“Women must try to do things as men have tried.
When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”
Amelia Earhart (1898 – 1937)
Jake Kilroy stood on the roof of the seven-story tenement building at 76 West 165th Street in the Washington Heights section of New York City. He marveled at the sights before him. To the northwest, the setting sun glinted off the massive structure and steel cables of the George Washington Bridge. It was a huge, relatively new span that connected New York City with New Jersey over the wide Hudson River. The cars looked like small toys as they traveled the length of the bridge. It was enormous and striking and he had never seen anything like it.
To the northeast was the largest stadium he had ever seen, the Polo Grounds. Across the Harlem River in the Bronx sat Yankee Stadium. To the east and west the East and Hudson Rivers were choked with bustling ship traffic transporting the men and goods of war to distant ports of call. Looking south the spire of the Empire State Building stood out among the many skyscrapers of the New York City skyline. Far away in the distance, at the lowest tip of Manhattan, stood the tall buildings that made up the financial center of the world. Beyond them, and not visible, he imagined the Statue of Liberty, her brilliant torch undoubtedly darkened by blackout regulations.
He shook his head in amazement, grateful for the opportunity to experience these sights yet still bewildered how he and Johnny got here. It all happened so fast.
The two men were plucked off the beach at Salerno and transported back to Sicily on a British Navy destroyer. They were driven overnight to their base camp at Castelvetrano where they picked up their personal gear. Every request for information about their destination was rebuffed. With travel orders that held AAA priority they bumped a captain and a major on a C-47 transport flight from Castelvetrano to Gibraltar, Spain. On the flight from Gibraltar to England they bumped a colonel and a brigadier general. They kept a low profile as they became the object of great attention from the other travelers, mostly senior British officers.
New travel orders awaited them at RAF Ridgewell Airfield outside London. As they walked from the plane to base headquarters, Johnny and Jake stared at the dozens of B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers squatting on new concrete hardstands as their ground crews worked feverishly on them. All of the tails were adorned with a large bright yellow L on a black triangle. They had apparently just returned from a bomb run and were being prepared for another.
The two paratroopers were the last passengers in a line that ended in a Quonset hut that served as headquarters. Above the door was a small sign that read: “Welcome to the Home of the 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy) – USAAF 8th Air Force”.
The face of the technical sergeant behind the processing desk brightened instantly when he read the names on their orders. He had been expecting them and immediately summoned the Officer of the Day.
Jake and Johnny stiffened to attention as a young lieutenant entered the room. He was heavy set with dark curly hair and held a sheaf of papers.
“At ease, soldiers.” The officer studied the two paratroopers. “Are you guys brothers?” he asked as he eyed the Kilroys curiously.
“No, sir,” Johnny answered.
“Hmm,” the officer grumbled. “Well I have new orders for both of you.” He handed them each a manila envelope. “I’m to expedite you back to the States to your new outfit while they’re still in Camp Shanks on the first available air transport.”
“Yes, sir,” both men answered.
New York, thought Johnny. Maybe there would be time for a quick visit home?
The officer continued. “I don’t see many triple-A priority transit orders.” He paused, hoping for an explanation. When none was forthcoming he went on. “My next regularly scheduled flight to Floyd Bennett is tomorrow but I figured that might not be good enough for Ike.”
Jake and Johnny looked at each other in wide-eyed disbelief.
“Your orders came from Ike’s headquarters,” the officer explained. Still, there was no reply. “Anyway, I’m holding up a return ferry flight. It’s not a transport. It’s a war weary B-17 going back to the Boeing factory for an upgrade. Or maybe it’s a ‘Class 26’ going to the bone yard, I’m actually not sure. But it’s returning to the States with a group of ferry service pilots.”
“Ferry service pilots, sir?” Jake asked.
“Yup. They ferried some new Model F Forts over to us.” He was referring to the B-17F Flying Fortress. It was the latest version in a long line of modifications to the popular and sturdy workhorse bomber of the 8th Air Force.
“We’re flying back on a shot up B-17, sir?” Johnny had a concerned look on his face.
“Don’t worry, it flies just fine. We wouldn’t risk the ferry pilots.” The officer smiled. “We’ve patched up the bullet holes, buttoned up the open ports and threw in a bunch of sleeping bags. She’ll stop to refuel in Goose Bay, Newfoundland, and you’ll be in the States by tomorrow.”
Johnny exhaled in relief. “Thank you, sir.”
“Look men, I know you just had a long flight but I’m holding up this plane just for you two. So take a piss, grab some sandwiches and coffee and we’ll get you a lift out to the plane.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny answered.
“Oh, one more thing. You’ve both been promoted to corporal. Congratulations.”
A jeep was warming up outside the hut and Jake and Johnny piled in. They were loaded down with their barracks bags, newly issued sleeping bags, a musette bag full of Spam and cheese sandwiches and a large thermos of hot coffee. The Army Air Forces ate well, Jake concluded.
The driver took only a few minutes to get to the end of one of the three 6,500 foot runways where a B-17E stood, engines warm and idling, ready for take off. As the jeep approached, the driver flashed his high beams at the cockpit. Johnny could make out the writing behind the Plexiglas nose. It said Queen Bee.
The jeep driver jumped out in the dark and unlatched the crew compartment door. The two paratroopers threw their gear in and followed. The driver slammed the door and banged on it twice. Within a few seconds the plane began to taxi.
The crew compartment had no seats. It was dark inside the cabin but Jake could make out the outlines of the ferry pilots sleeping on the floor. He muscled his baggage carefully forward until he found a small space between the last pilot and what looked to be the bomb bay. He dropped his barracks bag to function as a pillow, threw his sleeping blanket on the floor and sat down. Johnny followed him. There was barely enough room for the two of them on the floor. Jake leaned into the pilot beside him and gave a gentle shove.
“C’mon, Mac, shove it over a bit. Give us some room here.”
The pilot, disturbed from a sound sleep, grumbled while shuffling over a few feet.
“Thanks Mac,” Jake said.
Johnny plopped down in the open space as the plane maneuvered into takeoff position. The pilot goosed the throttles and the plane began moving faster. Then the pilot gunned the four 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone supercharged engines and the plane lurched forward. In a minute they were airborne and heading west.
Jake and Johnny were dead tired. In the dark of the cabin they quietly grabbed a quick sandwich to ward off the hunger and shared some hot coffee. They curled up in their sleeping bags and fell quickly into a deep sleep to the drone of the engines.
The landing was as smooth as silk but the squeal of the tires shook Jake from his slumber. He looked at his watch. He’d been asleep for the fourteen hours it took Queen Bee to navigate the 2,500 miles to Newfoundland. It was light outside as he shook Johnny awake. Queen Bee taxied slowly to a hardstand where a fuel truck was waiting. The four engines shut down with a noticeable shudder. Johnny could hear the sounds from the cockpit of switches being thrown and the metallic snap of seatbelts being released. The group of sleeping pilots began to stir. There were six bodies rising slowly from the pile, groaning and complaining. Jake didn’t take notice until he heard the woman’s voice from the cockpit over the intercom.
“Forty-five minutes, ladies. Clean up and get something to eat.”
Jake grabbed Johnny’s shoulder as they stood up. He nodded toward the pilots who were collecting their gear and moving toward the crew door behind the right waist gunner’s position. They were all women and were wearing brown leather A-2 flight jackets over khaki coveralls. Each also wore a white silk flying scarf around her neck and a Ferry Division patch on her sleeve. Jake was speechless. The pilot he had shoved the night before turned to him and said, “You don’t have to call me Mac. My name is Roxie Rawls.” She held out her hand.
Jake shook her hand. “I’m Jake, this is Johnny.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. She had a cute round face full of freckles and short red hair. Her green eyes were bloodshot.
She looked at his collar and then to his sleeve. “I figured you’d be at least a full bird colonel…the way they held up this flight for you. Maybe even a damn general.” She grunted as she turned and headed toward the hatch.
It was cold and damp under overcast skies as the group exited the plane. The two paratroopers followed the line of female ferry pilots into the main base mess hall. The sign above the door read “Royal Canadian Air Force Station, Goose Bay, Newfoundland”. From what Jake could see, the sprawling base was enormous and still undergoing expansion and construction. Goose Bay was already the largest airfield in the Western Hemisphere.
The mess hall was enormous, about the size of a small auditorium and with the same acoustical characteristics. Base ground crew personnel, soldiers and pilots filled the loud, busy chamber. There was a constant clatter of rattling plates and tin forks against stainless steel trays. The smell of warm food permeated the air and was both tempting and comforting. Along with the din of voices and noises from the aircraft engines outside, the mess hall was a fairly raucous place. The young women kept to themselves and stayed together within their own little group. Johnny could tell they were quite used to being a novelty, more like an oddity, wherever they went. They maintained a professional demeanor amid the various distractions and comments.
Jake and Johnny followed the pilots through the chow line. Once they had filled their trays, they walked over to join the women at a large rectangular table in a corner of the mess hall. The young ladies were all heads-down, quietly eating their food. Some ground crewmen at the next table were annoying them. As Johnny sat down, Jake looked over at one mechanic, who was leaning in trying to get the name of one of the pilots. She was trying to ignore him.
“Give it a rest, Mac.”
The mechanic started to stand up and Jake put his tray down and stepped over to him. Jake’s glare was menacing and he flashed it at full intensity. The mechanic eyed Jake’s jump wings and quickly sat back down. The ground crew table became quiet. Jake backed away and sat down between Roxie and Johnny. He spoke to her.
“I’m sorry about the Mac comment. I couldn’t tell you were a dame in the dark.”
Her mouth was full so she nodded her acceptance of his apology.
Jake was curious and felt a bit playful. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” He pointed to the other girls with his fork.
Roxie gulped down a mouthful of soup, tapped the table with her spoon to get the attention of the other women and gestured to the two paratroopers. “Ladies, meet Private Jake and Private Johnny…our high priority passengers. The very same ones we got held up for last night.”
The women nodded, waved or grunted. They all quickly resumed eating…all but one. She was tall, pretty with large hazel-gray eyes over high cheekbones. Her face said she was about thirty but her dark brown hair already had sprinkles of gray. In addition, she had a shocking streak of solid gray hair flowing back from the right side of her forehead. As she stood up with her tray, she walked over and sat directly opposite the two paratroopers. Johnny guessed she was the leader of the group by the way she carried herself. She extended her slender hand.
“I’m Nancy. These are my pilots.” The grip was a pilot’s handshake, firm and confident.
“Pilots?” Jake was cynical. “All of them?” He shook her hand absent-mindedly.
“Yes, ferry service pilots. We take planes from the factories to their bases.” There was a reserved shyness about her but also a disarming aura of authority.
“I didn’t know there were any female pilots in the Air Corps,” Jake confessed.
“Well, we’re not in the military. Not yet,” Nancy answered. “But we take our orders from U.S. Army Air Force’s Air Transport Command.”
Johnny studied her face, a glint of recognition in his eyes. “I think I read about you somewhere,” he said. “You’re that doctor’s daughter. Aviatrix. Went to school at Vassar. Married a guy who owned an aviation company. Am I right?” He shook her hand.
She let out a deep sigh. “Wouldn’t you know…I would run into the only grunt in the entire army who reads the society pages.” She appeared annoyed at being recognized but continued. “That would be me, Nancy Harkness Love. I’m the Director of Flight Operations for the Women Airforce Service Pilots. We’re also known as the WASPs.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “Pleased to meet you. I thought you’d be high ranking brass.”
Johnny smiled. “We’ve been hearing that a lot lately, Miss Love.”
“And just so you know, ma’am, we’re actually corporals now.” Jake chuckled as he brushed his sleeve where his new stripes would be placed.
“Well, that explains everything,” Love chided. “But seriously, I need to ask you to stay away from my girls. We can’t afford any gossip or rumors. Even the perception of impropriety could be extremely damaging to us so please, keep your distance.”
Jake sensed Love was a classy lady who struggled a bit with the awkwardness of this conversation. Nevertheless, she was determined to get her message across.
“Our flight demands are hard enough on my girls. But in addition, we have to follow arcane rules of propriety to make sure there’s not even a hint of a scandal. There are a lot of things we’re not supposed to do. Fraternization is frowned upon. We make one mistake and we could be done for good. In fact, flying you two breaks all the rules and if the order didn’t come from Ike himself, we wouldn’t be doing it. Don’t make it any harder on us than it already is.”
“Not a problem, Miss Love,” Johnny replied. “We’re just hitching a ride. We don’t intend to cause any trouble.”
“That’s good because we don’t need any.” She glanced over at the table where the loud mechanic was sitting. “And thanks for shutting those guys up but that still doesn’t give you two any special consideration. This trip is our first mission outside the States. I fought like hell to get it. This flight is not even officially authorized because women are not allowed to fly the ‘Snowball’ yet.” She was referring to the air route over the North Atlantic used to ferry bombers to England. “Some higher ups still think we shouldn’t be doing this and a lot of them want us to fail. So we need to prove we can do this and the last thing we need right now is to be noticed.”
“Well, forget about that, ma’am,” Jake quipped. “You’ve already been noticed.” He circled his index finger around the room.
“Look, boys,” Love sighed, looking both tired and exasperated. “These gals are part of my own handpicked group of original ferry pilots. Each one has logged over two thousand hours…more hours than most of our combat pilots. Every one of them is instrument rated on pursuit planes, the hottest and fastest we have. These gals fly the birds the men are scared to fly and they do it for two-thirds the pay and a pile of abuse.”
The two paratroopers sat there in silence. Jake was impressed with their credentials.
She went on. “And it’s my job to make sure they don’t get screwed over for some stupid perception problem. So, give me a break guys and go sit someplace else.”
The two young paratroopers picked up their trays. Johnny had a slight mischievous grin on his face. “Would you have banished us if we were generals?”
“Damn right!” she shot back. “Especially if you were generals.”
Jake and Johnny finished their meals at another table in silence. When the group of ferry pilots left the mess hall, they followed. They all piled into the Flying Fortress which had been refueled and was ready for the next leg. Roxie and another pilot named Dora were making their way to the cockpit. They would fly the last leg of the trip. Roxie stopped to speak to the boys.
“Nothing personal, guys. We don’t normally ferry passengers. We usually fly solo or in small groups. You didn’t deserve that back there in the mess hall.”
“No problem,” Johnny offered.
Roxie continued. “We’re needed right now. There’s a severe shortage of service pilots. All we want is a chance to contribute to the war effort and be accepted. Nancy is a great leader who’s just trying to protect her pilots and the ferry program.”
Johnny spoke first. “I think you gals have a lot of moxie and what you’re doing is great.”
Jake added, “My girl works in a ship yard. A lot of women work there.”
“Thanks, guys. But just so you know, what happened back there was nothing personal.” She turned to Jake. “What shipyard does your girlfriend work in?”
“Is that so?” Roxie’s face lit up with a huge smile. “Last year I…”
“Roxie, let’s get cranking!” Nancy Love interrupted with a barely audible but firm command from the back of the plane.
“Yes, ma’am,” Roxie answered. “Excuse me. Time to go to work.” She made her way past the bomb bay and into the cockpit. The other pilots spread their sleeping bags and took seats on the floor of the cabin. From the cockpit they heard the sounds of toggle switches being flipped and clicked, buttons pushed and dials turned. Flaps and ailerons were waggled. The radio barked garbled instructions between the noisy static. Suddenly each of the four engines whined, coughed, sputtered and started with a belch of sparks and thick black exhaust smoke. Roxie slowly ran up the engines to maximum revolutions and the plane began to vibrate under the harnessed force of the four powerful engines. She released the brakes and with a jerk the huge plane began to move. Slowly, she taxied the bomber to the head of the long runway for takeoff. In a few minutes they were airborne again, heading southwest.
With a brisk tailwind they managed the last 1,100 miles to Floyd Bennett Naval Air Station on Long Island in a little over six hours. When they finally landed, the two men were asked by Nancy Love to forget they had been ferried back by women pilots. She may have been a lot more paranoid than she needed to be but Jake had to admit her team was first-rate. He couldn’t help but draw the obvious parallel between them and Macie. He’d been such an ass! He would have to be much more supportive of her job decision in his next letter. Maybe that would help convince her he finally understood.
Jake and Johnny boarded an army bus headed for Camp Shanks thirty miles up the Hudson River from New York City. After a brief stop at Fort Totten to discharge some military passengers, the bus arrived at Camp Shanks before heading off to West Point. Camp Shanks was an embarkation and staging area for units about to deploy to Europe. Its mission was to ensure each soldier had all of his required equipment and had been sufficiently inoculated against disease. The camp’s confines extended to Piermont Pier which jutted out into the Hudson River from its west bank. From there, transport ships ferried fully laden combat troops to Manhattan docks for overseas transportation. Indigenous rail yards facilitated movement by train from many stateside origins as well as from Shanks directly to Hoboken and Weehawken, New Jersey. Camp Shanks was one of three main embarkation camps in the eastern United States and was an exceedingly hectic place. Its unofficial nickname was “Last Stop U.S.A.”.
In short order, the two paratroopers found themselves yet again standing in front of the desk of a Duty Officer who was reading their orders. The officer began shaking his head.
“You guys brothers?”
“No sir,” they answered in unison.
“Well I have bad news for you. The unit you’re being transferred to, the Five-oh-six, shipped out a few days ago.”
Jake looked at Johnny and rolled his eyes. Another army foul-up!
“We’re going to have to cut new orders for you two. We’ll catch you up to your division.” He handed each of them a piece of paper. “In the meantime, here’s a twenty-four hour pass.”
“Thank you, sir,” they both said, surprised and delighted.
“Be back here tomorrow at the same time. We’ll have your new travel orders for you.” The officer continued. “Remember, no insignia, no jump boots when you ship out tomorrow. You can sew on your corporal stripes.” He studied the two men for a second. “Stay out of trouble. Be back on time. Enjoy New York. Dismissed!”
“Thank you, sir.” Johnny was fighting back an enormous smile. The men left the office grinning from ear to ear. They slapped each other’s shoulders and headed straight for the bus station. Johnny stopped at a pay phone and called home. He told his shocked wife he was in New York and was coming home for a day and bringing his best buddy, Jake.
Rose was absolutely ecstatic and totally unprepared. As the boys traveled into the city, she gathered as many extra ration coupons as she could from her own small stash and from generous neighbors. She used the “red coupon stamps” from her War Ration Book and bought some steaks from the butcher. She would cook them a meal to remember. She would start them off with a tomato and onion salad, fresh from her Victory Garden. Along with the steaks smothered with onions, she would make mashed potatoes, gravy and peas; Johnny’s favorite meal. The baker would provide the fresh bread and an apple pie. They would wash it all down with plenty of Rheingold beer, a local New York brew.
After scurrying around to secure all of the rare ingredients, she showered, powdered herself, put on her best floral print housedress and a fresh coat of makeup. A ponytail was the best she could do with her long jet-black hair but she knew Johnny loved that look on her. She finished just as the boys arrived at the apartment.
Johnny hugged her long and hard. She smelled sweet, clean and felt so soft. He could not help but notice her makeup was fresh and she was making an effort to be attractive, not that she needed to. Jake stood behind, a bit amused and waited to be introduced. Rose broke away from her husband; aware Jake had been standing there, and gave him a hug. She had tears in her eyes.
“You must be Jake. I’m so glad to meet you. Johnny has written so much about you. I can’t tell you how happy I am that he found a friend like you.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, ma’am. Johnny can’t stop talking about you.” Jake looked at Johnny, wondering what he had written that had Rose so overjoyed. Johnny smiled and shrugged his shoulders. As if reading his mind, Rose provided some insight.
“Johnny doesn’t make friends easily. He can be a bit standoffish…somewhat of a loner. And call me Rose, please.”
“Yeah,” Jake laughed out loud. “He’s definitely a snob.”
They all laughed at that. Rose sat them down at the kitchen table and they chatted over ice-cold beers as she cooked dinner. The boys shared the more humorous stories of jump school and North Africa being careful to leave out the hardships. They didn’t speak about Sicily, the buddies they lost or their mission into Rome.
Rose joined the boys with a beer as she cooked and they chatted. Jake asked her about life in New York, her job at the hospital and the morale of the people on the Homefront. Rose was impressed he was such a good listener. He seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. He was curious without being nosy and seemed anxious to learn and understand things of which he had no prior knowledge. She found humble people like him easy to like.
Jake spoke glowingly of Macie and how impressed he was with the ferry pilots. It seemed as if he just experienced an epiphany. Rose also liked the way he interacted with her husband. There was obvious mutual respect between them and an unspoken trust. They would sometimes finish each other’s sentences and laughed easily with each other. There was a faith and a fondness that was palpable. She concluded Jake was good for Johnny.
The conversation slowed as the boys devoured the meal she had painstakingly prepared. Jake heaped praise upon the chef between mouthfuls. Johnny could not keep his eyes off of his wife. They ate eagerly, laughed and drank heartily and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
After dessert they all pitched in and cleared the table. Rose busied herself washing the dishes and Johnny sidled up next to her to dry them. They looked at each other playfully with endearing eyes. Jake got the message.
“Look, I’m stuffed. I’m going to take a walk,” he announced.
“Where are you going?” Johnny asked. “You don’t know this neighborhood.”
“I’ll be fine, I need the exercise after that enormous, delicious meal.” Jake looked at Rose and nodded. She acknowledged the compliment but was already blushing.
“Wait, please.” Rose reached into her closet and pulled out her Kodak Baby Brownie Special camera. “Just a minute, let’s go to the roof. I want a snapshot and this camera has no flash.”
Rose asked a neighbor, Mrs. Geelan, and they all went up to the roof. She was so happy to see Johnny she talked up a storm. Finally, Rose got her to take the last picture on the roll of film.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” Jake winked at Johnny.
Jake walked down the stairs and into the street. It was late Friday afternoon and many people were walking along the sidewalks. A few were in uniform. Everyone seemed friendly. Despite the tall buildings and the heavily trafficked streets by Bedford standards, he did not feel terribly out of place. He was conscious of the admiring stares of the younger boys and the flirtatious glances of the young ladies. The rigors of the airborne, he concluded for the thousandth time, were well worth it.
He continued to walk south. As he approached 159th Street he saw a marquis for a movie theatre, The Loews Rio. He stepped into the lobby to look at the preview still pictures for the features that were playing. The double feature consisted of Destination Tokyo with Cary Grant and Gung Ho starring Randolph Scott. The army usually got to see movies fresh out of Hollywood. It wouldn’t be the same without his buddies hooting and hollering at the screen for every exaggerated battle scene and every corny line. The guys always poked fun at the realism but appreciated the sentiment. Hollywood films of the time were inspirational, uplifting and patriotic. They did wonders for the morale and spirit on the Homefront. It would be a good way to kill a few hours. He bought a ticket for a dime and sat in an aisle seat in the back row.
When the films ended he walked back to the apartment. He listened at the door and when he heard nothing, he decided to go up on the roof and look at the view. He marveled at the sights. After soaking it all in and re-living the last hectic days, he was ready to rejoin Johnny and Rose.
They were both glad to see him when he knocked at the door though Rose still seemed to be blushing. They sat around the table talking and drinking beer. Rose graciously sewed the stripes onto their uniforms and carefully removed all of their airborne insignia. They would travel in those non-descript military clothes the next day.
Time passed quickly. Johnny fell into a deep sleep for a few hours. Jake and Rose stayed awake together all night and before long the sun was rising. Finally it was time to leave for Camp Shanks and Rose nudged Johnny awake. He apologized for falling asleep and the boys got dressed and collected their gear. Rose hugged Jake tightly again and kissed him hard on the cheek. “I want to see you back here when this is over. Johnny and you both need to come home.”
“We will.” He looked at Johnny. “Meet you downstairs.”
Johnny nodded as Jake descended the stairs to the street. After a few minutes he dropped his barracks bag in the lobby and climbed back up the stairs. There, on the landing, stood Johnny and Rose. They were hugging and she was crying, neither of them wanting to be the first to let go.
“C’mon Yank, time to go,” Jake prodded.
Johnny looked at Jake above Rose’s shoulder, tears streaking his face. He still gripped her tightly, blinked his eyes, choked back a sniffle and said, “I can’t go back.”