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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Margaret Chamberlin Smith, 2006

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Object ID: WV0349.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Margaret L. Chamberlin Smith’s background; service in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II; and the impact of her service on the rest of her life.

Summary:

Smith talks briefly about her family and the influence of her father; her youth activities, including the 4-H; grade school during the Depression; majoring in business education at Eastern Illinois University; her desire to be involved with civil service; and being accepted for radio code training at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois.

Smith describes how she developed an interest in flying; taking flying lessons and the planes that she flew; one of her flight instructors from Mascoutah, Illinois, being killed; and having to do a forced-landing while training. She also talks about her decision to join the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) rather than the military; her father’s support of her decision; and taking the entrance exams.

Topics related to training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, include the small salary and paying for expenses; the daily schedule and types of classes; uniforms; how the men felt about the women being pilots; how little time they had for social life and fun activities; what flying was like; and getting thrown into the wishing well for being the first one of her class to solo.

Smith speaks about her life after the war and the impact of her service. She describes meeting her husband; her decision not to fly anymore; having children. She also provides details of her almost thirty-year teaching career in southern Illinois; the dangers of flying; and getting attention from newspapers later in her life for being in the WASP.

Creator: Margaret Louise Chamberlin Smith

Biographical Info: Margaret L. Chamberlin Smith (b. 1919) of Shelby County and Charleston, Illinois, attended WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) training in 1944, then returned to Illinois and had a teaching career.

Collection: Margaret Chamberlin Smith Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

Hermann Trojanowski:

[Today is] Friday, June 9, 2006. My name is Hermann Trojanowski. I'm at the home of Margaret Smith in Anna, Illinois, to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Mrs. Smith, thank you so much for talking to me this morning. We really appreciate it. The time is about seven minutes after ten. If you will tell me your full name, we'll use that as a test to see how you sound on the recorder.

Margaret Smith:

Margaret Louise Chamberlin Smith.

[Recorder paused]

HT:

Again, Mrs. Smith, thank you so much for talking to me today. Could you tell me some biographical information about yourself, such as when you were born and where you were born?

MS:

I was born in Shelby County, Illinois, south of Mattoon, in 1919, June 24.

HT:

Where did you grow up?

MS:

My parents moved to Charleston, Illinois, a few years later because they wanted my brother and I, who was five years older than I am, to go to Eastern Illinois University grade school, high school, and college, and we had to be enrolled early to get into the elementary shchool even because it was limited enrollment. So I did go to school there all through grade school, high school, and college at Eastern Illinois.

HT:

Can you tell me something about your parents and your siblings?

MS:

My brother was five years older than I, and he went to school there. Then he went out to Worcester, Massachusetts, to major in geography, because he wanted to be a college professor, and that's what he did.

My dad was a farmer at heart, but he couldn't make enough money to support the family, so he was a postal letter carrier in Charleston for all the years we were there. My mother was a house woman.

HT:

So you just had one brother.

MS:

Yes.

HT:

And no sisters.

MS:

No.

HT:

Do your recall what your favorite subject was in high school?

MS:

Oh, that's a hard one [laughs]. I can say what it was in college.

HT:

Oh, that's fine.

MS:

It was business education.

HT:

So you went to Eastern Illinois University for college.

MS:

Yes.

HT:

That was during the Depression, I assume?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Okay. What was it like living through the Depression?

MS:

Actually, I was more in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades during the Depression, and I really didn't feel like I was affected by it. But I did notice that some of my girlfriends might have worn the same dress every day for all the time, and I know that my dad had a—he owned a farm outside of town, because he loved the farm, but he did do postal work. I know he had a hard time keeping up on expenses, my dad. [But] it just really didn't affect me much.

HT:

When did you start college at Eastern Illinois?

MS:

I graduated in '42, so I must have started in '38, 1938.

HT:

What was your major?

MS:

Business education. I never did want to be a teacher, and that's a teachers college. That's the reason I majored in business education, because I could do secretarial work in an office, and that's what I wanted to do.

Back when I graduated, we were in the war effort and I wanted to get into that, so I applied for personnel work at Springfield, Illinois, and radio code teaching at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, [in] Belleville, Illinois. I got accepted to both. It wasn't hard to find a job then because the men were gone to the service and women were taking the jobs. So I feel like I could have gotten a job wherever I applied. But I wanted to get in with the war effort, so I went to Scott and we had to have six months' training. Of course I didn't know radio code, but I got the training at St. Louis University, which was civil service. This was one of their projects. And then [I] went to Scott Air Force and taught regular code [to] the GIs there.

HT:

You actually did become a teacher and teach. You taught radio code to the GIs.

MS:

Yes.

HT:

What was that like? I'm not familiar with radio code.

MS:

Di-di-di-dah— The radios on the planes had to send messages.

HT:

I see, okay.

MS:

We had to teach them Morse Code. That's what it was, Morse Code. There were two groups. The other group worked with the mechanics of the radio, and you had to be good in physics to do that, and I wasn't. I had a girl roommate in Belleville, and she was in the radio part because she was good in physics when she was in college.

HT:

What was your typical day like teaching these guys Morse Code? Did you do it all day long? You had several classes? Or how did that work exactly?

MS:

Well, it was so long ago, I practically forget. One interesting thing is talking about those times, and it's hard for people to imagine it now, but we didn't have cars. I didn't have a car. My roommate didn't have a car. We walked down to the highway that went out to Scott Air Force Base and hitchhiked a ride, and at that time, that's what people did. It was people that were working out there that we knew that would pick us up and take us out there. I think that's interesting, because it's hard for people now to realize that.

While I was there, I was seeing planes fly around, and I got a passion to learn to fly. So one of the guys that picked us up, they drove out that way. One was an instructor at a little airport at Mascoutah [Illinois], just a little bitty local airport there with a hangar and a windsock and office, and that's about—a landing strip. So since I was talking to the instructor of flying, I said, “Yeah, I want to learn to fly.” So I wrote my dad and asked if he'd send me the money. It was fifteen dollars an hour. Can you imagine?

HT:

How much an hour?

MS:

Fifteen dollars.

HT:

Fifteen. Wow.

MS:

Yes. In the meantime, I had seen in the paper this advertisement for wanting women to enlist in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots [WASP], and that was civil service, too. It wasn't military. As I told you, I didn't want to be tied down to enlistment.

HT:

So how many lessons did you take?

MS:

I had to have thirty-five hours to get into the WASP, and that's what I got. I took enough lessons for thirty-five hours.

HT:

Do you recall what the first plane you flew, what the name of the first plane was, the type of plane or anything like that?

MS:

At the local airport?

HT:

Yes.

MS:

Piper Cub. And there was the Stearman and [unclear] all little planes. The instructor was pretty—There weren't restrictions on local flying, and we did a lot of zooming and spins and things, and I thought that was fun. Now it would scare me to death.

HT:

What did your family think about you flying?

MS:

My dad was all for it. He wanted to get into World War I, but he was married and he had two kids. Everything excluded him. He couldn't get in. So he was living his life through my brother and me. My brother was an ensign in the navy. Oh, my dad just was really thrilled about it. My mother—

HT:

I was going to say, but what about your mother?

MS:

No, she didn't say much. I know she would rather I wouldn't have, but she didn't say anything at all.

HT:

So you were taking these lessons while you were teaching the guys how to do this Morse Code and everything.

MS:

I'd go out on Saturday or after work. We had three shifts at Scott, and we would change, you know, between the three shifts.

HT:

How long did you work at Scott Air Force Base?

MS:

About a year.

HT:

Then after that, what did you do?

MS:

The WASP.

HT:

Oh, okay. Do you recall when you joined the WASP?

MS:

That's a tough one. [pause] [Nineteen] forty-four. I went down there to Sweetwater, Texas, in probably April. I think it was April. Sweetwater, Texas, is near Abilene, and that is cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and it's dry and windy and sandy.

HT:

Sounds like an ideal place to live. [laughs]

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Had you ever been to Texas before?

MS:

I have an uncle that lived at San Marcos, Texas, and I don't know if I'd ever been to see him. I went to see him after I checked out, I know, but I—well, come to think about it, when I was about five years old, my dad went down on a trip where these people were trying to sell grapefruit orchards, and this is the way they were selling them. They'd take people down and look at them. But I was too young to know much about that.

HT:

How did you first find out about the WASPs?

MS:

In the newspapers.

HT:

In the newspapers? So you didn't know anybody who'd belonged or who had already joined prior or anything like that?

MS:

No, I didn't know a thing about it. I just knew they were flying airplanes.

HT:

That's what you wanted to do.

MS:

Yes. And it was civil service. We didn't get very much pay, I didn't get very high pay teaching the radio code, and I didn't get very—that's why I had to borrow money from Dad, my fifteen dollars. We had to pay our own expenses to go to Sweetwater. We had to pay our own expenses home. We got a very small salary, and I can't remember what it was but it wasn't much. We were not very popular, because the men resented the women flying, taking their place. They'd rather be ferrying planes from the factory to the flying field rather than over in Europe fighting.

HT:

Yes, sure. I'm sure it was a lot safer for them.

MS:

Yes.

HT:

So once you got to Sweetwater, what did you do then? Was there some sort of training involved?

MS:

Well, we were in a former training camp for men, so it was the exact same thing the men went through. We lived in the bays with six cots in a bay, and there's a picture in this album of us sleeping out on a hot night on a cot. Have you seen that picture? We got up at 5:00 with reveille, 5:30, I think, and it was cold when we went, somebody had to light the stove inside the bay. And we got our white short-sleeved cotton blouses and khaki cotton pants on and marched. We always marched two by two to the mail call, had breakfast and then we marched to classes.

That rotated. For part of the time, we'd do classes in the morning and fly in the afternoon, and then we'd rotate and fly in the morning and do classes in the afternoon. The classes were, oh, navigation and meteorology and radio code, and I got to sit that one out because I already knew it [laughs] since I'd been teaching it. I didn't have to go to that class, I thought that was neat. What else did you take when you learn to fly? Navigation, meteorology, radio code, that about covers it, doesn't it?

HT:

Sounds like it.

MS:

Then we would put on our zoot suits, the coveralls, and we had brown leather bomber jackets that were hand-me-downs from the GIs. All our clothes that we flew in were GI, and you hoped they kind of fit. [laughs]

HT:

Because you're kind of small.

MS:

Yes, everything was hanging down, roll up my pants and—helmets and parachutes, and then they had trucks that I think were cattle car trucks made into—they put wooden benches in them so we could ride out to the flying field. We sang songs going out and coming back.

HT:

As a class?

MS:

Yes, my half of the class. Let's see. One of them was, “Zoot suits and parachutes, wings of silver, too. He'll ferry planes like his mommy used to do.” That was a popular one, and, you know, songs like that. Then we got out there and we did our flying.

HT:

Who were the instructors?

MS:

They were GI.

HT:

The military?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Were they men or women?

MS:

Men.

HT:

How did they treat you?

MS:

Pretty good. We had check pilots and they were kind of stern. But I wanted to show you a picture of—some of the check pilots were nice and some not. Okay, this was my first instructor and see what he wrote, so—

HT:

That's very nice.

MS:

So he wasn't too mean, was he?

HT:

I guess not.

MS:

I thought they were nice. There was one I didn't like, but I don't think the men liked us too well. They didn't think women should be there doing that. That was the sign of the times, and women just couldn't fly. I don't know if you want to print this or not, but they thought the same thing about the blacks. They didn't think they were able to fly airplanes, and you're familiar with Tuskegee Air Force Base.

HT:

Yes.

MS:

I know guys that have gone there, and they were looked down on, too.

HT:

How long did your training last there?

MS:

I was in a class when the program was going to go out, and actually I left a little before the end of it because I had personal reasons for getting back. It would have been a nine-month training.

HT:

So you never actually flew as a WASP?

MS:

I did not fly planes from the factory to the—

HT:

Right. You were still in training when—

MS:

I just had the training.

HT:

Because I think the program was to span till, I think, December of 1944, is that right?

MS:

Yes. It was going out and I had things to do and I just left before—

HT:

What type of planes did you learn to fly while you were in training?

MS:

The Steerman, and that's a very popular plane. You wanted to make sure you had your parachute on, because if you forgot to fasten your seatbelts, you'd fall [out when you were] upside down when you were doing the roll. One girl did.

HT:

Was she hurt?

MS:

She had her parachute on. She parachuted out.

HT:

Oh, she fell out?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Oh, my gosh.

MS:

We'd do spins and rolls and all that kind of thing, and you needed to be fastened in. There were some girls killed during the program training, and they had to pay their own way back home.

HT:

Yes, I've heard of that.

MS:

Yes. We weren't supposed to date the instructors, or I don't know if we were supposed to date at all, but we did get weekend passes to get off the base. One, in July, they had a rodeo on the Fourth of July in Fort Worth [Texas], and one girl had her car there and we went up to the rodeo. We had a flat tire on the way, and so a carload of soldiers from Big Springs, Texas, came by and they helped us put the tire on. One guy was pretty cute, so we kind of got acquainted, and I dated him. He'd come over on weekends, and I dated him off base.

HT:

So that leads into what I was going to ask you next. What did you ladies do for fun when you were not learning how to fly or when you were not in classes? Would you go to movies or dances?

MS:

No way, nothing. There was no time. It was solid. We got up and ate and went to class, and we ate and went to fly, came back and ate and went to bed. You got up at 5:30. You're tired.

There's a picture there. I was sitting out there eating watermelon. I guess we kind of visited in the evening. But you had to get off the base to—There wasn't any social life. It was all strict training. You've probably read that it was called Cochran's Convent. You know Jackie [Jacqueline] Cochran?

HT:

Yes.

MS:

She was instrumental in keeping it going. I think there was a [Senator Alan] Cranston, a senator from California, that was very much opposed to this program, and he tried everything in the world. However, Goldbarry was helpful in keeping the program going. What's his first name?

HT:

Goldbarry? You mean—not Goldwater?

MS:

Yes, Goldwater.

HT:

Barry Goldwater.

MS:

Barry Goldwater [laughs]

HT:

From Arizona.

MS:

My mind's getting old and feeble. Barry Goldwater was very helpful and Cranston, if that was his name, was very much opposed.

HT:

What was it like to fly some of these planes? Can you tell me something about your adventures in learning how to fly these various planes?

MS:

To me it was quite good. I don't know any words to express it. I think because what I learned by my instructor was so acrobatic, well, it was thrilling. Let's put it that way. We didn't do much. We did spins and rolls and stuff like that. Then we went into the AT-6, which was a—I think that's five hundred horsepower. See, the Steerman were eighty horsepower, and then we went into the bigger ones. I have pictures in there. You remember that?

HT:

Yes.

MS:

That was the biggest plane we flew, the AT-6. It was all enclosed with a canopy on it.

HT:

During the time you were at Sweetwater, did you fly to another station somewhere for practice, or anything like that?

MS:

No, we just flew to spots and we came back, and sometimes you'd follow the railroad tracks. You know what I mean? [laughs] That was your navigation, following the railroad tracks.

HT:

If we can backtrack just a second, when you joined the WASP, did you have to take some sort of physical or written tests?

MS:

Oh, certainly. I think I had to go to Chicago, because I had to take the regular air force physical. That had to be GI. I couldn't just go out and get a physical. It had to be at a certain point and a certain kind, so I had to do that.

For the written, I can't remember much about it. I think we had to take one, and I remember when I came back home, I took a written test at Parks Air Force Base near East St. Louis to become a commercial pilot. That's what I planned to do. Like we had a local airport near Charleston, and I kept flying. I got a job being a secretary, but after work I'd go out there and fly to get enough hours. You had to have enough hours. That's where I met my future husband. I met him out there. His brother was learning to fly, and he came back from the European Theatre of Operations and was still in the [service]. I met him and a year later we got married, and that was the end of the flying.

HT:

If we can go back to the World War II period of time, now you were at Sweetwater during VE [Victory in Europe] Day. I'm sorry. That was a year later, because you got out in August of 1944. Is that correct? Or was it '45?

MS:

[Nineteen] Forty-four.

HT:

That's right. So what did you do after you got out in August?

MS:

First I visited my uncle in San Marcos and then went home and got a job in the office as a secretary in Charleston.

HT:

In Charleston, Illinois?

MS:

Yes, went back to Charleston.

HT:

Were you sad that the WASP were disbanded?

MS:

Well, to be perfectly honest about it, I wasn't, because I was ready to go back home. I'm just kind of that type of person, you know, I want to do something and I've done it and then I go on to something else. Been there and done that.

HT:

Okay. Some of it was quite an adventure.

MS:

Yes. I wouldn't give anything in the world for the adventure. It was wonderful.

HT:

Probably met some wonderful people, some wonderful women.

MS:

Oh, yes, friends for life. I met Elaine [Harmon]. Have you ever talked to her?

During the summer there was some kind of a weekend that was a holiday or something. We were eating watermelon outside the bay. [looking at photographs]

HT:

Yes.

MS:

That was the guy I met, dated. That girl married her instructor, that's them beside us [unclear]. You're not supposed to do that.

Okay. See, here I am in the ready room, waiting to fly. We had those caps on when we didn't have a helmet. Each instructor had four girls. There's an instructor there. This girl was from Sweetwater, and she lived in the country there. This is her home. She was in our class, and she invited us up for the weekend, some of us. These are the ones that went. They had a black maid and a black cook that fixed a barbecue, and there we were in their house. There's the black man and woman and—I think that was in her house. See, that's the hats we wore.

HT:

Exactly, regular air force hats, almost.

MS:

So that was the only fun—

[Telephone rings. Recorded paused]

HT:

You had gone back to work and flying at the local airport.

MS:

So I had in mind getting enough hours for a commercial license. You would fly for hire. I'd go out after work and weekends and fly, and I met my future husband there. When he got out of the army—I can't remember when he got out—but I know we were married a year later, and that was the end of my flying.

HT:

So you didn't fly after that?

MS:

No. We had started having kids and I stayed home with them, and we didn't have money to buy a plane anyway. So he didn't fly and there wasn't any point.

As I started to say a while ago, I'm the type of person that I do this and then that's done, then I go to something else. Flying was over. I'm not one of these women that have to keep flying. Some women are still flying today, you know. This is their love, and they have the money to do it and they still are flying.

HT:

What type of work did you do after you got married?

MS:

What type of work?

HT:

Yes. Or did you work outside the home?

MS:

No. I had never wanted to be a teacher, but when we moved to southern Illinois, there was a principal at Grand Chain that came to my house and said, “We need a business education teacher.” I said, “Oh, I've never taught. I don't want to teach.” My kids were in first and second grade, Bradley [Smith] and Brenda [Smith Edgar], and Terri [Smith Fowler] was older. I was a stay-home mother, and he persisted and so I said, “Well, okay, I'll try it for a year. I'll help you out for a year.” I could take Bradley and Brenda, who were in second and third grade.

Actually, we moved to Metropolis [Illinois] for three years for Terri to go to high school there. She's the older girl. I've been married twice, and Terri was by my first husband. Bradley and Brenda were by my second marriage. So the reason we moved to Metropolis was Terri was having to go to ballgames and Don [Smith, MS' second husband] had to go to Karnak and pick her up in the middle night, you know, midnight when the bus got back, and that didn't work very well. So we moved to Metropolis. Bradley and Brenda were in first and second grade there, so when we moved back, they were in second and third grade. So I took the kids to school with me. I didn't have to leave them. Grand Chain is a small place. You've probably never heard of it.

HT:

No.

MS:

Well, let's see. It's on Route 37, south of Route 146 when you come across.

I taught there four years. I was going to teach a year to help them out, but I wound up teaching four years, and I liked it, you know. I didn't ever think I wanted to teach or anything, but I liked it, I liked it a lot.

So we moved to Anna, because Don sold that farm over there, which was a thousand-acre farm, when we moved to southern Illinois. We moved over here, and the principal needed a grade school teacher. His third grade teacher was having a baby, and he needed somebody for half a year. I says, “I can't teach grade school. I don't know how to teach grade school.” My certificate was for high school. Didn't make any difference, I—he wouldn't let up. So I did it. I figure I knew more than the kids did, so we'd get through it. This is the story of my life.

So then I started working on what deficiencies I had for a grade school certificate, which was mostly art and music, and I made that table there in one of my art courses and some of the pictures around. So I was in Charleston going to Eastern [Illinois University] for the summer, six weeks' course in art, where I made that, and Don calls and said the principal at the high school needs a business education teacher. Well, I'd just got to liking teaching grade school and I'd done that. After that half year, then I taught two more years in the grade school. So I said, “Well, give me five minutes and I'll call back. I'll tell you what I decide.” So I called back and I says, “Yeah, I'll take it.” So I went up to the high school and I taught there. In all, I taught twenty-nine years. And I didn't ever want to teach school, and I enjoyed every minute of it. So we don't know what our destiny is, only the Lord knows, and I just feel like I was led in those directions.

HT:

That's a wonderful story.

If we could backtrack to the World War II period of time, you had mentioned something earlier about how the men viewed the women who wanted to become WASPs. Do you have any idea why they felt that way? And did you experience any personal discrimination during that time because you were a woman who was flying or anything like that?

MS:

I never did experience anything, no.

HT:

What about your friends?

MS:

You'd have to ask them, I don't know. What was the first thing you said there?

HT:

About the men seemed to not really want the women there, and did you have any—

MS:

Oh, the reason, yes. One reason—see, the women would write to Congress and try to get us disbanded, because they wanted their husbands over here ferrying planes. They didn't want us doing that. So that's one reason. Another reason is there was a lot more discrimination during that period of time than there is now. They didn't care what they said about blacks in front of them, or Jews. They actually insulted Jews. You don't need to put that in, but I'm telling you I heard them. I had no discrimination against anybody. They were all my friends. I couldn't see the difference in any of them. But I had experienced and known and seen later how that all happened.

Have you read the two books, The Latest Generation and the—

HT:

The Greatest Generation?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Yes, by Tom Brokaw.

MS:

Yes, and then there was a book after that. I've got those two books and they, they've got some of that. But at that time, people would just make bad remarks about people, which you can't get by with now.

HT:

That's true. That's true.

MS:

And people have become more accepting.

HT:

During your service as a WASP, what was the hardest thing you had to do physically?

MS:

I left out one thing about our routine. We did calisthenics just the same as the boys did. That was part of the daily program. Oh, and marching. We had to get in rows, lines, and drill. We had drill practice like the regular army.

HT:

So that was a daily routine, every day?

MS:

Yes. Then I remember going into town to do a thing on swimming. You had to pass a swimming test. Well, I had my senior lifesaving badge when I was a junior in high school, and you can see my nature of doing things early, where others at that time, I don't know whether if anybody else, girls in my class, even knew how to swim. But my dad took me out to the river before we ever had a pool in town, the river in Charleston, and taught me to swim.

Where were we? We were talking about discrimination.

HT:

What was the hardest thing that you ever did physically?

MS:

Physically?

HT:

Yes, and you said, you mentioned calisthenics and marching. I'll bet that would be hard in the heat of north Texas.

MS:

I had a kind of dryness, and I remember when I had go to the doctor because my mouth was so dry. It was really hot, very, very warm. If I thought longer of it I might think of something that was hard, but I can't think right off.

HT:

Well what about emotionally? Did anything happen that upset you during that period of time?

MS:

I'll tell you one of the hardest things for me was getting up that early in the morning. I'm not that—I can't get out of bed. My mother would always hand me breakfast on the way out to school, you know, because I just don't get up in the morning. Getting—I need more sleep than I got then.

HT:

I think you mentioned earlier that you had to get up at 5:30. That must have been tough.

MS:

Yes, it was. You'd see me sleeping around wherever. I remember one noon, I knew I had five minutes before I had to get back to class or something. I went to bed and laid down and took a nap for five minutes. I needed my sleep. [both laugh] I don't know whether any of the classes were hard or not. I can't remember that.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid or any kind of physical danger while you were up there doing loops and spins and rolls and that sort of thing?

MS:

Well, kind of. I know I was flying up in Mascoutah. I wasn't at all afraid, because I had absolute, complete trust in the instructor I had. You wouldn't believe the things we did, going down and swooping down on—which isn't allowed now. You practically touched the top of a barn or something.

Oh, and another thing, when you went back to Charleston airport, there was a crop duster from Rio Grande Valley, you know where they go? What's the name of that town down there? I wish I could think of the name of that town, that famous place for crop dusting, on the border between Mexico and—

[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]

HT:

We were talking about crop dusting in Texas.

MS:

So these pilot lives are not particularly long, long lived. But he was friends of Bess and Leo and they were there at the local airport, and he'd come up sometimes and I'd ride with him. I can remember doing slow rolls at five hundred feet above the ground, which is unheard of, and I didn't have a bit of fear. I had trust in him being able to land the plane. See, crop dusters have telephone lines right at the edge of their field, and they have to go straight down and fly low and then go straight up to avoid hitting the lines, and you lose power when you do that and you crash. That's what killed him.

So we did everything that was possible in acrobatic flying. I've been through it all. I have done a certain amount, but not foolish, you know, and we had to do a certain amount of it down there in our training. Of course, I was nervous when I first soloed. You were scared you're not going to make it around the field and down again.

HT:

I've never flown, so I don't know the experience. What's it like doing a solo, your first solo?

MS:

Well, it's very apprehensive, I'll tell you. It's scary. The instructor gets out of the plane, you're not getting any help, you're on your own.

Oh, I'll tell you something that happened. When I was learning to fly at Mascoutah, we had to do a cross-country for part of our training, and I flew to Salem and they checked the engine and then I took off again to go to another town, I think—either that or back down to Mascoutah—and I had a forced landing. I think they put too much oil in and it flooded and the engine quit. Well, I had a dead-stick landing then. I had to do—you have to look down and instantly pick a spot, circle it and come in and land. For some reason or other, that didn't freak me out. It should have, but I just did what I was instructed, and I think that's the presence of mind you have. When something happens, you click into what you've been taught and you follow it and do it, and it turns out okay.

But the only thing—There was a cornfield that had been cut, and it was kind of bumpy. But I got the plane down and didn't hurt it any. There was a farmhouse there, so I walked to the farmhouse and called back to Mascoutah and told my instructor I'd landed, and he drove down there and he fixed it. [I] sat there while he would do whatever. So we rode back. But that could have been the end of me, you know.

HT:

Very easily, I would imagine, yes.

Well did anything humorous happen while you were flying? Humorous, embarrassing?

MS:

I can't think of any off the top of my head. Except all the—When I look back and think about the stunts that my instructor there in Mascoutah did and then the crop duster, I would die a slow death if I thought my kids were out doing that. They'd scare me to death. I wouldn't want them to do it.

HT:

Were your parents aware of some of the things you were involved in, the types of training that you were going through?

MS:

No.

HT:

It's probably better they didn't know.

MS:

I might have told them about the forced landing, but I don't know. Dad wouldn't have cared, but Mommy would have. I think she tried not to think about it. With me and him, on our side, she didn't have much chance. [laughs] I would not want my kids to do the things I did, but my son's got two motorcycles now, so that's probably as dangerous or more so than flying.

HT:

Have any of your children been in the military or done any flying or anything like that?

MS:

No. I think Bradley started to learn fly at Continental, but he didn't even solo. Maybe it was too expensive, I don't know. He didn't have any money. He just told me about one. I think he just took a few lessons. Brenda had no—or Terri—desire to fly or anything like that. They're just not my type. But maybe it's the way I was brought up. My dad always included me in everything that my brother would be in, and he was—like he wanted to get in the war and he couldn't, and he was a farmer and he had a little barn outside the edge of town and he would go to Kentucky and buy calves for my brother to show at the county fair and state fair. He'd get me a little calf, too. I was always included and I was the other one. I was in the girls' 4-H club, too, but I was in the boys' 4-H club showing calves. We'd go up to the county fair and we'd go to the state fair. Mother never went anywhere. She stayed home.

I will say that I am very proud, in my girls 4-H club, because I made an outfit, purple wool, and I was sixteen, a junior in high school. I've always been interested in clothes and putting things together and colors and all. Maybe that's one of my chief interests. I used to make my own clothes, and they were kind of different than other people's because I liked to pick out the patterns and the material and put them together. This is a kind of creativity, I guess.

My son is an artist. He painted stuff around. So where was I?

Oh, I made this purple wool outfit and won at the local, and I took it to state and you model them and I got first there, so I got to go to national in Chicago and I modeled it up there. I got second because the girl in front of me got first, I remember that. But that was an achievement, and mother was happy about that. I went both ways. I'm not a tomboy or yet I'm very feminine, you know what I mean. I guess you might think I'm kind of a tomboy or something, but I just liked to do things. But then, I've done that and I'd pass on and do something else. I didn't want to teach.

HT:

But yet you taught for twenty-nine years.

MS:

Twenty-nine years. I loved it.

HT:

For the majority of the years, you taught high school. Is that right? High school.

MS:

Yes. Did I tell you four years I taught? I taught third grade for that half a year and then fifth grade for the other two years.

HT:

And then business education for the rest of the time in high school?

MS:

Yes. It's funny, because when he asked me to teach business education, I told you I didn't think I could, so I goes back up to Charleston, my folks lived in Charleston, and go to the head of the business education department, Dr. Thompson. I was a friend of his anyway. I told him what happened. I said, “They want me to teach shorthand, typing, and all that stuff at Grand Chain, and I never taught it and I don't know if I can or not.”

He says, “Oh, sure you can, no problem, you know. You won't have any problems.” So that encouraged me. Okay. I can do it. So I went back and did it.

HT:

What was Dr. Thompson's first name? Do you recall?

MS:

Dr. Thompson. Was it Marvin? [pause]

HT:

We can add it later on [unclear].

Whom did you admire and respect, sort of your heroes or heroines during the World War II period of time?

MS:

Well, Jackie Cochran and—

HT:

Did you ever meet her, by any chance?

MS:

No. Who was the guy that helped her with—you know, I can't think of names very well anymore. General whatchamacallit and then his son took over and helped Jackie. Who was that?

HT:

I can't remember his name right now either. I want to say Stimson, but I don't think that's right.

MS:

No. He influenced Congress, I mean he really helped, if it hadn't been for him. He was very prominent, I should—

HT:

Wasn't his first name—his nickname was “Hap.”

MS:

[General H.H.] Hap Arnold.

HT:

Hap Arnold.

MS:

Yes.

HT:

That's it. I knew between the two of us, we'd remember. [both laugh]

MS:

Between the two of us, hopefully we can get the parts and pieces together.

HT:

Oh, yes, yes. Well, do you consider yourself to be an independent person?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

Have you always been that way?

MS:

Yes. I'm divorced. You hadn't asked that question, but—and an interesting thing about that is, I thought we had a perfect marriage and then while I'm out—this is personal.

HT:

Do you want me to turn it off?

[Recorder paused]

HT:

We were talking about you being independent.

MS:

Yes. I pretty much won't let people influence me beyond what I consider, and with the kids, I'm that way. They can't use me or bend me or break me because I know what I want and do what I want, and I think that—

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter, because women in your generation for the most part did not work outside the home. So it was very unusual for some, a woman to learn to fly and that sort of thing.

MS:

A lot of things I did was very unusual at that period of time because I learned to swim. None of my friends swam. Then I got my lifesaving badge and all. No friend did that. Then I learned to drive a car. I probably was driving a car when I was ten or eleven years old, and none of my friends could drive. But I drove my dad on the mail route. I learned to start and stop and start and stop. My dad was the reason I think for it because he allowed me and encouraged me and helped me to do things I wanted to do.

Then the cow, showing cows at the fair, and that stuff, shows independence. My friends didn't do that. Then when I got tired of doing something, why, then you'd go and I'd quit. My poor mother [laughs], she would have rather I'd have done what was—

HT:

More traditional type activities, yes.

MS:

Pretty much, yes. That's a good word for it. Traditional.

HT:

Well, did being in the WASP have any kind of impact on your life immediately after you left or in the long-term?

MS:

Not immediately, because, as the men will tell you, when they got out of the army, they didn't talk about it. When I got out of the WASP, I didn't talk about it. Not until years later when people start deciding—well, I'll tell you how I found out about it here. Nobody would ever know I was in the WASP, and this is a long story, but my grandson, Brad Edgar, who lives in Littleton, Colorado, would come to my house and look at grandma's scrapbook. That's how it all started.

You may read it in that story in the paper you got. He was about—see these marks on here? He made those when he'd get this book out and look through it. So when they moved, Brenda and Jim moved to Springfield, their neighbors, Brad played with the little boys. Brad told the little boy neighbor that his grandma was a WASP, and the boy told his mother. The mother turned out to be—see, Jim was governor, and she got a job being in some capacity, which picked out outstanding women of certain areas. You've heard of people getting an award, and I got the paper in there. I hadn't thought about that for a long time. I need to look up that certificate.

They printed it in the Southern Illinoisan paper in Carbondale. She had put it in there. I was the Woman of the Year for public service or something. I read that and I thought, “Did I do that?” I was shocked that they'd known me and put it all [unclear] in the paper. I knew nothing about it. Well, somebody here at the newspaper office saw that article, and that's where it all started here. Then that newspaper called me and I did that big long interview. I said I'd never talked about this before, and I'm never going to again, but because I think it's important for people to know about it while I'm alive, it's like the Jews, you know, they said, well, if we don't tell our story, nobody will ever know about it because we're all going to die out.

That was my attitude, was, if I don't tell the story, nobody will ever know about it. That was my absolute—I did not go around telling people, and I still don't. They pick it up in North Carolina and the strangest places. Well, I'll tell you, a guy from Chicago is writing a book on southern Illinois, and his book will come out with my telephone interview about—talking about this long—about my experience as a WASP. You know, where does it come from? Just that one little thing, one little thread.

HT:

Yes, it sort of kind of snowballs after a while. It's amazing.

Well, if you had to do it all over again, would you join the WASP again?

MS:

Yes. Yes.

HT:

So that was a wonderful experience?

MS:

Wonderful experience. I feel very privileged to have had that experience and I'm proud of it and I'm happy with it and I'd do it many times again. I enjoyed being down at—we were uncomfortable, we were tired, we were hot, we were sweaty, but it was hard work, especially the flying part. Going to class, you just put on your clothes and walked to class, but the parachutes were heavy. I mean I was littler than I am now. I weighed a hundred and sixteen then, and I wasn't used to hard work, never done any hard work.

HT:

Speaking of parachutes, did you ever parachute out? Did you have to?

MS:

No. No. I don't think I'd jump if I didn't have to. [both laugh]

HT:

Oh, gosh. Well, Mrs. Smith, I don't have any other questions for you formally. Do you have anything you'd like to add to the interview that we haven't covered? We've talked about so many different things.

MS:

Oh, I know, we've covered so many different things. One statement leads to a thought about something else I hadn't thought about for a long time.

HT:

Sure, it always does.

MS:

I think the one thing I want to emphasize is the last thing we were talking about was not talking about your service. People didn't ask me about it, and I didn't tell people about it, not until Brad spilled the beans to his little friend, and I still don't talk about it. I think people are kind of in a—don't know. I thought here was this big page, the whole back page of the local paper, and I only remember one woman telling me that she read it and enjoyed it. I thought that was kind of strange. People don't accept things like—

HT:

So your neighbors didn't come by and talk to you about it, that sort of thing?

MS:

No. This is like quiet [unclear] but I sure didn't ever talk about it, and at church they've done the video on the big screen and that picture appears and they get kind of impressed now that I was there, but nobody ever knew about it. I mean I lived here for twenty-two years and it's the biggest secret in town.

HT:

Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been wonderful listening to your stories and hopefully you'll get more publicity in the future.

MS:

I don't even like publicity, really. From what I've told you, you probably think I do, but—

HT:

Well, maybe publicity was the wrong word. As you said, I think it's important that people recognize the contributions that your generation made.

MS:

Yes, that's it. I want people to know about what happened.

HT:

Yes, exactly. Also, I think you were true pioneers, which allowed women to go into all kinds of occupations today that they couldn't or wouldn't in those days. So I think that's very important.

MS:

Talking about the difference in times, now all the high school kids have jobs to support their cars. When I was in high school, I didn't have a car, and I didn't know of any boy or girl that had a job. They did not work. That's hard to imagine. I guess they didn't need to. They didn't have any expenses.

HT:

Quite a different time. Let me turn this off for just a second.

[Recorded paused]

HT:

Mrs. Smith, tell me about the time you flew solo and were thrown into the well.

MS:

Okay. The first one in each group that solos gets thrown into the wishing well there on Avenger Field [Sweetwater, Texas], and I was the first one of my class to solo, so I got thrown into the wishing well. Then I had to go right to the lunch. I had a wet lunch.

HT:

How deep was this well?

MS:

Oh, it was a little round—she drew a picture of it in here. I would say I could sit down in it and not drown. I thought there was a picture of it in here.

HT:

Why were the women who soloed first thrown? Is it—

MS:

Tradition. They just come and get you and throw you in. You don't have any choice.

HT:

Oh, you have no choice. What, do they kind of heave-ho you in, that sort of thing?

MS:

Yes.

HT:

All right. Well, again, thanks so much.

MS:

It's a wishing well, they throw coins in there for good luck. You know how wishing wells are.

HT:

Yes, yes, okay.

[End of Interview]