In December of 1943 my mother, who then went by, Elinor Fairchild, received a letter from Jaqueline Cochran, Director of Women Pilots of The War Department, letting her know that it looked as if they would have room for Elinor in the next WASP training class slated to begin, January 9, 1944.
I can almost imagine how she may have felt tearing open the envelope that held the news—anxious—and then the acceptance she longed for was real. The letter arrived one week before her 19th birthday and 9 months after she had begun the first in a series of flying lessons in Stormville, New York.
The paperwork, the three letters of reference, the physical, the blessing of her parents; were all checked from her to-do list. And in January of 1944, Elinor Fairchild, at barely 19 years of age, headed to Sweetwater, Texas, home of Avenger Field and base camp to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (known as WASP) in training.
While there, Elinor, was dubbed, “Irish” and “Fearless Fairchild,” and in the back of the WASP Annual, there is a cartoon that depicts her shenanigans of buzzing the tower.
But along with learning to fly she would also come to know heartache. Four month into her training one of her bay mates was killed in a head on collision.
In a letter to her then fiancé, she wrote about the experience:
Lon- I am here in Amarillo waiting to take the 10:15 PM train to Denver where I will take the train from Union Station to Seattle, Washington because the day before yesterday one of my bay mates was killed in a head on collision in an AT-6 with a girl from another class. And I being her closest friend or rather one of her friends who has enough time on At-6’s not to be washed back a class by going—have been sent as the escort to take her home. It is going to be so hard for her parents. Lon she was so alive and so young—23 but seemed just a baby, and it was her first time out in the area solo.
The anguish she goes on to express, is hard to fathom at 19, sadly it would not be the last of the heartache for my mother. Later another dear friend, also a WASP, would be killed in training too.
My mother wrote a poem in memoriam for both women:
You have worn dreams as
Stressed to the wide
Enchantment of sky,
Thrilling to beauty in uncharted
Corridors of air…you have found tomorrow
High in the silent places of the blue
Under the shadow of much stronger wings.
You have seen sunlight in the day, and
Woven it with streamers of white cloud
Spilling golden laughter on the earth.
God has showered silver in the night and
We who stand below look up to see the
Poetry of wings against the bright
Sharp stream of stars pouring into the
Sorrow of the dark…
On August 4, 1944, the Class of 44-W-6, graduated from training, after they were assigned to their respective posts and Elinor headed to Grand Island, Nebrasksa. While at Grand Island, she flew twin engine and four-engined planes on administrative missions carrying parts and personnel all over the country. Included in her trips was a confidential mission where she flew to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
My mother was trained on numerous planes, her favorite of which was the famous Flying Fortress, also known as a B-17. She also learned to fly the, UC-45, AT-6 and served as a co-pilot of the B-25.
In November of the same year, my mother was served devastating news, Lon’s plane had been shot down and while parachuting from the wreckage he was shot and killed by the Japanese.
I think of my mother, as a young woman not even 20, and the losses she absorbed in such a short time. When I would ask her about her experience as a WASP she would say things like: I did it out of a sense of duty, it was just what we did back then.
The WASP group was ultimately disbanded—their service no longer needed–I imagine her, over 500 flight hours logged, with not even as much as a thank you, the Army sent her, along with the other women, all home.
It took decades for the WASP women to be recognized as Veteran’s and even longer to be honored with a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
Gathering in DC as a family to witness the ceremony is one of my fondest memories—there she was, at 85 years old, wearing the same uniform she wore at 19—all of her children, one nephew and the wonderful gentleman friend she met after my dad died, by her side. Truly it was an epic day, one mixed with a deep love for my family and a sense of unwavering patriotism…
My mother was a courageous and resilient woman, she served her country and asked for nothing in return, qualities that even in her absence, I admire deeply.
Edee Lemonier says
Oh Elin, what a wonderful story of a wonderful woman! What men and women endured is just unfathomable, and at such a young age. Oh, do I wish I had known her. She sounds absolutely phenomenal – just like you, my friend 🙂 xoxo
Kim LePiane says
Just beautiful Elin.
Jen and Tonic says
Wow, what an amazing experience it must have been to have all of her family in DC with her. When I think about women like this, it inspires me to be strong like that.
Angela Weight says
Wow, what a story! Your mom was an amazing woman. Such adventure and heartache so young. She seemed to handle it all with a maturity beyond the average 19 year old. And then to be sent home because her service was over with the strike of a pen. I love the fact that she was able to wear her same uniform at 85, a photo you’ll undoubtedly cherish forever.
Cathy Chester says
What an extraordinary woman, Elin, and one you should be extremely proud of. You came from great stock and I can see where you get your passion, conviction and writing abilities from.
I am going to send this to my dad who served during The Korean Conflict, er, War.
Ellen Dolgen says
Wow…. this is such a beautiful tribute to your Mom. I am enlightened and inspired by your words and these courageous women.
Lois Alter Mark says
Well, it’s easy to see where you get your passion and your talent. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman, and I love seeing those pictures of her. What an honor to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. You have so much to be proud of in each other.
Lisa @ Grandma's Briefs says
I can’t even imagine. What a courageous woman your mother was. It seems to me that women of her era were far more courageous and brave than we are nowadays. Is that wrong to say? To face all that she did and express her feelings so beautifully amazes me. You were fortunate to have such a strong and creative woman as a role model.
What a story! Thank you for sharing. Your mother is a fine example of what it meant to serve our country in wartime then. I’m so glad she finally got the recognition she deserved. So many women played important roles in the war effort. They did it with grace and without fanfare.
Ruth Curran says
I loved this beautiful story as much the second time I read it…. Breath taking Elin!
Carol Cassara says
What an exciting time for women fliers–your mom must have been amazing. A nice way to remember her.
This is such a wonderful story. I have a love of history (actually I have a degree in it, go figure) and have always been interested in women’s history. I have long held the opinion that the “root” of the Women’s Movement came out of WWII. So many women gave so much during that time only to be asked, once their services were no longer needed, whether those services were in the public sector (as in your mother’s case) or in the private sector (manufacturing, warehouses, etc.) to return to their previously held roles. It was clear that women could — because they HAD — do more than cook, clean, and raise children. Hell, they could even play BASEBALL. It’s hard to keep the pig on the farm once it’s seen Par-ee. Yeah.
Women like your mother deserve to be heralded and celebrated. You have done a wonderful job telling her story. Thank you.
Carpool Goddess says
What an incredible woman and role model for you! You must be so proud. Lovely tribute to your mom.
Sarah Kenning says
I attended Sweet Briar College with your mother – she was absolutely lovely. I never knew about this part of her life; how wonderful of you to share it with us. As we say at Sweet Briar, Holla! Holla!
Thank you for reading today and for your nice comment about my mother, Sarah. She loved her time at Sweet Briar College, watching her graduate remains one of my most cherished memories of her.