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65 Years Later

By Staff | Jul 9, 2009

CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL RECIPIENT – On July 1, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill awarding the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) the Congressional Gold Medal. Former Emmetsburg resident Margaret Phelan Taylor will receive the medal for her contributions as a pilot over six decades ago during World War II. – submitted photo

Editor’s Note: The following story was written and submitted by Mimm Patterson from Palo Alto, California. Patterson is currently completing her debut novel, “We Touched the Sky,” inspired by the real-life Margaret Phelan Taylor, former Emmetsburg resident. She can be contacted at mimmp@mac.com‘>mimmp@mac.com

On Wednesday, July 1, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill awarding the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) the Congressional Gold Medal.

This is the highest civilian award, equivalent to the Medal of Honor. As civilian pilots, the WASP flew during World War II. They were the first women to fly American military aircraft. Their courage and ability opened the door for all women aviators, from commercial pilots to NASA astronauts.

Flying more than 60,000,000 miles between 1942 and 1944, WASP flew military aircraft on every type of assignment except combat. They ferried bombers from assembly line to base. They flew tow targets for gunnery trainees on the ground and in the air. WASP were test pilots, instructors and transport pilots. Their service to the country freed male pilots for combat duty. Yet the program still met resistance. WASP were paid $250 per month–less than their male equivalent–and received no military benefits or honors. Of the 25,000 women who applied to join just 1,074 graduated with silver wings. Of these, under 300 are still with us.

One of them is Margaret Phelan Taylor. Eighty-five year old Margaret was born on a farm northwest of Emmetsburg, along the west fork of the Des Moines River. She now lives in a modest bungalow in Palo Alto, California. She’s the size of a mischievous pixie with the personality to match.

Margaret Phelan Taylor as a World War II pilot. -- submitted photo

When you enter Margaret’s home it’s obvious that she loves to read. Books fill every corner. Shelves carry tomes about the American Civil War and tables are covered with volumes of poetry. In the corner of her sitting room is the magnifying machine that enlarges the print on her beloved books. Margaret’s not one to let a little thing like macular degeneration stop her.

When America entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Margaret returned home to Iowa from California to complete her training for a pilot’s license. She had read about Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love’s program that trained civilian women pilots to ferry military aircraft. She was determined to be a part of it.

Margaret says, “If there was any way to do it, I was going to do it. I’ve always been patriotic–I love everything about the United States–the geography, the people–no one loves this country more than I do. But it was the adventure. I wanted to fly. And it was the war. If you were at home you felt you were missing the whole thing.”

Margaret was 19 when she first heard about the WASP but the minimum age at the time was 21. She began her own personal letter writing campaign.

“I figured I could fly a plane as well at 19 as I could at 21, and waiting two years wasn’t going to help the country.”

The age was eventually lowered, and Margaret was invited to attend an interview in Des Moines. She passed the interview and immediately drove to Sioux City with several other WASP candidates and a chaperone. All that stood between her and her wings was one physical.

But she knew there was a five foot two inch height requirement. Margaret tried everything to stretch herself. The day she was measured, she was still just five feet one and three quarter inches tall.

“Well, I wasn’t about to fail the physical because of one lousy quarter inch. I asked the doctor if he would measure me again.”

The doctor agreed. When he did Margaret pulled herself up as tall as possible and lifted her heels. She passed the physical. She took her oath and became a WASP.

As part of Class 44-W5, Margaret’s six-month training took place at Avenger field in Sweetwater, Texas. She needed to learn how to fly “the Army way.”

Her orders upon graduation sent her to Stockton Army Air Base where she flew the “Bamboo Bomber,” Cessna’s first twin-engine aircraft, the C-78.

Toward the end of her time as a WASP, Margaret had a “graveyard flight.” She was retiring a plane–flying it from Stockton to Texas. The only way back to California was a troop train full of men with bunks stacked three high. It was a four-day trip, and she was the only woman on board. Fortunately, WASP could ride in the officer’s car.

“I was given a bunk in the front and assured no one would bother me.”

To reach the food car, however, she had to walk the length of the train–accompanied by hundreds of wolf whistles.

“Well, I couldn’t look left or right. I just looked straight ahead and kept going.”

She was never happier to see Stockton.

The WASP were decommissioned on December 20, 1944. All but the 38 who had lost their lives serving their country simply hung up their parachutes and purchased their own ticket back home. There was no fan fare and no “thank you.” Until now.

For more information about the WASP: wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp‘>wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp