Publisher’s Note: This story originally ran in 2010 in the Stamford American. I greatly enjoyed my afternoon with Mrs. Vandeventer, and enjoyed seeing her from time to time since this article was written. I, like anyone else that had the great opportunity of knowing her, was saddened by her passing this week at the age of 90, and I decided to rerun this story as a tribute to this amazing woman. I hope you enjoy it!
"This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and with every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used." - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942.
In the early part of World War II the United States Army faced a problem. They had thousands of new planes being produced and no one to deliver them from the manufacturer to the army bases that needed them. Most of America’s pilots were overseas fighting in the war and the process of delivery became backlogged. A famous woman pilot at the time, Jackie Cochran, saw the need for women pilots to serve, and she presented the idea to General Hap Arnold, who rejected it at first. Cochran helped to organize a league of women pilots in England, and when that program became successful; General Arnold took notice and started the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). On November 11, 1942, the first women reported for training in Houston, and three months later the program was moved to Avenger Field near Sweetwater.
One WASP commented of the experience, “Women weren't doctors, lawyers, engineers. I could be a nurse, a librarian, or a teacher. Those were my choices. And if it wasn't for the war and the fact that they were so short of pilots that they condescended to let us enter the sanctum sanctorum. And they let us know that. They let us in because they needed us. They needed pilots.”
One of these pilots was Mary Vandeventer, a Lueders native.
Mary Alice Putnam Vandeventer was born in 1923 in the front bedroom of the same limestone rock house that she lives in today. She grew up in Lueders, and when she graduated from high school she went to college at SMU. Her first taste of flying was through a fellow student in her biology class. Vandeventer relates that every class period the girl would run in with her cheeks flushed excited by where she had come from. When asked, the girl related that she had just come from flying lessons. Vandeventer had always been adventurous and that summer when she returned home to Lueders, she asked her dad to let her take flying lessons. Her father, T.R. Putnam, turned her down. But Vandeventer didn’t give up on her dream. She continued to ask her dad, and the next summer when she came home from college, the flying school had been set up at Arledge Field right outside of Stamford. She and her dad went to visit the school and found out that one of the instructors offered private lessons in an open field where Highway 277 intersected with Hwy 6. She was able to log 15 hours of flying time that summer. Her father continued to encourage her, and when she returned to college in the fall at Texas Women’s College in Denton, they found a flying school there where she could continue taking lessons. There she was able to log 200 more hours of flying time.
In the summer of 1943 she acquired information about the new WASP program at Avenger Field, and she and her dad once again went to investigate. Mary felt like she had found her calling, and she signed up to start training in January of 1944.
In a recent interview, Vandeventer commented that when she arrived in Sweetwater she had never seen so many girls with suitcases from all over the United States. They were loaded on a cattle truck, the main mode of transportation for the WASPs, and brought to the field where they underwent extensive and strenuous training on military aircrafts. Their uniforms were coveralls that were men's size 44. Mrs. Vandeventer remarks that they had to be rolled and belted in order to fit the girls. She also remembers all the singing and marching they did. She started on the Primary Trainer, a PT-17 Stearman. She comments that it had very few instruments and the landing gear stayed down all the time. After logging 60 hours on the primary trainer, she moved up to Basic Trainer, a BT – 13 Valty Vibrator, and then to Advanced Trainer, AT – the Texan. Vandeventer snaps into military mode for a second, saying that the “cockpit procedure is mandatory.” She relates that the first task was getting to know the airplane, and then it was getting used to all the things about the plane. Next she progressed to learning about how to flow a radio beam, which was used in cases of low visibility. While in training, she discovered how much she loved night flying. Sometimes she would get to fly over Snyder at night, and she remembers how they would burn off the natural gas. She thought all the flames were beautiful from the sky. She comments, “There is something very remarkable about flying at night.”
The WASPs would fly cross country in the AT-6, and would have to plot out the route the night before, check the weather, and memorize the wind patterns. Mary graduated at Avenger Field in September and was assigned to Moore Field in South Texas, which was an Air Force base which trained fighter pilots. She was assigned to fly the "two target," which was a big target about 20 feet long and 20 feet wide for the pilots to shoot at. She said she would get up to a certain level and then let out the target and fly back and forth so the pilots could have target practice. She said it wasn’t too bad except when the pilots would fly under her plane, causing “prop wash” that caused her aircraft to shake.
Vandeventer got some relief from pulling targets by ferrying planes every now and then. She remembers one trip in particular when she took a train to Oklahoma City in the bitter cold and from there transported a plane to Dodge City, Kansas. The aircraft was giving her trouble, and she feared her aircraft would give out on her and there was no place to land. She said the bummer of this trip was that she came back on Thanksgiving and had to eat grilled cheese for Thanksgiving dinner, an occurrence that happened two years in a row.
On December 19, 1944 Congress disbanded the WASPs. Since they were considered civil servants, they didn’t even get their way back to their homes paid.
Mary returned to college where she completed her senior year. She then taught at Lueders for a year, after which she went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She studied there until December 1947, and then she went to work for American Airlines in Dallas. Mary married a local newscaster and had two girls. When they got divorced, she went back to school at McMurry and ACU and got recertified as a teacher and returned to Lueders where she taught for 20 years. Vandeventer is now enjoying an active retirement.
This past year Mary made a trip to Washington, D.C. where she and her fellow WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol Building. Her medal was presented to her by a woman Air Force pilot who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. She gave Vanderventer a pair of Air Force wings as a sign of respect and camaraderie, thanking her for paving the way for her and other women to be Air Force pilots.
Vandeventer says her service as a WASP was some of the best times of her life.