Remembering women pilots
Speaker discuses often forgotten female military group
LIBERTY — You could say that local historian Marilyn Mong’s 1999 wedding was quite uplifting in more ways than one.
“I took a balloon ride and said to (my husband), ‘I want to do this,'” Mong remembered about having spent her honeymoon at a hot-air balloon festival in Albuquerque, N.M.
After coming back to Earth, Mong became a private pilot and for about 20 years, owned a four-seat single-engine Cessna plane that she took on trips to Florida, Georgia and Wyoming. She also has embarked on closer jaunts that originated from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, as well as the Youngstown Elser Regional Airport in North Lima.
Her love of flying is grounded in childhood, and part of that interest also has included about 30 years of research on the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, part of which Mong shared as she lauded the WASPs during her lecture Saturday morning in the Kravitz Delicatessen meeting room, 3135 Belmont Ave.
Sponsoring the gathering was the William Holmes McGuffey Historical Society.
The WASPs were formed on Aug. 5, 1943, because the U.S. faced a severe shortage of pilots during World War II. The women were trained to fly nearly all types of military aircraft on noncombat missions so their male counterparts could be released for overseas combat duties.
About 1,074 all-civilian volunteers completed a rigorous training program at Avenger Field, Texas, and learned to fly the B-26 and B-29 bombers, among many other planes. Before the program was disbanded after about 16 months, the aviators’ duties included ferrying new planes great distances from factories to military bases, testing newly overhauled aircraft and towing targets to allow ground and air gunners to receive training in shooting live ammunition.
“The B-29 was the premier aircraft of World War II,” Mong noted. “It had a longer range and could carry a large payload.”
Mong recalled having been part of a women’s flying group called the 99s, where, at a meeting around 1990, she met a former WASP and inquired about what it was like to tow targets in the air.
“I was horrified. I asked her, ‘Wasn’t that dangerous?’ and she said yes, and that’s what sparked my interest” in the WASPs, she remembered.
During her presentation, Mong cited the achievements of a number of female aviators, including Margaret “Peg” Kirchner, Donna Spellick, Marie Barrett Marsh and Wilda Winfield, all of whom are from the Mahoning Valley.
Mong also brought a copy of an iconic black-and-white photograph taken in 1944 that shows Kirchner, who also was a teacher, and three other WASPs leaving their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, dubbed “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” The women were undergoing ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield near Columbus.
Barrett Marsh received civilian pilot training at Youngstown College, Mong continued.
The historian also noted that a WASP named Margaret R. Ringenberg, who had logged more than 40,000 hours of flying time during her career, completed an around-the-world air race in 1994 at age 72. Ringenberg also flew her 50th air derby in June 2007 at age 86.
Despite having flown more than 60 million miles in almost every kind of aircraft and facing many dangerous situations, the women were largely dismissed and returned home with little fanfare. Others were forgotten.
It took more than 30 years for the WASPs to be militarized when they persuaded Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1977 to get Congress to allow them to be declared military veterans, which meant the women would receive VA benefits and money for military funerals, Mong explained.
On Nov. 23, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that bestowed such status on them.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a Senate bill into law to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs.
In addition, the courageous women left an indelible mark that extends far beyond their achievements as pilots, Mong said.
“They tolerated discrimination and endured dangers, but I believe they opened doors for future women pilots,” she added.