In December of 1943 my mother, who then went by, Elinor Fairchild, received a letter from Jaqueline Cochran, Director of Women Pilots of The War Department, letting her know that it looked as if they would have room for Elinor in the next WASP training class slated to begin, January 9, 1944.
I can almost imagine how she may have felt tearing open the envelope that held the news—anxious—and then the acceptance she longed for was real. The letter arrived one week before her 19th birthday and 9 months after she had begun the first in a series of flying lessons in Stormville, New York.
The paperwork, the three letters of reference, the physical, the blessing of her parents; were all checked from her to-do list. And in January of 1944, Elinor Fairchild, at barely 19 years of age, headed to Sweetwater, Texas, home of Avenger Field and base camp to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (known as WASP) in training.
But along with learning to fly she would also come to know heartache. Four month into her training one of her bay mates was killed in a head on collision.
In a letter to her then fiancé, she wrote about the experience:
Lon- I am here in Amarillo waiting to take the 10:15 PM train to Denver where I will take the train from Union Station to Seattle, Washington because the day before yesterday one of my bay mates was killed in a head on collision in an AT-6 with a girl from another class. And I being her closest friend or rather one of her friends who has enough time on At-6’s not to be washed back a class by going—have been sent as the escort to take her home. It is going to be so hard for her parents. Lon she was so alive and so young—23 but seemed just a baby, and it was her first time out in the area solo.
The anguish she goes on to express, is hard to fathom at 19, sadly it would not be the last of the heartache for my mother. Later another dear friend, also a WASP, would be killed in training too.
My mother wrote a poem in memoriam for both women:
You have worn dreams as
Stressed to the wide
Enchantment of sky,
Thrilling to beauty in uncharted
Corridors of air…you have found tomorrow
High in the silent places of the blue
Under the shadow of much stronger wings.
You have seen sunlight in the day, and
Woven it with streamers of white cloud
Spilling golden laughter on the earth.
God has showered silver in the night and
We who stand below look up to see the
Poetry of wings against the bright
Sharp stream of stars pouring into the
Sorrow of the dark…
On August 4, 1944, the Class of 44-W-6, graduated from training, after they were assigned to their respective posts and Elinor headed to Grand Island, Nebrasksa. While at Grand Island, she flew twin engine and four-engined planes on administrative missions carrying parts and personnel all over the country. Included in her trips was a confidential mission where she flew to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
My mother was trained on numerous planes, her favorite of which was the famous Flying Fortress, also known as a B-17. She also learned to fly the, UC-45, AT-6 and served as a co-pilot of the B-25.
In November of the same year, my mother was served devastating news, Lon’s plane had been shot down and while parachuting from the wreckage he was shot and killed by the Japanese.
I think of my mother, as a young woman not even 20, and the losses she absorbed in such a short time. When I would ask her about her experience as a WASP she would say things like: I did it out of a sense of duty, it was just what we did back then.
The WASP group was ultimately disbanded—their service no longer needed–I imagine her, over 500 flight hours logged, with not even as much as a thank you, the Army sent her, along with the other women, all home.
Gathering in DC as a family to witness the ceremony is one of my fondest memories—there she was, at 85 years old, wearing the same uniform she wore at 19—all of her children, one nephew and the wonderful gentleman friend she met after my dad died, by her side. Truly it was an epic day, one mixed with a deep love for my family and a sense of unwavering patriotism…
My mother was a courageous and resilient woman, she served her country and asked for nothing in return, qualities that even in her absence, I admire deeply.