"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.” - President Obama, July 1, 2009.
Nan holding her medal with Tom and Carol
During WWII over 1,000 women served in the Women Airforce Services Pilots (WASP) from September 1942 through December 1944. Of the 25,000 that originally applied for WASP service, less than 1,900 were accepted for training. Following a four-month military flight course conducted by the U.S. Army Air Forces at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX, 1,078 earned their wings.
Stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. WASPs assumed flight-related missions that relieved male pilots for combat duty. They ferried aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towed targets for live-antiaircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and cargo transport. WASPS delivered over 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. 38 died – 11 in training and 27 in the line of duty.
The military never gave them any official status or rank. They did not receive veteran’s benefits until the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977 was passed, granting them full military status for their service.
Nan's Congressional Gold Medal
On July 1, 2009, President Obama and the U.S. Congress awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. On March 10, 2010, 200 surviving WASPs were on hand at the US Capitol to receive their medal including 44-w-6, Nan Hazeltine, my Godmother.
My first recollection of Nan was in February 1968. I was headed TDY to Vietnam, due to depart from the Oakland Army Terminal (Oakland Army Base). Oakland, CA was where Nan and her family lived at the time. My mother had phoned Nan to say I would be arriving in Oakland the day before I had to report. Nan swung into action. She picked me up at the airport in a VW minivan, gave me a whirlwind tour of the San Francisco – Oakland area and put me up for the night in her home. I met her family although I honestly don’t recall much of my visit other than their grand hospitality. I recall a lot of activity in the house. Looking back I suspect there was always something afoot in Nan’s household with five children around. The next morning Nan dropped me off at the Army Depot and I was off, grateful for the brief visit and to have been taken in by Nan and her family on such short notice.
The next time I saw Nan was in June 1971 in WI at my first wedding. By then many changes had taken place in Nan’s life. She was no longer in California but on the road full-time with her mother in a motor home. She had been invited to the wedding but wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it. To everyone’s delight she pulled up at the reception in her Winnebago. She would live a gypsy life for over ten years. I wonder if that encounter had left an impression on me, one that played a role in my adopting the same lifestyle decades later? While on the road Nan frequently returned to Oshkosh, WI where she had relatives and friends. Oshkosh was where Nan and my mother Barb had met when they were growing up. Out of that friendship, Nan became my Godmother.
From time to time our paths would cross during her Oshkosh visits. Oshkosh is also home to the EAA, an organization in which Nan no doubt had more than just a passing fancy since aviation had been a large part of her life at one time. After being a WASP she continued to fly a single-engine Taylorcraft BC12-65 in California. She recounts that she probably learned more about real flying after she left the military. A photo of her former plane resides front and center on a bookshelf in her bedroom. The plane’s registration number, NC36041, Nan said, will be on her gravestone.
When Nan’s mother became less able to travel, they settled down in Ingram, TX, nestled in the Texas Hill Country. After Nan’s mother passed away, Nan continued to stay in Ingram along with a cadre of pet dogs.
It wasn’t until July 1999 that I caught up with Nan again after I had remarried. Carol and I stopped to pay her a visit during a month long vacation, which in part had taken us through Texas. Much had changed over the years but Nan was as vibrant as she ever was. We continued to receive letters at Christmas or talk occasionally over the phone. It wasn’t until March 2009 when we were able to make another visit, this time while we were scoping out the Rio Grande Valley as a possible winter home if or when we ever decided to go full-timing.
One short year later and now full-timers (decades after Nan had taken up the lifestyle) Carol and I drove up to the Hill Country early this week to say hello to Nan and personally congratulate her on receiving her long overdue national recognition as a WASP. At age 87 Nan’s physical health has slowed her down. She doesn’t get around like she used to. And her memory is somewhat challenged these days. But the twinkle in her eye and infectious laughter along with her grit and resolve were strongly evident as she proudly showed us her medal. It “sits on the high boy” next to her bed along with her cherished family photos.
We had spoken on the phone with her to let her know we would be coming, but when we arrived we had no idea that Nan had actually been able to attend the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol! Her daughter Diane had driven her to DC where she was joined by her four other children. Nan was thrilled to “see the girls” (fellow WASPs) again and was equally thrilled to have her family present. We asked if she was able to speak directly to the President. "No, all I did was listen but boy, does he ever look young!"
Nan continues to live in the country outside Ingram and is somewhat disconnected from town. Knowing Nan and her feisty nature, she wouldn’t have it any other way. During our visit we met one of Nan’s caregivers, Linda. It was comforting to know that Nan is receiving such good care on a daily basis and is able to stay in touch with her family.
Nan has certainly lived an interesting and unusual life, never accepting the status quo. She is a remarkable woman and an example to women everywhere. I am indeed fortunate that my mother and Nan wound up such good friends so many years ago and that Nan took on the role of being my Godmother (a daunting challenge to be sure – just ask my sister, Betsy). At age 87 her short-term memory isn't what it once was but she certainly was able to recall her recent Washington trip with more clarity than I'm able to recall what I might have had for dinner the day before! How terrific it was for her to be able to take part in the ceremony in Washington and to have her family present. It meant the world to her.
Tom and Nan and faithful Shasta
From time to time we’ve seen a bumper sticker: “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I’m thinking that whoever wrote that may well have had Nan in mind. Come to think of it, Nan and my daughter, Jennie, would really hit it off!