By Mary O’KEEFE
For the next few weeks leading up to Memorial Day, the Crescenta Valley Weekly will be looking at what Memorial Day means to the veterans of our area. We will be doing a series of interviews with local vets to get their story of service and what they feel when they see flags flying on Memorial Day.
We start this series with a look at a pilot who served during World War II but was not recognized as military personnel while serving even though the pilot flew military planes and was trained by the U.S. Air Force.
Lillian Glezen Wray saved her money and got her pilot’s license. Today that may sound like a normal thing for a woman to do, but in the 1940s it was anything but normal.
“My mom and her sister went to a flying stunt show. It made a real impression on her. Mom was having trouble in algebra and her sister knew it. She bet her sister that if she got at least a ‘B’ in algebra her sister would pay for flight lessons,” recalled Lillian’s son John Wray. “She got a B.”
“It was a little unusual to get a pilot’s license,” agreed Lillian.
When she heard that women were being offered an opportunity to fly military planes in the Air Force she decided that was something she wanted to do.
Lillian graduated from the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, program in 1944. She was the second to the last class to graduate before the program was disbanded.
Over 1,000 women had joined WASP from 1942 to 1944. The idea of women piloting military planes originated with pilot Jacqueline Cochran after she had observed how women in England were ferrying planes for male pilots. During the course of World War II, WASP ferried planes, acted as test pilots, instructed male pilots and towed targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice.
“We had to have at least  hours of flying time, we took a physical just like the men and had to take a test before they let us in,” Lillian said.
They trained as military trained and flew U.S. Airforce planes but were considered part of the Civil Service. The women were paid $150 a month. Lillian, who served on a base in Texas, and her classmates were issued military uniforms – well, sort of.
“Girl, you don’t want to know what type of uniforms they gave us,” Lillian joked. “When we got there they gave us worn out pants that the men had worn. They had patches on the knees and were sewn up everywhere. Then one day we heard that a general was coming to visit. They went to town and bought us some plain khaki pants. We called them general pants and that’s what we wore for the most part. Jackie [Cochran] did buy us some real pretty blue pants from Neiman Marcus later. Those were really something. Getting something from Neiman Marcus meant something back then.”
Lillian did not get to fly overseas during her time of service. She recalled ferrying a plane from one end of Texas to the other.
She and a friend volunteered to fly Steerman planes to another base. It was on a Saturday and a call had first gone out to men pilots but no one wanted to volunteer.
“It was a Saturday and I think the men were afraid they would get stuck someplace and miss their Saturday night dates,” she said.
But the women were so anxious to fly they would volunteer without hesitation. Lillian flew the military plane, one that she wasn’t familiar with but knew she could fly.
“The [male pilot in charge] said I did a good job. I delivered it to the base and got a receipt. I sent that receipt along to the [Congress] when we were trying to get recognized,” she said.
The receipt was evidence that she had flown a military plane and delivered it to a military base. In December 1944 the WASP were unceremoniously dismissed.
“Since I was in the second to last class we kind of knew it was coming,” Lillian said.
The WASP were just told their service had ended. They didn’t receive any veteran’s benefits or status; they were just let go.
During their service 38 women died.
“We had to pay for the bodies to be transported back to their families. It was our responsibility,” Lillian said.
“And they were not allowed to place an American flag over their coffin,” Wray added.
“No, we weren’t allowed any of that. That’s what we were pretty mad about,” his mother said.
The women went back to their lives. Lillian worked for the FAA in Salt Lake, Utah as a weather specialist.
“We all stayed in touch. We were meeting every four years, then as we got older, it was every two years,” she said.
Then in 1976 the U.S. Airforce announced that female pilots would be flying military planes for the first time, negating any contribution made by the WASP.
“We didn’t like that too much,”
Lillian said. “And you know, they sealed our records. I didn’t know
that. I guess they didn’t want anybody to know about us but Senator
[Barry] Goldwater worked to open those files.”
After 60 years the WASP were finally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“To get that medal everyone in Congress has to vote yes and that is not easy to do now,” Wray said.
This March Lillian and her family traveled to Washington, D.C. and joined about 300 of her fellow pilots as she was presented the medal.
“It felt good,” she said of getting the medal. “A woman Air Force pilot came up to us and said she appreciated what we did. She said if it wasn’t for us she wouldn’t be [flying].”
Lillian seemed a little surprised at what the Air Force woman had said. She felt she was just serving her country and did what she did because she was allowed to do it. President Jimmy Carter gave WASP veteran status in 1977 after lobbying by Goldwater and Col. Bruce Arnold, according to Wings Across America.
For her part Lillian is just happy that the contributions of the WASP had been recognized.
“It really wasn’t our class. We were at the end but those women that started this worked really hard,” she added. When asked if she faced much discrimination by men she was serving with she added, “No. They had been straightened out pretty good by the time I got there.”