by Logan Walker
Rosa Lea Fullwood Meek Dickerson’s life in flight began before she could even walk. As she told the story, her plane enthusiast parents wasted no time in taking their 3-month-old daughter on a tour of the skies above her hometown. The outing elicited unabashed adoration from Rosa Lea and censure from many of Fullwood’s neighbors, who, largely uninformed about planes and piloting, lectured Rosa Lea’s mother that “(her baby) could have lost (her) breath and how dare she expose her child.” It’s perhaps a fitting origin story for a woman who would become one of the most experienced and deftly talented pilots to join the ranks of the WASP, and one who would face disapproval and a lack of acceptance more than once in her life because of her bold choices.
Born in Hereford, Texas on March 20, 1922 to Walter “Pop” Fullwood and his wife Buna, Rosa Lea was two years old when her “pioneer pilot” father moved the family to the city of McAllen and started a flight school. A deadly mishap involving a flight instructor would cause the school to close in due time, but Pop Fullwood continued to work as a plane mechanic and taught his children much about aircraft as they grew up. At the precocious age of 12, Rosa Lea began learning to fly in a Challenger Robin; not more than 80 pounds, she resorted to stuffing cushions around her seat at the helm of the large, mono wing plane.
After graduating from McAllen High School in May 1939, Rosa Lea had plans to pursue a career in aviation as a flight instructor, but the start of America’s involvement WWII called her in a slightly different direction. As an already well-versed pilot, Rosa Lea was highly sought after by the United States military and it wasn’t long before the young aviatrix became a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol. Required to supply her own airplane and gas, she patrolled the US border and the Gulf of Mexico. When 1943 rolled around, the 20-year-old decided it was time for a change and applied to the WASP. The seasoned flyer that she was, Rosa Lea was accepted without hesitation into the WASP class 43-W4. When she showed up for training in Sweet Water, Texas, the organization was plagued by some early stage uncertainties; Nobody was sure how exactly to categorize the WASP trainees nor did there exist an official uniform. Rosa Lea had racked up far more flying time than most if not all women in her class, and even surpassed her instructor in flying hours, having herself achieved an impressive 280 at that point. Still, she was obligated to undergo ground training in view of her youth. Six months later, in August 1943, Rosa Lea graduated from training.
For her first posting as an official WASP, Rosa Lea chose to become one of the Fifth Ferry Command, reporting to Love Field in Dallas. Her choice was motivated in no small part by a fear that she would be given a “clunker” plane to fly at most locations, since women were not always highly esteemed by those in charge. She knew that they at least made AT8’s in Dallas. Once at Love Field, she was first assigned a PT19 plane to perform her duty, which consisted of flying around the United States delivering airplanes between bases. During this period, she would also fly a selection of aircraft including BT13’s, C45’s, twin engine Beechcrafts and AT6’s, which she dearly loved.
Rosa Lea was persuaded to attend Officer Training and pursuit school, the latter of which afforded her the chance to fly C47s, P47s, P39s, and P40s (which she pronounced the sturdiest and easiest to operate). Following her pursuit school training, Rosa Lea assumed new responsibilities ferrying fighter planes across the country, usually picking them up at Arlington and flying them to training schools or else to Newark or Long Beach where they would be shipped out as needed. The limited luggage space in these single seat fighters forced her to be creative; “I had to carry a map case so I put an extra shirt, a pair of socks, and underwear in there,” she explained, adding “Sometimes you’d be gone for two or three weeks with same uniform on.”
Rosa Lea’s nearly two-year tenure as a WASP would end in December of 1944 when she and her peers were dismissed from their duties as the organization came to an abrupt end. As she recalled, the women were instructed to “Go home, get married, have kids,” a rather cavalier end to the years of dedicated service that she and others like her contributed but one that nonetheless signified a logical next step for many former WASP.
On March 13, 1945, Rosa Lea married Carl D. Meek Sr., a Navy pilot from her hometown of McAllen, Texas. Together, the two went on to purchase the Kerrville Flying Service out of the Texas airport of the same name. The business became a family effort when Pop Fullwood’s mechanical skills were enlisted by the young couple, and even the supportive-but-airsick Buna joined in eventually to lend her services as a ground crew member and cook. Although the owners of the new flight school put in efforts to grow it within the community, a shortage of students made things difficult for the family, who, at one point were reduced to living in the rundown classroom of the facility. Rosa Lea found that her WASP past had repercussions within the community; “I found out real quickly that Kerrville was an old-fashioned town and they did not like military women”, she noted later. “I had that to overcome. So I didn’t talk about it. I mean, there are people I have known for years who only now realize what I did…the WACs had a better reputation, and they figured any women in the military had a horrible reputation.”
Rosa Lea and Carl pursued a number of business ventures together including aviation, real estate, cable television, ranching, and property development. After their divorce in 1967, Rosa Lea would move on to various career and personal adventures. She started her own real estate firm (Rosa Lea Realty, Rosa Lea Meek, Realtor) and bought and sold commercial and residential properties in several Texas cities. Rosa Lea continued to fly airplanes, long into the 1990's, accumulating nearly 5,000 hours of flight over her long career. In September 1988, she had married Arthur Dickerson and their combined families grew to seven children and more than twenty-six grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which kept them very busy! She also took up dancing as a hobby.
Rosa Lea's daughter Janet Meek recalls that some of her mother's last days were spent in the hospital under less than ideal conditions; “Even as late as August she was being denied care at San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) because she was considered a civilian. She was care-flighted there after she ruptured her spleen only because they accept a limited number of civilians in their trauma unit. As soon as she left ICU their orders were ‘stabilize and transfer’ and one military doctor rudely remarked ‘What is SHE doing in MY hospital?’ But it really turned heads in the ICU when her physicians were making rounds one day and talking about her ‘swallowing issue’ and I told them that she had a hiatal hernia from pulling G's flying military aircraft! They all took a different view of the ‘little old lady’ in the hospital bed after that.”
On October 23, 2016, Rosa Lea Fullwood Meek Dickerson passed away at the home of her daughter Janet, ending 94 years of vibrant life and service. Her efforts and contributions as a WASP, although often unacknowledged in past years, afforded her military benefits and Air Force honors at her graveside service. For Rosa Lea, a bold and courageous woman who defied convention, pursued her dreams, and aided her country in the face of personal risk, such gestures are both richly deserved and long overdue in their recognition of service, sacrifice, and courage.
(All photos by permission of the family of Rosa Lea Fullwood Meek Dickerson)