'Hot-rod Jockey' visits Preston library
Wednesday, May 14, 2014 3:13 AM
Residents of the Preston area gathered at the Preston Public Library on Friday, May 9, to hear the first-hand account of Virginia Mae Hope, a pilot in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
Minnesota Historical Society History Player Melissa Freidmann portrayed WASP pilot Virginia Mae Hope at the Preston Public Library on Friday, May 9. BRETTA GRABAU/REPUBLICAN-LEADER
Sharing Hope's story was Minnesota Historical Society History Player Melissa Freidmann.
Portraying Hope as a character, Freidmann told her story by starting sharing stories from her youth, growing up on a farm in Winnebago during the Great Depression. As an only child, Hope preferred hunting and fishing rather than wearing dresses. She was, admittedly, a tomboy. It did not really help that many of the dresses she had to wear to school were made out of 100-pound flour sacks with a decent pattern. She would rather play the mechanic than sew.
Since she was an only child, her cousin, Lyle, proved to be as close to her as a brother. While they grew up, Hope loved to go fast. When she drove a car, after starting out the driveway nice and slow, she floored the gas immediately afterwards. Lyle sat in the next seat, white as a sheet. Thus, she earned the nickname "Hot-rod Jockey."
But one thing was faster than cars - airplanes. After World War I, love for planes spread like wildfire across the nation. Not only men, but women began to fly, although women were often looked down upon for pursuing that dream. But more on that later.
Flyers like Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhardt and Lillian Boyer influenced Hope's dreams of one day flying. In the 1920s, Boyer participated in the many airshows across the country. Boyer would hang from the wings of the biplanes and have a second plane flying next to hers then jump from one plane to another. When Hope saw some of the crazy stunts this woman did, she wanted to do them as well.
Once in college, Hope enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) Program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt began this program to begin training pilots for the impending war. In 1939, America had already been through World War I and wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe. But FDR realized there was a very good chance the United States would not be able to stay out of the war and that one of the key weapons for victory would be the airplane. His goal with the CPT program was to train pilots for war without them realizing it.
His solution for disguising the purpose of the program was to allow women into the program. One woman was admitted for every 10 men. This motivated more men to join the program at the same time, allowing more women in as well.
In 1941, Hope flew her first solo flight and obtained her license. She was especially proud of this during a time when most women did not even have a driver's license.
Later on that year came the event that catapulted America into the war - the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR reiterated to the country that every man, woman and child was to fight the war in different capacities - any way they could. Children fought the war by cleaning their plate and not wasting food. Women worked in factories or planted Victory Gardens, just to name a few. Men flocked to the recruitment offices.
At that time, Hope was employed at the airport in Minneapolis as an air traffic controller. However, she wanted to fly planes. One woman, Jacqueline Cochran came up with just the job Hope had dreamed of. Cochran had flown airplanes over to Britain prior to America's entry into the war. There, she volunteered her services to take over flying for commercial reasons in order to free up male pilots to fight the Nazis.
When America entered the war, Cochran worked with the commanding general of the Air Force, Gen. Hap Arnold, to form the WASP Program. Hope applied for the program three times and spoke to Cochran herself before being accepted. This was because they felt her position at the airport was so important, they did not want to take her away.
Finally, she found herself in Sweetwater, Texas, for pilot's training the military way. The first day, when all the women had gathered, their male instructor walked up and announced, "We are here to see if women are strong enough to fly airplanes. We are here to see if women are smart enough to fly airplanes," and left.
This left an angry group of women since each and every one of them had to have a pilot's license before they could even enter the program. From then on, Hope and the other women put their best foot forward.
Unfortunately, the women often got the leftovers in the supplies. Their flight suits were made for men and many, many sizes too big. Jumping into a hot shower with the suits on did not solve their problem either. They had to pay for their uniforms and make sure never to wear their uniform pants in an officer's club.
A group of women were arrested for "impersonating an officer" when a policeman saw them walking down the street to find food.
The planes they flew were also leftovers. They were red-lined planes no longer fit for active duty.
For several months, the WASPs went through check flights with instructors to advance through the airplanes or they were washed out of the program. Hope was the first woman to finish her solo flight. She graduated in 1943 in the seventh women's class to graduate, or the 43W7.
After graduation, she was assigned to Patterson Base in Ohio. As she was the only woman there, she was often handed paperwork. But her real job was to ferry any brass going through the base to their next stops at other bases. Once she flew over her hometown of Winnebago. Being the only one in the plane, she caught the attention of her friends and family by diving straight toward Main Street, shaking the glass window, pulling up at the last second and waving her wings in hello.
In 1944, the WASPs pushed for military status from Congress. Up until that point they had been classified as civilian volunteers. The problem at that time, however, was the war was turning into a ground war and many male pilots were returning home and wanting their jobs back. Congress received much pressure from these men and thus, refused military status for the WASPs.
Hope had been in Florida receiving officer's training in anticipation of militarization, but when this did not happen, Cochran shut down the organization. Many of the female pilots looked for other flying jobs or began flight schools. Most never few again.
Hope was one of the lucky ones to keep on flying. One night as she flew, bad weather forced her down at Omaha, Neb. There, she sent a letter to her parents saying she would be back for Christmas. Then, she and 16 other pilots boarded a plane leaving Omaha. The plane exploded on take-off and all on board perished.
That day was Dec. 7, 1944, the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Word reached Hope's parents in a very distressing way. Neighbors heard of the explosion over the radio and went to tell her parents. That was also the day they had received her letter saying she would be home for Christmas.
Years passed before the WASPs were really acknowledged for their war efforts. One day, one WASP saw a commercial that said women were flying in the Air Force for the first time. Efforts were renewed for the program's military status.
In 1977 Congress finally granted the military status through the help of Berry Goldwater. A little later they were given veteran status.
Finally in 2009, Barak Obama honored the WASPs by giving them the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Friedmann has been playing Hope for three years, though Hope's story has been told about eight or nine years before Friedmann took on the role.
"I admire her tenacity and bravery, especially participating in a program that was not always received well by male pilots and the public," she said.
The story of this woman entertained, informed and engaged all those present at the performance. It was a delightful evening for all who attended.