servicewomen this Memorial Day
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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…”
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.”
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
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.”
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
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.