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RFT 436: WASP Documentarian Erin Miller

Ready For Takeoff - Turn Your Aviation Passion Into A Career

27:42 min | 1 year ago

RFT 436: WASP Documentarian Erin Miller

"This is the ready for take-off podcast episode four, thirty six my name is George. In today I'm talking to Aaron Miller but first, let me tell you about our sponsor, the ham-fisted novel series. If you like aviation combat action, it's brought by real events in Vietnam I know you're really going to enjoy the Hanff this novel series and you can get the first audio book in this series totally free just on her show notes and you'll see how you can do that by signing up for an account with audible. But right now, fasten your seat belts and get ready for takeoff. I'm talking today to Aaron Miller. Now, Erin is not a pilot, but she is the granddaughter of a wasp that's women's airforce service pilots, and she has a fascinating story to tell. So Aaron, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you for having me your welcome so What I'd like is for you to to share with us what what your grandmother has shared with you about her flying story, and then we'll get to your story of how you how you made things right for your grandmother. But can you tell us how she got her starting aviation? So. My Grandmother. Elaine. Dan. For harmon was born in Baltimore Maryland in Nineteen nineteen and she grew up in the city and was born at home in her house. And had two siblings and was very independent. sporty did a lot of rotor bike and very athletic growing up and she attended the University of Maryland in College Park. Maryland for college. and. She did lots of activities there as well. She was a cheerleader she was on the rifle team swim team. She was in a sorority in all kinds of things very active and her senior year of college. She saw an advertisement in the school newspaper for the civilian. Pilot Training. program. Which I'm sure your listeners are familiar with but it was a program in the nineteen thirties to have more people in the United States prepare to get a pilot's license and Senate was I guess subsidized by the US government and it was offered through a lot of universities and university. Of Maryland was one of them. And Anyway. So they had an advertisement for this program where you could learn how to fly and it costs thirty five dollars. Or forty dollars and you got thirty five hours of flight training and ground school and whatever. So my grandma thought that would be cool. So she applied and at the time which doesn't sound like a big deal you're signing up for a class nowadays. But back, then if you were a woman, they only accepted one woman for every ten men in the class. So you kind of had to I don't I never asked her if there were comp competition about this or she just happened to be the only woman that applied I don't really know but anyway. So, she asked her dad for the money and she also had to get a permission slip signed because she was female and under the age of twenty one and not married. So her dad had to sign a permission slip and that's how she initially took pilot training lessons West, through this program at the University of Maryland. Very. Cool. So after she got her thirty five hours, did she continue to fly on her own? Not Really she I think she did a little bit but she basically that was in nineteen, hundred forty, sue her last year of college. She got her pilot's license and then not too long after that, she got married in the summer of nineteen forty one. To my grandfather, and then as your listeners I'm sure. Well, aware six months later Pearl Harbor happened. So I don't think you flying around was generally something that happened. A Lot. So at that point, my grandmother and grandfather were moving around a lot to support the war effort they lived in Ohio at one point for a while and we're kind of working at different places. And and so how did she get back into? So in nineteen, forty, three, I believe there was an big. The Women Airforce Service pilots kind of became newsworthy and there was a little bit of news about them. Newsreel. The old newsreels are in life magazine, and so my grandmother heard about this program called the WAAS. And thought she could apply and she asked my grandfather. If he thought it would be a good idea and he thought it would be a great idea for her. So she applied and she kind of didn't really think she would get in because she really the most she had done was that civilian pilot training program she didn't have a lot of hours. And she kind of applied and thought oh well, we'll see what happens but they accepted her. So that's how she ended up becoming one of the Watson. Then she started training in April of Nineteen, forty four where did she go for Carini? She was in sweetwater Texas Avenger field, which is in western Texas. About an hour west of Abilene Texas. Now. Did your grandfather go there with her when she went there No. So my grandfather was an engineer and he later became a patent attorney, but he was not in the service because he had a physical defect so he was So, he couldn't serve in the army. But he was I think recruited I would say by a company to actually manufactured airplane parts called Jack and Heintz which some people may not because I've seen their parts in the in the warbirds He got sent to Asia to work on a plan to repair aircraft for the US military in theater in the Pacific. So the planes didn't have to be sent back to the continental United States to be repaired to save time. So he got sent over there to work on that program as a civilian, and so he was gone during this time when she was trainy. tweet water. Aircraft was she trained in? So she was trained on I think they were all trained on basic plane. So things like the the steersman PT, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, eighty, sixes, bt, Thirteen's neither all planes that she was training on. And what did she eventually flawed she I assume she was multi current and flew a lot of different airplanes as wasp. Yes. So all the WAAS flu lots of different planes and there were groups of wasps that were trained to fly every plane that was produced during World War Two from little trainer planes all the way up to be twenty nine bomber. So not every wasp was trained to fly every plane obviously but they're little groups trained to fly like you know pursuit crafter bombers or whatever. So. She was trained to fly bt thirteen's to train men in instrument training. So that was her job after she graduated. So she was transferred to Nellis Air. Base. In Las Vegas. And with her best friend from the WAAS Maggie Gee and Magnesia was to- target pilot in Las Vegas. So they were transferred there and my grandma trained men on instrument training in the thirteen. And she was also has some time as a co-pilot on the B seventeen. Now did she any or overseas? No. The Watson really do that there were some women at the very early stages of this experiment as the government called it that went to England to work a little bit. But the Women Airforce Service pilot program was domestic. So. She was training pilots in the. BTS thirteen percent. Yes and she stayed at knows the entire time then? Yes. So What? was was the wasp disbanded before the war ended or how did that occur? So, in the summer of so during this whole process, they army was debating whether they women are for service pilots should actually become official. Commissioned officers or members of the army, right? So I'm sure your listeners are familiar with a lot of work to history. They know there were women serving and other branches right in and in the army, right like doing other things. But since these women were pilots which was a competitive sealed with men, there was a lot of controversy about whether these women should be accepted as part of the army. So there had to be legislation in Congress to. Make them part of the army so that legislation was going through and there were a lot of debates about it from different like veterans, groups, or various people in the government that were debating the pros and cons of this and in the summer of nineteen forty one. The bill failed by one thousand, nine votes. So the wasp were not accepted as part of the army and at that point in the history of the war that you know like d day was ahead, all these things were happening and the war was a little bit turning towards Asia and. The army kind of felt like we may not need as many combat pilot. So it was okay to kind of I guess let the last program fall out. So they decided to cancel the program and it was canceled on December Twentieth Nineteen. Forty? Four. So. So then I, I assume she returned to. To, wherever home was Right. So at that point, my grandfather was still overseas in Asia and my grandmother returned to Baltimore and She was pretty bored 'cause most of the people were doing something with the war and she did you know her husband was overseas. So she decided to go to California to see a friend and she ended up working as an air traffic controller at Oakland. International Airport for a while Ah should know many female traffic controllers back then. That is a good question. I don't know the answer to that I on one hand I want to say, yes because you know we had all these women taking over jobs. So it seems like it would make sense but I don't actually know the answer to that question. Cheated until the end of the war says, she did that for a while I don't remember exactly how long. But at some point my grandfather came back from Asia and when he came back, they moved back to Maryland. Now did she continue to fly at any point after the war? Not Really She You know they like I said, she was already married. So they moved back to Maryland and. House eventually and. Ended up having four children. So I don't know that at that time running around with four kids. It was easy to go on flight planes. I don't know but My grandfather died in one, thousand, nine, hundred, sixty, five. So my grandma became a single mom with four kids. I have a feeling flying planes not. You know highest priority at that time unfortunately. Sure. So she was dealing with that situation and I never knew my grandfather because he died before I was born so. Yeah unfortunately. Yeah. I think she always loved flying but I think after you know after the war didn't get a lot of. To do it. Soon now. It took thirty five years before the Wasp were were issued to fourteen. Can you tell us about that? So. As I explained earlier, the army was debating whether to let them in as formal members and the bill failed. So the war was over they. They went home and. World War Two veterans. Went on with their lives and got married and had kids or whatever. Some of them stayed in the aviation industry and some of them did other things. And in the nineteen seventies The Air Force and some of the the academy's started accepting women the Air Force said they air force performed in nineteen, forty seven. So they in the seventies they said, they were going to start accepting women's pilot trainees and things were going to be the first women pilots in the military or whatever, and the Wasp and my grandma and her friends were like we already did that. Maybe we should go like tell Congress about it and so they realize since they hadn't really been talking. About what they had done, which like lots of World War Two people just wanted to get on with their lives they had been forgotten. So they went to Congress in the seventies and lobby to get a bill passed to allow them to petition the Department of Defense to get recognizes veterans, and that was signed into law in Nineteen, seventy, seven by president. Carter and they petitioned the Department of Defense and my grandma received her dany to fourteen in nineteen seventy, nine, thirty, five years later. And known that the time when she decided, she wanted to be buried at Arlington. I don't know if that was the time my grandmother had attended some other funerals of her fellow WAAS Arlington previously, and at some point during that time had mentioned that she would like to be buried there too. So it you know something we'd knew about. No I understand that the the other women who were buried Arlington we're we're there because their husbands had been veterans were buried. There's that right. Yeah. So there was a little bit of you now controversy. So there were also a couple of other wasps that were buried there on their own. But in two thousand and two there was an argument about One of the wasp being buried she was being buried with her husband. So the issue wasn't that she couldn't be buried there. The issue was her daughter requested military funeral and the the. The Arlington Administration said No. So she launched a campaign to have you know her mom recognized and get a military funeral, and during that time they put out a release saying Oh. Yeah. The law from nineteen seventy seven. Let's them be buried here and let them have funeral. So we didn't. Think there was an issue so they had already talked about it once right so now. Take up to your grandmother passing away. So my grandmother passed away in April of two, thousand fifteen and as we mentioned, she had left a letter saying she wanted to be buried at Arlington and we already knew that so we weren't surprise. But when my mom applied sent all the paperwork in they told her that the wasps were not eligible to be there on their own merit and as I mentioned, my grandfather was a civilian so he was buried in a different cemetery. And we were a little confused because as I mentioned in two thousand two, they had already had this discussion but apparently a months before my grandmother died Arlington had done a review of their procedures and whatever and decided that certain groups like the wasp weren't actually entitled to be buried there on their own merit and we didn't know about this until we had applied to to have her that buried there. They rejected the application and it was it's the Department of the army that rejected it correct right. So the Department of the army runs Arlington National Cemetery and the Department of Veterans Affairs runs roughly a hundred and thirty seven other national military cemeteries but not Arlington. So the Wa. Happen team seventy seven. Language. Stating that the Women Airforce Service pilots and these other groups that eventually got benefits under the same law are eligible for benefits administered by the Veterans Administration. Which today is the Department of Veterans Affairs. So the army claimed that they were only veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs and not other parts of the federal government. So now, if you're like most people, you just said Gosh too bad we'll bury her with GRANDPA but that's not what happened. Yeah. So you know at first, we were just really confused and a little irritated and and you know my mom and I did a lot of research and I was trying to help her you know figure this out look at the Wad. I told her I said you know legally I think you know they have a strong case like this is correct like that's the language says, and you know obviously, I don't agree with it can a grandma and I think it's terrible but like I think legally they technically might be correct. Now you're an attorney. So could tell what what made sense legally right. Yeah. So I was somewhat new attorney and I had finished law school at University, of Maryland. Couple years before that. So. I was putting some of my law school learning to use to figure this out. The next step up. So, then you know explain this to my mom and I said well, you know if we want to change this, we probably have to get a law passed so we should contact are You know members of Congress are senator whatever. So my mom facts, a bunch of information to our senator. and we got a response a couple of months later saying that. You know the. It was only a few sentences basically like we can't help you in. This is a situation and sorry. And that really irritated me. That's when I got really irritated 'cause up to that point. It was just kind of ambiguous. We don't really know what's going on and just waiting to something out and then when we got that response, I, was pretty annoyed and. I thought this can't be the last answer, right? So I decided we have to basically do a PR campaign and I was going to go to the news and get attention and tell people this is ridiculous and we need to have this changed and. I figured if we got a lot of attention, the army would change its mind. But then during that process I realized, we actually need to get a law passed because the army changes its mind and changes the law or changes the rule right now for us than next year, they could change it back. Sure. You at that point, we wanted to make sure that all the women airforce service pilots and all the people of these other groups had the same opportunity that my grandma would have if we got this done. So, what was the? What's it like doing a PR campaign I have no idea how to do that. Yeah. I didn't really know what I was doing either but. I just figured we have all the social media site posted my my first thing I posted something on facebook or instagram. I can't remember probably all of them and just talked about I posted a picture of my grandma's earned her wings and I talked about how she wanted to be at Arlington and they rejected her because of this. Weird. Loophole in the law and it was ridiculous that we were going to try to do something about it and all these people started responding like people I didn't even know when I was like wow. So all these people are so mad about it maybe we can get something done and then I started reaching out to news reporters and posting all over social media and just looking for anything to get people's. Interest and I connected with a local news reporter who does a lot of veterans stories on named Andrew McCarron who used to be at channel nine. But now she works at another organization the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation, and she actually was the first one that did a story with me about this and that helped a lot more attention, and then eventually we were in Associated Press and all the. International news outlets picked it up. So that helped a lot. Did you go on national TV shows also new shows. I did I was on a lot of. National News Shows National News. Articles that type of thing CBS Evening News, and that kind of thing. We also had a petition on Change Dot Org. So that helped a lot too. So, we could post that all over the place. My sister managed that petition. So we got. Like. One hundred and seventy, eight thousand signatures on that petition. So that helped a lot and that helped get attention everything you do everything you do is just like a little piece of the puzzle you know. How do you get a law enacted? So. Because of all this attention. With the news more people in Congress are story and. At the time Martha mcsally, who is a retired air force colonel who flew the eight ten in combat. was a member of the House of Representatives from Arizona and her staff all this story and mentioned it to her and she being a pilot a woman. Knew some of the Wasp and decided that we should have a bill introduced to fix this. So she wrote legislation and had this introduced. So, then I went down to the hill, we met with her, and then I spent a couple of months walking around the hill, visiting all kinds of offices of both senators and. Members of the House. and talking to them and their staffs and making sure that they knew about it and. Wanting them to vote yes to get this passed. So when you go there, you just knock on the door and walk in their office and talk to whoever answers the door or make an appointment ahead of time. That? So a lot of times I would just walk down there and knock on doors and walk in tell them what I was there for and you know sometimes there's people available to talk to you, and if not, you make an appointment for another time and You know if you're here, you can do it. I know it's harder if you're in another part of the country, you have to call and talk to them on the phone but. If, you're here you can just walk around and knock on the door and talk to people. So how many members of Congress? Senate. Did you did you visit? I estimate that I visited a more than one hundred and fifty offices between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Now didn't any just say get out of here we're busy. Now now everybody was really pretty nice and that's why it's kind of a good story as people were mostly supportive and you know if it's hard to say no to someone who walks in and says, I need you to sign this bill so I can bury my grandma. It's It's pretty hard but people were pretty Nice and a lot of people really supportive. We had quite a few members of the House and the Senate who did news stories on their own about it. At which was really nice. So that was helpful. You know I think it was an issue that. You know both parties could see value in and. You know it was something good and positive. So it was a good experience. So when did it become law? So it was introduced, January six twenty sixteen and it was signed into law by the president of the United. States on May Twentieth Two Thousand Sixteen. Wow. That's great and then The. Funeral was. Happened immediately afterwards. So after the law got signed, my mom had to call again to Arlington make an appointment I mean sorry not making but requests a funeral date and since we had this new law passed and there this time they said, yes. So she called you know. I think that the next Business Day and which was in May and we got a funeral date in September. Assuming it had full military honors at the funeral. Yeah. So confusing another confusing thing about Arlington as they have different levels of military honors as well at funerals. So the top level is for people who were retired after twenty years of service or a flag officers and that kind of thing. But my grandma, there was another ambiguity about her service, which was since her duty to fourteen has ranked listed. She's technically you know not an officer or enlisted and just kind of its not applicable. So she got kind of like the second tier of honors, which is fine I didn't want to add that into the mix of things to argue about. But yeah. She had a bugler played taps and we had you know 21-gun-salute and and it was very nice. You know an guard and chaplain and that kind of thing. So, tell us tell us about writing the book and the book is called final final fight. How did? You wanted to tell your story or did somebody push you to to write this book out about happen? During this process of me, spending on his time walking around on the hill and talking to news outlets and things people kept saying Oh. This would make a great story or make a great book. You should write a book. I'm like. Her and I was really busy and didn't really think about it at the time but. After the bill became law, I always sudden had a lot more free time and a pile of notes and all these journals and appointment books that had been keeping track of notes for the reporters and stuff and I thought hey, I can write a book I have all this information. So I decided, I would write a book. So I spent that summer before my grandma's funeral writing the first draft of the book. And Win published. It came out February twenty nineteen. Twenty. Nine hundred and now it's not your picture on the cover. Is that your arm in the pit is my arm? Yes. I I sometime during this process i. was quite frustrated. I don't remember exactly what happened that day but I told my sister's on a call like, Oh, I should get something to commemorate this whole situation like a tattoo or something. So when the bill got signed into law, my sister's really I guess you have to get a tattoo now. So I went and got the bill number tattooed on my arm. I kinda suspected that won us over. The cover of the book and of course. That's that is very cool. Hundred Fourteenth Congress that is. We have a link to the book in our show notes, of course So this is a fascinating story. I usually ask my guess what advice they have for someone who's just starting out on flying but you're not a pilot but I know you spent a lot of time with your grandmother can you share with us what her? Rules for life were. So. Something people ask about my grandma's. Things about advice in life and all this stuff and something I tell people is you know my grandma did this thing that now is getting all the attention but she didn't really think of herself as this you know amazing special person she she had something to offer the country and she had a talent and she was a pilot and that's what she did to serve her country and she always you know I feel like she would tell people you know see what you can offer to your community and to the country and how can you help serve in some way right everyone has a talent or. Some knowledge or skill that you can offer and I think she was very into serving her community in her country and I think that would be an important message to people. So even flying I know people do civil air, patrol, and that sort of thing they're helping their community and that kind of thing is important. That's Great Aaron has been so great having you with us today that's a fascinating story and it shows a lot of determination and grit on your part, and I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. Well I. Very Much. Appreciate you having me on. I enjoy your podcast. Thank you. Thanks again for listening subscribe. Now, the ready for takeoff podcast on itunes or stitcher radio and please rate US post review on the store for Shono to resources and more head over to ready for take-off PODCASTS DOT com.

army Congress Arlington Women Airforce Service Aaron Miller University of Maryland Senate United States Asia Maryland Maryland Baltimore Watson Veterans Administration attorney senator officer College Park