By STEPHEN J. O'BRIEN Tribune-Herald
When Sister Teresa became a cloistered nun and left America more
than 40 years ago, she gave up normal contact with the outside world
and dedicated her life to praying for others.
This month she stepped outside the walls of her monastery in the
French Antilles to travel to Waco so she could tell the story of her
service as a pilot during World War II. Her account as one of the
Women Air Force Service Pilots is being chronicled with the help of
Baylor University, KTCF Public Television and local resident Nancy
Parrish, who is the founder and guiding force behind Wings Across
"These ladies are incredible role models," said Parrish, whose
mother, Deanie, was a WASP member and is helping record the group's
history. "When you think of words like integrity, honor, commitment,
these ladies are the role models for those words."
The mission of the WASP corps when it was first conceived in 1942
was to free male pilots from stateside flying duties so they could
fly combat missions overseas. The mission of WAA, a non-profit
entity which is now a Baylor University project, is to ensure that
the story of the women who served as pilots, largely ignored until
now, is not lost forever.
Collecting the former pilots' oral histories has taken on new
purpose because all the surviving members are at least 70 years old
and with each year their numbers dwindle. Out of the 1,074 original
WASP members in 1943 and 1944, less than 600 remain. Last year
alone, 20 passed away.
"These pilots are a vanishing source of history, but no one has
bothered to find out about them," Deanie Parrish said.
As a B-26 pilot, Parrish towed targets through the air for live
air-to-air practice for pilots heading into combat overseas. When
asked if her plane was ever accidentally hit with friendly fire, she
smiled and said, "Yes."
Sister Teresa, whose birth name is Anita Paul, was an
engineering/maintenance test pilot based in Altus, Okla. She got to
check out planes that had been repaired or modified for combat. Even
though her job was perilous at times, she said male pilots were
quick to disparage their female counterparts despite the important
role they played.
"Women just weren't supposed to be doing something like that,"
said Sister Teresa, who decided she wanted to be a pilot when she
saw a plane fly over her New Hampshire home when she was 4 years
old. "But we just lived with it. We didn't know what discrimination
was. That term hadn't even been coined yet."
Sister Teresa's story and others like it will be put into a video
archive and eventually developed into a digital library and virtual
museum accessible through the Internet as an educational tool.
Sister Teresa was the fourth former WASP to be interviewed by WAA,
but the lengths the Carmelite nun had to go through to get to Waco,
which included writing church leaders in Rome for permission, were
unique, Deanie Parrish said.
Though WASP pilots did not fly combat missions over foreign soil,
they played a critical role in buoying the strength of the U.S.
military during the war. The female pilots towed targets for live
air-to-air gunnery practice and live anti-aircraft artillery
practice, transported cargo, simulated strafing and night tracking
missions, and ferried fighters and bombers to take-off points for
their male counterparts. They even helped train future pilots and
bombers for combat duty.
"Just because we were female didn't mean we got the easy jobs,"
Deanie Parrish said. "If no one else would do it, they gave it a
The story of the WASPs would have been part of modern text books
but the female corps was unceremoniously disbanded before the end of
the war in the fall of 1944. Some of the official records of their
service was inadvertently lost while much of the documentation was
locked away in government archives for 33 years, according to WAA.
The WASPs were hired as civilians but promised they would
"militarized" and given formal recognition as soldiers. The
conspicuous dismantling of the group coupled with the social
politics of the 1940s meant former WASP pilots were not even allowed
to have their coffins draped in American flags when they died. The
38 WASP pilots who lost their lives while flying for their country
were not even given military burials. Their fellow female pilots had
to scrape money together to buy coffins and have their remains sent
Jacqueline Cochran, a famous female aviator during that time, had
convinced Army Air Corps General Henry "Hap" Arnold that if women
were allowed to serve domestically as military pilots, then young
men could be freed to fly combat missions overseas. Gen. Arnold
agreed and authorized the formation of WASP.
"We need to have something for the 21st century, a tool to teach
children about what these women did," Nancy Parrish said. "We can't
rewrite the history books, but we're trying to provide a new way for
kids to learn."