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Sunday, Oct. 10, 1999



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Role of female pilots including nun chronicled through local efforts

By STEPHEN J. O'BRIEN Tribune-Herald staff writer

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 America.

"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 WASP."

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 home.

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."



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