimer's is slowly destroying her memory, but Ann Darr's World War II exploits will live on through her book, an unpublished play and other writings.
"I've been in contact with Alice Carron, who produced this film (Above & Beyond: 100 Years of Women in Aviation), and we want to continue the documentation of the women air service pilots," Deborah Darr noted. "My mother wrote a play many years ago with a series of monologues based on the stories of women who were in her group in Sweetwater, Texas, where the WASPs were trained. Alice and I just spoke about producing the play.
She said after her mother's discharge from the WASPs, "She came back home like all those women did they were just told to leave. My father was the head medic on a destroyer in the South Pacific. When he came home, they reunited in New York City and she resumed her role as a housewife, mother and poet."
Toby Felker, 83, a native of Detroit who now lives in Springfield, Va., was thrilled to be at the Women's Memorial with several of her old friends. She said, "It's so good that so many of us are here together again. Every two years we have a reunion, but some of us don't travel well. This is something we all wanted to come to see, everybody. Boy, we look younger every time."
Felker's interest in aviation was sparked by a chance meeting with Army Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, an aviation pioneer and air power advocate and crusader.
"My father changed a tire for a young man a long time ago in Detroit, and it turned out to be Billy Mitchell," said Felker, who joined the WASPs in September 1943. "While they were talking, Billy Mitchell really sold my father on aircraft. From then on, we went to all the little air shows around Detroit. It was perfectly all right with my mother and father that I wanted to join the WASPs."
Her parents gave her $40 to attend the civilian pilot training program at Indiana University because only women with pilot licenses were accepted in the WASPs.
"The fondest memory I have is having Gen. Arnold pin on our wings," Felker said. "He tried to get to all of the graduations. Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the only air commander ever to attain five-star rank, was commander of the Army Air Forces in World War II.
"All the women who were in the service then did it for patriotism," she noted. "We were lucky, because we loved to fly."
Rodgers proudly wears a caterpillar symbol on her World War II WASP uniform -- which still fits well.
"I'm a member of the WASPs' 'Caterpillar Club,'" Rodgers said, pointing at the caterpillar symbol and explaining that only those who survived a plane crash are club members. "When you pulled your ripcord, this beautiful white caterpillar came out and turned into a lovely butterfly."
One day, as she was flying along, her plane flipped over and went into a spin. Rodgers said she survived because she did everything she'd been taught in training.
"When I saw how close I was getting to the ground, I decided it was time to leave," she said. "It was a struggle, because the plane was upside down. I finally got the canopy open, opened my safety belt, fell out and counted: one, two -- 10 -- and pulled the ripcord. I ended up on the ground, safely."
She was so shocked that she laid on the ground "trying to figure out, 'Am I alive or dead?' I just didn't know."
Then she heard the voices of two cowboys galloping toward her. "I thought, my stars, I'm in Texas!" she exclaimed. "These two cowboys came rushing up on their horses, jumped off and one of them grabbed my helmet and pulled it off. The other one unzipped my leather jacket and opened my tie so I could breathe.
"When the other pulled my helment off and he saw my long hair, he said, 'My Gosh, it's a little girl,'" Rodgers recalled. "That made me sit up and start to cry. It wasn't because I was insulted, in shock or in pain. It was because I looked at that destroyed plane and thought I'd never get to fly again. My heart really was broken."
An ambulance finally arrived and took her to the hospital, where she stayed overnight. The rudder had hit one of her legs, she said.
She was thinking the Army would never let her fly again when she heard someone yell, "Lorraine, report to the flight line." At the flight line, her instructor said, 'Suit up, we're going up to fly."
"Am I really going to fly again? I just destroyed a plane," she asked the instructor.
"You didn't destroy the plane, your rudder cable had been cut," the instructor told her.
After leaving the WASPs, she raised four children. Asked if she ever flew again, Rodgers uttered a hearty laugh and said, "I flew my broom."