by Logan Walker
"I took off long ago to fly the skies of life.. And I climbed through clouds of happiness.. Along with storms of strife... And I enjoyed each moment… Whether VFR or not… For God is my instructor… And I am his student… To be taught. Lo, whether I’m 'on instruments'... Or the skies are cloudless blue… I’ll meet each challenge I encounter… With faith and courage too. For my Tutor has been patient... And He’s helped me file 'flight plans.' I know my 'final landing'... Is in His precious hands.”
So reads the quote inscribed by a classmate in the opening pages of a WASP class reunion booklet. Although the author and intended speaker remain undisclosed, such a poem could be said to aptly describe the book’s owner, Catherine Parker Chatham, whose days as a WASP were filled with “flight plans” and “final landings”. Chatham's days of scaling the cloudless blue skies were not lacking in challenges nor the courage to meet them either.
A descendant of some of the first European settlers in Brazos County, Texas, Chatham was born in the city of Bryan. Her father, the owner of Parker Lumber Company, was a flight enthusiast who passed his passion to his daughter at an early age; “When a barnstormer would land and take people on rides, he, my mother and all of the children, no matter how small we were, would take turns flying. It was such an exhilarating experience that after graduation from Stephen F. Austin High in 1938, I went to work at this new airfield outside of town called Coulter Field,” Chatham recalled. Such a career move was largely strategic, since the burgeoning pilot knew the work would “…pay for flight lessons and flight time after I got my license. After the war broke out, I continued to work at Coulter Field until I decided to join the WASP.”
For Chatham, who longed for adventure and to join the ranks of her brothers and boyfriend who were already participating in the war effort, the prospect of flying in service of her country was irresistible. After applying for the program, Chatham received a physical and was sent to San Antonio for an official interview.
“After I was accepted, I got my 'draft notice' and I was sent to Sweetwater, Texas for flight school,” Chatham stated, adding, “We had the same training as the males. We had navigation classes, meteorology classes, ground school and flight school. We marched to ground school. We marched to the flight line. We marched to meals. I don’t think I have ever worked as hard, before or since, but I wanted so much to finish.”
The trials of WASP training were made clear to the young aviatrix as her time in Sweetwater wore on. Class 44-W-9 began with 110 eager recruits yet only 55 women graduated, as difficult training regiments and dangerous plane maneuvers drew many away and even ended the lives of two classmates. As Chatham noted, “One of my friends made it almost to the end of training when she said, 'I can’t do this anymore.' When the men washed out, they were sent to the infantry. When the women washed out, they were sent home.”
After her successful completion of the training program, Chatham promptly found herself assigned to Marana Airbase in Tucson, Arizona. There she completed check flights for pilots and engineered flight checks on newly repaired planes, flying mainly the BT-13 aircraft. The independence and adventure of a pilot’s lifestyle suited her. Years later her nephew Marshall Parker remembered that his aunt “…wore slacks back before women ever wore slacks…had a crop haircut, and was pretty independent.” Chatham remained active in her WASP duties until the organization was disbanded at the end of 1944.
Life after the WASP provided new adventures for Chatham, who moved back to Bryan, Texas and began working at the photography business of future husband Roland, a former combat photographer. Together the two created a collection of photographs that are currently in the archives of Texas A&M University’s Cushing Library. Aside from indexing the business’s photographs, Chatham made use of her piloting skills in her post-war career, flying herself and Roland over the cities of Bryan and College Station while the latter took aerial photos. The couple, who frequently raced antique British automobiles together, married in their sixties, a subject of much jest for Chatham who commented, “I guess you could say I married the boss.”
As her niece Candy Thompson explained, “My aunt always said as a joke that they decided to get married because she was pregnant. But the truth is, he was a photographer she had known and worked together with all her life in the studio, and when he had a stroke, she said she wouldn’t move in with him to take care of him unless they were married.”
For Chatham, who devoted much of her time to her church, St Andrews Episcopal, and community service efforts, official recognition of her wartime efforts finally came in 2010 when she was given the Congressional Gold Medal for her services as a WASP. In a uniquely fitting gesture, she bypassed the many politicians who volunteered to award her the medal personally, insisting instead that she receive it from a modern female pilot. Air Force Major Katherine Burkhead, a B-52 pilot with more than 300 hours of combat flying over Afghanistan was given that honor.
On August 25, 2016, six years after receiving her Congressional Gold Medal, Catherine Chatham passed away at the age of 95, in her hometown of Bryan, Texas. She is deeply mourned and fondly remembered, even by those who knew her fleetingly like Burkhead, who was among the attendees at her funeral. To Chatham’s niece Candy and nephew Marshall, the duties of cleaning out their aunt’s St. Joseph Manor Apartment yielded surprising results when they discovered a trove of WASP related artifacts, including pilot logs, journals, and a medal from political figures including Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner. Remembering her aunt, Thompson notes, “If you knew Catherine, you loved her, you couldn’t help yourself.” Thompson’s description of her aunt might serve as a fitting epithet for a woman known by those close to her for her independence and irrepressible love of flying. She said, “Catherine was a free spirit. I think that’s why she and I are close and bonded a lot of our lives. She got into piloting because she said she had the feeling, the freedom of flying.”