B would have to be for Bob Guisewhite. Bob is the hero we all needed in 1945.

 

Bob was a graduate of Texas A&M College with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1939 and promptly did what his ROTC friends did and join the armed services. Bob, a good southern boy, decided on the Marine Corps. He was then selected to be a pilot and ended up in Quantico, Virginia one fateful night in December 1942.

 

The sargeant on duty came running up to Bob, who had the Officer of the Day duty.

“Lieutenant, you won’t believe this. But we just had twelve Jenny’s land on our strip.”

Bob looked up from the novel he was reading. “Jennys?”

“Yes sir, it seems that the Army Air Corps was moving them from New York to North Carolina, but the snow made them land here.” Nick’s voice had a quiver he didn’t normally have.

“Ok, Nick, so put the pilots up in quarters and get on with your life.” Bob wanted to get back to his book.

“Sir, it’s the pilots. They are girls, I  mean women, sir.”

“What? Women flying Navy planes?”

Nick shook his head, “Sir, as I said, they are Army Air Corps. The pilots are girls, they say that they are the Women’s Air Ferry Division.”

Bob thought a moment. “Sargeant, don’t we have the quarters for the new women marines? Let’s just quarter the pilots there.” The fact that the Army Air Corps trusted women with combat planes, or even training planes, was not his concern. But he wasn’t going to be the one who commanded that Army Air Corps pilots were mistreated, male or female. “And Sargeant, invite the pilots to the Officers’ Club once they are settled.”

***

I wasn’t sure what the red brick factory used to manufacture, but now, it was dedicated to FDR’s war machine. This one was sold to Piper, and they were making the plane used to teach almost every combat and bomber pilot how to fly.

The six yellow Piper J-3 Cubs sat on the edge of the airstrip. Rain dripped off the wide, rounded wings. Sarah  and I stood in the hangar and tried to stay warm and dry. The windsock at the end of the air strip was horizontal to the ground, in spite of the downpour. “It’s surprising they haven’t gone up by themselves in this wind,” I said to Sarah.

“We have donkeys at our farm in Iowa, just as pets, and when it rains, they stick their ears out to the side to keep the water out. Now whenever I see them, I’m going to think about these little Cubs,” Sarah said. She stuck her hand out to feel the rain. “It’s not the rain that bothers me, but the cold. I’m afraid of icing.”

I thought it looked clearer to the south. “It looks better in the direction we’re going, I’m sure we’ll be fine. Nancy wouldn’t let us take risks, it would make the program look bad.”

Sarah winked, “And you ought to know about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just if there’s ever a time where something that could hurt the program is happening, you manage to be right there. Like the flight to Texas, when we had to land on that ranch.”

“It’s not my fault the maps blew out of the plane, I thought I had them tied to my leg better. Now, I have all the maps memorized.” I wasn’t going to get lost again, that I was sure of. “Besides, didn’t you get a date with one of the pilots who led us to the air base after we got there?”

Well, I’m not saying I don’t try to make good out of a bad situation. Lemonade, you know?”

Footsteps. Madge, the squadron leader walked up and put a hand on each of our shoulders. “You girls ready? I talked to Nancy and told her we’d be fine.” She turned to me, “And I know you’ve got the alternative fields marked on your maps.”

I tapped the top of my head, “And here, too.”

“Good, I’d hate to have to get lost in a Cub. It’s worse than falling off a tricycle.” Madge turned to go, then stopped, “Better get you some hot coffee, we leave in ten.”

I thought the wool-lined flight suit would be enough, but the cold air went right though the cabin of the plane and I could feel the cold dampness in my bones. As we took off, the planes formed a loose formation, close enough for us to see each other, but far away enough to avoid colliding in a wind gust. And there were plenty of gusts. It felt more like I was riding a bronco in the Sausalito Rodeo arena than flying a plane over New Jersey. I glanced over to the left and saw Ruth in her plane, studying the weather. Madge assigned Ruth the task of calling the flight down if the weather was too bad. I wished there were radios in the planes, some way to talk, not that trying to keep the light plane on course was boring in any way.

As we got over Maryland, the light rain started getting thicker, more of a sleet mixed with some snow flakes. I looked over at Ruth again. If she was going to make us land, there were a few places close by. Andrews in Washington was close. Ruth was still staring in the air. Madge was on the other side of Ruth, maybe they were thinking about it. The snow started to get heavier, then stopped. I wondered what the weather would be like in Durham where we were to land. I didn’t think it would be snowing that far south.

A sudden wind gust reminded me I was flying the mechanical equivalent of a butterfly. I steadied the plane and looked over to see the other girls adjusting to the stronger wind too. The snow started falling again. I could barely see down, but I could make out the Potomac River. Over to my left, Ruth waved and pointed down. I started looking for the next air field. Quantico should be next. Great, a night with the Marines. A quick look at the map confirmed my plan, so I dropped altitude to get a better look for the air field. Five minutes later, the lights shone through the snow and fog. An empty sky surrounded the strip; obviously, the Marines were smart enough not to fly in the snow. I  started into a landing pattern and looked at the tower. A green light signaled clear. I turned the plane into the strip and raised the flaps. The little plane bobbed in the wind, as if it decided it wasn’t going to believe in gravity today. After a small eternity, the wheels hit the ground. A grounds crewman  pointed the way and I  taxied towards a small clearing, away from a line of fighters and dive bombers.

The rest of the Cubs landed easily and parked next to me in a neat bee line. In the gray white snow, the yellow Cubs were almost the only things visible, the fighters’ blue and gray colors blended into the clouds and snow. A private came over to  me as I  walked around my plane.

“I don’t suppose you know of a hotel around here, do you private?” I asked.

The private stopped in a snowy skid as he realized the Cubs were all flown by women. “What is the world coming to?” he asked, whistling.

Madge trudged over and took charge. “We’re ferrying theses plane to Durham and the weather seems to think we need to stay here awhile.”

The private nodded and led the us over to the mechanics’ hangar, where a group of mechanics were warming themselves by a small fire. “Hey, Sarge, we’ve got some company, ladies!” he announced as they approached the fire.

The sergeant stood up and took a step towards us. “Jed, go get the OD out of the ready room.” A private jumped up and ran out of the hangar. I edged a little closer to the fire, it was good to get out of the cold. Piper ought to think about heating those little birds, I thought as I held my hands over the flames.

The sergeant chatted with Madge a moment, then elbowed a buddy. “So, when you ladies find out where you’ll be staying this evening, let me know and I can recommend some entertainment options.”

“That won’t be necessary, Nick,” a tall lieutenant said as he came into the hangar. “These ladies are pilots, which means officers. Sorry.” He strolled over the sergeant, who explained the situation.

Nick shrugged. His olive skin and day-old growth of dark beard made his teeth glow in the fire light.  “Can’t blame a guy for trying, right?” He winked at me. I honestly tried to stop blushing, but I couldn’t.

“I’m Lieutenant Guisewhite.” The tall Marine officer walked over to us. “I’m supposed to get you ladies some quarters.” He spoke with a slow drawl, like he had no place better to be.

Madge looked up at him. “That would be wonderful, Lieutenant, any local hotel will be fine.”

“No, ma’am. We have some empty barracks, so we’ll get you fixed up.” He had a slightly crooked smile, like one side of his mouth was heavier than the other. “This is a Marine base, we don’t make do, we do it right.” He stood straight, a living poster for Marine pride.

I marveled at the whole Marine thing. We landed only fifteen minutes ago, but the base had a different atmosphere than the army bases I had been on. I wondered  what made the difference.

The barracks were not only empty, they were brand new, so they didn’t have the sweaty man smell that most barracks had. The smell of fresh paint overpowered any perfume the women could put on. The walls were a light green, the floors a dark wood. In the all the years I had lived on Army bases, I had never seen the inside of a barracks before. So this is how the enlisted live.

Lieutenant Guisewhite arranged for an MP to come by in after an hour to escort us to the officers’ chow and then to the officers’ club. It was more of a welcome than any of the army bases had ever mustered. We  took hot showers and changed into clean, dry uniforms, and set our flight suits out to dry near the radiators.

Ruth and I were the last of the group get to the officers’ club. Several clusters of men were engrossed in card games, others hovered around a radio. The rest were eating and drinking, some came over to meet the girls as they came in. We walked to the bar and ordered two scotches. Ruth chatted with the bartender. I noticed Guisewhite at a table in the corner with another Marine. He waved, so I took Ruth by the arm and we went over to join the lieutenant.

“What an incredible place,” Ruth said as she sat down next to Guisewhite.

“We like it, but it’s only temporary for most of us. This is where Marines come to wait. Like a giant doctors’ office.” He looked around. “Most of these guys are casual company, hanging out waiting for orders to the South Pacific or training school. Of course, some are back already from the South Pacific and waiting for new orders.”

“The operative word here is waiting,” the other Marine lieutenant said, “I’m Mike Braille, since my rude friend Bob here isn’t going to introduce me.”

Ruth nodded at me, “See, you wouldn’t make it as a Marine either, you don’t have any patience.”

“That’s ok, I don’t see any lady Marines around here.” Which probably wasn’t a bad thing. I liked the male attention with minimal competition, I had to admit.

“Actually, we don’t have a women’s auxiliary yet, but it’s coming soon, I heard the colonel say that the barracks y’all are staying in will be the women’s barracks.”

“Nice of you to let us break it in for you.” Ruth said. She leaned over the table, “Now do all Marines say ‘y’all’?”

“Just the one’s from Texas, ma’am.” Bob blushed a bit. “Just graduated from Texas A&M with my engineering degree.”

Mike shook his head, “One of those Aggies. We met in OCS and now we’re waiting together to go to Pensacola for flight school.”

“Oh, so you aren’t pilots yet?” Ruth asked.

“Well, we’ve had the ten hours in the Cub. So they know we don’t get airsick. But the real flight school starts in Pensacola. That’s where we learn to fly the Navy way. And get some gold wings so we can give those Japs hell.”

“I didn’t realize the Navy flew differently than the Army,” Ruth said. “I would think a plane is a plane.”

“Actually, the Navy has a thing against nice smooth landings and using the whole runway,” I watched  Bob’s reaction as I said it. “That’s where Army pilots go to fly if they can’t land without bouncing. The carriers have hooks to catch the planes.”

“Now wait a minute,” Bob said, “Remember who’s putting a roof over your heads tonight. And who’s buying your drinks.”

“I was kidding,” I said, “I’ve heard about the circle landings, I don’t think I could do them.”

Ruth stared a moment. “I think I’ve had too much to drink, did I just hear Frankie McConnell say there was something she couldn’t do in an airplane?” She fanned herself as if fainting from the shook.

“Circle landings?” asked Mike, “We haven’t talked about those yet.”

“You land a plane ten times in, what, a fifty foot circle?” Bob explained. “It’s one of the check flights. You get to practice it, so it can’t be too hard.”

“What does the Navy care if you can land a plane in a fifty foot circle?” Ruth asked.

“Carrier pilots, they want to see who has what it takes to be carrier pilots,” Bob said. “I wouldn’t mind being a carrier pilot. I just hope I make fighter pilot. I don’t think I could be a bomber pilot.”

“No, you do seem too independent to have to have a co-pilot,” I said.

“Independent? That must be an Army word. At OCS, they used the word headstrong, right Bob?” Mike punched Bob in the arm as he teased him.

The next day, the weather cleared up enough for Madge to get her squadron up in the air. As I loaded my gear into the plane, I looked over at the fighter flight line. I  recognized the Grumman Wildcats, those I had seen before, but the plane with inverted wings intrigued me.

“Corsair F4U,” Nick said as he helped me get the Cub ready. “I hear the thing can out dive and out climb anything the Japs have. Only problem is that the Navy can’t land them on carriers. So no one knows what to do with them. ”

“For the Navy, that could be a problem, alright. Still, it’s a fascinating looking plane.” Immediately, all I could think about was how the gull wings would affect the aerodynamics. One of the dangers of engineering school.

“Well, stop in sometime when the weather is better, maybe you could watch one in the air.”

I didn’t notice Madge standing behind me untill she spoke. “Sorry Sarge, but knowing Frankie, here, she’d want to fly it herself.”

I  looked at the plane one last time as I got into the Cub. I felt some kinship with the strange looking plane; no one knew what to do with me either.