Sunday, December 29, 2013



 By Rose Moore, news columnist, blogger, IWASM life member

(Blogger's note: This week I have learned that the history of WASP will be honored in the Rose Bowl parade. Watch for the float! If you are among those who still don't know much about the WASP and their important role in World War II, the following article should be of help).

     A very special gold medal arrived in February 2011 at the International Women's Air & Space Museum (IWASM) at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, and the museum treasures that acquisition. It holds great meaning for the museum and the history of women in aviation. It holds great meaning as well in our own Lake County, Ohio, paying honor as it does to the late Margaret "Marge" Hurlburt of Painesville.
     "Marge's Medal" is what many of us have taken to calling that wonderfully minted piece of gold, which was donated to the museum by the Hurlburt family. When the Congressional Medal of Honor was approved by Congress in 2009, in tribute to the group of World War II women known as WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilots), a tiny copy of the master medal was presented to each of these women who, for many years, had remained unheralded, unrecognized and unthanked.
     At the time of the approval, only a few hundred of the thousand-plus WASP women were still living, and so the majority of WASP women, like Hurlburt, received the award post mortem. Many of the still-living WASP women attended the White House ceremony in March 2010 to personally receive their medals.
     WASP WAS FOUNDED in the early days of World War II by famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran, working with General Hap Arnold, Chief of Army Air Forces, to fill an urgent wartime need. In fact, WASP itself was actually Cochran's own brain child, and she was successful in selling that idea to the general.
     As military planes were rolling off American assembly lines in great numbers, there seemed to be no way to ferry them to military bases; most male pilots were already at war. Cochran saw the country's female pilots as the answer to the problem, and soon the women of WASP were valiantly serving our military---performing such duties as ferrying aircraft, testing airplanes, instructing male pilots and towing practice targets.
     They came from all walks of life; minimum age of 18, with private pilot licenses and at least 200 hours of flying time. What they had in common was a passion for flying and a deep sense of patriotism.
      They underwent a rigorous military training program; and they served their country well.  They provided their own uniforms, and when at least 38 of these women were killed in the line of duty, they were buried at the expense of family and friends. There was no flag and no military ceremony to commemorate their sacrifice and service. A fellow WASP would be the only presence to accompany the casket home and deliver the news to the family, and the expense of transport would be covered by a collection taken among the WASP women themselves.
     When the war was over and the women were seen as no longer needed, WASP was deactivated and their records were classified and sealed. They simply went home, at their own expense.There would be no Veterans' Benefits; no GI bill for schooling; no low-interest housing loans... History in fact would ignore them. Their flying records were as good as any male military pilot, and they racked up more than 60 million air miles ferrying bombers and fighters and other military aircraft, but they were treated as if they had never existed.
      Nonetheless, any of us who had ever met or been a friend of one of these women came to realize they were proud of their service and thankful for the opportunity to serve. Not until 1977 would Congress finally declare them as veterans, and not until 1979 would official acceptance of that status come from Air Force officials.
    AS FOR OUR MARGE HURLBURT herself, her roots were deep in Lake County. She was born and raised in Painesville, graduated from Harvey High School and became a teacher at the old Champion Junior High and for a time at Lake Erie College. She also had important history with Willoughby, Ohio, learning to fly and earning her private pilot license out of the old Willoughby Air Field off Euclid Avenue.
    She was recruited into WASP by Jackie Cochran in 1942. After basic training, the same Jackie Cochran would personally present Hurlburt with her WASP wings, at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX. After a nine-week course in flying B-26s at Dodge City, KS, Hurlburt became a spokesperson for a WASP group sent to Peterson Field in Colorado, where she towed targets for B-24 gunners. Next she went to Great Bend Army Air Base in Kansas, towing targets and checking out B-17s for Navy radar training. To this point as a WASP, she had logged 300 hours.
      After WASP was deactivated, she talked four of her former WASP colleagues into joining her in Ohio to obtain their flight instructor ratings. Years later, at the age of 89, the now-deceased Herb Tanner of Tanner Flying Service at Willoughby would tell me about the day Hurlburt and her friends first arrived at his airport.
     "I saw a cloud of dust moving down the road, and from it emerged a convertible full of pretty young women," he recalled. "I had posted a sign for instructors, and these five women were there to apply. I jumped at the chance and hired them all... They were bright, and Marge was the brightest. She could fly anything from B-17s to the little single-seaters at our field... I signed her on to teach ground school and meteorology too!"
     By 1946, Hurlburt was the only one of the women still on staff, Tanner said, noting that two male pilots (Dick Cook and Gil Cargill) had begun to teach her aerobatics in the AT-6. When she signed up to compete in the Women's Halle Trophy Race at Cleveland Air Races, Tanner paid the $75 fee; Thermatic Co. of Willoughby agreed to pay for the gas; and Cook and Cargill spent weeks waxing and polishing the AT-6, and teaching Hurlburt the fine points of pylon racing.
     Their faith in her was rewarded by her victory. In a New York designer flight suit, her curly hair still tousled from the race, she accepted the trophy and $2,500 cash from Sam Halle of Halle Brothers and was grandly feted in a downtown celebration.
     Later that same year she was part of a ferry flight of 100 women delivering new Piper aircraft from Lock Haven, PA, and was also named to the Board of Directors of the Professional Race Pilots Association, to represent the interests of female pilots.
     In 1947, she wrested the women's flight-speed record from her friend and former boss, Jackie Cochran, who had held the 292.27 mph record since 1937. Hurlburt's friend, aviator and air racer Cook Cleland of Willoughby, provided his FG-1 Corsair for the race. Hurlburt was sponsored by Painesville businessmen Miles Whaley, Thane Durey, Bob Mallett, Ralph Miller, Don Landphair and Bill Wyman. In gratitude, the plane was painted with the name "City of Painesville" in their honor, and it was displayed in the town square.
     Hurlburt's top speed of 352.194 earned her the international women's flight-speed record. The media proclaimed her as America's Queen of the Air; Jimmy Dudley dubbed her America's Fastest Woman Flyer; and Chance Voight, builder of the Corsair, declared her performance to be "slightly on the miraculous side."
    HURLBURT'S BARNSTORMING career after the war was born of her desire to finance a midget-racing promotion and go for the gold at the $25,000 Goodyear Trophy Race at Cleveland. To come up with money to build the racer, she signed on with the "Flying Tigers" aerial circus.
     On July 4, 1947 at Decorah, Iowa, she began her performance in a borrowed AT-6; her own had been damaged by a student pilot earlier in the week. In the middle of what appeared to be a slow roll, the plane dived and crashed, and she died instantly. Her death was listed nationwide, even among the "Milestones" in the July 14 Time Magazine.
     Her funeral service was held July 7 at Spear Funeral home in Painesville, and she was buried in Section B, Row 10, Stone 8 at Painesville's historic Evergreen Cemetery.     
     I have visited her grave, and I have smiled to see an airplane etched onto her rose-colored tombstone. I was pleased to see that, long before public acknowledgement was ever given to the women of WASP, Marge Hurlburt's monument carried the W.A.S.P. initials, engraved in large letters.
     I have also visited her artifacts, carefully preserved in the research library at IWASM. Her collection in the archives includes such things as her scrapbooks and news clippings, her Corsair model plane, leather flying helmet, log book, U.S. and international pilot licenses;... and the small childhood hand-puppet that had been her talisman on every flight, including her last.
     As a writer and a woman who encountered some disapproval when I began my own flying lessons in the mid-1960s (long after Marge Hurlburt's more significant history), I was especially moved to read the articles she had written and submitted to national magazines. Her writings about the joy of flying would have been great inspiration for other young women, but they never saw the light of day.
     Notations with these articles bore proof of editors' rejections from such magazines as Life and Look and Ladies Home Journal. The reasons for rejection? The editors wrote that they enjoyed the articles and recognized Hurlburt's writing skills and worthiness for publication. But they were convinced their family-style readers were "not yet ready to accept the writings of a woman pilot."
    Now "Marge's Medal" lies in the International Women's Air & Space Museum, and the master-minted WASP Congressional Medal of Honor can be seen in the Smithsonian. Both provide final certification of the W.A.S.P. initials etched upon the Hurlburt monument.
     It's unfortunate that Margaret Hurlburt did not receive the proper recognition in her lifetime, but her family and community took great pride in her and strongly supported her efforts. And upon her early death, they saw to it that the proper recognition was etched onto her monument.