Betty Gillies, 1908 – 1998
As Memorial Day approaches our thoughts turn to honoring those who have sacrificed to protect our American way of life, and no group illustrates this more perfectly than the Woman Airforce Service Pilots, known as the WASP.
The WASP was an elite cadre of experienced women pilots recruited by the US Army during World War II. WASP ferried aircraft from base to base, and took delivery of new aircraft right off the production line, (thus being the first to test them), with the express purpose of freeing male pilots for combat duty overseas. They flew almost every type of military aircraft employed by the Army Airforce, from the P-38 to the massive B-17E “Flying Fortress” heavy bomber, logging over sixty million miles of air travel. Of the 1,074 who received their wings thirty-eight died in service. Despite their bravery and patriotism they enjoyed no military status, no equal pay with male pilots and no military honors at their funerals. Their families even had to pay to have their bodies shipped home. Yet, they gratefully volunteered to serve their country.
Long Island was aptly represented in this select group by Syosset resident Betty Huyler Gillies. Betty was a young student nurse when she was inspired to become a pilot after reading an article written by Amelia Earhart encouraging young women to learn to fly. After earning her pilot’s license at Roosevelt Field she took a job at with the Curtis Wright Aviation Center, where she continued to log air hours and hone her skills. By 1929 she had logged over 1,000 hours in the cockpit. After her marriage to aviator Bud Gillies in 1930 the two worked for Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, Bud as a test pilot and Betty as a “utility pilot,” and she kept up her skills while raising a family. In 1942, with World War II raging, Nancy Harkness Love invited Betty to help her form a women’s pilot ferrying squadron to free up the male pilots for overseas combat. A few days later Betty flew her own twin-engine amphibian plane from Long Island to Maryland and became the first woman to be inducted into the WAFS (Woman’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron).
The women pilots were housed on the Maryland base in spare wooden barracks. Although technically civilians, they adhered to strict military discipline, mustering for 8am roll call and wearing uniforms they paid for themselves. At the same time another group, under the direction of well-known pilot Jacqueline Cochran began training in Sweetwater Texas, and the two groups eventually merged to form the WASP. Betty spent most of her service time in Maryland where she served as squadron leader.
The women were from varied walks of life, and like Betty, had left families and small children to answer the call to help their country. As they graduated from their demanding training programs – flight training in various aircraft, navigational instruction – they were assigned to bases around the nation. The work was dangerous; they flew tracking missions, towed gunnery targets and delivered weapons and cargo from base to base. They also tested aircraft that had been returned to base by male pilots who had complained of problems, thus assuming a risky duty no-one else wanted, sometimes called “dishwashing jobs.”
Dependence on the WASP grew. Betty Gillies and her fellow pilots flew missions at over seventy air bases around the country piloting everything the aircraft manufacturers built. In 1944 Ann Baumgartner became one of the nation’s first jet test pilots, flying the YP-59. But the women pilots were not always well received by their male counterparts. Betty later recalled that rumors of sabotage were not infrequent. Some male pilots were resentful that women were flying the same planes as they, often with better safety records and fewer complaints.
In 1944 with the war winding down the WASP program was abruptly ended. The need for combat pilots was declining, and like thousands of women employed during the war the WASP saw their jobs turned over to men. “I was terribly disappointed when we were deactivated,” Betty recalled, as she returned home to her family, “We had been busy flying up to the last moment.” Despite their dismissal the WASP received high praise from Army Chief of Staff Hap Arnold, who had originally voiced skepticism of the program:
Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 bomber…but you have shown you can fly wing tip to wing tip with your brother. If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skilled pilots the WASP have dispelled that doubt.
Many, including Betty continued to fly, and in 1961 she was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the first Federal Aviation Administration Women’s Advisory Committee. It was not until 1977 that former WASP were granted veteran status and benefits.
On March 10, 2010 The US Government finally recognized their outstanding contributions to WWII by awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award the nation can bestow. Unfortunately, by then many of them had died, including Betty Gillies, who died in 1998, after a lifetime of looking to the skies. She would say about her time in the WASP “I never felt that I was contributing more to the world than I was then. It was a very satisfying experience.”
For a wonderful and informative exhibit of WASP information and memorabilia by curator Julia Lauria-Blum visit the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale, (631-293-6398) americanairpowermuseum.com
For further information about the WASP contact the National WASP World War II Museum, Sweetwater Texas, (325-235-0099) waspmuseum.org
And don’t forget to check out your local public library for the many informative books that tell the WASP story.