November 27, 1920 – October 3, 2016 (Age 95)
Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP)
319th Army Air Force Flight Training Detachment
Regrettably I learned of Mrs Helen’s passing too late to attend her memorial service, but I am fortunate to have seen her one last time in the hospital before she passed in October.
We became good friends in the last year of her life as I visited her almost every week after I would visit with a VFW gathering at the assisted living home where she lived. We would talk about and her lifetime of memories, the history of Hammond, Louisiana area where she grew up and where we both lived at the time, but most of all, we talked about her service as a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II. Every week as I was leaving her room, she told me to be sure and come back next week because she enjoyed my visits. I enjoyed our visits too!
Mrs. Helen was one of a kind. In a time when women usually were socially confined to professional roles as teachers, nurses, or secretaries, she broke out of that mold and in 1940 became the first student at Southeastern Louisiana College to get a pilot’s license. She began working for flying services in New Orleans and joined the Civil Air Patrol soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Soon after this she was recruited by Jacqueline Cochran, a racing pilot, to become part of the WFTD, (Womens Flight Training Detachment). This was one of two branches of the government’s program to recruit women pilots after the war began. The other branch was the WAFS (Womens Auxillary Ferrying Squadron). Eleven months after the programs began, they were joined together into the one program called the WASPs. Approximately 25,000 women volunteered, but only 1830 were accepted into the program. Of these a little more than 1,000 completed army flight training.
Women pilots were recruited during the war, most importantly to release male pilots from routine duties, like ferrying planes from aircraft factories to airfields within the States, for combat service. These WASPs also helped train the male pilots who would be flying in combat.
Mrs. Helen was part of the second class of WASPs (43-W-2). Early recruits like Mrs. Helen had strict requirements to meet such as already having a pilot’s license and logging many previous hours flight time.
After graduating and receiving her wings in May of 1943, Mrs. Helen was assigned to the Ferry Command at Love Field, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. With her training she was expected to fly any military aircraft, including C-47 transports, B-26 Marauders, and SBD Dauntlesses.
Another important, but more dangerous job for the WASPs was to tow targets for aerial gunner practice. Mrs. Helen towed targets behind a B-26 Marauder, which was already a difficult plane to keep in the air, at 150 feet behind the plane at which the gunnery students would shoot. As the students had more practice, the distance behind the plane for the target was shortened. She said that she didn’t mind this job too much unless she heard a “ping” meaning one of the gunner trainees led the target a little too much! Under these same conditions, military men would have received hazardous duty pay, but they did not.
The WASP training program was experimental in nature and therefore was fluid in its requirements which changed over time. The beginning class was organized and graduated in Houston with 18 weeks of training. Applicants had to be at least 60″ in height and be 21-35 years of age. When Mrs. Helen’s class #2 graduated, they had recently moved the training to Sweetwater, TX and had increased the training time to 22 1/2 weeks. Over time as more qualified women pilots became rare, the applicant requirements continued to change. By the end of the program which was disbanded in late 1944, WASP candidates had to complete 27 weeks of training, had to be 64 inches tall and could be as young as 18 1/2 years of age. The previous amount of flight time requirement was decreased to 35 hours, the license requirement was decreased to only having a student’s license, but the amount of instruction time increased from 18 to 27 weeks.
The WASP program began as a Civil Service program with the intention of being militarized eventually, but this never happened. Unfortunately as civilians these women pilots were not considered military and therefore did not receive special pay or benefits that other veterans of the war would receive.
When Mrs. Helen came home after her service, she wanted to become a commercial pilot, but by that time, all the men were home from the war and the job market was flooded with experienced male pilots. So she taught flying lessons in the evenings and on the weekends, but she couldn’t make enough money. She eventually began teaching math at the local high school where she taught for 25 years.
By 1977 these brave WASP women would finally be recognized as veterans of WWII and would receive veteran benefits accordingly. In 2009 the WASPs were given the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States. But the accolades do not end there. One of the last times we met, she told me that Hammond named a glider air field after her. It is part of a recreational model air plane complex in the city. I’m so glad she has received recognition for her service!
These socially pioneering women pilots helped pave the way for future women in the military as well as for women in other traditionally male professional roles.Their job was extremely important and an immeasurable asset to our military and our country.
Mrs. Helen Ricketts Rownd was such a great lady. I’m so glad I was able to get to know her even if it was for a short time. I wanted to record her story before writing this article, but she didn’t want me to because she couldn’t remember details like she once could. I would love to be able to hear her voice again. This month she would have celebrated her 96th birthday! Thank you for your service, Mrs. Helen!j