It began to occur to me if I'm going to write you while I'm still in the 319th Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment, I'd better start. One of my three roommates is home packing up her things today - washed out, she is. Had her Army check ride yesterday, and the Lieutenant recommended for her elimination. I'll be having my next Army ride any day now, so maybe I'll be packing up too...The words above were written by a young woman named Mabel Rawlinson. After mailing that letter to my mother, Mabel finished her training as an Air Force pilot and was given her wings. She would be ready to serve her country in a time of war.
In honor of Memorial Day, please allow me to introduce you to this remarkable woman.
Mabel Virginia RawlinsonPilot, Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)
US Army Air Force, World War II
(1917 - 1943)
She was a beloved daughter to Nora Belle Berden and William Winthrop Rawlinson. She was little sister to Margaret, John, and Georgian, and big sister to Woody, Jean (my mother), and Mary.
Her parents and many friends suffered such loss when Mabel died at just age 26 in 1943. In all these years, Mabel's vitality seemed so absent from all family gatherings in the more than 60 years since she died. Mabel's brothers and sisters never stopped missing her smiles, thoughtfulness, and fun-loving enthusiasm. Yet, in their profound grief, they were also proud of Mabel for becoming a pilot, for serving her country, and, for giving so much of herself.
Mabel was a college graduate, a lovely, lively, and witty young woman who loved flying.
My Aunt Mabel sacrificed her life for our country. This is her story...
Mabel was born in 1917 in a pine tree forest in Greenwood, near Dover, Delaware. At age 8, she and her family moved close to Blackstone, Nottoway County, Virginia. There, they lived a simple rural life down a red clay country lane named Cellar Creek Road. Mabel helped her mother with the gardening, housework, sewing, cooking, and baking.
There were animals to feed, books to read, talent shows, church activities, and outdoor adventures.
During the Great Depression, Mabel's mother supported her family with a rural schoolteacher's salary. Mabel hoed and raked in the family's cultivated fields, fed the chickens, socialized with friends, and made good grades in school.
After graduating from high school in rural Virginia in 1935, Mabel packed up and moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she lived with her aunt, Eleanor Rawlinson, an English professor. Mabel attended college classes and worked in the college Health Service. Graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1939 from Western Michigan University, Mabel worked in the Kalamazoo Plating Works and the Kalamazoo Public Library.
Mabel's little sister, Mary, describes Mabel's life in Kalamazoo, "Mabel was a professional secretary for Flora Roberts at the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL) and she sang for the church choir and her own (and our) entertainment. She and her mother (Nora Berden Rawlinson) signed up each year for the Kalamazoo community production of 'The Messiah.' (Knowing I couldn't carry a tune, I was not invited to participate.) I worked at the KPL also while Mabel was employed there - she was a highly respected member of the staff."
Mabel discovered her love of flying in Kalamazoo.
In 1940, she received her first flying lesson. and returned to classes at Western Michigan University to take post-graduate civilian pilot training courses, then only recently opened to women.
On October 31st, 1940, Mabel soloed for the first time. While still working at the library, she joined the Aviatrix Club, achieved her private pilot license, and spent most of her free time and money at the Kalamazoo airport. By 1941, Mabel had become co-owner of an Aeronica Chief airplane in Kalamazoo.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US entered World War II in December 1941, the government initially banned all private flights for national security reasons.
Determined to stay in the air, Mabel and other Kalamazoo pilots promptly formed a Civil Air Patrol Squadron in Kalamazoo.
1942 was a great year for Mabel. She kept many scrapbooks, filling one with photographs of her friends and another with newspaper clippings of every movie she ever saw. Vivacious and engaging, Mabel enjoyed being with her friends, singing, writing, playing sports, and especially tennis.
Mabel's life was filled with her flying, her work, her family, and friends.
She flew her plane as often as she possibly could. Mabel's brother, Woody, was also an accomplished pilot and her sister, Mary, was learning to fly. For most of the spring and summer of 1942, Mabel happily flew her Aeronica Chief every week and proudly wore the uniform of a Sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol.
Around September 1942, word reached Kalamazoo that the Army Air Corps (soon to be the Army Air Forces, and eventually the Air Force) would be recruiting female pilots to assist in the war effort. The demand for male combat pilots and warplanes had left the Air Transport Command with a shortage of experienced pilots.
General Henry "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Corps, approved a program that would train a large group of women to serve as ferrying pilots with the training school placed under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran. These women would be given orders to:
- test all of the US warplanes
- tow targets for ground troop practice, and,
- ferry planes from aircraft factories to military bases
In all, 1,857 young women pilots from all over the United States quit their jobs and left the safety of their homes and families to go to Texas. The women traveled by car, bus, train, or by plane. Some hitchhiked and all paid their own way to get there.
The women joined up with the Army because they loved to fly and because their country needed them.
This is an excerpt from a letter Mabel wrote to her sister, April 18, 1943:
"It began to occur to me if I'm going to write you while I'm still in the 319th Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment, I'd better start. One of my three roommates is home packing up her things today - washed out, she is. Had her Army check ride yesterday, and the Lieutenant recommended for her elimination. I'll be having my next Army ride any day now, so maybe I'll be packing up too... If I should get through (our class graduation in about 2 months), I'll have a 10-day vacation before I go to my post (and if I have my choice, it'll be California), and a bunch of us are planning to go down to Mexico. I had my first instrument time today. It's fun but a lot of work.
"The class ahead of us is having night flying now. It must be beautiful up there these nights, the moon is shining. Newsreels are going to be made of the occasion (of our graduation)...
My latest (boyfriend) is named John... He's 6'1", 200 lbs, a couple of dimples and exceptionally nice. I think he's overseas now though. He's in the air corps, combat unit, also he's an engine specialist. I went to see him one weekend in San Antonio. We had a good time. Went all through the Alamo, etc... Guess I'd better write home now. If I don't write every week, Mother thinks I've cracked up for sure. Write. So long, Mabel."
In July 1943 a decision was made that 25 women pilots from the Ferrying Division would be assigned to Camp Davis, N. C., for experimental use by the Third Air Force in tow-target flying.
At the request of an ATC officer Ms. Cochran supplied the names of women who met the desired qualification. They were to be used as tow-target pilots but the information was kept secret so that the trainees would get no advanced indication "that they may be assigned to any duty but ferrying."
With Army orders in hand, Mabel reported to Camp Davis Army Air Field in North Carolina. On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were merged and were re-designated the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.
The WASP at Camp Davis flew A-24's and A-25's with responsibilities of flying radar deception missions, night target-towing missions, and tracking missions.
When an enemy aviator flew, one of his greatest hazards was the "flak" or antiaircraft artillery shells poured at him by Allied Forces. Camp Davis planes and fliers were used to help train our antiaircraft artillery gunners in perfecting their aim against the day when they will have to pump barrages of shells at enemy bombers and strafers.
Two tow target squadrons and a Base Squadron were situated at Camp Davis. The planes stationed at Camp Davis towed various types of targets on cables at which the different calibers of antiaircraft artillery guns hammered away all through every duty day - six days a week. They were fired on by units of .50 calibre machines guns and 20 and 40 millimeter automatic cannon.
This phase of training at Camp Davis had been widely publicized in the news reels all over the nation and photographs of the activity have emblazoned the pages of numerous magazines and newspapers.
At night the Camp Davis planes were in the skies to give the searchlight battalions of the antiaircraft artillery - the Moonlight Cavalry - practiced in picking up enemy raiders in the darkness so that guns may "throw down" on them.
It was at Camp Davis that the pioneer steps were taken in developing patriotic and courageous young woman pilots to fly tow target planes, thus freeing male Army Air Corps fliers for combat duty.
Camp Davis was Mabel's last post.
It was at Camp Davis on the night of August 23, 1943, that Mabel lost her life when her airplane crashed and was consumed by flames. She became one of the very special women, numbering only thirty-eight, who served and died as pilots for the Air Force in World War II.
Since WASP were technically considered volunteer civilian pilots and not Air Force pilots, no monetary compensation was available to the Rawlinson family for her funeral expenses.
There, her casket was draped with an American flag and the Kalamazoo Civil Air Patrol honored her with buglers, fly-overs and solemn gun salutes.
Over the years, many different explanations have been offered by historians regarding the cause of Mabel's tragedy. One re-occurring explanation is that the gas tank of her plane had been sabotaged with table sugar, the deed of angry male pilots who resented the females taking over their stateside jobs.
The most documented accounts assert that the night Mabel died that she had been mistakenly hit by friendly fire, a result of towing targets behind her plane for practicing ground troops that were firing real ammunition. In fact, there has never been true reconciliation of the opposing accounts of Mabel's fatal mishap.
The following is based on the text from the Army Air Force accident report No. 129, dated September 4, 1943. Craig Fuller of Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research provided the report: "Mabel was on a night training flight with her instructor 2nd Lt. Harvey J. Robillard. This was her first night flight at this base and it was about 9 PM. Prior to this flight, Mabel had accumulated just over 200 hours of flight time in the WASP. This was in addition to her flying time prior to joining the WASP. A little over 10 of these hours were in an A-24 like the one they were flying this night at Camp Davis, North Carolina."
According to the report, take-off and flight were normal until just before they started to land. In addition to the statement from the instructor, there were two other witness statements concerning the final moments of the flight.
Frank J. Fitzgibbon, WO (Jg), was standing on the ramp in front of the hangar when the plane flew over during its attempted landing. He noted that based on "the sound and appearance of flames, the engine was operating on an extremely lean mixture. In my opinion, the airplane was not on fire, and crashed with the engine still operating."
Staff Sergeant John A. Ross stated that while cleaning the day room, he "heard a plane overhead missing badly. The plane seemed to be (extraordinarily) lit up by flames coming from the exhaust stacks." 2nd Lt. Robillard, who was seriously injured during the crash, wrote, "We were circling 2,000 feet at South Zone at about 2100. The tower called and told us to shoot a landing on Runway 4. She entered the pattern normal way at 1100 feet and cut gun to let wheels down. Soon it seemed something was wrong. I felt the throttle moving back and forth and realized the engine was dead. By that time, we had 700 feet and were across runway and then were turning to the left. I took over and told the student to jump.
"I then shouted at the student to jump. I had little time to look and see if she jumped. Somehow I knew she hadn't. I attempted to bring the plane in for a crash landing on the end of Runway 4. The next thing I felt the airplane shudder and I remember no more."
The AAF report summarized these statements and possibly others with the following: "Halfway through the first 90 degree turn to the left the safety pilot took over and attempted to bring the plane in wheels down. He ordered the Woman Pilot to jump. He finished the first 90 degree turn, flew an abbreviated down wind and base leg, and was trying to round out a turn on to final approach when the plane crashed into the trees from a half stall in-turn at low altitude. The plane broke into halves at the fuselage at the point of the rear cockpit. The safety pilot was thrown clear but the plane burned. The woman pilot did not jump and was burned to death strapped in the cockpit. The wrecked plane rests about 300 yards from the end of Runway 4. A wide drainage ditch and jungle like trees and swamp undergrowth handicapped rescue efforts."
There is no mention in these reports of the faulty latch in the front cockpit where Mabel was seated. This faulty escape latch is referred to in other WASP research literature. The official reports also fail to mention the location of friendly fire or the anti-aircraft missile training that occurred that day and night at the camp.
Byrd Howell Granger, also a WWII WASP, wrote this in her book, On Final Approach:
"Instructor Lt. Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold is... too late (as) he reaches to snatch a gunner's hand from the trigger. Dismayed he sees a 50mm round speed with deplorable accuracy toward the A-24, not the target. It will be a direct hit."
"Mabel Rawlinson's death at Camp Davis. I don't know exactly what it could be attributed to. I did not go out to the crash scene, but the fire was intense. They could not get Mabel out and she burned.
"It was a very traumatic time for all of us there. I remember there was an old nurse who came over to our barracks and she had a couple bottles of beer and she sat on the end of the barracks out there watching the fire. Drinking her beer and singing old hymns; 'Nearer My God to Thee', 'Shall We Gather at the River' and in a deep sort of whiskey tenor, and just thinking the thoughts that we all thought. Now I think when you join the military you obviously go through a mind set that you are prepared for something like this.
"This was the first time that I had seen a friend die. So it was a trauma for me and I think for all of us."
Regarding the dangers the women faced, Dora said, "The 'little black puffs' the WASPs saw around the targets, and sometimes around their aircraft, showed that the ammunition was live and they were playing for keeps."
Dora also commented about the cool reception from the men at Camp Davis, "When the enlisted men on the flight line of the 3rd Tow Target Squadron at Camp Davis, North Carolina, heard that women pilots were coming to learn to tow targets, they all immediately requested transfer."
"We had almost no contact with the antiaircraft men we were flying for," explained Helen Wyatt Snapp, a WASP stationed at Camp Davis. Another WASP at Camp Davis, Marion Hanrahan, wrote: "The men pilots resented us primarily because, should the women succeed in replacing them, it would mean combat duty. Most were not qualified to fly in this capacity so it would be in ground troops." Regarding Mabel, Marion said:
"I was at Camp Davis five months and flew several missions. I knew Mabel very well. We were both scheduled to check out on night flight in the A-24. My time preceded hers but she offered to go first because I hadn't had dinner yet. We were in the dining room when we heard the siren that indicated a crash. When we ran out on the field we saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire and could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare."
It's true that the women pilots were placed in harm's way by towing targets for training with live ammunition and testing anti-artillery ground troops. Since these anti-artillery ground troops were "in training", it is certainly possible that they could miss the targets pulled behind planes overhead. It's also well documented that most of the female pilots encountered at least some overt resentment from some of the male pilots that did not want to be shipped overseas.
However, Mabel's youngest sister and a pilot herself, Mary Creason, does not believe that these occurrences explain the cause of Mabel's accident. Mary has investigated the mishap thoroughly and she believes that the cause is related to the inferior equipment that the WASP were using.
The planes used for training and flown by the WASP were aircraft that had been returned from combat duty and were minimally maintained due to lack of parts. Mary Creason wrote:
"I have done extensive research and have discovered the reason for the accident. I've read all the books about the WASP. Sadly, the authors did not do their homework about Mabel. The aircraft developed mechanical problems after take off from the Camp Davis runway, and it was necessary for Mabel and her instructor, who was checking her out at night, to come back for landing. Recently I talked with another WASP who was eyewitness, in fact, she was supposed to follow Mabel in her aircraft, but had to return to the ramp because of an aircraft problem. I have this documented if anyone wants it.
"I remember well receiving the call in the middle of the night on August 23, 1942. A loud voice read my mother and me a telegram, 'We regret to inform you that your daughter has been killed . . .'
"We were told by Bertha Link who accompanied Mabel's body home that the aircraft caught fire in the air. I talked to the widow of the flight instructor, and she said he (Harvey J. Robillard) had talked about the crash a lot. He said there was nothing to do but follow procedures and 'take it in.' Mabel was in no way at fault. What was at fault was the latch - yes, the latch could not be opened from the inside of the aircraft - there was no way Mabel could have exited. It has been my hope always that she was unconscious from fumes prior to the crash."
Marion Hanrahan, WASP, described the condition of the planes this way, "The A-24s had been returned from the South Pacific because they were no longer fit for combat. Their tires were rotten, the instruments were malfunctioning and the planes were in very sorry shape."
Joyce Sherwood, one of Mabel's fellow WASP pilots at Camp Davis, had an experience that seems to support Mary's contention that engine failure may have been the cause for the mishap. Just two days after Mabel's crash in a Douglas A-24, Joyce also had engine failure in an A-24. According to the Army accident report, Joyce and the instructor managed a belly landing, the engine was detached from the rest of the plane, the plane caught fire after stopping, and both Joyce and her instructor suffered minor injuries but no burns.
So, there is still mystery surrounding Mabel's death. I've documented the various reports for you here, primarily for the sake of history and for fairness - but it doesn't really matter to Mabel's family anymore.
Mabel served her country bravely and generously. Regardless of how her accident happened, whether it was friendly fire, engine failure, or sabotage, what matters most is this:
Mabel Rawlinson was loved - and she will always be remembered by a grateful country.
Jacqueline Cochran, WASP Director, sent this telegram to Mabel's family, in August 1943,
"I hope this will convey to you how deeply we all feel about Mabel's accident. May God give you strength to find comfort in the fact that when she was called to make the supreme sacrifice, she was serving her country in the highest capacity permitted women today."
In his speech on December 7, 1944, at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, General Hap Arnold, Commanding General Army Air Forces, said:
"The WASP have completed their mission. Their job has been successful. But as is usual in war, the cost has been heavy. Thirty-eight WASP have died while helping their country move toward the moment of final victory. The Air Forces will long remember their service and their final sacrifice."
Gen. Arnold wrote to Mabel's mother, Nora Belle Rawlinson, on January 18th, 1945:
"Dear Mrs. Rawlinson, During the Army Air Forces' tribute to the Women Air forces Services Pilots at Sweetwater, Texas, on 7 December 1944, a plaque was dedicated to the memory of those WASP who died while serving their country... Realizing that you may not have an opportunity to see the plaque and knowing that you would treasure such a memorial to your daughter, I am enclosing a photographic copy of it...
"There is little I can say to console you in the loss of your daughter, but I trust the memory of her devotion to her country will bring some measure of solace. And I urge you to remember that she... left a brave heritage to America - heritage of faith in victory and faith in the ultimate freedom of humanity. My heartfelt sympathy is extended to you."
Most poignant were the heartfelt words of those who loved and knew Mabel the best. Describing Mabel's funeral service, this letter was written by a close family friend, Miss Ellis J. Walker, of Western Michigan University's Health Service, and addressed to John Rawlinson, Mabel's older brother, in September 1943. John was unable to attend his sister's funeral, as he was in Liberia, West Africa, as manager of a rubber plantation, an effort essential for the war. Ellis wrote to John:
"There is little need to dwell upon the sadness which held us all. It was a strange sadness, which seemed almost unjustified because the cause seemed so unreal.
"Mabel had been so vital that to think of her inert among us was more than we could truly do. And the gray casket with the flag over it was but a symbol of something for someone but not for her; yet all the homage given, and there was much, we knew was for Mabel and we gloried in it.
"There were flowers, too many for the living, and that made our hearts ache; there were letters and telegrams speaking of Mabel in the past tense and they brought our sense of unreality to cutting tribunal; there was military homage and that told us that a service worthy of acknowledgment was being given tribute by the country Mabel had served. As you well know she would, your mother held staunch through all the days of suspense and waiting. She planned well the details, which were numerous. She turned with gladness to each one of the children who came in...
"No one held head higher than Nora Rawlinson as we learned that Mabel was doing night flying, that she was piloting bombers, that the accident which brought her death was no fault of hers, and that as a good soldier she had taken the risk, played her part, and met her fate.
"The service, the first military funeral for a woman in Kalamazoo and, possibly, in Michigan, began with a simple gathering of friends. Mr. Perdew and Reverend Pohly of the Methodist Church spoke and prayed; there was very gentle music.
"Few of us cried but our hearts were full, too full of pride, to pay tribute in tears.
"Men in uniform carried the casket to the hearse; both men and women in uniform stood at salute at the cemetery; we counted nine planes which circled over the burial place and then slipped away one by one; the firing squad gave their round of farewells; the flag was folded and given to your mother, and we came away.
"They were grand, sacred days of which you would be glad to tell your children's children. They were days, which help us to understand that the big things of life are good things and, having come close to them for a little while, we shall never so easily be trifling again...
"The big thing is that Mabel, who had dwelt among us, is remembered at the places where she was: Western Michigan University and the part she took; the WMU Health Service where she gave of her loyalty and good cheer; the Kalamazoo Library where her germinating hope for flying came into fruition; Scrub Oak where she ranged the woods and raked leaves last fall; the camp where she took her last flight and left a lingering memory."
My Aunt Mabel was one of 38 military women who lost their lives serving as WASP during the duration of World War II. WASP were not formally adopted into the Army Air Force (AAF) during the war even though they had been led to believe this would happen. They remained civil service employees without injury coverage, death benefits, or access to programs such as VA loans or the GI Bill for education.
The service and sacrifices of these dedicated women were largely ignored by our government for more than 30 years.
In 1944, bills in Congress to militarize the WASP met with strong opposition from some individuals and failed. Due to similar political pressures and the increased availability of male pilots as the war began to wind down, the WASP were disbanded effective on December 20th, 1944, still without benefits.
A former WASP commanding officer, Byrd Howell Granger, compiled a dossier of more than 100 pages of documents showing that the WASPs were subject to military discipline, that they were assigned to top secret missions, and that many of them received service ribbons after their units were disbanded.
In 1976, after the Air Force announced that it was training the "first women to fly for the military," the surviving WASP went to work to correct the error of fact, since, of course, brave women had not only flown before for the military, but had paid the ultimate price while doing so.
With the help of Colonel Bruce Arnold (Gen. Hap Arnold's son) and Senator Barry Goldwater (who had flown with WASP aviators during the war), the WASP went before Congress to ask for militarization, once again.
Both Col. Arnold and WASP veterans described the military training, the top secret missions, the drills, the uniforms and side arms that made the WASP a military rather than a civilian organization. In his 1976 testimony before a congressional committee on Veterans' Affairs, the son of World War II General Hap Arnold outlined clearly why the WASP were essentially not a civilian unit.
Col. Arnold, who had been on the ground below as an eye-witness when Mabel Rawlinson died, presented to the lawmakers what he believed his father's intentions were to militarize the WASPs.
Col. Arnold concluded his remarks with this impassioned plea:
"Who is more deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders, who is shot down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver office?
"We hope that this committee will remember that the WASP too have borne the battle."
Despite strong opposition, the measure passed through Congress. In 1977. President Jimmy Carter signed the bill making the WASP part of the Air Force.
Thirty-four years after our Mabel Rawlinson lost her life, her fellow WASP were rightfully given full military status.
Proudly, Mabel Rawlinson's mother and my grandmother, Nora, then age 93, was now able to witness her country's formal recognition of Mabel's supreme sacrifice.
Military acceptance followed with official U.S. Air Force recognition in 1979. The Air Force awarded each WASP the Victory Medal in 1984. Those who served for more than one year were also awarded the American Theater medal.
They received no back pay or death insurance, but they did get the one thing they had fought so hard for - recognition that the WASP had answered America's call when she needed them the most.
The women pilots, too, had fought and died for their country.
Pictured above: Mabel's August 1943 burial in Kalamazoo. My Grandfather Rawlinson, Grandmother Rawlinson, and my Aunt Margaret are standing in the foreground as the casket passes. The white-haired gentleman in front of the line is my other grandfather, Rev. Pohly, the Methodist minister, preparing to say words at my aunt's grave site. Kalamazoo Civil Air Patrol honored her with buglers, fly-overs and solemn gun salutes. Behind them is a very long procession of patriots, colleagues, family and friends.
Those interested in learning more about Mabel Rawlinson, American hero, and other WASP, and the brave women of WWII, may wish to visit these websites: WASP Photograph Project, Wings Across America, WASP Facts, WASP on the Web, Radio Diaries from NPR, Women of Courage, Fly Girls PBS Documentary, Risking Life in Service, and Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Many books have been written about the WWII fly girls, including Yankee Doodle Gals, Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines, On Final Approach, Women Pilots Of World War II, Clipped Wings, Winning My Wings, Women in the Wild Blue, WASP Among Eagles, and Target-Towing WASP at Camp Davis.
A monument and museum at Sweetwater, Texas, now commemorate WASP service to the US Air Force during World War II.
Pictured below: WASP on the Camp Davis tarmac in the summer of 1943, with Mabel Rawlinson standing on the far left.
Copyright, All Rights Reserved, Pam Pohly
Excerpts are permitted for reprinting provided links to this page and attribution provided. For permission to reprint larger sections or to use photographs, please contact the author at pjpohly at yahoo dot com.