Our Uber driver pulls up outside the WASP museum. All the way here, he’s been generous in sharing information about the history and the surrounding landscape. I’ve taken hundreds of photographs through the car window and the first pages of my notebook are already filled with scratchy notes- the stunted trees out here are called Mesquite trees, we’ve driven by fields of cotton, and now, we’re at the airfield, the former home of the WASP. Flat, dry land stretches as far as the eye can see.
The statue outside the hangar is a silhouette of three young women arriving at the training camp. They are holding suitcases, wearing skirts, like any girl in the 1940s would. Later, that scene explodes into life in my book. Eva and Nina meet Helena right here, like this.
Inside, there is a bookstore just in the entrance. I resist getting distracted there, but know I’ll be riveted by it after my visit, and a guide takes us inside the museum. I’ve deliberately come here fresh, unbiased. I have some themes I want to explore, but I’m open to fresh ideas.
And the first thing the museum guide tells us? I’ve got it written down in my little book. She tells me that the WASP flew every type of plane the Air Force had with no benefits. That was in her words.
What she tells me next, starts to form the skeleton of a story in my head.
The guide says that these young women, mostly in their twenties, some as young as eighteen, came to train for months out here at Sweetwater, between 1943 and 1944, how they all knew how to fly planes, they had to be citizens of the US, they had to be 5’3″ to pass the test to become a WASP, and a lot of them came from California and Texas. She says they bought their own uniforms, and flew seventy-eight different types of planes.
Thirty eight lost their lives, and they could not have a flag over their coffins. She says, nevertheless, they flew where they had to fly.
She tells me that the barracks where they lived were behind the hangar where we are standing, and that the barracks burned down, but there remains a wishing well, the hangar and a memorial to them. She tells me how the girls went into Sweetwater to the swimming pool, and shopping downtown in a cattle trailer, that took them around these parts. She says they were not allowed to date, but some of them did date instructors…
She tells me that they flew six million hours and sixty million miles.
She leaves us to explore the hangar. A couple of training planes lure me and I can’t resist going straight toward them. We wander through a simulated school room, where the girls undertook ground school. Movingly, rows of the women’s handprints, imprinted in clay, and photos of them, along with bios run up and down one section. My daughter starts reading them all, and is fascinated by their lives, by what they did after the war.
There are videos running showing the girls training, timelines of the fight with Congress for militarisation up on the wall, a Link Trainer, collections and stories, the Gold Congressional Medal that Barak Obama approved for the WASP on July 1st, 2009. And, of course, tributes to Jacqueline Cochran, the famous aviator who was the head of the WASP and Hap Arnold, the head of the Air Force during the war.
By four o’clock in the afternoon, I’m still going. I’m still peering at planes, reading articles, taking frenzied notes. We’ve shared pizza with the museum staff, and it’s been sub zero in here all day. Close to closing time, our guide from the morning appears next to me and hugs me. Spontaneously. She says she’s never seen someone spend so long here.
The Executive Director, of the museum, Ann Hobing, comes back from a meeting, and asks me if I’d like to sit in a World War Two plane. She shows me how to climb on the wing, and I get inside. I am mesmerised. To sit here, feel even a tiny part of what these brave women felt, is an honor.
Ann and I talk and talk, and after closing, I have bought armfuls of books and she offers to take my daughter and I out for dinner. Ann drives us around to the site of the WASP’s home, which was burned down after the war. It is whimsical, moving, standing here, staring out at the place where, for two brief years, these women knew what it was to fly.
We see the fountain in the place where the WASP used to dunk each other after their first solo flight, and, movingly, a memorial to them. Ann tells me how the names of the pilots who did not graduate training school are on the memorial as well as the ones who did, which, she says, is lovely. They had to endure military style training for months out here- many, understandably washed out.
Ann takes us to a local Texan restaurant- the food is gorgeous, and we are served by a local boy wearing a cowboy hat. It’s so fun. And we talk, and talk. I’m starting to form a story in my head. We’re getting into themes and I’m excited.
The next morning, Ann insists on driving us all the way back to Dallas. She says, she cannot bear the thought of us travelling back in a bus again. Gorgeously, she is at our hotel at 9am and she takes me to the Texas Women’s University, where we pour over the WASP collection. They have archives, diaries. I take thousands more photos. We have lunch. I know Ann is going to become a friend.
Like those women, Ann has come out here to live, to promote the WASP, to direct this remarkable museum for these forgotten women who deserved so much more recognition at the end of the war.
So many of them, Ann tells me, were escaping tricky lives. She says that their story is a testament to the fact that when women pull together, they find empowerment in friendship.
Next blog, I want to write about how powerful that friendship was.