Who knew? WWII female flyers

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By Doug Deuchler

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I was never aware female aviators actually flew planes during World War II until I saw Decision Height the other night. The role of women in wartime is still being worked over 70 years later. But during the early 1940s, young women were being trained to fly domestic military planes so that men were free to fly in active combat. 

Two "war plays" are currently running in tandem every other weekend in the Studio stage area at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St. Produced by Surging Films & Theatrics, Tracers, which opened last weekend, is a powerful all-male Vietnam-era drama. The second play, Decision Height, which is less well known, is now running as well. It's feels like a fast-paced female version of Top Gun. This historical drama focuses on an under-recognized group of American heroines. The production is solidly directed by Billy Surges and Katie Meyers. 

Decision Height seemed like a bad title to me until I learned what the phrase means. Perhaps it was clarified in the dialogue but I missed it. Google tells me a "decision height" is the altitude a pilot reaches when runway markings are not clearly visible. 

The drama focuses on a group of WASPS (Women's Air Force Service Pilots) who flew aircraft during WWII. They all want to do their part to help defeat the Axis Powers. As one character puts it, "Darning socks does nothing to stop Hitler." Their duties included transporting planes. "The more men we have fighting, the sooner the war will end," explains Mrs. Deaton, a den mother-type supervisory officer played by Cheryl Lynn Golemo.

Under-recognized for their service while individually experiencing various personal struggles, the young women's deep bonds of friendship and strength of sisterhood are explored. 

Though they never face enemy fire, they do endure relentless pressure and danger while training. They also face a variety of interpersonal challenges, including families who don't approve of their choice, separation from loved ones, and "Dear Jane" letters sent by wayward and rejecting boyfriends. There are also those much-dreaded telegrams from the War Department informing the recipient that her brother or husband has been killed overseas.

The play is set at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, which the young would-be pilots refer to as "the rattlesnake capital of the world." When they're not on the training field, like their male counterparts, they drink and gamble and wait for the mail.

Both the set and sound design, uncredited in the program, are impressive and provide a strong sense of period. The intimate performance space includes a huge parachute, plus a large number of 1940s posters plastered all over featuring Rosie The Riveter, War Bonds, Uncle Sam, Camel cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and such. A number of bandstand songs by everyone from Billie Holiday and Kate Smith to Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby provide the '40s mood. 

After Pearl Harbor, to compensate for the sudden large-scale manpower demands of the military, the government encouraged women to enter the workforce. They were required to complete the same training courses as male Army Air Corps pilots. But these women were never trained for combat, e.g. receiving no gunnery training. Yet the WASPS were the first women to fly American military aircraft.

Some 25,000 women applied, but a lot of them "washed out" — just didn't make the cut. The total number of the civilian female pilots selected was 1,074, and each one freed a male pilot for other wartime duties. 

The all-female cast provides strong ensemble performances, though it takes a while, with such a large group of characters all dressed alike in flight suits, to get a clear sense of each vibrant personality. 

Virginia, the narrator, is played by Jennifer Lenius. Christy Cutts is a Christian Southern belle named Norma Jean. Jenny Guy is a no-nonsense instructor. Danielle Swanson is the first in the group to fly. Chelsea Millingan plays the smallest of the lot, often called Shrimp. Other young pilots are Daniella Rukin, Madeline McCord, and Lauren Partch. 

At many points the young women go into Army cadences or marching chants. One song, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," replaces the line "born on the 4th of July" with "born with a yearning to fly." These episodes capture a sense of period accuracy as well as highlighting how the young women are becoming a tight unit.

Becoming wartime pilots takes more than just knowing how to fly. The girls have to learn how to work together. They learn about both airplanes and themselves.

This was a time when many young women stepped outside the roles traditionally expected of them — mother, wife, and homemaker. The war, for all its horror and loss, opened up amazing opportunities. 

Yet these courageous, dedicated women who completed a difficult training program were considered strictly civil service and thus did not receive military benefits.

When a WASP was killed in a collision or accident during training, since she was not deemed "military" under existing guidelines, she was sent home at her family's expense without traditional military honors or even an expression of heroism.

The WASPS broke down stereotypes but not barriers. They were not granted veteran status until 1977. They were finally given the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama in 2009. 

While it's not exactly a feminist play, this fascinating, tightly directed production vividly illustrates an exciting burst of pioneering women's energy as they struggled for equality nearly eight decades ago.

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