by Logan Walker
It was just another Sunday in the waning years of the 1920’s as a plane crossed the sky above Oakland, California, its progress watched by a scattering of casual onlookers on the ground. In an America captivated by the recent exploits of aerial celebrities, the Oakland International Airport would become closely connected to two: dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in1927, it would also serve as the departing point for the first leg of Amelia Earhart’s final flight ten years later.
Amongst the Sunday spectators with their eyes fixed on the Oakland skies was a little girl who would someday make her own contribution to history at the helm of an aircraft. Although young, Maggie Gee would carry the memory of those planes into adulthood, and in turn become not only a member of the WASP but one of only two Chinese-American women to take part in the organization. As a pilot and a woman of Chinese descent, her trajectory would be steeper than many. But not much could stand in the way of Maggie Gee.
Born on August 5, 1923 as Gee Mei Gue, Maggie Gee was born to a Chinese importer and a first generation American daughter of Chinese immigrants who had come to the U.S. as a result of the Taiping Rebellion. Her parents, who met in San Francisco’s Chinatown, soon relocated to Berkeley, where Gee was born and raised.
Growing up, flying took a prominent place in Gee's life; “My heroes were Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. I loved to watch airplanes fly.” Her Sunday trips to the airport would be fondly remembered later in life, when she recalled that “When I was a young girl, the Oakland airport just opened and going [there] was something you’d do on Sundays to watch planes take off. ... You don’t even think about danger when you’re young. You think you’re invincible.” But a tragic dose of mortality hit the Gee family in 1929 when her father died following a heart attack, leaving her mother to the near Herculean task of providing for six children while participating in community and church work.
By the time America entered WWII, Gee was in her first year of college at UC Berkeley, but it wasn’t long before she left school to work in service to the country, relocating to Mare Island Naval Shipyards in Vallejo where she became a draftsman and welder.
Hoping to become a WASP, Gee was nonetheless wary of the cost that accompanied the organization’s policy that all potential candidates hold pilot’s licenses, stating, “I always wanted to fly, but I never thought I could because it was very expensive.” After saving up through her job at the shipyards, she eventually raised the money necessary to take flying lessons in Mindon, Nevada, moving once more since war restrictions meant that private planes could not fly within 150 miles of the West Coast. Six months and eight hundred dollars later, Maggie was equipped with her license and accepted into the WASP training program in Texas as a member of the class 44-W-9. On November 8, 1944, she became one of 55 women in her original class of 107 to earn a pair of wings.
In and out of training, life as a WASP had its own set of challenges and rewards. As Gee recalled, “We had the same training that men had. I got in sort of at the tail end, when they took women who were eighteen years old. I was nineteen, too young to get into the regular service, and I had about fifty hours of flying time. I consider myself very fortunate, that I could do something that I really enjoyed. I felt I was doing something for my country.”
One of Gee’s favorite parts of flight training was the opportunity to fly a wide range of planes, particularly the large B-17 aircraft, which she co-piloted, and the open cockpit biplanes which were agile enough to do acrobatic tricks in. But darker traces of Gee’s ethnic and social identity also made themselves apparent during WASP training and for years after.
Gee's longtime friend Susan Kennedy remembers an incident many years later after she and Gee had finished a hike to Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border. Exhausted, she had suggested that they take a dinner cruise on boat in the lake, and been surprised when the usually adventurous Maggie seemed uncomfortable. It was then that the former WASP explained that growing up as a Chinese-American in Berkeley, she had been prohibited from swimming in public or school pools which were at that time were available only to white people. Susan remembers, “I was astounded at this and asked Maggie if she ever learned to swim. Maggie told me that as uncomfortable as she had been, she had learned to swim to become a WASP and that during WASP training they were required to jump into water and swim with their packs on. This sounded like a standard military exercise that most of the WASPs had probably experienced as physically challenging indeed. But it struck me that very few of them had to re-live the blatantly racist exclusion from learning to swim as a child and the permanent deep discomfort around water that Maggie had to face.”
After graduation from training, Maggie Gee was assigned to tow target pilots for flexible gunnery training at Los Vegas Army Airfield in Nevada. A particularly dangerous job, she was in the immediate midst of very real gunfire every day in the air, despite the fact that she was far from a war zone. “They just seemed to treat the women a little differently,” Gee stated of her time working in Los Vegas, adding “Most of the fellows, when they towed targets they were shot at by cameras. The women at this particular airbase were shot at with live ammunition.”
Gender-based friction was another element that Maggie lived with as a WASP. On the attitudes of some men in the military toward female pilots, she stated, “Some of the men weren’t sure we were ready for this. Women wouldn’t put up with that now, but that was a different time.” In a slightly less diplomatic mood, she admitted, “If I consider some of the abuse that we took from men at that time, getting out wasn’t that bad. Then, the men didn’t figure it as abuse-that’s the way the world was and it’s fine.”
Before long, Gee's tenure as a WASP ended when the organization was disbanded in December 1944. In her estimation, this too had roots in gender politics; “Being disbanded before the war was over, it was really kind of a sexist thing,” said the former aviatrix many years later. “There were so many pilots coming back, male pilots, coming back from…England, and they saw these women flying, they said ‘they should be home. They should be home having babies,’ and so they pressured Congress to disband us after the war.” Gee's career in aviation would never resume, but instead she would embark on a long, varied and impressively accomplished life planted firmly on the ground in both her hometown and abroad. “Flying was something I did,” Gee put simply, “and then I moved on.”
In the aftermath of the WASP disbandment, Gee returned to UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in physics. She spent several years in the mid-1950s living in Europe where she had a front row seat to the post-war rebuilding efforts and the stirrings of the Cold War abroad. Returning to America she settled once again in Berkeley where she continued her career in science, studying and working at UC Berkeley and the University’s Livermore Lab putting her research efforts toward cancer, fusion energy and nuclear weapons design among other fields. Speaking on her later career as a scientist, Gee said, “I was just a generalist I guess, I thought it was interesting whatever I had assigned to do. I liked assignments and I didn’t mind being moved around within that group of people.”
The other consuming interest of Gee’s later life was politics. During the Truman administration, she became an active and tireless worker for the Democratic party, serving as a member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee and a Board member/Treasurer for the Berkeley Democratic Club, as well as on the California Democratic Party Executive Board and the Asian Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus. In her efforts to improve voter participation, friends recall Gee’s fierce commitment and willingness to roll up her sleeves and become involved in the mostmundane tasks such as registering new voters. In the words of Susan Kennedy, “Maggie was an incredible example of community service and volunteered often for whatever needed to be done-the rent board, the committee to underground utilities, the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Community Fund.”
Many who knew Gee agree that she rarely spoke about her accomplishments or her time as a WASP, preferring to avoid self-aggrandizing or dwelling on the past. But when the WASP were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, Maggie was present in Washington, DC. Remembered by her nephew Dale Chung as “one of her proudest moments”, Gee would remark to him after the occasion that she could now “go in peace.”
By her 86th birthday party Maggie Gee’s accomplishments were drawn into sharp focus as she was hailed by a party attended by “everybody in Berkeley politics” complete with a personal congratulatory note from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a flag flown through the air above the nation’s capital. She passed away on February 1, 2013 at the age of 89, having been hailed as “an icon of public service”, receiving a litany of awards and citations for her work in politics, and inspiring a children’s book based on her life, Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee by Marissa Moss.
Looking back on her career as a pilot, Gee once offered this final appraisal: “I learned from the flying experience that if there’s something you really want to do, pursue it. I wouldn’t listen to others who say you can’t do it. I would consider it a bigger challenge.”
Special thanks to Susan Kennedy and Dale Chung
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