In our August 2010 issue, Melissa Jordan tells the story of her mother, Geraldine “Jerry” Hardman Jordan, one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, of World War II. “My mother [was] indelibly marked by her wartime experience,” writes Jordan. “That time in my mother’s life created some of her most treasured memories.”
From 1943 to 1944, the WASP delivered 12,652 airplanes on domestic ferrying missions, flying some 60 million miles. The airplanes they ferried included primary and secondary trainers; single-engine pursuit ships, two- and four-engine bombers; and two-engine cargo airplanes. Here, Hardman tests out a Vultee BT-13 Valiant.
See the gallery below for more images from Jerry Hardman’s remarkable life.
“By their second day at Avenger Field, [the WASPs] were climbing in and out of the 175-horsepower Fairchild PT-19s as if their primary phase trainers were Rolls-Royces,” writes Sally Van Wagenen Keil in her WASP history Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines. “As more classes arrived at Avenger Field, there would be as many as fifty planes in the air at one time.”
After picking up a PT-19 (much like the one shown here) from the Fairchild factory in Hagerstown, Maryland, in February 1944, Hardman wrote in a letter home, “They sure picked a swell time of the year to start ferrying open ships again. One thing, I’m going to set down as often as I want to—can’t see any sense in slowly freezing to death as long as there’s an airport handy.”
“In the course of a day’s work,” writes Jordan, “a WASP might fly something factory-fresh, a war-weary aircraft missing parts, or even dodge stray ammo while towing targets. Every day brought something new." [See a page from Hardman’s North American AT-6 cockpit checklist above.] "After delivering an airplane to Dallas in 1943, my mother was asked by a pilot returning home from a tour in North Africa if she’d like to co-pilot a C-47 he had to deliver to a base in California. Delighted to try out an airplane she hadn’t yet flown, my mother was more than happy to hitch a ride. But the trip had some added thrills no one anticipated:
'…we got near the bombing range in Southern California near the Salton Sea, and we ran into these downdrafts that took us down so many thousand feet. One minute we were up here, and the next, we were practically on the deck. And they were bombing! Dummy bombs, but they were still up there, bombing us!'
A Military Funeral
“Thirty-eight WASP died in service,” writes Jordan, “including Paula Loop [far right], one of my mother’s dearest friends. My mother was dispatched to escort her body home to Oklahoma. As civilians, the WASP had no right to a military funeral, not even a flag for the coffin. My mother told this story again and again:”
'I had to go back with her body on the train. And they had told me that she was not entitled to a flag or a military funeral or anything. Well, I have to tell you, this gal came from a huge family in Oklahoma—a lot of them were pilots, a lot of them were World War I vets, and they were all members of the American Legion of Honor and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And when that train pulled in, there were hundreds—literally hundreds—of people at that station. And most of them in their old uniforms, with the flags and the whole works…a rifle squad. I was petrified; I ran for the station manager’s office and asked him to make a call to my base. And I got the commander of the base and told him what was going on, and he said, "Don’t say a word. If anyone says anything, they can talk to me." So she had a military funeral, and it was a beautiful one.'
“As we grew up,” writes Jordan, “our mother’s anecdotes about WASP life became part of our everyday lives. My favorite story was about the time my mother and another WASP snagged front-row seats to Broadway’s hottest show, a new musical called Oklahoma! Arriving late to the St. James Theatre, the pilots crept quietly toward their seats, but their unfamiliar uniforms were creating a stir in the audience. Who were these women? As the audience whispers grew, actress Celeste Holm, in her star-making turn as Ado Annie, stopped the show and had the house lights raised. Coming to the edge of the stage, Holm leaned down and asked, ‘Who are you?’ When the women explained they were WASPs, Holm smiled broadly and simply exclaimed, ‘Oh, wow!’ And on went the show.”
Here, Hardman in a contemplative moment with a Vultee BT-13.
Meeting Her Match
"My father," writes Jordan," was a captain in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was an anti-aircraft artillery instructor at the AAF School of Applied Tactics in Orlando, Florida, when he met my mother during her WASP Officer Training Course. My mother used to joke, 'I flew 'em, and he taught the guys how to shoot 'em down!' "
“My mother died in 2001,” writes Jordan. “We wanted to have her ashes scattered from one of the last B-25s still flying, but the events of 9/11 stymied that plan. My brother took her ashes out west, to scatter in her beloved Oregon and Nevada, and we donated Mom’s WASP wings—the most tangible and significant symbol of her aviation past—to the Oregon Aviation Historical Society. It just seemed right that those hard-won symbols of her courageous spirit were going home to the place where she had first discovered her love of flight.”