Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Puck said, “You know this.” His voice was firm and gruff, but there was something in it that I’d never heard before—kindness.

  I reached out my hand and went through all the instruments, naming each one. I told him the takeoff and landing speeds, the stalling speed, the throttle setting for cruising, and afterward I repeated the cockpit procedure.

  Then I went up for my very last training flight. As I took off, the wind was gustier than normal and I got caught in a swell. The plane rocked from side to side and I tried to steady her. It leveled out as soon as we were over the clouds.

  You make me happy . . .

  I followed the railroad for a bit, which we sometimes did to keep our bearings, and then I started naming the towns as we flew over them, trying not to name them by their water towers. Each tower had a sextant on top that helped you know what direction you were flying, but I didn’t use them now. I headed east toward Abilene, then south toward San Antonio, then west again to Avenger Field.

  As I brought the plane in for landing, I thought about the time Johnny Clay and I went flying and crash-landed in a cow pasture. It seemed long ago and far away, and I thought what a lucky girl I was to have so many people I loved in this world, even if they were, most of them, far away, and even if some of them were as far away as heaven. I was lucky to be a WASP and lucky to be a girl who could fly planes and lucky not to be a housewife back in the woods up on a mountain.

  You make me smile . . .

  When I climbed down from the AT-6, I rested my hand against its side, and it was so bright in the sun that it nearly burned my hand. I left it there another second, and then I followed Puck off the flight line.

  And just like that, my WASP training was over. My class had fifty-five hours of primary training in the PT-19, sixty-five hours of basic training in the BT-13, and sixty hours of advanced training in the AT-6 and twin-engine AT-17. We had thirty-eight hours of instrument flying, and that included time in the Link trainer, which was a box shaped like a ladybug that simulated flying. We’d finished PE and ground school, and our tests in navigation, aircraft engines, mathematics, meteorology, and Morse code were done too.

  On October 14, the Thursday before graduation, Puck gave me my evaluation, and I passed. On it, next to all the numbers and percentage points I’d earned, he wrote: “Tendency to take things too hard and doubt herself, but listens well. One of the most natural pilots I’ve ever seen.”

  The next day Jackie Cochran passed out copies of Life magazine to each trainee. Life didn’t just write a short article on the WASP—it gave over twelve pages of photographs and story. The headline called us the “Lipstick Squadron,” and the reporter, a man named Herbert Langley, described us as “sun-bronzed and trim as the streamlined planes.” He also quoted field supervisor Major Donald Mackey, who said that “gentler treatment” was the only change required for the instruction of women trainees. Then Miss Cochran was quoted saying, “I worry that combat might harden and brutalize our girls, who still need to be wives and mothers after the war. But when it comes down to it, these women are perfectly capable of flying combat missions. After all, when aroused, women make the nastiest fighters.” We knew she meant it but that she was also campaigning, trying to get the military to recognize us officially once and for all.

  The pictures were taken by Oliver Sheehy, who I guessed was the man with gray hair. There were photos of girls on the flight line, girls at the wishing well, girls sunbathing between the barracks, girls in the classroom, girls in PE, girls at mess. There was one of Mudge sound asleep on a cot after a day of flying, lying on her stomach, her face turned to the camera, eyes closed, hands brushing the floor. There was one of Sally and Paula lying on the floor in navigation class, charts spread in front of them, plotting their courses. And on the cover was a girl with a ponytail and no makeup, wearing a zoot suit, sitting on the wing of a plane. The caption said: “Velva Jean Hart, pilot.”

  On Saturday, October 16, we pulled on white shirts and tan pants—we called these our “general’s pants” because the only time we wore them was when generals and other high-ranking military officers were visiting the base—and marched across the field two by two behind an honor guard carrying the American flag. The Big Spring Bombardier School Band played while we marched. And we sang one last marching song.

  It was a warm, clear day with the brightest, bluest Texas sky I’d ever seen. I knew my family wouldn’t be able to come to graduation, but I still wished for them, just like I wished for Ty. I wondered if I would always wish for Ty, even after I’d met someone else someday and gotten married again. I thought of the locusts and the first time I’d met him and I felt the same swift stab of pain sweep through me.

  Most of the other girls had at least one person there to see them. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, though, because there were so many girls who weren’t there—Loma Edwards and other girls we’d known who’d washed out or gone home. I remembered my very first day at Avenger Field, back on February 14, when Jackie Cochran had told us to look at the girls on either side of us because they wouldn’t be here at the end. Only 59 out of the original 112 were graduating.

  Sitting up on the reviewing stand were Jackie Cochran; Brigadier General Isaiah Davies, who was commanding general of the air force’s 34th Training Wing and one of the guest speakers; and General Hap Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the man who had given Jackie Cochran the approval to create the WASP program. General Arnold had been taught to fly by the Wright brothers, was the first United States pilot to carry the mail, and then went on to be one of the first military pilots in the world.

  We stood in the blazing sun during the speeches, our white shirts sticking to our skin. General Arnold said: “We will not again look upon a women’s flying organization as experimental. We will know that they can handle our fastest fighters . . . ; we will know that they are capable of flying anything put in front of them. This is valuable knowledge for the air age into which we are now entering . . . We of the Army Air Forces are proud of you.”

  I couldn’t help it—standing in the blazing sun, shoulder to shoulder with other WASP like me, I started to cry. It wasn’t the gulping, sobbing kind of crying, but the tears rolling one by one down my face kind. I thought of where I’d been and where I was, and where I was going, which I didn’t actually know yet because we hadn’t got our assignments. We’d each be going to a military base somewhere, to do the work we’d been trained to do. The only place I knew I would never go—not even if they tried to send me there—was Tulsa.

  After General Arnold finished talking, we passed over the stage one by one, and Miss Cochran pinned our silver wings to our uniforms. And just like that, we weren’t trainees anymore. We were Women Airforce Service Pilots.

  Before the ceremony was over, we stood in front of Jackie Cochran and General Hap Arnold and Brigadier General Isaiah Davies and sang one last song. This wasn’t a marching song. It was a hymn to Avenger Field.

  In the land of crimson sunsets,

  skies are wide and blue,

  stands a school of many virtues,

  loved by old and new . . .

  Long before our duty’s ended,

  a mem’ry you shall be,

  in our hearts we pledge devotion,

  Avenger Field to thee!

  I’d been working on a song myself—not on paper, but in my head. It was a song about a girl who trades in her old yellow truck for an airplane and goes to a tiny little place in the middle of Texas, where the earth is brown and the sky is blue, and where there are other girls just like her, wanting to live out there, and she learns to fly. She buys a Mexican guitar and meets a boy who loves to fly like she does and then he dies doing what he loves, but she keeps on flying anyway.

  After we finished singing, we marched back down the field, away from Jackie Cochran, away from the crowd. As I marched I looked at the faces of all the parents and children and sisters and brothers and husbands who were gathered i
n the stands and on the ground to watch us. The sun was behind them, so that they were just a sea of dark figures, outlined in shadow, the colors of their shirts or dresses breaking through here and there. At the very back, standing behind the very last row, was a man in a cowboy hat. He was wiry, with long legs and long arms, but I couldn’t see his face. There was something about the way he moved, even though he wasn’t moving. Even standing still he seemed to be in motion, with legs that looked like they were dancing.

  When I broke free from the marching line, I circled back around to look for him. “Where are you going, Hartsie?” Sally hollered.

  I didn’t answer her because I started running. My heart was in a clinch. Even as I ran, I told myself: Stop running, Velva Jean. What are you running for? Just because you saw some old Texas cowboy who’s probably somebody’s husband or father or maybe just some farmer from Sweetwater.

  The crowd was breaking up now, everyone chattering and talking, shading their eyes from the sun, fanning themselves with their paper programs. I wove through it all, trying not to crash into anyone, dodging elbows and waving arms, and people who weren’t looking where they were going. I went up into the stands and back down to the ground.

  I called out, “Daddy? . . . Lincoln Hart? . . . Daddy?”

  But the man in the cowboy hat was gone.

  The day after graduation, Sally and I were called to Jackie Cochran’s office. She said, “I’m sending you to Camp Davis, North Carolina. This is a secret mission, and the reason I’ve chosen the two of you is that you’re my most skilled pilots.”

  At the words “secret mission” I felt my skin prickle. Just like Constance Kurridge. Just like Flyin’ Jenny.

  “You’ll be flying almost everything—all big ships, like the B-34, the P-37, and maybe even the B-17.” The B-17 Flying Fortress was thought to be the most powerful weapon in the war. The people who flew it said it was so powerful that it could unleash great destruction and even defend itself all on its own without a man steering it. She said, “I can’t tell you anything more, but this is an important experiment you’re taking part in. I hope this assignment will serve as a stepping-stone to bigger responsibilities, perhaps even overseas. What you do at Camp Davis will affect not only the WASP program but the future standing of women pilots.”

  It didn’t matter that Fair Mountain was four hundred miles away from Camp Davis. I was going home again, maybe not right up to Fair Mountain but to North Carolina, with its streams and waterfalls and tall, tall trees and green and mountains that curved and sloped—that were big but welcoming and not all sharp edges and rock.

  Jackie Cochran said, “I won’t lie to you, girls—Camp Davis has its challenges. But I want you to remember that nothing can be more important to the future of the women pilots program than what you’ll be doing. As you know, we’re still civilians. We aren’t military. This is our chance to prove that women can handle anything they throw at us. It all depends on your success. I expect you to do your best.”

  The next morning Sally and I packed our things while Mudge and Paula watched. When we were done, we all sat on our cots, facing each other, knees tucked up under our chins, and talked. Mudge was going back to Hollywood to fly stunt planes for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Paula was being sent to Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas. When she found out Sally and me were going on a secret mission for Jackie Cochran, she said three of the most colorful swear words I’d ever heard and then added seventy-five cents to the cuss pot.

  I told Paula, “I’ll never forget what you did for me, going with me to Mexico.”

  She blinked at me, and I could see her eyes watering. She said, “Shit, Velva Jean.” Then she wiped her eyes and added another twenty-five cents to the jar before we poured the money onto Sally’s bed and divvied it up between the four of us—there was $45.85.

  One hour later Sally and I were flying over Avenger Field in an AT-17 Bobcat. Lieutenant Patrick Whitley was in the pilot’s seat, which meant Sally and me could look out the windows. We pressed our faces to the glass, watching Avenger Field and the brown of Texas fade away under the clouds. A lump grew up in my throat, and I suddenly couldn’t swallow. I thought of all the friends I was leaving behind, of Paula and Mudge and even Arnold Puckett, and I wondered if I would ever see this place again.

  October 18, 1943

  Hey, little sister,

  I know I ain’t written you in a while, but we landed in England two weeks ago and as soon as we got here we started jump and tactical training. Something big is getting ready to happen, but I can’t say what. Just know that I’ll be in the action and that Hitler don’t stand a chance in hell.

  Now on to bigger things. Not only are you a graduate of the WASP, you’re on the cover of Life magazine. You could have knocked me over when one of the fellas all the way over here in England said, “Look at my latest pinup.” He’d ripped off the cover and tacked it up by his cot. I told him I was sorry and he said what for and I said for what I’m about to do, and then I punched him hard in the jaw. When he asked why, I told him because you’re my little sister and no one’s going to pin you up on their wall.

  Congratulations on earning your wings, Velva Jean. I’m right proud.

  Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a good long while. But know I’m not going to let anything happen to me. I know you’ll worry because you just will, and I know Granny and Sweet Fern are worried too. Daddy Hoyt wrote me and told me he was proud of me, and maybe he’s worried some, but you know him—he’d never show it.

  Just remember: I promised you a long time ago, right after Mama died, that I’d never leave you and I aim to follow through.


  Sergeant First Class Johnny Clay Hart,

  brother of a famous WASP

  P.S. What’s this I hear about you getting divorced?

  October 20, 1943

  Mary Lou,

  Honey, I’ve been thinking about you. How is your heart?

  I tried like hell to come to graduation, but at the last minute I had to go home because my little brother signed up for the navy, and Mother was fit to be tied. She asked me to come back and talk some sense into him, but of course he’s a Goss and he’s going to do whatever he damn well pleases. By the time I got home, he’d already climbed out his window in the middle of the night and run away. We just got a letter from him and he’s somewhere in South Carolina.

  But, good grief, I wanted to be there to see you get your wings. How was it? Do you wear them everywhere? I sure would if I was you. Are you getting recognized on the street now that you’re famous? I bought three copies of Life and I’m sending one to you with this letter because I want you to sign it for me, just like a movie star.

  I’m so proud of you, and not just for becoming a fullfledged WASP. I’m proud of you for going down to Juárez and getting yourself a divorce.

  I’m going back to Nashville in two days, but I don’t know how long I’ll stay. I’m bored as hell without you and I’m tired of working at Gorman’s.

  Sending you a big fat hug,


  October 21, 1943

  Dear Velva Jean Hart,

  I read with terrific interest the Life magazine article on the WASP, and of course I celebrate the wonderful cover photo. Congratulations on being accepted into such a prestigious program. I wondered where you had gone.

  Are you writing songs? I’d imagine you don’t have a lot of time to write but that you’re getting plenty of material to write about. I’d love to see or hear anything you’ve been working on when you feel like sharing.

  Let me know when you’re back in Nashville.

  All my best,

  Darlon C. Reynolds


  The commanding officer of Camp Davis was a man named Colonel Randolph Wells, who looked like Errol Flynn without the smile. The first thing he told us was that the planes were expendable and so were we, which meant he didn’t care what happened to either the planes or us.

; The second thing he told us was not to expect a warm welcome. He said, “I can’t speak for all fifty thousand men on this base, but the army air force pilots don’t want you here, and I don’t want you here. Remember that you’re civilians, not military, and as such you’re guests on this base. While you’re here, you’ll follow our orders and follow our rules.”

  The last thing he told us was that we were there to replace two girls who had been killed in training exercises. When he saw our faces, he said, “Jacqueline Cochran didn’t mention that to you?”

  Sally cracked her gum so it sounded like a rifle shot. “No,” I said. “She didn’t.”

  Camp Davis sat on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean near the town of Holly Ridge. It was built on forty-six thousand acres of pine barren and swampland. There were hardly any trees, but there were more than three thousand ugly wood buildings and tents crowded together in tight little rows like they were trying to stay far away from the swamp. Colonel Wells said we should watch out for snakes and bobcats and Nazis—a half-dozen German U-boats patrolled deep below the water just a mile or two offshore.

  He said, “The planes you’ll be flying at first are, for the most part, scrap. They’ve been retired from combat, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them for training. Once you’ve cut your teeth on those, you’ll be ferrying newer planes to other bases, planes that will be put into service overseas.”

  Just like Colonel Wells said, there were fifty thousand men on the base, including five hundred army air force pilots, three hundred German prisoners of war, a squad of Lumbee and Navajo Indians, one British unit that had already seen actual combat fire, and Lieutenant Bruce Arnold, General Arnold’s son. Not counting the women who worked in the hospital or in the offices, there were only twenty-five girls, including Sally and me, all of us WASP.

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