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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Elaine Danforth Harmon, 2006

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Object ID: WV0359.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Elaine Danforth Harmon’s service with the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in 1944; and her life after the war, including her involvement in efforts to gain military status for the WASP in the 1970s.

Summary:

Harmon recalls how she found out about the WASP; her husband’s support when she joined; her mother’s refusal to speak to her about it; and new opportunities for women during World War II. She provides an overview of her training at Sweetwater, including living arrangements and conditions; uniforms and zoot suits; paying for expenses; the daily schedule; Jacqueline Cochran; Dorothy Swain Lewis; social life and recreation; singing; riding in cattle wagons out to the field; Link training; flying at night; buzzing Munday, Texas; and several anecdotes about fellow WASP trainees.

Harmon briefly describes her assignment at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, in November and December 1944. She talks about helping male pilots practice instrument flying; working with men; and being stationed with a classmate from Sweetwater. Other general topics about the WASP include changing requirements for the branch; sabotage; WASP jobs; flying the B-29 and a jet; washing out; differences between male and female pilots; the defeat of the bill to militarize the WASP in 1944; Drew Pearson; and the disbandment of the WASP in December 1944.

Harmon explains her involvement in efforts to gain veteran status for members of the WASP in the 1970s, including working with Hap Arnold’s son, Bruce Arnold, and comments on receiving veterans benefits and participating in WASP reunions. Other personal topics include traveling with her father during his baseball career; her interest and participation in the Civilian Pilot Training Program; the difficulties she had moving to California by herself following the WASP disbandment and her job as an air traffic controller; being in San Francisco on VJ Day; and her later career in real estate appraisal.

Creator: Elaine Danforth Harmon

Biographical Info: Elaine Danforth Harmon (b. 1919) of Baltimore, Maryland, served in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in 1944.

Collection: Elaine Danforth Harmon 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:

BC:

Today is August 7, 2006. My name is Beth Carmichael, and I'm at the home of Ms. Elaine Harmon in Silver Springs, Maryland, to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Thank you so much for talking with me this morning. If you could give me your full name, we'll use that as a test for the machine.

EH:

Okay. It's Elaine Danforth Harmon.

[Recording paused]

BC:

Mrs. Harmon, I'd like to start by talking a little bit about your background. Can you tell me when and where you were born and a little bit about your family?

EH:

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, at home on 34th Street. My mother and father, well, my father was a baseball player and also a dentist. My mother was a housewife. I have two sisters, an older sister that is two years older than I am and then a younger sister thirteen years younger, who always wanted to do things I did and wasn't old enough to be into the WASPs [Women Air Force Service Pilots], so on her own, against our parents, she went down into Virginia and got her license down there as a private pilot's license when she was old enough to do that.

BC:

Where did your father play baseball? Did he play in an organized league?

EH:

He was a professional player. He started out with the Philadelphia Athletics, and he played with the Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox and then some minor leagues, too, but generally that was what he played for.

BC:

Did your family travel with him when he went to these various locations, or did you stay in Baltimore?

EH:

No, we went with him, wherever the base was. For instance, if he was based in Chicago, we went to Chicago and lived there. Of course, that was in the summertime, and we usually went before school was out so we would go to school for about a month or two in some other place every year. But then, of course, when the season was over, we'd move back to Baltimore again. But as far as being whatever town we were in, we did not travel to the other areas when the team played in other cities. We just stayed wherever the base was at the time.

BC:

So you didn't travel for away games, as they'd be called today?

EH:

That's right, yes. Yes, away games. I mentioned we lived in Chicago. Well, I wasn't born until my—I was a baby, I was just born in 1919, and so I really didn't live in Chicago knowingly.

BC:

That must have been difficult going to school is so many different places.

EH:

You know, I didn't think anything of it. It was just normal. We just always did it.

BC:

So where did you end up graduating from high school?

EH:

In Baltimore, Eastern High School in Baltimore.

BC:

What year was that?

EH:

Nineteen thirty-six.

BC:

What did you do after you graduated?

EH:

Went to the University of Maryland here in College Park, Maryland, majored in microbiology and graduated in 1940 with a BS [bachelor of science] degree.

BC:

Did you know what you wanted to do with that degree?

EH:

I never knew what I wanted to do. I'm still trying to figure out what I would like to have as a career, never made up my mind. I wasn't interested in microbiology, but there weren't many things offered in my day in college for women to take. It was either be a teacher or a nurse, and neither one of those interested me so I picked out microbiology, which didn't interest me either, but—

Then in our little local college newspaper, there was an ad one day that the government was offering the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and that was the first thing I had seen that really interested me. It had nothing to do with the college. We didn't get any credits for taking that course. But the College Park Airport is right there at the campus, and so it was one of the schools that was picked out to offer this program. It cost forty dollars. You had to be of age or else you had to get your parent's signature, and my mother would never have signed it. So I sent the form to my father's office, and he sent it right back. [laughs]

So they would take one woman for every ten men, so I was lucky and got into it. There were about three or four women at the time that took that with me. I don't know whether my father ever told my mother what he'd done or not, but there was never any discussion. We never brought the subject up.

BC:

How did your mother react when she found out?

EH:

Well, I don't know that she ever knew I did it. We never talked about it. But when I went into the WASP, I was married at the time. I went into the WASP, and she would have nothing to do with me. She was embarrassed that her daughter would do such a ridiculous, embarrassing thing, and she never called or wrote me any letters or anything while I was in the WASP. But then when the WASPs were over and I returned home, the subject was never mentioned again.

BC:

So she never came to recognize what a difficult, challenging thing you were doing and how you were serving your country? She just didn't mention it?

EH:

It was embarrassing to her, and also she felt it was very dangerous. Every once in a while when I'm in uniform and I'm walking down a street somewhere, somebody will—a young person will come up to me and shake my hand and say, “I want to thank you for what you did during World War II.” And I have so often wished that my mother could have seen that, but she never did. She just didn't even like the WASP. She just felt that they were all just awful, just probably loose women, you know.

BC:

Well, that was a very different thing for a woman to do during that time.

EH:

I guess so, yes, yes. It was the beginning of a—well, of course, the first beginning was the women, that suffrage, that got the vote for us, and then I guess we were kind of the next step—not just us but Rosie the Riveter, too.

BC:

That's right. There were a lot of firsts for women during that time.

EH:

During World War II, a lot of things opened up for women, and then closed up after the war was over.

BC:

Right. Well, let's go back briefly to your training with the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Can you tell me a little bit about the program and what you did?

EH:

Well, it was for forty dollars you had, I think it was, thirty-five hours of flight time. We got insurance. You had your physical exam and ground school. College Park Airport is not at all like it was back then. Today they've got a nice long runway going east-west. We used to fly north-south with trees at both ends of a short takeoff area, but they've changed it now. The thirty-five hours was required in order to get your private pilot's license, and you had to go on, I guess they called it, a cross-country. It was like a triangle. You'd go from College Park to another area to another area not too far away and come back and land the plane. I guess they wanted to make sure you could find your way around and not get lost. But then I didn't fly anymore until I got into the WASP, which was about five years later.

BC:

So what did you do in between?

EH:

Got married. Yes, I got married and we got married July 26, 1941, and then, of course, Pearl Harbor happened that December. From then on until I went into the WASP, we were moving around quite a bit.

My husband got a job out in Wright-Patterson Air Force Base [Ohio], and wherever we went, I usually got a job in the hospital working as a lab technician. One job I had was when we were living in Cleveland [Ohio], I worked at a plant where they prepared serum to be sent overseas and to hospitals and so forth, and that, of course, was a very new program in those days, the idea of actually blood transfusions and such, so that was—My husband eventually started working for a company called Jack and Heintz, and he learned to repair aircraft instruments and went overseas and set up a repair shop so that instead of having to send these instruments all the way back to—This was in the Asian area, you know, Biak [Island, West Papua] and the Philippines and Laos and so forth, where he set up these shops. That way they could repair the instruments right there, and the planes may be just be down a day instead of maybe several weeks, so it saved a lot of time.

BC:

Was he in the military or was he doing this as a civilian?

EH:

He was 4-F.

BC:

What does that mean?

EH:

He was unable to pass the physical exam. He had a constriction in his aorta, which caused him to have high blood pressure in the upper part of his body and normal in the lower part of his body. Of course they always take the pressure on your arm, and he used to try to get them to take it on his leg, and they wouldn't do it. But he tried to get into the—He really wanted to get in the air force. His father was a pilot during World War I, and his brother was a pilot during World War II. He flew bombers mostly, B-20, the B-17. I think he flew the B-29, too, but I'm not sure, but anyway, B-17 and B-26, B-25, various bombers.

BC:

What year did you get married?

EH:

Nineteen forty-one.

BC:

That's right. Do you remember where you were when you heard about Pearl Harbor?

EH:

Yes. My husband and I were playing bridge at my parents' home with my mother and father, and of course, that was the end of that bridge game. Yes, it was quite a shock to everybody. You know, it was a shock, although we knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but it still was a shock. In fact, September 11 [2001], 9/11, brought back a lot of memories as to how people suddenly came together and everybody was thinking the same instead of everybody disagreeing about things.

BC:

Where were you living while your husband was overseas in the early forties?

EH:

Well, as I said, prior to his going overseas, we were moving different places around the United States, but when he went overseas, I was in the WASP.

BC:

Oh, okay. Tell me about joining the WASP. When did you found out about it?

EH:

Well, there was a story in Life magazine, and occasionally you'd see some—You know, we used to have news reports in the movie theaters. Prior to the show going on, we had newscasts, and occasionally, there'd be something about the WASP in there, and there was also in the newspaper you would see something. I wanted to do it, but I just was married, and at the time, at first, I didn't have enough hours to get in.

The first, the group that Nancy Love started, they had to have five hundred hours. The group that Jacqueline Cochran started had to have two hundred hours, and as time went by they kept reducing the amount and reducing the amount until it got down to thirty-five. I did go back and get a couple more hours before I actually went to Sweetwater [Texas], so when I entered I had forty hours of flight time.

BC:

And when did you enter?

EH:

It was in March of 1944.

BC:

What did your husband think about this?

EH:

It was his idea.

BC:

Really?

EH:

He thought it was great.

BC:

That's wonderful.

EH:

Yes, he backed me up on that.

BC:

That's terrific. Were there any other requirements or tests that you had to pass once you entered?

EH:

Well, yes, you had to be between the ages—At first, you had to be between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five. They eventually reduced the twenty-one down to eighteen and a half. I was twenty-four. At first you had to be five feet four, and then it was five feet two, but some of the women were shorter than that and they pulled all sorts of tricks in order to have their—you know, make them look taller. In fact, one of the women that lives here in Virginia, she used to live right near here, on a farm here somewhere, she was only five feet tall, and she asked the doctor what she could do about that. He said, “Well, you can hang from a tree.” So she did that. She hung from a tree until she had stretched herself out to five two and then went and got measured.

BC:

You mentioned that your mother had trouble with this decision. How did other people react?

EH:

A lot of people ask us how the men treated us during the war. I never saw any problem with it, and generally speaking the men accepted us. But every once in a while, you'd run across somebody that really resented the women, and there was sabotage, too. Of course, there was sabotage in all of the services, I guess, not just the WASP. The incidences of sabotage in the WASP, they never investigated them because they were trying to keep us secret, which was, of course, difficult to do. But they just didn't want the public to know that we were so hard up for pilots that they would train women to fly in the military, and so if people found out that some of the women were being sabotaged, there would probably be an uproar about it, so they never investigated it, which was good, I guess.

BC:

You joined in March of 1944. Where did you go first? Did you go directly to Sweetwater?

EH:

Went directly to Sweetwater. We were living in Florida at the time, you know. We went over to Sweetwater.

BC:

Can you tell me a little bit about your time at Sweetwater?

EH:

Well, it was fun. When I first arrived and I looked at the women, I thought, “I'm not going to like these women. They're so confident and sure of themselves.” [laughs] Of course, they ended up being my best friends. I just love every one of—even the ones I don't know, I love them. They're just a great bunch of women.

We lived in barracks, concrete floor, no basement or anything, just a concrete floor, just one story high. I don't think they even had insulation in them of any kind. They were hot in the summertime, cold in the winter, and we had—what do you call it, when a whole bunch of locusts came in for a couple of days one time? There were locusts all over the place. You couldn't step without crunch, crunch, stepping on locusts. That only lasted a couple of days though, and we swept them all out.

As far as we did everything military fashion, because we fully expected—we'd been told we'd be taken into the military eventually. We took the same oath of office that the men took. We drilled. The only thing we could do, really, that the men couldn't do, was if we wanted to resign, we could. I think there were only a couple of women that resigned, and most of them stuck it out. But as I said, it was strictly military. We went to bed at night with Taps, and we got up in the morning with reveille.

We had six women to a bay, and each one of us had a cot and a locker. We were not allowed to bring anything with us other than a suitcase with some few clothes in it, and the suitcase we had to keep under our bed. We had inspection every Saturday, had to straighten things up and keep things clean. Of course, there wasn't much to keep clean because we didn't have anything there. There were no drapes or anything, no rugs, nothing fancy, you know, so. But we had to make our beds the military way, you know, so that you could bounce a quarter on them. As I said, there were six women in each room, and between two rooms was the bathroom that was shared by twelve women. We had two sinks and two showers and two toilets.

Of course, it got very hot in Texas, and we usually flew—what we always flew in [were] what we called zoot suits. They were like the mechanics wear, and they were made for men, they weren't made for us, so we had to tie them in tightly with a belt and roll up the legs and roll up the sleeves, and we'd get very hot and they would get very dirty, because it was dusty down there, too. There was nowhere we could wash them, except we would get into the shower with them on and soap ourselves down, soap down the zoot suits and rinse them off and hang them out to dry somewhere, and it didn't take very long for them to dry because of the heat down there. But anyway, it all worked out.

Every place we went, we marched in formation. Each class was divided into two flights, Flight 1 and Flight 2. I happened to be in Flight 1. One flight would fly in the morning while the other flight went to ground school, and then after lunch we'd switch places. We got up at six o'clock, we were on the flight line by seven, we went to bed at ten, as I recall, and of course, we marched to breakfast, we marched to ground school, we marched to the flight line, every place we marched. We had—

Well, do you have any more questions?

BC:

You mentioned the zoot suits. Were you issued other uniform items?

EH:

We did everything at our own expense. We paid our own train fare to get there. If we washed out, we had to pay our own way back. A couple of our women didn't have enough money after—a lot of these women gave up their jobs in order to do this, and they had nothing to go back to and they'd spent all their money. We used to take up, pass the hat around to help them get home. The same thing if somebody was in an accident and killed and the parents couldn't afford to send the body home, we would pass the hat and have it done.

But I got off the subject there. You were asking me—

BC:

I had asked about uniforms. You said you had to purchase all of your uniforms.

EH:

Yes. At first we didn't have a uniform. We didn't really get a uniform, I think, until the first part of 1944. But everybody tried to make up something that looked official. We bought slacks that were cotton slacks that were a tan color, and we wore just a plain white shirt with them, and that's what we wore when we went to ground school and breakfast and so forth. That was our official outfit the whole time we—other than the zoot suit, that was our official outfit the whole time we were in training.

The women that were actually stationed and had already finished their training, they tried to put things together that looked like a uniform of some kind, and once or twice, they got arrested for impersonating an officer. [laughs] Jacqueline Cochran had to get them out of the pokey. But then Jacqueline had our uniform designed by Bergdorf Goodman, and of course she was very particular about everything. I don't know whether you knew or not, but she had—prior to the WASP she had her own cosmetic business. So she always, before she would get out of the cockpit, she would make sure her hair was combed and she had her lipstick on and so forth and she was very particular that all of us did the same thing, you know, that we were very careful about our appearance.

BC:

Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her?

EH:

Yes, a couple of times, I guess, not really to talk to her very much. But she always came to every graduation and had a talk with the class before we actually had the ceremony and the program. When she came to talk to our class, she knew the program was shutting down—because I was in the next-to-last class—and she actually cried, she was so emotional about it. She was the kind of a person that you either love or hate, and she accomplished so much in her life. She has more records to her name than any other person, man or woman. She just came up from up nowhere and is just really an amazing person.

BC:

Did you know when you were graduating that the program was going to end?

EH:

Yes, we did know.

BC:

She told you?

EH:

Yes. We only had about a month and a half. We were a base then actually doing something, you know, other than training.

BC:

When did you graduate? When did you finish your training?

EH:

It was November 11, 1944, and then of course, we were disbanded December 20, 1944. And I was stationed at Las Vegas at Nellis Air Force Base, Nellis.

BC:

How do you spell that?

EH:

N-e-l-l-i-s, Nellis Air Force Base. And while I was there, there were a lot of B-17s and BT-13s. BT-13s are planes that pilots practice their instrument flying and learn instrument flying. One of the things they used us—we were real guinea pigs. One of the things they used us for were the jobs that were kind of boring that the men didn't want to do. We loved doing them, you know, just get up and fly, you know.

So what I did was, when men needed to practice their skills and keep up-to-date with their instrument flying, I would take the plane up and land it, and while we were up, the man was in the backseat and under the hood so that he couldn't see anything except the instruments in front of him. The only thing I had to do while we were up there was just make sure that he didn't do something stupid or that we didn't run into another plane.

BC:

So were you training these men on the instruments or just watching to make sure they—

EH:

They were already skilled. For me, I wasn't training them. Now, some of the women actually—we did all sorts. When the program first started, all we were supposed to do was to ferry small aircraft from the factories to fields or ports where they would be sent overseas. But they were so hard up for pilots that eventually, when some of the commanding officers or the other pilots would realize that some of these women were really good pilots, and they would start letting them use some of the other planes.

It ended up we, as a group, we flew everything they had at the time. Two women were trained to fly the B-29, because when the B-29 first came out, it started having fires, engine catching on fire, and the men were afraid of it and they started saying they wouldn't fly it. So Paul Tibbetts, who was in charge of the B-29 program, knew it was a good plane, so he decided he'd show a couple of WASP how to fly it, and they learned, no problem. In fact, while they were being trained, they had a fire in the engine, and they handled it, no problem. So the men eventually decided, you know, if women can do it, we can, too. There were a number of incidents like that. That was just the B-29 incident.

But the difference between the way men fly and women fly—men generally speaking, not everybody, of course—they're so macho. “Do you want to fly this plane?” “Yes.” They go run, hop into it and take it up.

And women say, “Well, let me see the manual,” and they would look to see what the little tricks were to the plane and study the instruments and then walk around it and check it all out and then they'd take it up. So that was another incident. One of the commanding officers said he'd like to send the women on trips to deliver planes or whatever the job was because it didn't take them as long. The reason it didn't take them as long, they didn't have their little black books with them. [laughs] But anyway, we had a good time. We had some bad times and good times, too.

We flew without insurance. We couldn't get insurance. We got no GI benefits. We made less money than the men. We made a hundred and fifty dollars a month while we were in training, and after we graduated, we made two hundred and fifty dollars a month. And the men made, I think it was three hundred, plus all the benefits that they had, their insurance, their housing. We paid for our own food, and they just took money out of our two hundred and fifty dollars to pay for our room and board, and we had to buy our own until we got our own uniform. When we got the standard uniform, the blue uniform that you see we, most of us, wear now, we didn't pay for that, but we did have to—until that we'd bought all our own clothes.

BC:

So you received the blue uniform.

EH:

Yes. That was given to us.

BC:

How did the men that you were flying with respond to having women as pilots?

EH:

They were fine. You know, they, a couple of them, several of them, would ask me if I wanted to go in the B-17 as a copilot, so I got B-17—I mean, why would they ask me instead of a man? So I've got a little bit of copilot time in a B-17, which was nice. You know, when I would take these men up to practice their instrument flying, there was no indication that they thought this was dangerous. I guess they figured, well, if she can't fly, I can, so I'll take over. [laughs]

BC:

Did you enjoy the training and then your work in Las Vegas?

EH:

I enjoyed every minute of it, yes. I just enjoyed the people I was with. I enjoyed the instructors. Everybody was just really nice and interesting.

BC:

Now, were your instructors male or female?

EH:

Mine were male. There were a couple of women that instructed there. One of them—I don't know whether you've heard of her or not—Dottie Swain Lewis is an artist and a sculptress, and she has sculpted statues of us which are in a lot of places, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and down at Sweetwater and out at Colorado where the Air Force Academy is. You know, she's got these statues here and there and everywhere. But the reason I mentioned her, she was an instructor and she got to thinking, “Here I am just flying these training planes, and I'm teaching all these women to go out and fly pursuits and bombers and all sorts of things,” and so she asked to get into the program and so she did finish. They gave her a short training and got her through the program, so she actually became a WASP instead of just an instructor.

There was something else I started to tell you. Oh, I told you we flew everything that the military had at the time, and I told you the little story about the B-29 and the problems with fire. But jets were unknown during World War II, but they were experimenting with them and they had an experimental jet and they had one of our WASP fly it. So even the jet was flown by a WASP, so everything they had at the time.

I have a friend here that's now ninety-three years old, a WASP, and we go places together and give talks. She came over here, drove over here one day a couple of years ago, and it was raining. She said, “Would you,”—asked if I would mind driving instead, and I said, “No, it's all right with me.” So I said, “I've got to go in the house and get my keys.” My son was with me and he came in and he said, “And she was a pursuit pilot, afraid to drive in the rain?” But you know, she was ninety years old at that point.

BC:

A little bit different. [both laugh]

EH:

She had better sense.

BC:

She didn't have anything to prove anymore.

EH:

Right. Yes.

BC:

So what did you ladies do for fun when you were at Sweetwater?

EH:

Fly. They kept us pretty busy. The course was divided into three phases, and we were supposed to get a weekend, a long weekend, in between each one where we had time to go a little distance away. But we only had one while we were there, because of weather. If it rained or if for some reason or other you couldn't fly and we missed it, we had to make it up. So we were supposed to have Saturdays off.

You asked what we did for fun. One friend of mine on a Saturday, if we could get away, we would go play tennis. There were no tennis courts on our base, but we could go into town and play tennis. Some of the women played bridge in the evening. I don't know why I didn't because I was a bridge player, but I never played bridge. But some of them did.

But one weekend we had off, one of our classmates invited us to go to her home, and they treated us royally there. We had such a good meal for a change, you know. A lot of the women complained about the food, but I thought the food was fine. It was nothing fancy, but I don't like fancy food anyway. That weekend, it was memorable, because the food was such a change. It was really great. I remember the watermelon and the deviled eggs and steaks and just really, really—they were just really great to us. They lived in Munday, Texas, which was a little town not far from Sweetwater.

BC:

Did you ever have much interaction with civilians outside of Sweetwater? Did you run into people much or were you primarily on the base?

EH:

We were on the base, yes. No, the only person from Sweetwater that I knew was my primary instructor. He always, even after the war, he lived there. He stayed there until he died.

The way we would fly, we would go down to the flight line and some of the women would take the planes to an auxiliary field away from our main base, away from the—The rest of us would go by cattle wagon, and they actually were cattle wagons that they had pulled everything out of them and just built a bench along each side, and we would sit on those benches and bounce around, and they didn't seem to have any sort of thing to ease up the bouncing. And we sang constantly. Oh, did we sing. All the time we sang in those cattle wagons, constantly. A lot of the kids, a lot of the women, made up songs, and they were really clever. We had one lady in our class that—she didn't make it, she washed out—but while she was there she made up some really neat songs for us.

BC:

Were there songs particular to the WASP?

EH:

Yes. Well, we sang other songs, too, but mostly what we sang were ones that were for the WASP, yes. Yes.

BC:

You said that one particular woman washed out. Did many women in your class wash out?

EH:

Well, the day you arrive, they line you up and they say, “Look on each side of you. One of you will be left here.” So once upon a time I figured up how many of our women washed out, and then I've forgotten the numbers, though, but at least a third, maybe more, a little more than a third who washed out.

And you know, even in the couple of weeks that you knew those women, you got very close to them, and it really was hard to see them wash out. You know they had tried so hard to get in and then finally make it, and then they wash out. Quite often, they were very good pilots. You know, the military was told they'd have to wash out a certain number, and they did. In fact, I heard a story one time that an instructor had been told he had to wash out one of the two pilots that he was training, and he said, “They're both good pilots, and I can't wash either one of them out,” and he quit rather than wash one of them out. So you know, it was just something—it was sort of the luck of the draw.

BC:

What about when you were in Las Vegas? What were your days like there?

EH:

Actually, you know, I really didn't see many people while I was there. One of my classmates went there with me, and we usually had dinner together or did things together. There were—Las Vegas was nothing at that time. It was just desert. There were two casinos. El Rancho was one, and I can't remember the name of the other one. But it was just desolate, and in the evenings sometimes we would go into the casino and have dinner there and gamble a little, maybe sometimes dance if somebody asked you to dance.

But as far as on the base, I wasn't there long enough really to get to—it was difficult to meet other WASPs because they were busy, you know. You might have a WASP that's stationed at Las Vegas, but she's off on a trip taking a plane somewhere, and so I never really met any of the women while I was there, just my—I would spend time with my one classmate.

BC:

So you were working primarily with men?

EH:

Yes.

BC:

Flying with them. Where did you live?

EH:

We lived in the same kind of barracks that the men had there, but I guess the noncommissioned men had. They were just wooden framed barracks that—

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

BC:

You were there toward the end of 1944. When did you find out the WASP had been disbanded?

EH:

Oh, well, the bill came up before Congress in the spring of 1944—went before Congress, I think, in June—and there was a lot of negativeness about taking us into the military, because at that point there was a lot of politics, for one thing. We were told keep our mouths shut, don't do anything. We were good little girls, and we did that. Today we wouldn't have done that. But there was a group of men that were civilian instructors, they were instructing pilots, and when we got finally towards the end of the war when we had so many pilots trained, they didn't need these civilian instructors any longer so they became eligible for the draft. They organized when they heard we were going—had a bill before Congress. They organized to defeat our bill, and they, of course, had people writing to their senators and congressmen and all that, and we didn't have anything going like that.

The only thing we had was the president [Franklin D. Roosevelt] of the United States and Eleanor Roosevelt and the, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the general of the air corps—or by that time I think it was called the air force. The general of the air force. There was committees that were—they knew what we had done, you know. They were involved with us. They knew we were doing a good job. They all recommended that this bill be passed. But we also had Drew Pearson, who was a journalist, who was as well known back in those days as probably Tom Brokaw is today, and he was a very controversial person. He apparently quite often—he didn't just report news, he reported his thoughts, you know, and he was very prejudiced against women. He wrote these articles about us where he would make statements like, “These are million-dollar glamour girls wasting the taxpayers' money.” He never bothered to investigate what we had done. He just didn't like women.

A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to read his biography, and I went to the library and they didn't have one, but they searched around through the state. They found one biography, and when I read it, I thought, “How in the world did people keep hiring him?” He was fired from one job after another for doing something that was wrong, as far as a journalist, and yet he kept getting these jobs and he had the public following him. It was unbelievable that he managed to keep his job changing from one to another. I mean, how many people get fired and then keep getting new jobs?

BC:

Right. He obviously had a big following.

EH:

Yes. Anyway, I don't know whether I got off of the subject there or not, but—

BC:

So when you left the WASP, it was solely because the group had been disbanded.

EH:

We were disbanded, yes, and I came back to Baltimore. You know, I had traveled on train. The trains were really dirty and crowded and just a mess in those days, and I wanted to look so nice in my uniform. There was—the Biltmore Hotel was right across the street from Penn Station, and I thought I'm going to go in there and see if I could just get a room. You know, I was willing to pay for a room. They wouldn't give me a room, so I just had to go home in my—I was in my uniform, but I really looked messy. They just thought, “What's this young girl wanting a room in a hotel all by herself?” you know.

BC:

Did you get much reaction from people when you were out in uniform?

EH:

I didn't really get out among people that much because I wasn't in the program that long. When I was in uniform, I was stationed at a base, working at the base. So no, I didn't get any reaction.

BC:

What was the hardest thing you had to do while you were in the service?

EH:

Oh, Link training, awful. I don't know whether you know what a Link Trainer is or not, but it's a little box that you sit in and all you have in front of you—you can't see, and all you have in front of you are the instruments and there's an instructor outside that's keeping track of what you're doing, and it's the way you practice on the ground how to fly when you can't see where you're going, and you get vertigo. You don't know whether you're upside down or headed east or west or north or south or upside down. It's just—it is terrible. And sometimes the instructors would be nasty, too, and they would—in fact, I cried at one point. I had several instructors that were fine, but this one instructor made me cry. I don't remember exactly what he did, but I just—

BC:

He was rough.

EH:

Yes. He had me crying.

BC:

You did this during ground school?

EH:

Yes, and part of the ground school training.

BC:

What about emotionally, what was the hardest thing?

EH:

Well, that's pretty emotional. I didn't have anything really emotional happen. The only thing was when we went on our night cross-country solo, I'm flying alone and every once in a while I'd go across and fly over a little—not much water in Texas, but I would see the reflection of fire in these little ponds of water, and I'd think, “My plane's on fire.” And I'd think, “Well, I don't know, there's no smoke, I don't smell anything, and the instruments all look fine.” So I thought, well, maybe I ought to have a forced landing somewhere, but I decided no, I'm going to go, and I continued on. Of course, I was kind of the butt of some jokes when I got back because I said, “Check the engine out, because I think there's something wrong.” When you're flying at night, apparently you can see flames, and no one had ever told me that and I didn't know it, and I thought my plane was on fire.

BC:

That's terrifying.

EH:

Yes. So but anyway, I wasn't really that concerned, because it looked to me like everything was fine and I wasn't having any problems, so I just kept going.

BC:

Were there other times when you were afraid or thought you were in danger?

EH:

I never had any problems, no. Well, maybe one time. This was on one of our long cross-countries, and I don't know, every once in a while, I think about it and I don't know what happened. We figured out—of course, prior to going, you have to make a flight plan and know what you're going to do. We took off and as soon as I got out of the flight pattern, I was lost. I thought I saw everybody heading one direction, and I thought, “that's the wrong direction.” But I thought, “Well, there's more of them doing that than me, so I followed them.” But that was the only thing that I ever had that I thought might be a problem. As it turned out, they were right, of course, and I don't know what I was confused about, but I was confused.

BC:

Do you recall any funny incidents or stories?

EH:

Well, in the last phase of training, which is the cross-country phase—I always knew that this was a pioneer program, and I did not want to do it.

[Recording paused]

EH:

I knew it was a pioneer program, and I didn't want to get any demerits or do anything that would be a black mark on the program. So I was a real goody-goody. I didn't take any chances on anything. I just did everything according to the book.

We went on this cross-country, and one of the towns we went over was Munday, Texas, which was where we had visited these friends, and I thought, “Oh, I've just got to buzz Munday,” and I started buzzing and it was so much fun, I just kept buzzing and buzzing. Then I looked up and there was an instructor next to me, “Get back,” you know. I thought, “Oh, I've washed out,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I'll just go back to the base and give up.” Then I thought, “No, I'll just continue on,” so I went on and landed where we were supposed to go. No one said anything about it, and I was upset. I was really upset. I thought I was going to be washed out.

The next day—our instructors had four or five students, and we always did things in alphabetical order, so we were all H's. The next day, one of my classmates came up to me and said, “You know, Elaine, one of the instructors saw you doing something wrong yesterday, and he told your instructor about it, but he didn't know your name.” And my instructor said to this other instructor, “Well, it could have [been] House, Hughes, [or] Hershey, but it would never have been Harmon.” [laughs] So that's the reputation I had.

BC:

Well, it certainly helped you out. [both laugh]

Who were your heroes or heroines during this time? Were there certain people that stood out that you admired?

EH:

Not really. Of course, you always—everybody always admires certain Hollywood stars. Mine, I always tried to get to every movie that Cary Grant made. I just thought he was great. But as far as—I remember seeing [Charles] Lindbergh when he came down, sitting in a convertible. He was sitting up on the back, and he came down 35th Street in Baltimore, and I lived on 34th Street, so I went over to see the parade. He was so close to me, I could almost reach out and touch him, you know. I guess I was about seven years old then, so he was a kind of a hero.

And of course, after I got to know Jacqueline Cochran, just think she—the sun rises and sets on Jacqueline Cochran. But, and then, of course, my husband was my hero. My father was a great guy, but you know, I don't think you really appreciate your parents until after they're dead. You take them for granted, and my father was a great guy.

BC:

He must have been very proud of you.

EH:

Could be, yes, he could have been.

BC:

What did you think about President Roosevelt?

EH:

I thought he was a great president, I voted for him, and of course, you know, he could be somebody you admire, too, because with his physical problems most people would have just sat in a wheelchair and said, “Poor me, wait on me,” you know, but he got up and did things. So yes, he was an outstanding person, and he managed to pull us out of the Depression. Of course Hitler did that, too, pulled the Germans out of the Depression. [laughs]

BC:

What about Eleanor Roosevelt, did you have—

EH:

Oh, yes, of course, how could anybody not like Eleanor? She was a great person.

BC:

Where were you when you heard about VE [Victory in Europe] Day, the end of the war in Europe?

EH:

To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure I was aware of it, because I was at Sweetwater at the time, and we didn't have television in those days and we didn't even get a newspaper. A couple people had radios there, but I don't know that I was even aware of VE Day. Somebody probably told me about it and that was it.

But VJ [Victory in Japan] Day, I remember that. I was in downtown San Francisco at the time, and people just went wild. It was nighttime and they were going around kicking in windows of liquor—it started out with liquor stores, to get liquor to celebrate, and they found out they were getting away with it so then they started with the department stores, stealing furs and all sorts of things. They finally had to call marshal law and call all the sailors and soldiers back to their bases.

But people were walking down the streets and just anybody would come up and hug you, kiss you, you know, and everybody was singing. I remember one little GI was hanging—there was a flagpole sticking out from about four or five stories up from a hotel room or window, and he had jimmied out on that and he was kicking around. And they were building bonfires in the middle of the street, and those cable cars at the point where they turn them around, they were just spinning them, you know, and they were just—Everybody went crazy. It was something to remember.

BC:

What did you do when you left the WASP? Did you go back to Baltimore?

EH:

I went back to Baltimore and sat. My husband was still overseas, and I sat around for about a month or two, about a month and a half, I think, and I thought, “I've got to do something.” You know, after being in the WASP, this was a shock just to sit around and do nothing.

So I had sixty dollars at that point, and I decided I wanted to go to California. I bought a one-way coach ticket for thirty dollars. My mother was really upset, wouldn't speak to me. My father went to the train station with me. I thought I was going to have to go by myself, but he came with me to see me off. I had a friend, a college friend, who lived in Los Angeles, so I thought, “Well, I'll go stay with her a while, a day or two or something, look for a job.” I sent a telegram to her, which she claims she never got. I don't know whether she did or not, but she was out on a date, and I arrived. She was staying with a friend of hers. They had a room that they lived with in this friend's home. I sat on the front porch until about two or three in the morning, waiting for her to come home. Finally, she did, and I stayed at that house a couple of days. Then their son got sick, and it was time for me to leave anyway, so I left.

Meanwhile, I had applied for a job as an air traffic controller, and I hadn't heard from them. But my money, you know, I had to be very careful with this thirty dollars that I had. I'd already spent a little of it on that telegram. I mean pennies counted. I called one of my WASP friends who lived in Los Angeles. She said, “Sure, come on over.” So I lived with her for a while in her apartment, and after about a week or two, I decided to call the Civil Service and see what was going on, and they said, “Oh, we've been waiting to hear from you. [laughs] You have a job in Oakland.”

So I had to buy a bus ticket to get up to Oakland, and when I got there—During the war, it was very difficult to find housing, and I had to find a place to live. But they had places where you could go and see what was available, and I found a room. A family, a mother and father and their daughter and a daughter's friend, lived in a basement apartment in a house, and they were willing for me to come stay with them, too. So the three of us shared a room, the daughter, her friend and I all shared a room.

I said to the lady, I said, “You know, I don't have any money at this point. I'll pay you when I get my first paycheck.”

And she said, “That's fine.” It was forty dollars a month to stay there, and she gave me breakfast and dinner and packed a lunch for me. That was all included. The little bit of money that I had was the—I needed bus fare to get to the airport and back, so most of it went for that. At the end of two weeks, I think I had a dime left, and I thought, “Oh, I'm going to get paid.” They don't pay you the first, when you first start out. You have to wait another two weeks. [laughs] I don't remember how I got through the next two weeks, but I did. But the day that I got my paycheck, I got my first letter from overseas from my husband since he'd been over there, and in it was a check for four hundred dollars [laughs], plus my own check. I felt so wealthy. I felt wealthy, yes. So then, of course, I didn't have any more problems after that with the money, but that was the poorest I've ever been in my life.

BC:

This was, what, the spring of 1945?

EH:

Well, it was 1945. Yes, spring and summer I was out there. Then the war was over, VJ Day, and my husband came back in September, no, October. He got back October.

BC:

Were you in California all that time until he returned?

EH:

Yes, I was in California. And I resigned the job as an air traffic controller, and we returned here and built this house and raised four children.

BC:

Did you continue to work while you were raising a family or did you stay home?

EH:

I didn't work. I didn't work until my husband died. He died when he was forty-five years old. Prior to his dying, and I knew he was going to die, I took some courses at the University of Maryland to qualify to be a patent attorney—not a patent attorney, a patent examiner, I mean, and I got the job and I worked at it two years and didn't like it and quit. Then I decided to get into real estate, and I tried selling real estate for about a year or two and I couldn't sell a dollar for fifty cents. I'm not a salesperson. Ao but while I was doing that, I heard about a course in appraising real estate, so I took that and then I worked in real estate appraising for about twenty-five years.

BC:

Were any of your children ever in the military?

EH:

No, no. You know, it's a good life, I think. I don't know that I really ever tried to encourage them to. I just sort of left it up to them, their own decision as to what they wanted to do. But I think the military is a great life.

BC:

Do you consider yourself an independent person?

EH:

Definitely, definitely.

BC:

Would you say that the military helped you?

EH:

In fact, do I consider WASPs? Yes, WASPs are all definitely independent people. I had to be independent. My husband died when, you know, I had to finish raising the kids, get them through school, and all that, so.

BC:

Did you consider yourself a pioneer when you entered the WASP?

EH:

I figured that probably people would consider us to be pioneers, because we were the first to fly military aircraft, yes, yes. In fact, all the women that got into the military in those days were pioneers, because the WACs [Women Army Corps] and the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] and the SPARs [Coast Guard Women's Reserve, from “Sempar Paratus—Always Ready”] and all were the first to be at that time women to be in the military, except for the nurses, of course.

BC:

Had you ever considered any of those branches since they were formed prior to the WASP?

EH:

No, no.

BC:

You just wanted to fly?

EH:

Yes, yes.

BC:

How did you feel in 1977 when the WASP were finally granted military status? Do you recall that?

EH:

Well, I helped work on it, yes. After we were disbanded, we all just went our own ways. We didn't have an organization. And I kept in touch with two or three of my classmates, and other people did the same. Then one day when they announced on television or the radio or something that were opening up the Air Force Academy to women and they'd be the first women to fly military aircraft, some of our women heard that and they decided something had to be done about this, so we started trying to find each other. You know, I got in touch with the few that I knew and they knew some others, and everybody was doing this all over the country. In fact, one of our women that lived out in California got a big roll of paper, I think it's the kind that you use for picnic tables, and she sat out in front of a movie theater where they were showing Star Trek, and she had people sign a petition. We were all doing this, getting these petitions signed.

Bruce Arnold, who was Gen. Arnold's son—Gen. Arnold had died by this time—but Bruce was a lobbyist, and we talked to him, talked him into being our lobbyist and we set up—he even let us use his office. We set up office in his office. We almost got him fired, because we took over his office. But anyway, Barry Goldwater was also on our side, because he was a senator by this time, and he had flown with some of the women during World War II, so he introduced a bill to the Senate.

Because of politics, it got tied up and couldn't get out, and I think it was Patsy Mink, I'm not—no, it was Margaret Heckler, I believe, that got a bill into the House [of Representatives] and that got somehow or other—I don't know all the politics, but somehow or other it got tied up there. But somebody thought of some little angle how they could get it out. It had something to do with some other organization hooking up onto our bill, and that organization was some Polish and some other people that had fought for us during the war. They were trying to get in on the GI Bill—or not to get in on the GI Bill, because there was no way we could get in on the GI Bill, but just to be declared veterans.

Anyway, through politics, however, we put together like an album of the various things that we had done, the certificates received and pictures, and the very first thing in there was—can we turn that off for a minute?

[Recorder paused]

EH:

This is what I wanted to show you. This was the first—not this particular one, but was the first thing in the album, and when the Speaker of the House saw it, he said, “That's exactly like mine. These women are veterans.”

BC:

This is your honorable discharge.

EH:

Well, that was what was important.

BC:

From the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

EH:

Yes. We never got the GI Bill, but we should have. What we did get, however, which has been very useful for me, we have hospitalization, medical benefits. We can be buried in a military cemetery. But the way insurance and all is nowadays, of course I have insurance, but if we hadn't gotten these veterans' benefits, I don't know what I would have done. I have had a hip replacement, and I have no idea what it cost, but I know it's expensive.

Many years ago, about 1970 or something, or sixties, I had a biopsy done, and it was six thousand dollars. Medicare paid two thousand, my supplementary paid two thousand, and I had to pay two thousand, and all these years I was thinking, “If I ever had to pay one-third of five hundred thousand or eight hundred thousand dollars or something, I don't know that I could do it.” So that's been a big benefit for me. We didn't get these until we were declared veterans.

BC:

And those are your service medals?

EH:

They are. This is for service within the continental United States, and I forget what this one is. It's may be for being a good little girl, good conduct or something. I don't know, maybe you can—if it even says.

BC:

The American Campaign, and then the World War II medal.

EH:

Oh, okay, yes.

BC:

It must have been nice after all those years to have your service recognized.

EH:

Oh, yes. Well, then of course, after that happened, we managed to find about eight or nine hundred WASP, and there were only 1,074 that actually graduated. Is that figure right, 1,074? Anyway, we did find that many, and we got organized and had president, vice president, and so forth, and we now have reunions every other year. We're having one this October. Or this September we're having one.

BC:

So you've stayed involved since the 1970s.

EH:

Yes. As a matter of fact, I was the treasurer during this. We didn't have any money. We weren't organized, you know, and we let everybody know that we needed money, and they started sending me cash or checks. So we managed to get a little bit of money together. But somebody asked me one time how much did it cost us to get that bill through Congress, and I said, “I don't think it cost more than a couple of thousand dollars, because we didn't have any money.” He said, “I can't believe it.” He says, “It costs thousand and thousands of dollars to get a bill through Congress.” Shows you what a bunch of women can do.

BC:

That's right, very resourceful. Would you recommend the service to young women today?

EH:

Oh, definitely. I just think it would be a great life. Yes, I'd love to. I wish I could sign up.

BC:

Women are now able to do many more things.

EH:

Oh, yes.

BC:

They often find themselves in combat positions. How do you feel about that?

EH:

Well, I think if you have to fight, you have to fight. I mean it's just something that has to be done, but I felt that we had the best of both worlds. We could join the military and not have to go into battle if we didn't want to. In fact, they wouldn't even take us in. But when the women, the young women, got into the military, into the air force, they were held back in their careers, and if you couldn't fly certain aircraft—which were ones that they actually used during wars—if you couldn't fly those aircraft, you couldn't go past a certain level. So they fought to have the right to be in battle, and I, you know—if you've got to do it, you got to do it.

I have talked to a couple of men about it, and one or two of them has said, “Well, they didn't approve of women being in combat situations.” The excuse that one of them gave was, “If we were in a foxhole somewhere and under fire,” he said, “I would probably be more concerned about this woman that worrying about this enemy.” And I don't believe that, you know. Who cares about that woman, I want to get that enemy, you know. But anyway, that was what he said, and that was very gentlemanly, I suppose. But now they are actually in combat, so.

BC:

Yes, they've come a long way.

Well, I don't have any more formal questions for you. Is there anything that you'd like to add that we didn't talk about?

EH:

Not in my personal life, no, I can't think of anything. I think we've just about covered everything.

There are many interesting stories from other people, but I don't really have any interesting stories because I never had a problem with an airplane and I never got lost. One of the women in our class had a forced landing, and as I told you, the buses and trains were so dirty during World War II. She had to come back on a bus crowded with people, and she ended up getting lice and it was really bad. It was so bad she had to wash back into W-10, which was the last class to graduate, and she did graduate, but it was, you know, one of those awful things that happened during the war. And there were worse things than that that happened during the war, and that was a minor problem, I guess, but a major one for her, but a minor one worldwide.

There was one lady in our class, one of my best friends who just died just last winter, she was a good friend of one of our classmates that was in Flight 2, whom I really didn't know that well. But she used to play bridge with her a lot in the evening and got to knowing her very well. One way she got to know her, when we all came to Avenger originally, we came by train to Sweetwater, and she happened to be on the train with this girl that was going to be in her class, and so they got to be friendly before they ever got to Avenger.

After the first day of flight time, this girl came to my friend and said, “You've got to help me, secretly. I have no time whatsoever. I've never flown a plane before.” [laughs] She had filled up a logbook, made up somehow or other, and apparently no one bothered to check it, and she said, “I don't know what they're talking about. I don't know what an aileron is. I don't know what a loop is. I don't know any of this.” So my friend, who was a schoolteacher, tutored her through the course, you know, about all her questions. Well, this lady graduated. She graduated. She was an extremely brilliant woman, and she eventually ended up becoming a judge, a very respected judge.

BC:

That's amazing.

EH:

I don't want to identify her any more than that. She died a long time ago, but I don't want to identify her any more than that.

BC:

That's remarkable.

EH:

Yes, isn't it, though? I'll tell you one thing that this woman did, too, prior to the war. She went over to India all by herself and toured around India. She got sick while she was over there, and some Indian up on a mountain took her in and nursed her back to health. You know, back in those days, women didn't go gallivanting around the country by themselves. In fact, I don't think they do it that much these days, even, but they'll do it with other friends. But she was all by herself. She was quite an individual, very interesting person, very capable, very talented.

One woman in our class, and I never knew this until many years later, she had been married but her husband had been killed. He was a pilot and crashed and was killed, and she had no flight time, but she got to thinking, “I've got to replace him.” So she got her thirty-five hours in and got into the WASP and she graduated, too.

BC:

That's wonderful.

EH:

That's what I mean about these—these women are so remarkable. They're just amazing women. We had another woman who was I guess older than the rest of us, who had many, many hours of flight time. In fact, she had instructed some of the instructors, and I have heard that she had trouble getting through the program. She did graduate, but she had trouble because they teach you to fly the military way, and she was so used to her own way of flying that she had trouble learning the military way. But she graduated. But the thing about her was, she wore false eyelashes, but she didn't want anybody to know it. So she would put them on. She'd go into the toilet, which was, of course, closed area, and she'd put her eyelashes on. [laughs] We were all characters, a lot of characters.

BC:

Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. It's really been a pleasure and we appreciate it.

EH:

Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you, and I love to talk about the WASP. The reason I like to talk about them is because I think they're so remarkable. I have often wondered could I have stuck it out the way those women, the early women, did, and they went through so much. And I don't know whether I could have done it or not, and I never got the chance to be tested.

BC:

Well, I think you were tested in your own ways and are just as remarkable as the women you're talking about.

EH:

I like to talk about them because they've certainly done a lot for me. They got me declared a veteran, which has been wonderful not only because of the hospitalization medical benefits, but I get to go so many places and meet so many interesting people and find out all these interesting things that other people do, and it's just been a wonderful—I've had a great life, in other words, and largely because of the WASP.

BC:

Yes, that's wonderful. Well, thank you so much.

[End of Interview]