They were a spunky, inspiring group of women. Jet setters. Role models. The original Fly Girls. Some 1,100 women who took to the air during World War II.
They were known as WASPS — Women Airforce Service Pilots — who served their country when the US was facing a severe shortage of pilots.
In 1942, the US Army Air Forces initiated an experimental program of training women, all civilian volunteers, to fly nearly every type of aircraft, including B-17, B-26 and B-29 bombers.
The WASP program lasted just two years, but during that time, the women flew 60 million miles of noncombat military missions, allowing their male counterparts to fight overseas. Their job included ferrying planes and carrying supplies and personnel from base to base.
While I was growing up I believed flying for me was just an unattainable dream, so I didn’t do anything about it.
Born October 24, 1921, in Stanley, KS, Mittie Parsley grew up with that belief. But it didn’t take long for her to make learning to fly a reality.
When her future husband, Dan Schirmer, was serving in the Pacific theatre, Mittie decided to join the Civil Air Patrol.
She began taking flying lessons at the Municipal Airport in Kansas City, where she learned about the WASP program and immediately applied for the training program.
Most of my friends thought I was a complete airhead for even contemplating leaving a relatively secure job for the ‘Wild Blue Yonder,’ but my mother encouraged me to join if I had the chance.
And she did have the chance. Of the 25,000 who applied, only 1,100 were accepted and eventually graduated.
In May of 1944, at the age of 20, Mittie began her six-month training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX. Her class was the last before the program was cut. During the graduation ceremony, Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general, said he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather” when the program started. “Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” he said.
As I look back on those months of training it seemed I was living in a never-never land. It was a segment of my life that was completely different and a wonderfully fulfilling experience.
A month after the WASPs were deactivated, Mittie, who also went by Betty in later years, married Dan Schirmer, and they soon began raising a family with son, Mark, and daughter, Ann. They moved around some when the children were young before settling in St. Joseph.
Then when Ann was in eighth grade and Mark was in high school, the family moved to Maryville. They lived a few blocks from the Northwest Missouri State campus, and when Mark started college there, Mittie decided to go, too. A couple of years later, Ann joined them.
After Mittie had completed her degree in art, she and her husband moved back to St. Joseph, where she taught school for several years. Around that same time, in the 1970s, the WASPs were finally granted military status when President Jimmy Carter signed a law establishing those women as veterans.
And now, after nearly 70 years since the WASP program began, they’re beginning to get more recognition. Last July, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding each WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest and most distinguished honor Congress can bestow to a civilian.
Sadly, the recognition came a year and a half after Mittie died. However, her daughter, Maryville resident Ann Pfeifer, was able to accept the medal on her behalf in March at a ceremony in Washington, DC.
“Each WASP received a Congressional Medal,” Ann said. “It really is an honor.”
Also making the trip was her husband, Dan, their daughters, Angela Stanley and Mindy Gray, their grandson, Jake Stanley, her brother, Mark Schirmer and his wife, Wendy, and their son, Derek.
“We’re just really proud of her and wish she would’ve been able to be there,” Pfeifer said. “She would’ve gotten a kick out of it.
“She was proud to be a WASP and to serve her country.”
The application, the acceptance, the training, the graduation, the wings and especially the flying were all great, but, perhaps the proudest moment was when this former WASP stood up by her husband, when the pastor of our church asked the veterans to stand to be honored by the people of the church ~ Mittie Parsley Schirmer
***Mittie’s words were taken from the entry she wrote in “44-W-10 The Lost Last Class of Avenger Field,” 1996.