Sunday, March 19, 2017

The WASPs Fly Again

The World War II WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) played a unique wartime role in Texas. Avenger Field at Sweetwater was the only all-female training base in the United States during World War II. Although the WASPs flew as an auxiliary outfit that had no official military connection, more than 25,000 women pilots applied, and 1,074 were accepted as cadets and graduated.

WASP recruits had to pay their own way to Avenger Field, and at first there were no uniforms or even cot mattresses. But these brave young women overcame all obstacles and flew more than 60 million miles in every type of U.S. plane - trainers, fighters, bombers, and transport craft. WASPs ferried planes across long distances, tested experimental and repaired aircraft, towed targets for ground-to-air and air-to-air gunnery practice, and accompanied cadet pilots in the air. Thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed while flying for their country.

Every semester at Panola College I lectured about the WASPs and Avenger Field in my Texas history classes, and through the years I've stopped on several occasions at the West Texas training field, which now is a WASP museum. My daughter, Dr. Shellie O'Neal, is chair of the drama department at Navarro College, and she has written, directed, and produced more than 20 of her own plays. By 2012 Shellie had become interested in the WASPs and Avenger Field, and she began to envision all manner of dramatic possibilities. Shellie attended a WASP reunion in Sweetwater. She became personally acquainted with 16 former WASPs and she interviewed 12 of these lively ladies.

Shellie researched deeply at the WASP museum, at Texas Woman's University, and through other venues. She created a play, The Forgotten Air Force, that incorporated a majority of the experiences and problems, large and small, of the WASPs at Avenger Field. The Forgotten Air Force ran at Navarro College on Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday, February 23-26. My family gathered in Corsicana for the Saturday matinee. All three of Shellie's sisters were there, as well as all seven of her nieces and nephew (of course, I enjoyed being with all four daughters, all of my grandchildren, my sister and brother and other family members).

There were crowds of more than 150 at each performance, and the audiences were mesmerized by the real-life drama they witnessed. Costumes and sets and background music were excellent, and PowerPoint images of period photos helped bring the WASPs of WWII back into action. Rachel Theisen played WASP Mabel Rawlinson, who died tragically in a crash. Jaelyn Bergey was superb as Jacqueline Cochran, the WASP commander. And Aaron Rollins, a military veteran, came back to the Navarro campus to portray Air Force General Hap Arnold. This trio led a powerful cast, and there were standing ovations following each performance.

The cast and crew traveled the next week to Brenham, where the community college drama festival was held on the campus of Blinn College. Before an audience of nearly 200 of their peers, the Navarro cast inspired another spontaneous standing ovation. More than 20 awards were presented to the Navarro troupe, and anyone who saw the play would agree that each of these awards and more was richly deserved. Shellie and her cast and crew did an admirable job in making a unique part of WWII history in Texas come back to life onstage, and nearly 800 people witnessed and appreciated their efforts.

Cast and crew with Festival awards