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Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II

Sarah Byrn Rickman

Publication Year: 2008

She flew the swift P-51 and the capricious P-38, but the heavy, four-engine B-17 bomber and C-54 transport were her forte. This is the story of Nancy Harkness Love who, early in World War II, recruited and led the first group of twenty-eight women to fly military aircraft for the U.S. Army. Love was hooked on flight at an early age. At sixteen, after just four hours of instruction, she flew solo “a rather broken down Fleet biplane that my barnstorming instructor imported from parts unknown.” The year was 1930: record-setting aviator Jacqueline Cochran (and Love’s future rival) had not yet learned to fly, and the most famous woman pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart, had yet to make her acclaimed solo Atlantic flight. When the United States entered World War II, the Army needed pilots to transport or “ferry” its combat-bound aircraft across the United States for overseas deployment and its trainer airplanes to flight training bases. Most male pilots were assigned to combat preparation, leaving few available for ferrying jobs. Into this vacuum stepped Nancy Love and her civilian Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Love had advocated using women as ferry pilots as early as 1940. Jackie Cochran envisioned a more ambitious plan, to train women to perform a variety of the military’s flight-related jobs stateside. The Army implemented both programs in the fall of 1942, but Jackie’s idea piqued General Hap Arnold’s interest and, by summer 1943, her concept had won. The women’s programs became one under the name Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Cochran as the Director of Women Pilots and Love as the Executive for WASP. Nancy Love advised the Ferrying Division, which was part of the Air Transport Command, as to the best use of their WASP ferry pilots. She supervised their allocation and air-training program. She proved adept at organizing and inspiring those under her command, earning the love and admiration of her pilots. Her military superiors trusted and respected her, to the point that she became Ferrying Division commander Gen. William H. Tunner’s troubleshooter. By example, Love won the right for women ferry pilots to transition into increasingly more complex airplanes. She checked out on twenty-three different military aircraft and became the first woman to fly several of them, including the B-17 Flying Fortress. Her World War II career ended on a high note: following a general’s orders, she piloted a giant C-54 Army transport over the fabled China-Burma-India “Hump,” the crucial airlift route over the Himalayas. Nancy Love believed that the women attached to the military needed to be on equal footing with the men and given the same opportunities to prove their abilities and mettle. Young women serving today as combat pilots owe much to Love for creating the opportunity for women to serve.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Cover

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pp. i-v

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Photographs of Nancy Harkness Love

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pp. ix-x

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Foreword

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pp. xi-xv

Nancy Love is one of the most interesting figures in twentieth-century American history. I think most readers of Sarah Byrn Rickman’s biography will agree with me when they reach the final pages of this fascinating book. Still, it is a very bold assertion about a young woman born in 1914 in the remote reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who made her mark during World War II and then disappeared from public view, prematurely dying from cancer in 1976.

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Preface

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pp. xvii-xix

Nancy Harkness Love has confounded women’s aviation historians for sixty years. She was well known in aviation circles prior to 1942, made her mark on history in World War II as the founder and leader of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), and then faded into relative obscurity. She died in 1976, just as the story of the women who flew for the U.S. Army during that war was emerging in the public consciousness.

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Acknowledgements

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pp. xx-

My heartfelt thanks to WAFS Barbara “B.J.” Erickson London and WASP Iris Cummings Critchell who worked diligently with me to get right the story of the women’s ferrying squadrons; Dawn Letson and Tracey MacGowan—the WASP Archives, Texas Woman’s University; Barbara Constable and Thomas Branigar, archivists, the Jacqueline Cochran Collection— Dwight D. Eisenhower Library; the reference librarians at the ...

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Prologue

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pp. 1-4

The Army C-54 began its takeoff roll. The lumbering giant strained to gain momentum. Finally, the wind beneath its wings lifted the aircraft from the runway into the heavy humid air of Calcutta. Fully loaded, the four-engine beast of wartime burden climbed out and away from the airfield. Inside the cockpit, the pilot executed the prescribed turnout, took an east-by-northeast heading and flew out over the jungles of east India bound for Kunming, China.

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Chapter 1: Learning to Fly

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pp. 5-22

Hannah Lincoln (Nancy) Harkness was born on February 14, 1914, in Houghton, Michigan, the daughter of Dr. Robert Bruce and Alice (Chadbourne) Harkness. Alice wanted to name their daughter for her sister, Hannah Lincoln Chadbourne Denton. Mrs. Denton’s first daughter, also named Hannah, had died in childhood. The name Hannah Lincoln was a family tradition and Alice wanted the tradition to carry forward. Precedent carried some weight with Dr. Harkness; however, he disliked his ...

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Chapter 2: Learning to Live

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pp. 23-32

Nancy had a big decision to make. “What do I do now?” The love of her life was aviation. She wanted to fly, but flying was expensive. How could a young woman barely twenty parlay her growing expertise in aviation into a job? Make flying pay her rather than her paying to fly. And this when male flyers found jobs few and far between.

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Chapter 3: Stretching Her Wings

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pp. 33-44

Romance was one thing, but Nancy Harkness wasn’t ready to settle down. Just twenty, she was too busy establishing her name in the world of aviation. For now, her job with Bob entailed demonstrating and selling airplanes like the Beechcraft models on a commission basis, plus being a general airport Girl Friday. In those Depression days, sales were few and far between.

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Chapter 4: Tricycle Gear Test Pilot

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pp. 45-59

Nancy Harkness Love knew and flew with many of the men who made aviation their life in the 1930s—men like Crocker Snow, Henry Wilder, Clyde Pangborn, Jack Ray, his friend Johnny Miller, and of course Bob Love. Aviation was a small close-knit community. By 1935, she was on first-name basis with Eugene Vidal and John Wynne. Men liked and respected Nancy and Nancy liked and respected men. She preferred men ...

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Chapter 5: War in Europe!

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pp. 60-69

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. World War II had begun in Europe. Gen. Billy Mitchell’s prophecy that the next war would be won in the air was about to be tested. Aviation had grown from its barnstorming adolescence in the 1920s, to a robust young adulthood by the late 1930s as commercial aviation caught hold. Now it was to become a powerful machine of war in its maturity. Pilots became a necessary commodity and, for all the press they had ...

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Chapter 6: Wanted: Ferry Pilots

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pp. 70-79

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all airfields within fifty miles of the U.S. coastline were shut down. That included East Boston Airport and, consequently, Inter City Aviation. Bob Love was ordered to Washington, D.C., as part of General Olds’s Ferrying Command. The Loves prepared to move to the D.C. area to accommodate his new job.

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Chapter 7: Two Women Pilot Groups

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pp. 80-90

The New York Times printed the story on September 11, accompanied by a photograph of Secretary of War Stimson, General George, and Nancy Love—who wore a hat and gloves as women did in 1942. Love is holding up her right hand to take the oath of allegiance as the head of the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command.

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Chapter 8: The Originals Gather

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pp. 91-102

Betty and her husband Bud knew the Loves socially through the Aviation Country Club on Long Island and the annual seaplane cruises. The two women had begun to establish a solid friendship. Both were active in East Coast chapters of the Ninety-Nines. Love served on the nominating committee for the New England Section in 1937 and then as a voting delegate for the Section during Betty’s two-year term (1939–1941) as international president.1

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Chapter 9: Growing Pains

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pp. 103-115

While Nancy Love was building her squadron that would eventually number twenty-eight, Jacqueline Cochran was in Ft. Worth working with the Army Flying Training Command (FTC) to organize and implement the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). General Arnold wanted 500 women pilots qualified for ferrying duty by the end of 1943. Training those women pilots fell to the Training Command. The ATC would employ them once they were trained.1

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Chapter 10: Killed in Service of Her Country

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pp. 116-120

The blackest days Nancy Love faced during World War II were March 21-27, 1943. On March 21, one of her original WAFS, Cornelia Fort, died in a mid-air collision near Merkel, Texas. Fort had been with Love from the beginning, arriving in Wilmington only a day after Betty Gillies.

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Chapter 11: Transport and Transition

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pp. 121-133

To date, there was no transport system in place to return ferry pilots to their home base after they delivered a plane, which meant that days could be wasted as these pilots made their way home by any means possible. Male ferry pilots were allowed to hop—or hitch—a ride in a military airplane. WAFS were required to return via commercial airliner, train, or some other mode of public transportation.

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Chapter 12: A B-17 Bound for England

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pp. 134-146

In his memoir Over the Hump, General Tunner recalled that in early summer 1943, the Command was getting static from male pilots who objected to ferrying B-17s over the North Atlantic to the United Kingdom. “These flights had become almost routine and there was no reason for complaint. I decided to let a couple of our girls show them just how easy it really was.”

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Chapter 13: Change in the Air

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pp. 147-156

On September 7, 1943, Brig. Gen. C.R. Smith wrote a memo to Maj. Gen. Barney M. Giles, Chief of the Air Staff, justifying the Love-Gillies trans-Atlantic flight. Such flights were considered routine, he said, and given the number of women pilots in the Ferrying Division, more were probable in the future. Both women were capable pilots with no qualms about making the flight. And he thought it wise to ...

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Chapter 14: Pursuit School

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pp. 157-171

Production of trainer airplanes dropped thirty percent in May and June 1943 and continued to decline.1 Pursuit planes were rolling off the factory assembly lines in ever-greater numbers. General Tunner still needed ferry pilots, but now he needed pilots capable of handling pursuits, because pursuit ferrying had become the number one job of the Ferrying Division. One potential source was the WFTD graduates.

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Chapter 15: The Quest for Militarization

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pp. 172-184

Militarizing the women ferry pilots by making them part of the WAAC was the original plan. However, the WAAC was not yet militarized when the WAFS squadron was formed. The WAAC was an auxiliary and the legislation that created it lacked provision for flying status or ratings. Next, in the spring of 1943, the idea of commissioning the WAFS directly into the Army of the United States was suggested, but went nowhere.

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Chapter 16: In Pursuit, Coast to Coast

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pp. 185-196

Flying pursuits was dangerous duty. Those women who qualified to fly them knew this. Some of the women ferry pilots opted not to take pursuit transition. But 134 of those who tried, qualified. Included in the 134 were 124 pursuit school graduates, 9 original WAFS who did not go through pursuit school, and Helen Richey—an experienced pilot who flew Spitfires for the ATA in England before entering the Flight Training School in Sweetwater in 1943. She was exempted from pursuit school.1

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Chapter 17: Militarization Denied

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pp. 197-204

On June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day, the Ramspeck Committee presented its report to Congress. The committee’s verdict was that the WASP program was “unnecessary and unjustifiably expensive.” The committee was opposed to militarization and recommended “the recruiting of inexperienced women and their training as pilots be terminated immediately.”1 On June 21, fifteen days after the Allies landed in Normandy and began the push that would end the war in Europe eleven months later, Congress voted down the WASP bill.

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Chapter 18: Denouement of the WASP

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pp. 205-219

Nancy Love had known for some time that General Tunner was to be reassigned. He left Cincinnati to take command of the ATC’s Hump Operation in the China-Burma-India Theater on August 1, 1944. Before he left, he wrote the following commendation for her: “I wish to express my appreciation for the loyal, devoted, and cooperative efforts which you have put forth in the interests of the Ferrying Division since 12 March 1942.”

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Chapter 19: Flying the Hump

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pp. 220-233

On November 14, 1944, Gen. C.R. Smith wrote to General Nowland: “Before Mrs. Love gets out of the service, if that comes to pass, I would like to see her get a trip to some of our foreign stations. This should have been done a long time ago, as we wanted some of the WASPs to make foreign ferries, but you know the reason why that could not be done.”

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Chapter 20: Peace, Prosperity, and Parenthood

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pp. 234-241

Nancy and Bob wanted to settle in San Francisco, but circumstances already were changing. Before the war, Bob and his friend Richard C. duPont had agreed that—if they made it back—they would take duPont’s All American Aviation, a mail pouch pickup run, and turn it into a passenger airline.1

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Chapter 21: Life on the Vineyard

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pp. 242-256

When the Loves first moved to Martha’s Vineyard, they bought a large piece of property—the Oak Bluffs House—on Sengekontacket Pond near Trade Winds Airport. There, they could hanger their single-engine, four-seater Beechcraft at the airstrip. Former WASP (Class 44-6) Carolyn Cullen ran Trade Winds Flying Service, managed the Fixed Base Operation at the small airport, and taught flying. She leased ...

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Chapter 22: Empty Nest

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pp. 257-265

Winters on the island got Nancy down. Most of the restaurants and stores closed for the winter, as did the movie theaters. Most of the friends Nancy and Bob enjoyed in the summer—the Boston and New York crowd— were long gone.

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Chapter 23: Fighting Spirit

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pp. 266-273

The best description of her two-year battle with cancer is given by Nancy herself, in a letter written June 16, 1976, to her old friend, Jack Ray, her flight instructor in her Vassar days.

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Epilogue

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pp. 274-275

Bron and Hannah Love Robinson’s first two children were boys: Brad MacLure and William Northrup Robinson. Then, on April 20, 1983, Nancy’s namesake, Hannah Lincoln Robinson was born. She is the seventh Hannah Lincoln in Nancy’s maternal line that begins with the wife of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, the man who took Cornwallis’s sword at Yorktown.

Appendix: Biographical Overview of Nancy Harkness Love

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pp. 276-278

Endnotes

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pp. 279-300

Glossary of Military and Airplane Terms

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pp. 301-304

Glossary of Airplane Types

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pp. 305-310

Bibliography

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pp. 311-319

Index

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pp. 320-332


E-ISBN-13: 9781574413755
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412413

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 35 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Military Biography and Memoir Series

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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Aerial operations, American.
  • Women Airforce Service Pilots (U.S.) -- Biography.
  • Love, Nancy Harkness, 1914-1976.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Transportation -- United States.
  • United States. Army Air Forces. Air Transport Command. Ferrying Division -- Biography.
  • United States. Army Air Forces -- Transportation.
  • Air pilots -- United States -- Biography.
  • Women air pilots -- United States -- Biography.
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