A Dream of Wings
Black female pilot Mildred Carter was frustrated in her effort to serve in the skies, but, in Tuskegee, she's counted among the famed Airmen
By JEFF HARDY
Mobile, Alabama Register - Washington Bureau
(Posted with permission from Mr. Jeff Hardy, Mobile, Alabama Register - Washington Bureau)
WASHINGTON -- Mildred Carter's rejection letter from the Women's Airforce Service Pilots was cold, plainly stated and infuriating.
Mrs. Carter, then Mildred L. Hemmons, was among the first women to earn a pilot's license from Tuskegee Institute's civilian air training school. The school became legendary with the success of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.
Female pilots were prohibited from flying in combat then, but after becoming licensed in 1941, Mrs. Carter felt she was well on her way to a career in aviation. Then the letter arrived.
"It stated that I was not eligible due to my race. It left no doubt," says the diminutive and elegant Tuskegee-born woman with the brilliantly engaging eyes. "I didn't keep it. I didn't keep any of that stuff. I didn't want to look at it, to deal with it."
Until now, Mrs. Carter's story was among the many about female aviators, particularly blacks, that have fallen through the historical cracks, lost or banished somewhere deep in the bowels of places like the Eisenhower Library in Kansas, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the WASP Collection at Texas Woman's University in Denton.
In this instance, the dreams of a young African-American girl in 1940s Alabama were dashed by Jim Crow. Her experiences are fraught with irony.
For one, she had the fortitude to stand up and be counted with a group of women who were fighting for their rights as pilots. Yet the women were leery of supporting her because of the military's segregationist nature.
Additionally, black soldiers for years had been thrust into support roles for white soldiers, cooking for them, ferrying supplies to the front lines, serving as messengers. But, because she was a female, she could not serve in an auxiliary capacity for combat pilots.
While Mrs. Carter has no records of her truncated quest to fly for her country, the experience is forever etched in her memory. That letter had ended her flying career before it really got off the ground. She logged more flight hours at the school, now Tuskegee University, than she has in the ensuing 57 years.
I flew when I had the money to fly. It was very expensive, so I did the next best thing. I married a pilot,' she said. "We've been co-piloting ever since."
Her husband is retired Lt. Col. Herbert Carter, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He is now a goodwill ambassador of sorts, traveling worldwide to help promote Tuskegee's history in aviation.
Mrs. Carter, who met Eleanor Roosevelt when the first lady came to the Tuskegee flight school in 1941, often travels with him. They met the current first lady during a recent trip to Washington.
Mrs. Carter credits C. Alfred Anderson, the Airmen's chief flight instructor, for many of the flight hours she logged after she graduated from Tuskegee. When the Carters would return home for visits, he would call. After they returned to Tuskegee for good in 1965, the flights increased.
Anderson, considered in some circles to be the Black Charles Lindbergh, died at 89 in April 1996.
"He would call and say, Mil, do you want to fly today?'" she said. "He was up in his 80s the last time he came out and asked me if I wanted to fly with him. I always said yes.
"In the later years, I didn't even log the time. I just flew for the fun of it. I was really a housewife just having fun."
Mrs. Carter is demure about her age. According to her pilot's license, she's 77.
Actually, she is more than a housewife in Tuskegee even though her husband is the most recognized elsewhere, says retired Col. Roosevelt J. Lewis Jr., manager of the airport at Moton Field, where the institute's civilian flight training school was located. It is being restored into a working monument of the Airmen's legacy.
"Mildred is really recognized here in Tuskegee as one of the Tuskegee Airmen," says Lewis, another one of Anderson's former students. "She was flying long before many of the men."
The WASPs came about with the Aug. 5, 1943, merger of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Army Air Force Women's Flying Training Detachment, two non-military groups formed at roughly the same time, each without the knowledge of the other.
Military officials were hesitant to place women in the cockpits of the aircraft and were less than pleased with the discovery that there were actually two groups. But the demand for male combat pilots and planes left them with a shortage of experienced aviators to ferry vessels from factories to their point of embarkation.
"Today, (a) woman's place is where she is needed," a female writer chimed in the September 1943 issue of Air Force magazine. "And until this war is won, that place is in the cockpit of ships women can fly from factory to field and, by doing so, release men pilots for combat duty."
In September 1942, the Army Air Force appointed Nancy H. Love as commander of the WAFS. Love, who had written a letter to the Ferry Division of the Army Air Force in 1940 about using female aviators, was hired to recruit 25 of the most skilled and experienced female pilots for her mission.
That very same month, Henry "Hap" Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Force, put Jacqueline Cochran in charge of the WFTD, a program to train women to serve as ferrying pilots. Ms. Cochran had written a letter explaining her proposal to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as German tanks bullied their way into Poland in 1939.
Records hard to find
The WAFS, the WFTD and the WASPs weren't considered to be military attachments. They were paid under Civil Service. The WASPs weren't fully recognized by the military until 1979, some 36 years after they were founded.
As a result, records are sparse. Former members, their families and historians have mined some of what is available.
While women were fighting for the right to ferry military aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen were engaged in their own battle to serve in combat. Segregation was a part of life in and out of the service at the time and blacks were considered to lack the intellectual tools to fly sophisticated fighter planes.
In that realm, a black female aviator was the lowest common denominator.
"Nancy Harkness Love never even talked about race, but it was largely because she hand-picked the women," said Molly Merryman, a documentary filmmaker and director of the Women's Resource Center at Kent State University.
"It was one of those racist-through-association kinds of things," Ms. Merryman said in an interview. "She was an upper-class white woman who could afford to build up hundreds of flight hours, and everyone that she picked was an upper-class white woman."
With Ms. Cochran, the issue involved whether adding blacks to her ranks would drive the final nail in the coffin of an already tenuous relationship with the high command, said Brenda Moore, a sociologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
The WASPs received more than 25,000 applications early on. Of those, 1,830 women were accepted and 1,074 earned their wings. Several experts said there were at least two Asians and a number of Hispanics in the group. It is difficult to tell how many, because the only available records don't note the race of the member or applicant.
Several blacks were rejected in the final interview stage. Because the WASP application records were destroyed, the number of blacks who requested admittance is unknown, Ms. Merryman says in her 1998 book, "Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II."
Ms. Cochran addressed the issue of race in her autobiography, "The Stars at Noon." She said the so-called "Negro question" became an issue early in the existence of the training program.
Several black women applied, but their numbers paled in comparison to the thousands of whites who wanted in, Ms. Cochran said.
"I interviewed these particular applicants in proper order without particular prejudice or preference, hardly knowing what I would do at that stage of my program if any one of them had passed the preliminaries. Fortunately for the formative stages of the work none met all of the specifications."
She talked about the first black woman whom she could not in good conscience categorically turn down. Ms. Cochran invited the woman, a New Jersey school teacher, to breakfast at her New York apartment.
She told the woman that she had no prejudices against her, but she was concerned that admitting blacks would ultimately kill the program.
"This fine young Negro girl recognized the force and honesty of my arguments, stated that first of all the women pilot's program should be stabilized and strengthened, and she withdrew the application," Ms. Cochran wrote. "She also saw to it, I believe, that I was left alone thereafter so far as this particular issue was concerned."
Ms. Cochran died in 1980, but many of the pilots who knew her still talk very fondly about their experiences together. Vi Cowden, immediate past president of the WASPs, was the first female to deliver a P-51 fighter plane to the Tuskegee Airmen: a 700-mile trek from Dallas to Montgomery.
"At the time we didn't even know any colored girls had applied, although we did wonder why there wasn't at least one who would be qualified," says Ms. Cowden, a feisty 82-year-old who became a skydiver at age 76 and piloted the Goodyear blimp in May.
"I felt Jackie Cochran did a fairly good job in dealing with the issue, saying it would have been extremely hard on the girl herself. Of course, that still doesn't make it any better.'
Excitement of Tuskegee
Mrs. Carter doesn't remember if her rejection letter came directly from Ms. Cochran, but she has always associated it with the woman known as the most influential pioneer of female aviation in the 20th century. She also remembers Tuskegee as a very exciting place to be for black aviators back then.
"Remember, I was just 19 and Tuskegee was such a small town where everybody knew everybody," she said. "Then all of a sudden there was this big influx of service people from everywhere in the world coming there to learn how to fly.'
She was the first civilian hired at Tuskegee Army Air Field, a full military installation with an "N," or Negro, designation. She saw the men coming to take advantage of the training program and decided that she, too, wanted to be an aviator.
"Mildred literally convinced Chief Anderson to teach her how to fly," says Col. Lewis, at Moton Field.
The first year Mrs. Carter applied she was rejected because she was two weeks shy of her 18th birthday. She was accepted the following year.
During her training she logged about 100 hours in a Piper Cub. That was as far as she got. Because she wasn't permitted to take the advanced training course, she couldn't learn how to fly the faster and much more powerful warplanes.
Undaunted, Mrs. Carter sought out the WASPs. To her, the rejection letter meant she had gone as far as society would allow. Her primary barrier, she says, was being born 50 years too soon.
"I didn't know of any other avenues to try. In today's world," she says, "it would have been wonderful. The sky is the limit. I could have been an astronaut."