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Female WWII WASP Pilot Shares Her Pioneering Story

This week was a big one for VIPs visiting Springfield: over the course of a couple of days, we had a vice president, a governor, a Congressman and a state official in town. But another VIP—someone whom many consider a national treasure—managed to make a relatively quiet entrance. AS KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports, this person prefers to fly under the radar.

[Sound: Schoolkids]

The schoolchildren in Boyd Elementary School file in and take their seats on the auditorium floor. Many have been looking forward to meeting this special guest—they’ve been studying world history and conflict resolution.

The visitor is a pilot from World War II. Her name is Millicent Peterson Young, and she is one of the few surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

She and over 1,000 other women flew military aircraft within the US during the war—often ferrying planes from the factory to the military base, or helping out with military training.

On this day, she’s telling the schoolkids what her specific role was.

Young: “So does everyone know what a windsock is now?”Kids: “Yeah!”Young: “Well, I towed one of those 100 feet behind my airplane…”

She towed aerial targets behind her plane. As she told me later in an interview, the male student pilots would shoot at these targets before heading overseas to fly in combat missions.

“And my students had chalk on their bullets so you could tell who was hitting their target, and who wasn’t,” she said.

She said some women were shot down during these training exercises. But she wasn’t afraid, she says, because of the exhilaration of flying.

Young still remembers the first time she saw an airplane. She was six years old in Nebraska, and the neighbors were expecting a visitor to come land his plane in their pasture.“I knew they were coming. And I waited and I waited and I waited—must’ve been weeks, [but] probably [just] two or three days. And I finally got out there, and the man said…they were unloading the aircraft…he said, ‘Little girl, don’t touch that airplane.’ But of course, I did,” she recalls.

For the young Millie, it was the beginning of a love affair with airplanes. Despite the fact that women had just won the right to vote less than a decade earlier, she knew one day she wanted to fly.

Over 80 years later, she still remembers the feel of the airplane’s canvas, which was stretched over a wood frame.

Every day, she would stand outside and wave at the pilots flying the commercial route between Denver and Omaha.

When she was old enough, she began taking flying lessons while helping out on the family farm. It was around the start of World War II. But the instructor didn’t fully approve of a woman flying, and refused to let her fly solo.

“So the guy that owned the airport, he was a used car dealer. But everyone was a used car dealer then in the war, you know? Nobody had any new cars. But anyway, he said, ‘What the hell have you and Al been doing up here?’ I said, ‘Well he doesn’t like me.’ So, the owner of the airport—who had no credentials at all to do this—he flew around with me. And of course I got up there and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I landed,” she said.

She saved some money from farming wheat, and told her parents she was going to Denver to buy some clothes for college. She checked her bags, went down to the bus stop at the local drugstore, and boarded the bus…but she knew it wasn’t the bus to Denver.

“And I got on the bus going the wrong direction. And when I got on the bus, I yelled at my mother and I said, ‘I’m going to learn to fly!’ So she went home and my dad looked around and he said, ‘I’ve got a chore for Millie. Where is she?’ My mom said, ‘Well, she’s gone to learn to fly.’ And my dad said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ And nobody discussed it after that. Nobody,” she says.

25,000 women applied to the WASP program…and only just over 1,000 were accepted and made it through the rigorous training. They flew every type of military aircraft available at the time—some of which had never been flown before.

Her favorite plane was an open-cockpit Steerman.

“You could do rolls. There were snap rolls, slow rolls, barrel rolls. You could do loops. You could do Emmelmens. You could do anything, you know--do Split S’s. If you had to lose altitude fast, you’d turn your airplane on the back and you went down,” she said.

She said some of the men the WASPs worked with didn’t want women flying military planes at all—they’d put sugar in their fuel tanks, or cut the wires on their planes.

“I flew into Carlsbad one time. This young dude comes up in the tanker truck and he took the hose off and he took the cap off of my AT6. And he got the hose in there. And just as I slid back the canopy and fluffed up my hair, he said, ‘What are you doing in there?!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m flying the airplane.’ He said, ‘You shouldn’t be flying that airplane! I should be flying that airplane! I’m the man!’ And I said, ‘Honey, if you were, I’d have noticed.’ He got off that airplane and I never saw him again. I had to get somebody else to service the aircraft because we weren’t allowed to do it,” she recalls, laughing.

Young and her fellow WASPs finally received veteran status in 1977 and the Congressional Medal of Honor in Washington, D.C. in 2009. I asked her if she considers herself a national treasure. Hardly, she says.

“They kept talking about sacrifices in Washington. And so I asked my friends, ‘Did you sacrifice anything?’ They said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t either.’ We were investing in ourselves and in our country,” Young said.

Young was in the last class of WASP pilots—she served in 1944.

One child in the audience at Boyd Elementary School was her great nephew, fourth grader Ben Zeh.

“I think it’s important that we learn about our country and who served it, so we can remember them. Because they helped us be the way we are,” he said.

The students all got to touch Young’s Congressional Medal of Honor. She also gave them an autographed book about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of WWII.

For these kids, it was a unique history lesson that many of them won’t fully appreciate until they’re much older.

Millie Peterson Young was just visiting Springfield for a few days—she lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and will head back home today.

After the war, she rented planes for fun and said she liked to scare her boyfriends up in the air. She eventually married another pilot. He died young, though, and she went on to raise their five children on her own.

Although she doesn’t fly solo anymore due to her eyesight, she did get to go back up in a beloved Steerman with another pilot a few weeks ago in Kansas City.

She’ll turn 88 this year. Young is believed to be one of roughly 300 remaining WASP veterans in the country.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.