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Fallen Hero: Fly Girl from Kalamazoo

by May 28, 2007 blog

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 Rawlinson

Pilot, 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:

  1. test all of the US warplanes
  2. tow targets for ground troop practice, and,
  3. ferry planes from aircraft factories to military bases

Shortly after the women pilots program was approved, commanders began to see that there were many “stateside” pilot roles that the women could assume, thereby freeing up the male pilots to assist with war efforts overseas. These new volunteer female pilots would make it possible for male pilots to relinquish their stateside duties and assist in war efforts overseas, where they were greatly needed.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.

Mabel reported on January 15, 1943, at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for her Army Air Force pilot training.

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.”

After receiving her wings and graduating from her basic training in the WFTD Class 43-W-3 at Sweetwater, Texas, July 3rd, 1943, Mabel took a short R&R; in Mexico with friends.

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.

The other female pilots at Camp Davis pooled their extra money and assisted in the expense of transporting Mabel’s casket back to Kalamazoo for burial.

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 targetsbehind her plane for practicing ground troopsthat 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.