She's Got Grit: "They told me I couldn't": Talking to WWII Woman Test Pilot Edna Davis

Edna Davis and her copilot

Edna Davis and her copilot

“They told me I couldn’t,” says Edna Davis when asked about flying. @@“But there’s a certain percentage of the female population that nobody tells no@@, and that’s why I was there.”

I had hoped to meet Edna in person at the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) event on Sunday in support of the Flygirls Miniseries, but because of a family emergency she was unable to attend. Instead I met three of her sisters-in-arms, whose stories, like Edna's left me in awe.

All tell stories with incredible beginnings, young women who, in the 1940s, took to the air in support of their country at a time when opportunities for women were generally considered to be limited to nursing or teaching. Davis's experience was a little bit different. Growing up in Cleveland, her father used to take her out for flights in his open cockpit small airplane. After her father died, the family moved to Los Angeles.

“It was the depression, and I got 11 cents a week for my allowance," she says. "A double feature matinee at the movies was a dime. I had a little tin tea can at home that I had cut a slot in and labeled it ‘Flying Money.’ I would save my nickels and dimes, and when I had enough, my mother would take me to Clover Field (now Santa Monica Airport), where I would pay 50 cents and a pilot would take me up for a 15 minute ride.”

“I always had the desire to fly, and then Jackie Cochran came up with the WASP program. I wrote to her but never heard back.

Davis went to Mills College, where she joined the Civil Air Patrol program and was able to find her way into the WASPs. 

“@@I got on the train (to training in Texas) with about 6 cents in my pocket.@@ From Fort Worth to Sweetwater I lived on a peanut butter sandwich. Then I went to the regular WASP group.

Edna Davis in the cockpit

Edna Davis in the cockpit

I was born not jealous of anyone, except the pilots. I remember taking my physical at the air base, and I was worried they’d tell me I was too skinny. I drank water all the way down the hall to, but when I got on the scale I was under by a pound.” The medical assistant looked at her, held up his finger, and moved the dial one pound over. “And that’s how I became a WASP,” she says, smiling.

“They didn’t have any uniforms or anything for us when we arrived, so they handed us what we called the Zoot suits, the men’s cockpit suits, all size 32. We learned how to take the sides and turn them, fold them under. We had two pair that were issued to us.

We’d fly all day, and then get back to the barracks and take a shower with another girl and scrub each other (in our Zoot suits) with a bar of soap in the shower and hang them up to dry for the next day.

We flew every kind of airplane and had exactly the same trainings the men had. It wasn’t until we ran into the politics of Drew Pearson…they said no women could fly an airplane for the United States. They took us in for $250 a month…

We had all these wonderful women who lost their lives and not only would they not grant us the use of the star but they wouldn’t pay for our way, the way home for the girls. I remember we lost one and it was heartbreaking, but @@we all had to chip in to buy the ticket for the (girl’s body) to go home to her family.@@

After I graduated I was sent to Dodge City, Kansas in the dead of winter to learn how to fly the (twin engine Martin B26 Marauder) which had the worst reputation in the Air Force. It was designed and came right from the design table into production to our flight line. Nobody knew its idiosyncrasies. They were dangerous because nobody knew how to teach anybody else how to fly the airplane."

Edna David, third from left, with sister WASPs

Edna David, third from left, with sister WASPs

Davis became the first woman to solo pilot the B26. 

Though the WASPs were not allowed to fly in combat, they did live fire training drills with anti-aircraft gunners from all over the world.

"In Arlington, Texas, I helped train gunners from all over the world to go fight the war. I loved it.

“The weather was terrible. We were sitting on the ground in pouring rain, when all of a sudden the sun shone through and we heard, ‘Everyone up in the air!’

“I was towing a target about 250 yards behind our B-26 for a group of Chinese B-24 gunnery trainees who had just arrived in the U.S. for training. Each gun had different colored bullets, so after the training exercises, the instructors could tell which guns were hitting the target.

“Unfortunately, the B-24 didn’t have an interpreter on board. The Chinese thought they were to shoot at the plane.”

"@@I got back to the airport with bullets in me but we flew all right.@@ They were very apologetic. The guy in that other airplane saved my life. You get to the instance where you wonder: are you going to pull right, or are you going to pull left? The guy made the right turn…and later I wanted to tell you, I married that man. We had 67 years of wonderful marriage.”

Flying was not without humorous situations, and these women learned how to roll with the punches. Davis thinks of another story in the B26.

“In the B26s the bomb bay opened and closed, and it was cold. We flew in the winter up in North Dakota. We had lambswool and leather (outfits) but there were no provisions for women (to go to the bathroom). So I had to take everything off, these big heavy coats. I had two paper cups and managed to fill those. I got my clothes back on and walked back to the cockpit, and the crew was laughing like mad. All of a sudden the bomb bays open, these guys in the front thought it was the funniest thing, all the snow and wind, so I said, ok bombs away. I never knew where that went.”

Like many of the WASPs interviewed, Davis expresses frustration at how they were treated at the end of their service. 

“We didn’t want to go home. They made us go home. All these pilots were coming back from Europe, so they didn’t want anything else to do with us. That was a sad day.

We didn’t have any choice. @@They just threw us out.@@ They put everything in a big file in Washington and locked it up. For all those years we were left alone until finally the psyche of humanity changed and realized that women can do things. They didn’t give us a ticket or money to go home.

We didn’t get military status until 1977. Barry Goldwater’s son spearheaded the effort. We went to Washington and got our papers assigning us our status, and after all these years they gave us the Medal of Honor.”

As for rekindling interest in the WASPs, Davis seems grateful and a little bit perplexed. 

“I’m 94. My generation was more quiet and almost Victorian compared to you all. I don’t think I swore— I didn’t know what swear words were. I married my husband at the end of the war after we both got out. I taught flying for awhile but it wasn’t much fun. Then the social life was overwhelming— my husband was from Charleston, SC. Then you have your children and your life takes over and then you get old enough to get recognized. I loved every minute of it. 

People with ambition said (the WASPs) ought to have a reunion. That’s when Jackie Cochran was still with us and we met in Palm Springs and we came from all over the United States. We’ve had meetings every year since. In the last five years we’ve decided we’re too old to have meetings every year so we’ve developed our archives at Texas Women’s University.”

Though Edna was unable to make yesterday's event in Carlsbad, CA, dozens of other women aviators from all branches of the military and the civilian sector were there, standing on her shoulders. 

Standing on their shoulders: all of us who followed are beneficiaries of the WASPs passion and their grit. I have to think Edna is pleased.

Standing on their shoulders: all of us who followed are beneficiaries of the WASPs passion and their grit. I have to think Edna is pleased.

Edna's Favorite Books

A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II

Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II

WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds

Flying Higher: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II

 

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What do you take away from the stories of Edna Davis and the other women of the WASPs? Why is telling their stories important? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

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