by Logan Walker
It was over eighty years ago on a day in Connellsville, Pennsylvania that Florence “Shutsy” Reynolds’ father informed her and her siblings that they should figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. “You’re too young”, he added, turning to his youngest, 7 year old Florence. When, undaunted, she answered “Dad, I want to learn to fly”, she was met with peals of laughter. It would take the passage of many years and the onset of a war, but Florence would have the last laugh.
Growing up in Connellsville, Florence Reynolds was fascinated with machines of flight, consuming every book about aviation that she could get her hands on and building hundreds of model airplanes with her brothers. Although her family was supportive of her ambitions, she was keenly aware of the limits of the society that she would need to pursue a career in as she graduated from high school. “It was a time when women were not even encouraged to go to work, let alone fly airplanes” Reynolds herself explained. Women in the workforce were expected to be nurses, schoolteachers or stenographers, but Florence chose to take aviation courses at a ground school.
In a class with forty men, many of whom were on their second or third attempt to pass examinations, she was unsure about her chances of making it into the five highest testing students, the requisite qualification for receiving a flight scholarship. Nonetheless, she took the classes, and emerged in the coveted top five, winning herself a scholarship and a chance at a career in the sky.
Even after this hurdle was crossed, Reynolds would have to fight to defend her hard won victory; staff members attempted to convince her to give up her scholarship spot to a lower-achieving male student, informing her that with the war coming up, men were needed in aviation rather than women who “(didn’t) fly”. An unimpressed Reynolds refused to yield the honor, replying “It’s mine, I earned it, by damn I’m gonna get it”. She did, and soon entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Connellsville Airport, becoming within a year the first female to receive a pilot’s license at the facility. Before receiving her license, Reynolds was required to sign a document promising that she would join the aviation military service in case of war. “That was a big joke at the airport that day. ‘Girls don’t fly.’ But I signed it. By damn I joined later on.”
It wasn’t long before the newly-licensed Reynolds learned about the WASP program through a news publication, and almost immediately set about petitioning the organization’s founder and director, Jackie Cochran, to accept her as a trainee. Although at 19 she was two years short of meeting the 21 year age requirement of all WASP members, Florence wrote to Cochran every week (the age limit would eventually be lowered). Finally, perhaps worn down by her persistence, she received a telegram inviting her to travel to Cleveland and then Harrisburg for an interview and physical, culminating in a final summons to the training ground at Avenger Field in December of 1943.
Having traveled all along on her own expense, Reynolds was met with some hard realities on her arrival in Texas, when an Army officer informed her, “You know of course, if you were a male you would be insured by the government, but because you’re an experiment, we’re keeping you on civilian status. You’ll have no insurance.” Later in her training, Reynolds would remember the mother of a fallen WASP visiting the base and reading aloud to a group of trainees the telegram she had recently received from the government. Florence remembered that it simply said "'Your daughter was killed this morning, where do we ship the body?’ I was floored. That didn’t mean I was going to quit, that thought never entered my mind. But this is what we lived with.”
Life at Avenger Field may not have been for everyone, but Reynolds adjusted to it with alacrity. Despite the tight living conditions that the girls found themselves in (“Can you imagine 12 girls getting up at 6 in the morning and sharing 1 bathroom?”), Florence found no element of competition among her fellow trainees. Instead, she and her WASP comrades found themselves exchanging information and forming friendships, some of which long outlived the end of the war. “The training was exactly like the men’s. And our living environment was also military…I fell in love with it, I loved military life. I thought it was great.”
Widely considered less than great were the makeshift WASP uniforms or “zoot-suits” as they were nicknamed among the girls. When it came to the limited fashion options of those days, “Nothing fit, they came in three sizes: big, big, and way too big.” When the time came to report measurements for the issuing of uniforms, Reynolds gave her size as a 12, and was met with the response “We have 42, 44 and 46”.
Being a woman in a job field usually occupied by men also had its challenges. “The men resented us and didn’t know what to do with us. You had to prove yourself on every flight,” as Reynolds put it, emphasizing in particular one Army captain who told her during a check ride during her training that “I don’t like women and I don’t like women pilots.”
Florence graduated from the WASP program and found herself transferred to Merced, California, carrying out a series of assignments that included flight testing planes, ferrying aircraft from repair stops, and transporting people and materials for the war effort. Flying consistently, often on more than one assignment a day, gave Florence the opportunity to do what she loved. This activity was in her words, “The closest thing to God. I’ve always felt that way. There’s nothing like it, especially when you’re on a solo flight.” Like so many other WASP, Florence’s daily activities also exposed her to a high level of danger and uncertainty; by her own admission “It was great. But it was hard work. You never knew if you were going to return alive.” In one instance, Florence was flying planes to the scrap yards when she noticed that one aircraft was marked with an "X". Seeing that a form listed the vessel as having a crack in its left wing, she asked the maintenance officer who was overseeing the operation how serious of a problem this could pose. Reynolds remembers that the man merely told her, “‘You either fly or you go home and I won’t talk anymore about it.’ So I flew it. Fortunately it didn’t come apart…He did tell me though, ‘You’ve got to remember, the WASP are expendable.’”
A more tragic mishap occurred in a plane that she assigned to fly one harrowing night. Mid-flight the electric system on the aircraft failed, and her instrument panel and navigation lights refused to work. With her skill, she managed to land the aircraft in the dark, only to learn that the WASP who flew it the next day was killed when the plane’s hydraulic line malfunctioned.
Reynolds received news of the demobilization of the WASP in 1944, before she was set to start training in B-26 bomber planes. Of the sudden disbandment of the program and the subsequent treatment that many WASPs received, Reynolds says that she “…felt betrayed. I mean, they de-activated us before the victory. We felt that we had contributed, even in a little way, we contributed.” Hoping to stay in the field of aviation, she applied for employment with airlines, but none would hire her as anything but a stewardess.
She describes feeling at this time, “like an old piece of garbage thrown away,” and would go on to claim, “After we were disbanded in the summer of 44’, everybody went their own way and took up different careers. Some of them never talked about flying again…nobody believed you anyway.” In her attempt to adjust to life outside of the WASP, Reynolds took on a series of jobs, working in her father’s auto repair shop, as an Army Air Force dispatcher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and operating a flight training simulator in Anchorage, Alaska. She finally settled in Panama with her husband, taking a job at an Air Force office there, where she would remain for 16 years.
In the late 1980’s, following the deaths of her mother and husband, Reynolds drew on previous experience making custom jewelry and began running the WASP stores, designing and producing jewelry, scarves, photographs, prints, and other items themed around the WASP (although she is no longer leading the operation). In 1986 she even designed a WASP flag, decorated with 38 stars to signify the 38 fallen WASP pilots.
These days Reynolds works to promote knowledge about the WASP and the efforts of the many women who made up its ranks. She urges women today to, “keep dreaming. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, and always fly as high as you can.”