These North Dakota women risked their lives during WWII, but didn't get military benefits
As many as a dozen women with ties to North Dakota have been identified as having served as Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
VALLEY CITY, N.D. — If Allison Veselka had her wish, she’d go back in time to meet the North Dakota women who played vital but mostly unknown roles in World War II.
As the assistant curator at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, Veselka has been researching the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, as part of the museum's "North Dakota Women at War" exhibit.
With trained male pilots in short supply after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, these women were called on to ferry aircraft from factories, tow gunnery targets, transport equipment and flight test repaired planes before men were allowed to fly them again.
There were only 1,102 of them who served, according to the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
Veselka has found evidence of about a dozen WASPs who were either born and raised in North Dakota or lived here for a time.
“They're pretty much unsung heroes,” Veselka said.
There was at least one WASP identified with ties to Barnes County, and the museum in Valley City has a small display about her.
Viola Thompson Mason was born and raised near Fingal before her family moved to Fargo, where she got her start flying at Hector airfield.
In 1942, she became the first North Dakota woman to obtain a commercial pilot license, Veselka said.
Thompson Mason joined the WASPs in 1943, and after training in Sweetwater, Texas, ended up at Camp Stewart in Georgia as a target tower. That meant she’d fly with a target attached to the plane, and gunnery students would follow, trying to shoot at the target for practice.
“It was incredibly dangerous work. It took a lot of guts to do,” Veselka said.
During the short time the WASP program existed, from August 1943 to December 1944, it’s estimated the women pilots flew a total of about 60 million miles on their missions.
Efforts to have them designated as members of the U.S. military failed, initially, until the WASPs received honorary veteran status more than 30 years later, in 1977.
Against her mother's wishes
At least one WASP was born in Fargo, according to Veselka's research.
Dorothea Johnson Moorman trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and at Houston Municipal Airport. She then was assigned to Romulus Army Air Base in Michigan.
She was one of two women to fly the B-29 Superfortress, trained by Paul Tibbets Jr., Veselka said.
Tibbets is best known as captain of the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped a Little Boy, the first of two atomic bombs used in warfare, on Hiroshima, Japan in WWII.
Vivian Gilchrist Nemhauser was born in Wisconsin, but her family moved to Jamestown, North Dakota, where she later worked as secretary to the president of Jamestown College.
Against her mother’s wishes, she joined the Civilian Pilot Training program and signed on with WASP in October 1943.
Gilchrist Nemhauser was sent to Newcastle Army Base in Wilmington, Delaware, where she ferried aircraft.
One of her flight suits is on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum on the State Capitol grounds in Bismarck.
Gretchen Gorman Graba was from Bottineau, North Dakota, where she graduated high school and went on to attend the University of North Dakota.
After joining the WASP, she was assigned to duty at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, where she also ferried planes.
An article in the Grand Forks Herald from 1943 stated that in 400 hours of flying, Gorman Graba “has had no mishap, no forced landings and no scratches to plane or person.”
The WASPs had a mascot, which in hindsight might have seemed an odd choice.
Fifinella was a female gremlin designed by Walt Disney, which the WASPs received permission to use as an emblem on their jackets.
Veselka said if anything went wrong with their plane, pilots would blame it on gremlins.
Eolyne Yvette Nichols was born in Mandan in 1918 but later moved to the Chicago area.
She served two years with WASP as a target tower, which she summed up in a 1944 interview with the San Antonio Express.
“When you’re up there towing a target, the only thing you can think about is getting away as fast as you can,” Nichols told the newspaper.
She would go on to become fluent in Dutch, French and Portuguese, and was hired as deputy operations manager for Iranian Airways.
Kathryn McGilvray was another WASP member, who graduated from Minot State University.
Her job was to ferry bombers from the factories where they were built to Army airfields, Veselka said.
The journey for Deborah Truax, hailing from Velva and Minot, was a little different than most.
Truax had no flying experience but desperately wanted to be a pilot, according to 1943 articles in the Bismarck Tribune and San Francisco Examiner.
She worked as a handbag and jewelry buyer by day in California and studied aviation at night.
Truax tried to enroll in flight school but most were filled, training young male pilots.
She found a school in Arizona that would train her to fly, and later found her way into the WASP, where she ferried aircraft from Long Beach Army Airfield in California, which was close to most of the major aircraft factories, Veselka said.
Many of the WASPs turned their flying experience into other aviation jobs when the war was over.
Joan Whelan Lyle was working as a flight instructor at the Minneapolis airport until September 1943, when she entered the WASP program and worked as a target tower.
After the war, she bought an Army surplus plane and became director of a flying school at the airport in Pembina, North Dakota, Veselka said.
'Families are out there'
The job of WASPs was fraught with danger, and 38 of them died in service, including Kathryn Lawrence of Grand Forks.
Lawrence received her private pilot’s license when she was just 18, according to a 1943 article in the Grand Forks Herald.
The University of North Dakota graduate began WASP training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in July 1943.
Only weeks later, on a routine training flight there, something went wrong with her plane.
She bailed out and unfortunately, her parachute did not open, Veselka said.
Ailsa Connolly Simonson vented her frustration years after her service that WASPs doing dangerous work weren’t treated the same as male pilots once the war was over.
In 1974, when in her early 50s, per a story in the Valley City Times-Record, she said any kind of flying the military needed a body for, they did.
“It’s the discrimination you see there,” she told the newspaper.
Originally from Iowa, but settled near Crosby, North Dakota, Connolly Simonson flew P-47 jets and B-17 flying fortresses.
Men received their G.I. benefits, while WASPs had little more than their memories.
“We merited a salute, but did not get any G.I. benefits because we weren’t military,” Connolly Simonson told the paper, noting that the WASPs' accomplishments were fading, and they were still trying to get a bill through Congress to be granted military status.
About three years after that interview, in 1977, WASPs were granted military status thanks to a law signed by President Jimmy Carter.
Veselka is always on the lookout, scouring archives and websites for more stories of North Dakota women who served, including the WASPs.
“The information is out there. Families are out there. I know that if I keep chipping away at it, we’ll find more,” she said.