World War II heroes visit local area, honored by Hanscom

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Martha L. Petersante-Gioia
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It isn't every day that you get to meet living history first-hand but that is exactly what members of the Hanscom community did on Oct. 20.

Longing to hear tales of their aviation roots and pilots' war stories, eager military and civilian personnel lined up to greet some of the Air Force's historic pioneers. Visiting the base were fifteen World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots coming initially for a Daedalian meeting, the visit quickly grew in importance as word of their Hanscom arrival spread across the base.

Company Grade Officers volunteered to spend the day with the ladies during a tour of the base and local area, before a banquet was held in the ladies' honor that evening.

But it wasn't just the younger generations learning from the older, the ladies' visit was historic for them as well. The visit marked one of their largest gatherings in New England and as they talked with their escorts, one could see the pride in their expression as they asked about today's Air Force.

Also, for the female CGOs who were fortunate to interact with these great aviators, it offered an opportunity to meet living legends and real-life heroes.

"It was inspiring to spend time with these hard-charging women who broke down social barriers to do what they loved -- fly and serve their nation," said Capt. Amy Abraham, from the Electronic Systems Center and CGO volunteer escort. "Even though they are older, their spirits are full of life and spunk. It was an honor to listen to their flying stories throughout the day and in the evening the WASPs had us rolling, saying things you wouldn't expect to hear from a 'grandma'," she said.

Brig. Gen. David J. Eichhorn, the Daedalian Flight Captain and Electronic Systems Center Deputy for Support, presided over the meeting and commended the WASP for their achievements in aviation. He even read a few of their training songs, such as "Rugged But Right."

"Your boundless energy and groundbreaking work continues to inspire Airmen today," General Eichhorn said. "The historic flights you made are inspirational to us all and ensured women of latter generations had the opportunities that they enjoy today."
"We are honored to have you here and we enjoyed your flying stories immensely," he said. "You are the heroes here tonight and we salute you."

After a day of touring Hanscom and Minuteman National Park, the pilots shared their experiences and stories with Hanscom personnel at a formal banquet.

Dawn Seymour, the WASP Region 1 director and B-17 aviatrix, gave the background of the WASP program and the events that coalesced to bring it into existence.

She introduced Ann Wood-Kelly, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who flew as a ferry pilot for the Royal Air Forces of Great Britain from 1942 to 1945. Ms. Wood-Kelly explained how Jacqueline Cochran took her and 24 other American female flyers across the Atlantic to be the foundation and model for a successful program of female ferry pilots.
"I flew more than 900 airplanes of 75 different types," she said. "I flew the Spitfire and the Mosquito, which is a great airplane."

A talented story-teller, Ms. Wood-Kelly told the audience about the time when she was delivering Spitfires and flew under bridges in England with a flight of male "hot-shot" pilots.

Being a hot-shot herself, she recounted just how lucky she was while on a solo delivery flight. She took her Spitfire under the same bridge but something "just didn't look right;" but due to speed, she could not back down. All the while, the audience was in rapt attention as they visualized the hair-raising event unfold. Ms. Wood-Kelly said that, gritting her teeth, she took the airplane under the bridge in a maneuver too close for comfort, later finding out that the difference this time was the tide -- it was high-tide.

Ms. Wood-Kelly recounted another story, moving nearly everyone in the audience to tears, when she recalled how she delivered strawberries with another female ATA pilot to troops before they crossed over to France on the troop transport ships on D-Day during the Allied invasion.

"It was strawberry day in England when the fruit is perfectly ripe, so we filled her jeep full of strawberries and gave strawberries to soldiers who were preparing for their voyage, knowing that for many these would be their last strawberries," she said.

After receiving a standing ovation for her tale, Ms. Wood-Kelly turned the floor over to Carol Bayley Bosca, the WASP WWII National president. Deciding to lighten the mood, she spoke of how she angered a "chicken colonel" when she made an unscheduled landing at a base due to bad weather and the colonel stormed off to his small airplane that was parked neatly under the wing of her B-17 bomber.

The ladies' delivered the rest of the WASP stories in chronological order by graduate class.

Anne Lesnikowski said that at her graduation, General Arnold was supposed to only pin on one set of WASP wings on the first graduate, symbolic of pinning the wings upon the rest of the class.

However, "the second WASP in line was a beautiful, blond Southern Belle, who asked General Arnold, in a drawn out southern drawl, 'Oh generaal, dawnt stop nawh.' The General hesitated a moment and then broke from the schedule by pinning on her wings. With the precedent broken, he 'soldiered on' and pinned on the wings of every graduating WASP," said Ms. Lesnikowski, beaming with joy.

The effervescent WASP, Lorraine Rodgers described with a twinkle in her eye and in true pilot fashion, the art of 'hedge hopping' and how she was caught performing this spine-tingling stunt in Arizona.

"After I landed, I was called into the base commander's office and he asked if I was hedge hopping," she said. "I told him that was against the rules. Then he brought me over to his window that overlooked my AT-6 and said, 'that's not what I asked, now were you hedge hopping,' as he pointed at the cactus that was stuck on my rear wheel. I was caught."

Her secret was out and the audience shared her guilty pleasure as they giggled together, enjoying the treasure that they had been granted when she chose to share it.

The uniforms and jobs may have changed, but the love of flight and service for the nation still remains with these women as they shared their stories with up and coming Airmen.