By Logan Walker
With the onset of U.S. involvement in WWII, much of the youth in America found themselves united in a common employment; aiding the country’s war effort. Such work was not just the purview of men, as evidenced by the scores of American women who functioned in military and paramilitary roles during the conflict. Kansas native Lucile Doll Wise was one of many such women who wished to help in service to her country, but the job she had her heart set on was one that had been unprecedented for women in the nation’s military history.
“We all wanted to do something to help the war effort. All my women friends were joining the military,” Wise remembers, reflecting on her decision to join the WASP so many years ago. “I did it for a lark, to add a little excitement to my life.”
For Wise, who took her first flying lesson on December 6, 1941, just a day before the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor, her attachment to the job went beyond a mere bit of fun; “I loved flying, it’s such a wonderful feeling, you know, to be up in the air. It’s exhilarating, everything looks so beautiful. And then you’ve got the challenge of making the plane do what you want it to do.”
Fifty hours of logged flight time later, Wise was ready to add her talents to the war effort. In May of 1943 her application to join the WASP was approved at nearly the same time that her brother, fresh out of high school, enlisted to join the Navy. While he would go on to return “…safely, but perhaps a bit damaged emotionally,” Wise’s own experience would be unforgettably exciting and empowering.
On her arrival at the WASP’s Sweetwater, Texas training camp, Lucile soon realized that the flying preparation regimes for the female pilot hopefuls would be no different from that of the men; “We lived in barracks, we slept on metal cots, and we learned to march, and we were under military discipline, under demerits- we had to make our beds a certain way, and we had inspections. It was very stressful because we had to meet the requirements.”
Wise and her fellow trainees spent long hours in the air, at times seven days a week. Even more time was spent worrying about meeting graduation standards and even more pressingly, avoiding the hazardous and all-too-easy piloting mistakes that could have fatal consequences. As Lucile noted, “…those of us that were left were really proud of those wings, because they worked hard for them.”
In November of 1943, Wise was one of the successful WASP graduates to earn her wings and embark on a future flying military aircraft. Her first assignment was to the Asheville Weather Wing of the Army Airways Communication Systems in North Carolina, but soon after she was reassigned to the Army Air Forces Weather Service Region in Kansas City, Missouri.
Like many WASP, Lucile’s duties included ferrying military aircraft between bases, but most often she was assigned to fly weather officers to meetings and inspection trips at air force bases in the region. During those trips, Lucile flew quite a bit and covered a seven-state regional territory. While her passengers were always men, they seemed very comfortable with her piloting skills. That’s not to say that Wise had no issues with her position as a WASP; “We had a handsome uniform and officer privileges, but I really wanted to be militarized and get a commission. We were working hard and did not realize that we were making history as the first U.S. women to fly military aircraft.” It was an issue that she would add her own weight to in years to come.
Constant contact with a variety of military planes was one of the perks of the job. She says, “When I started, we had a twin-engine Cessna. It was about a five passenger Cessna, it was kind of slow, but it was a nice, safe plane. And we had short hops between these air bases, so it was okay. But then we got a C-45, the Beechcraft C-45, which carried about ten passengers, and that was much more fun to fly.” Her favorite plane to fly was the AT-6 Texan, an apparent favorite among the girls. During her tenure as a WASP, Wise would fly a range of planes, including the Cessna UC-78, AT-11, C-60, B-25, and C-45.
“When traveling, I usually stayed on base in the nurse’s quarters, although sometimes we stayed in hotels,” Lucile explained, adding that “one base in Nebraska had no women on base, and the small town had no hotels, so I was given a room in the hospital.” Wise’s trips were usually for periods of four to five days, with a day spent at one airbase at a time within her assigned seven-state region. Recalling this period in her life, she muses that “I loved every minute of it, but it was not easy. It was hard work, and I came back from trips pretty tired.”
When the news that Congress planned to disband the WASP Lucile joined many like her in feeling lost and disappointed in the wake of the sudden decision. “It was pretty much a shock,” she recalls. “We just didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had been doing something that was just wonderful, and it was very hard to get our lives started again. “After 19 months and 700 hours flying planes in service of the war effort, Lucile took off her wings and headed on to a more grounded life. After all that time, she noted with equal parts playfulness and pride, “[I] never scratched a plate.”
Adjusting to her new status wasn’t easy; “I missed it dreadfully for a while, but it was expensive, and going back to the small planes wasn’t nearly as much fun,” stated Wise. “We were spoiled. And then I married, and raised a family, so, I got involved in other things. I missed it very much. But I finally got over it. I still love to be around airplanes.”
Wise and her husband settled with their two children in Washington, DC, where she would be conveniently placed when the subject of the WASP re-emerged once again in her life many years later. In the late seventies, the issue of bestowing veteran status on the WASP was a much-contended topic in the government with groups like the Veterans Administration and the American Legion among other powerful organizations opposed granting the WASP this level of recognition. “Those groups had so much power, and they feared this would open the floodgates,” Wise asserted, presumably referring to other non-military groups who might hope for similar privileges.
Wise’s geographical location made her a perfect ally to her fellow WASP in their quest for recognition. She happily added her support and lobbying efforts to the cause; “It was a thrill to attend the hearing and have contacts with Congressmen. It was a great help for a few of us who were without health insurance or in financial trouble to be eligible to be treated at military hospitals.”
The result of the hard work, by Lucile and her fellow WASP was the 1977 legislation signed b President Carter recognizing the WASP and bestowing upon them military veteran status.
In recent years, Wise, who resides in Arvada, Colorado, has remained close to her WASP roots, meeting old colleagues and even flying occasionally. Through WASP reunions and meetings, she has made kept in touch with many fellow WASP. “I made some great friends in the WASP program,” she stated, adding “We all looked alike in our ‘zoot suits’…I am grateful for my opportunity to serve and I believe we all feel the same way. The WASPs went through a unique experience and I believe we all have a close bond.”
In 2012, 92 year old Lucile took a very decidedly hands-on trip down memory lane when she took over the controls of a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane, one she may have remembered as a military training aircraft used during WWll. Stylishly outfitted in goggles, a headset, and a leather bomber jacket, she started the plane with the same giddy smile she might have worn almost seventy years ago. “I’m so impressed by what women pilots are doing today, especially flying into combat,” the aging aviatrix said, reflecting on the modern state of women and flight. “They are doing some great flying and proving once again that women can fly military aircraft as well as men.”
To Wise, women who once flew planeloads of military officials state-to-state and fought victoriously to change government legislature, the vast extent of women’s competency must be very old news.