issue Update

by US Rep. Mac Thornberry

Honor servicewomen this Memorial Day

Since the first Memorial Day following the Civil War, Memorial Day has gradually changed from a solemn day recognizing the sacrifice of those who have given their lives to defend our country into a holiday marking the beginning of summer.  But this Memorial Day we should all take time to remember and reflect on the original purpose of the day.  As we remember the fallen, we can also draw inspiration from five remarkable ladies from our part of Texas who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II: Madelyn M. Eggleston from Vernon, Grace C. Fender from Amarillo, Marion S. Hodgson from Wichita Falls, Mary Alice Vandeventer from Lueders, and Florene Watson from Borger.

In the days leading-up to World War II, our country was divided between those who thought strict neutrality and our geographic isolation would keep us out of war and those who thought that we must prepare for an inevitable war against Fascism.

One of those preparedness programs was the Civilian Pilot Training Program or CPTP.  The CPTP trained thousands of pilots, including around 2,500 women.  In many CPTP programs women were allowed in at a ratio of one woman to ten men; however, Florene Miller Watson of Borger beat those odds and was serving as an instructor teaching men to fly at an Odessa, Texas, airfield when World War II began on December 7, 1941 – her 21st birthday.

A groundbreaker in many ways, Florene Watson began her World War II service in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service or WAFS, one of just 25 women in the nation qualified for WAFS when the program began.  ”[The] WAFS were flying a year before [the] WASP started flying….   [We] would take new airplanes anywhere they were needed…”  In January 1943 she was made Commanding Officer of the WAFS-WASP units stationed at Love Field in Dallas.  By the end of the war, she had flown every type of training, cargo, fighter, and twin and four-engine bomber that the Air Corps used.

Madelyn M. Eggleston from Vernon was hooked on flying as a child living in Nebraska, where a family friend had an airplane.  She took her pilot’s training through the CPTP and became a WASP “to fly the big planes.”  As she put it, “We got to fly those wonderful airplanes AND they paid us.”

Grace C. Fender from Amarillo received her pilot’s license in 1939, an early graduate of the CPTP.  She joined the WASP because “we were losing pilots so fast we were needed.”  “[Flying] is a good career for any woman,” said Mrs. Fender.  “We had a good time in bad circumstances….  It [the WASP] was a wonderful group to be with…”

Marion S. Hodgson from Wichita Falls took her pilot’s training through the CPTP while a student at the University of Georgia at Athens.  “We got five credits for taking the program,” and she received her pilot’s license in 1941, the year of the Pearl Harbor attack.  Mrs. Hodgson became a WASP because, “Our country was at war and there was a shortage of pilots….  It is a wonderful feeling to serve your country.  Don’t be afraid to be patriotic.”

Mary Alice Vandeventer from Lueders became interested in flying when her father took her up in an airplane.  “When I was a freshman in college, a girl used to come into biology class and talk about the adventures of flying (in the civilian pilot training program),” she recalled.  She joined the WASP program, serving at a gunnery school towing targets.  “I did so little compared to what the fellas did,” said Mrs. Vandeventer.   “So many young people have done so much for this country, and we need to recognize them on this Memorial Day and be thankful for them.”

Patriotism, a sense of adventure, a desire “to fly the big planes,” – the motivations to join the WASP and serve their country were as diverse as the women themselves.  One thing they have in common, however, is love of country and a uniquely American spirit that anything is possible.  As Florene Watson put it, “Many people turned their noses up to a girl flying, but it never occurred to me that I couldn’t fly that airplane.”

On this Memorial Day – in a very different time and place – we again have Americans fighting and dying to protect our nation.  We owe them and their families our deepest gratitude and respect.

And as Madelyn Eggleston, Grace Fender, Marion Hodgson, Mary Alice Vandeventer, and Florene Watson remind us, there are many ways to serve.  As we honor those who have sacrificed their all, we should also take inspiration from the can-do spirit of these amazing ladies.

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