The commanding officer at Ellington Field in Houston didn’t really know who had been assigned to his base when 25 young women aviators—civilians—reported for training. These experienced lady pilots were some of the best in the country and could fly circles (literally) around their instructors, freshly commissioned lieutenants just out of basic flight training. That in part probably explains the chilly and less than chivalrous reception given these future founding members of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots—the WASP.
Geri Nyman, now a resident at The Beatitudes with her husband Van, was one of that adventurous group. They all had been recruited by aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran to join "Wings for Britain," but Cochran finally convinced our military (with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt) that their skills were needed right here in the U. S. Geri tells us what happened when they arrived in Houston.
Finally in 2009 members of the WASP were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor actively and posthumously for their service to our country.
By Geri Nyman, Beatitudes Campus Resident
Twenty-five women from all over the U.S. headed for Houston. For this first class Jackie Cochran had selected members who had lots of flying hours. She said if this first 25 didn’t make it, the whole program would go down the drain. She warned us to expect "bad stuff" in Houston.
Four of us from New York drove to Houston in two cars. We headed for the municipal airport--not Ellington Field which was next door. We would be given $150 a month and had to pay our own room and board. We were told we had to find our own housing. A lot of the girls went into town to a hotel because they had to take a bus or cab to the airport. Eventually the base found an old cattle truck without seats to transport the girls from town. Magda Tacke and I found a nice room in a private home near the field and fortunately had a car to drive back and forth.
Even though we were using the only nonmilitary field in Houston, the brass did not want anyone to know what we were doing. We were to tell anyone who asked that we were a basketball team. With two five footers and three close to six feet, it was truly a comic opera.
Our headquarters were an old shack at the end of the field. That’s where we were to do all our studying and training. If we wanted to eat or go to the bathroom we walked a half mile up to the terminal. They did eventually put in a porta potty for us. In the lunchroom the commanding officer and the instructors would sit in the middle of the room eating their steaks etc. We sat on high stools at high tables eating starchy foods that were really bad. We asked for salads for lunch. So they gave us beans on a lettuce leaf. To show their good humor they gave us brown beans one day and white the next.
One of our girls was a stunt pilot. When she got aboard for her qualifying run her young instructor asked her if she could really fly. She answered, “Do you really want to know?” She took off down the field, turned and flew back over the field upside down, righted and flew straight up in the air until she stalled out. What a performance! The young lieutenant staggered off the plane and vowed he would never get on a plane with one of those wild women again.
We really had a comedy when the PT’s (trainers) arrived. Two of our girls were only five feet tall. Those girls required two pillows tied to their parachute and another pillow to sit on. Otherwise they could not reach the rudder pedals. In January it was so cold in the PT’s that we complained. They brought in several boxes of cast-off winter gear from Ellington. Not a suit was under size 44, and the smallest boot was size 11. If we used the boots we could not feel the rudder.
One day some heavy equipment removed a section of fence between our field and Ellington. They shoved five airplanes through the hole. We couldn’t understand why they didn’t just fly the planes over. I got a call that night from a friend at Ellington who said the planes had been junked when termites were discovered in the wings. If we had complained they would have said we were scared, and it would have been a good way to get rid of us. So we flew them—the “Bamboo Bombers.” We had one minor accident with one plane when its wing gave way. Our girl was o.k., but the male instructor was slightly hurt.
They started a second and a third class and they stayed in a motel downtown for a few weeks and rode back and forth in the old truck with no seats. The Air Force realized this program was going to fly so it was transferred to Sweetwater, Texas to a great facility. We were the only class to graduate from Houston.
Twenty-three of us graduated. (Two dropped out for health reasons.) For the graduation ceremony we each flew a plane over to Ellington next door for the ceremony and formed a half circle around the podium. There we were presented our wings by Jackie Cochran. She had purchased the wings herself as the Air Force still didn’t acknowledge us as real Army Air Force pilots. We had no uniforms but our own tan pants and tan shirts so we at least had something to pin our wings on.
Geri Nyman, who turns 91 this month, is a Beatitudes Campus resident. She received the Congressional Gold Medal for serving in the U.S. Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP during World War II. This story originally ran in the Beatitudes Campus Roadrunner Extra! newsletter, a monthly publication "for the residents, by the residents" created by the volunteer Writers' Group.
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