Saturday, August 8, 2009

Congress to honor Danbury-trained war pilot

Congress to honor Danbury-trained war pilot

Eleanor Feeney Lawry as a Women Airforce Service Pilot, posing in front of the Avenger Field WASP...

Eleanor Feeley Lawry was about 5 years old when she set her heart on flying.

Two years after graduation from Danbury High School, she earned her private pilot's license, the first woman to do so at Danbury Airport.

In 1943, she was 21 and a Danbury State Teachers College graduate when she paid her way to Texas to train with about 1,000 other female pilots to help the war effort.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II were the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. They logged more than 60 million miles on noncombat military assignments in the U.S. so male pilots were freed for overseas combat missions.

Now, more than 65 years later, Lawry and her peers will receive the country's highest civilian honor for their war service, the Congressional Gold Medal.

"It's a very special honor," Lawry said from her Pennsylvania home. She left Danbury six years ago. "It's kind of late, but our grandchildren will have something special about their grandmothers."

President Barack Obama signed a bill July 1 at the White House to award the Gold Medal to the 1,114 women, including 11 who died in training before receiving their wings and 38 who were killed during duty.

About 305 of the women are alive. All are 85 or older.

"Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve," Obama said at the signing, according to the U.S. Air Force Web site.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest and most distinguished award Congress can give a civilian. Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for exceptional achievements and contributions.

In 2000 and 2006, Congress awarded the Gold Medal to the Navajo Code Talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen, respectively.

During their time in the war, the women pilots held civilian status. But in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill giving the WASPs veterans benefits.

"I paid my own way to Sweetwater, Texas, (Avenger Field) in April 1943," Lawry said. "We had no uniforms and paid our own way to everything. We had no insurance, but we did it anyway.

"When they said they didn't need us, we bought our tickets to our homes. They never promised us anything."

Lawry was raised in Danbury, the hometown of both her father and husband. She graduated from Danbury High School in 1938 and Danbury State Teachers College in 1942.

"Danbury was an excellent place for children to grow up," she said. "If you had any special talents, the whole town was behind you."

Still, it was hard to convince people that as a woman she should take flying lessons. But she persisted. She was the only woman in the Civilian Pilot Training Course, a course co-sponsored by the college and Sadler Aviation at Danbury Airport to give preliminary training to future military pilots.

Brandes Meeker was Lawry's flying instructor, and in 1940 she was the first woman to receive her private pilot's license at the airport. She learned at the time she was also the 100th woman pilot in Connecticut and the 1,000th in the country.

The WASP mission was terminated Dec. 20, 1944, and Lawry returned to Danbury and took a job as an airline hostess for TransWorld Airlines. She married Cas Lawry, an Air Force officer, in 1946, and they raised two sons and a daughter.

Nancy Parrish, who 13 years ago started a Web site for the WASPs called Wings Across America, was thrilled about the awarding of the medal, which still has to be designed.

"Every WASP knows it will happen and that the country is saying thank you," Parrish said. "Their job was to take over every kind of mission in the United States, from flying materials to administrative flights and towing gliders. It was an extraordinarily grand experiment."

She's found the WASPs to be special women.

"It's not just what they did, but the kind of people they are," Parrish said. "There is something about them that is larger than life. It lifts you up a little higher than you were before.

"It has to do with the honor and integrity of these women."

Their story has been hidden for 65 years, Parrish said. "Now it's on the national stage and it will go into the history books that they were awarded this honor."

Lawry said she had a great time as a WASP.

"We were different women from different parts of the country, but we all loved flying," Lawry said. "We thought it was a great opportunity. We just went about our business and loved every minute."

Contact Eileen FitzGerald


or at 203-731-3333.

About Eleanor Lawry n Age 88. n Will receive Congressional Gold Medal from Congress for her service in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. n Danbury High School graduate, 1938. n Danbury State Teachers College graduate, 1942. n Served as a member of the WASPs from April 1943 to December 1944

Friday, August 7, 2009

Aviation pioneer recognized in Warren

Committeeman Gary DiNardo presents a certificate of recognition to Carol Roberts, niece of pioneering aviator Aline Rhonie Hofheimer, whose family once owned the land that is now the municipal complex, the Elks Lodge, and the area around the Mountain Boulevard and Mount Bethel Road intersection.

Published: Aug 7th, 7:06 AM
WARREN TWP. – The 100th anniversary of the birth of Aline Rhonie Hofheimer, a pioneering female aviator with roots in Warren Township, and the contributions of Ernie Cottrill, founder and developer of the Giving Garden Project at the community garden at Wagner Farm Arboretum were celebrated with the awarding certificates of recognition at the Thursday, July 23, Township Committee meeting.

Hofheimer’s niece, Carol Roberts, accepted the certificate on behalf of her aunt who was a contemporary of Amelia Earhardt and who helped advance the world of aviation and helped show the world that women belonged in the sky, too.

Pioneering Aviator

The Hofheimer family once owned the huge swath of land that is the main business district of Warren Township. The Hofheimer estate included what is now the entire municipal complex, the property where the Elks Lodge is, the Warrenville Golf Course, and across Warrenville and Mount Bethel roads all the way down to the Bardy Farms greenhouses and fresh produce center.

The Town Hall and the Elks Lodge were once residences of members of the Hofheimer family.

Aline Rhonie Hofheimer was one of the granddaughters of the original Hofheimer family.

According to Warren history, Aline Rhonie Hoifheimer was born on Aug. 16, 1909 in York, Pa., the daughter of Arthur and Helen Milius Hofheimer. She, her parents and her siblings returned to live in Warren Township in 1912.

“She grew up on Long Acre Farms, the family’s luxurious country estate in Washington Valley, where the Pheasant Run Shopping Center is now, with her sisters,” according to the history.

She married twice, first in the late 1920s to L. Richard Bamberger, a New York stockbroker, then after her divorce in 1930, to Reginald L. Brooks in 1933. He was the nephew of Lady Astor, and an amateur aviator.

Hofheimer had learned to fly gliders, seaplanes and twin-engine craft before she was 20-years-old, and in 1930, earned her pilot’s license.

She was the first woman to fly solo from New York to Mexico in 1934.

Hofheimer earned a British flying license in 1936, worked with the Red Cross during World War II, and flew solo across the United States in 1940, raising funds for aviator canteens in England and France.

During the war, she became the fourth woman to join the Woman’s Auxiliary Flying Squadron in 1942, and in 1943, she went to England and served as the first officer in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, where she received various medals and awards.

Her solo flight to Mexico was stimulated by her other passion, painting. According to news reports at the time, she did it “because she wanted to talk murals with Diego Rivera.”

She studied for several months with Rivera, learning the art of fresco painting, and as a young teen, she had taken lessons from noted American painter, John Sloan.

Hofheimer’s most noted work is a fresco mural that measures 106 feet by 12.5 feet, which was painted on the north wall of Hanger F at Roosevelt Field, Long Island. That is the same airport from which Charles Lindbergh left on his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The fresco depicts 500 air notables, including many of the early female aviators, 200 lesser-known personalities, and 268 planes and hangers from the pre-Lindbergh era of American aviation.

In 1960, the hanger was demolished along with the Roosevelt Field airport to make way for the Roosevelt Field shopping mall. Hofheimer spent $20,000 of her own money to have the mural removed, and placed in storage.

Susan Loricchio of the North Jersey chapter of The Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots, and Esta-Ann Schapiro of Warren Township, wife of noted Warren Township author Jack Elliott, have tracked the history of Hofheimer’s fresco, which remains in storage. They have been keen to see that the fresco, by an historic female aviator about historic female aviation pioneers, be properly displayed.

Loricchio said that the fresco is currently stored at Vaughn College of Aeronautics, Queens, not far from Laguardia Airport.

After the war, Hofheimer co-founded the Luscombe Airplane Company, Kansas City, Mo., and served as president and chairman of the board at Allison Radar Corporation.

She died in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 7, 1963.


All proceeds from the luncheon will be donated back to the causes of the award winners.

Monday, August 3, 2009

WASP of Maine

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
Women pilots from WWII now getting their due
Staff Writer
Skowhegan--following World War II, they waited for 34 years for military recognition and veteran status.

Staff photo by David Leaming

LIVING HISTORY: Betty Brown, of Skowhegan, speaks recently about serving as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) during World War ll. Brown and surviving members of the division will be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. A wall of photos and service memorablia is behind her.

Now, the Women Airforce Service Pilots have won another accolade that might be considered overdue. President Obama on July 1 signed a bill that awards the Congressional Gold Medal to the women who flew noncombat military missions in this country, which allowed men to conduct the overseas combat missions.

About 300 of the 1,102 women who served as WASPs remain. Three are from Maine. The ceremony could take place before the year's end.

"We're hopeful it won't be that long," former WASP Betty Brown said last week from her Skowhegan home. "We did a great job, and we're glad that we're being recognized for such an important role in World War II."

Whenever the Washington, D.C., award ceremony will be held, Brown, 86, and her husband, Ron, will make the trip down. Phyllis Paradis, also to receive the medal, might go with them.

"I would love to go with Betty," said Paradis, 90, from her Bass Harbor home. "As long as I'm on my feet, I'll go."

The two have not met.

Edith Beal, 93, of Bridgton was a classmate of Brown when they trained at Sweetwater, Tex. Beal and Brown haven't seen each other since graduation day, when they earned their wings.

"I think (the medal) is great, but I just hope I live long enough to see it," Beal said. "I think we were due it, really. But I can't make it to Washington."

A group known as Wings Across America is dedicated to preserving the history of the WASP program, and its members are just as eager to get word of a ceremony date.

"My mother is a WASP," Wings Across America director Nancy Parrish said from her Baylor University office, "so I know. We're all chomping at the bit."

Parrish said Congress passed the Gold Medal bill "in record time." But the medal must be designed and minted before Congress can schedule a ceremony, she said.

In addition to towing targets fired on by ground troops, WASP ferried thousands of new aircraft from the factories to points of embarkation to the battlefront. They also flew missions for aerial-gunnery practice, and tested aircraft.

They trained in Sweetwater, Tex.

At her home in Skowhegan, Brown displayed a photo, showing her flying a plane towing gunnery targets 75 feet behind it.

"Our purpose," she said, "was to take the place of the men, so that they could go overseas. I towed targets for aerial gunnery practice, for the cadets in Texas."

Born in Iowa and raised in Michigan, Brown was working at a General Motors diesel office in a Detroit suburb when the flight bug hit her, in 1941. Her office was close to a grass-strip airport.

"I wondered what in the world the world looked like from up there," she recalled. "I got a ride, liked what I saw and began training. I got the required hours to enter training with the WASP training group."

At the age of 19, Brown began training in Sweetwater.

"I wanted to contribute to the war effort," she recalled.

Brown was on duty for about four months when the WASP program closed on Dec. 20, 1944. By that time, male pilots began returning home in increasing numbers.

"We had accomplished what we set out to do," Brown said.

"Now, the award brings to light that we were indeed a great help in World War II."

On her piano, Brown displayed a copy of a book called "Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War II," by Amy Nathan.

"WASPs weren't allowed to fly in combat, but they put their lives on the line every day," Nathan writes on the book's sleeve.

Brown has several copies of the book, and hopes to get some out to libraries -- and to "school-aged young ladies, to show them how to make up their minds to do something, and go for it."

Larry Grard -- 861-9239

Photos added by Wings Across America

1. Betty June Overman Brown 2.Phyllis Johnson Paradis 3. Edith Smith Beal

WASP Henrietta Sproat, WASP

Gold medal for service: Oroville woman among wartime pilots to receive congressional medals


Click photo to enlarge
Henrietta Sproat, 90, a former Womens Airforce Service Pilot, looks at a picture of herself...
OROVILLE -- More than 60 years ago, Henrietta Sproat earned her wings. This summer, she was told she earned a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can award a civilian.

The Oroville resident, now 90, was one of a select group of women who served the United States during World War II by training to be a Women's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP).

The group was needed during the war to fly non-combat military missions, to free male pilots for combat overseas.

The WASPs transported planes overseas, tested military aircraft, taught aerial navigation, provided target towing and transported personnel and cargo.

On July 1, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the women the Congressional Gold Medal. The WASP women were also awarded veteran status in 1977.

During their brief existence, the WASPs delivered approximately 12,650 planes and flew more than 60 million miles. They were stationed at 120 Army bases across the United States.

One story in the WASP legacy was in 1943, when male pilots refused to fly the B-26 Martin Marauder, which was nicknamed "the Widowmaker, because it was difficult to fly.

Twenty-five WASPs trained to fly the plane. When the men saw the women master the machine, their attitude changed.

Sproat (born Henrietta Speckels) said she remembers seeing planes as a child and being interested in them. Then, as a young woman, she was able to fly.

In her mid-20s and not yet married, Sproat was living in San Antonio, Texas,


which was surrounded by air bases.

In 1942 she worked in the hospital lab at Kelly Field, an advanced flight training base. Later she moved to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, where men were tested and classified for training as pilots, navigators and bombardiers. It was there she worked with her future husband.

She had heard about the a group, the Texas Wing of Women Fliers, and joined the class, attending after work.

While at that training, Jackie Cochran — later the first woman to break the sound barrier — came and gave a talk about the Army Air Corps training program for women. Cochran was the director.

Sproat applied, passed the Army physical exam and aviation cadet qualifying exam, and was accepted to class 44-10 at Sweetwater, Texas.

Of 25,000 applicants, she was one of 1,830 accepted and 1,074 who earned her wings.

During that time, the war was in full swing, and Sproat lived among the other female fliers, six to a bay, sleeping on cots and doing laundry in a tub. Although they were civilians, they had military inspections including open lockers and bed inspections. The women marched to meals, did calisthenics and studied War Department manuals on flight theory, flight instruments, radio telephone procedures, physics, air navigation, meteorology and more.

"Our 50 hours of primary flying was in the PT-17 Stearman," Sproat wrote for a talk she gave some time ago. "We were taught spins, stalls, forced landings."

She recalled that an old Army truck took them to the field to practice take-offs and landings. It was so dry and dusty that at the end of the day when they took off their goggles, the women had "raccoon" faces.

After the first solo flight, other classmates would throw the flier in a small fountain pool.

They were tested by a civilian instructors. Those who failed were given an Army test drive, and those who "washed" left the program.

Basic training was in a BT-13, which was called the "baby carriage" because it was easy to land. One flight student was in the rear cockpit, flying by instruments, while the other was in the cockpit, watching for other planes. They flew by radio signals.

After mastering that plane, they moved to the AT-6, an advanced training plane, in which the women learned to fly cross country, night flying and aerobatics.

Sproat recalled the training was rigorous and the women were expected to master their tasks perfectly.

During a recent interview at her daughter Debby Henderson's home in Oroville, Sproat recalled that it was the friendships that were the most important at that time in her life.

The women trained during the day, then spent the evening studying, and sharing stories from their day.

She remembers the women as "young, daring and dedicated — women of honor."

About a third of the women did not complete training, and were missed by the others.

While Sproat earned her wings, the program was only active for about 16 months, and was deactivated by the time she would have been ready to fully join the program.

The loss of male combat pilots overseas was less than expected, and combat pilots were returning to the United States.

But receiving her wings from Jackie Cochran and Gen. "Hap" Arnold of the Army Air Corps was one of the highlights of her young life.

Sproat was assigned to other air bases for two weeks before the program was deactivated in late 1944.

She said it was very difficult to say good-bye to the other female fliers.

Over the years, Sproat has kept in contact with many of the women who also served in the program. There was a 25th anniversary, and a 50th anniversary celebration. There was another reunion in Dallas last fall.

As for the Congressional Gold Medal, Sproat said it is much more than she expected. But most of all, she is excited for the celebration, which has yet to be announced, in hope of seeing other women from the program.

Her daughter said the government will be minting the medals and announcing a ceremony, likely in the fall or later.

The medals will be given in Washington, D.C.

Staff writer Heather Hacking can be reached at 896-7758 or

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Her story is WWII history

Former Bradley teacher who flew B-26 bombers during war will receive Congressional Gold Medal of Honor


Peorian Duke Caldwell, 91, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for her service years with the WASP program during WWII.

More related photos
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Posted Aug 01, 2009 @ 09:51 PM
Last update Aug 01, 2009 @ 10:32 PM


Mildred "Duke" Caldwell hasn't piloted an airplane since the early 1940s when she flew a Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engine bomber every day for work, but the idea of flying a plane thrills her to this day.

"It was delightful. I loved flying," Caldwell said. "Loved it!"

Caldwell, who is 91, is one of about 300 surviving Women's Airforce Service Pilots, an exclusive club known better by its acronym, WASP. And while the World War II-era group of women never totaled much more than 1,100 members and lasted only 28 months, it left a lasting imprint on American history as the first group of women to fly the country's military aircraft.

The WASP program was in the news recently when President Barack Obama on July 1 signed legislation that awarded the survivors with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. It's the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed on an individual, and it puts Duke Caldwell in the company of the medal's first recipient, George Washington.

"Not bad for an old gym teacher," said Caldwell, who retired from Bradley University 26 years ago after a long career in the physical education department and is a professor emeritus.

Caldwell was born and raised in Connecticut. As a girl she spent $2.50 of her newspaper route money to buy a short airplane ride when a small air show flew into her town.

"I caught the flying bug long before I ever got in a plane," she said. "I always wanted to get my pilot's license."

She graduated from a college in Troy, N.Y., in 1939 and took a teaching job in the area. But she had her eye on another job in another state.

"I knew that the Piper (airplane) company (in Lock Haven, Pa.) had three or four flight instructors on their payroll and gave flying lessons to employees," Caldwell said. "So I got a job there working second shift in the first aid room and then going department to department taking inventory. And that's where I learned how to fly."

Her timing was perfect. The WASP program, designed to have women fly planes in the United States in varying capacities so that men pilots would be free to fly combat missions in the war, started up in September 1942. Caldwell, a freshly licensed airplane pilot, couldn't sign up fast enough. On April 25, 1943, Caldwell reported for training along with 121 other women in Sweetwater, Texas, for primary, basic and then advanced training. By graduation day, Oct. 9, 1943, 37 women in her group had dropped out of training. Soon after, she was specially selected and soon learning to fly the B-26 in the skies above a military base in Dodge City, Kan. Once trained on the bomber, she was sent to Laredo, Texas, with a specific mission in her near future.

Caldwell shrugs when asked if her WASP duty was dangerous. It sure sounds dangerous. The B-26s she flew had the bomber racks removed and a tow reel that dragged something that resembled a wind sock behind the plane on a long cable. She flew the plane with a crew chief and a co-pilot as other planes - with bomber racks very much attached and loaded with live ammunition - maneuvered in the vicinity of her plane firing away at the target she trailed.

"We were the target for the soldiers getting their combat training," she said.

The end came suddenly and without warning. On Dec. 7, 1944, the last WASP class graduated from training. Less than two weeks later, WASP was finished. Here's how a timeline on the WASP Web site,, describes the end:

"December 20, 1944. One minute after midnight of preceding day, WASP cease to exist as a quasi-military unit. Hung up their parachutes and paid their own way back home. No benefits, no honors, no veteran status. Official WASP military records sealed, stamped 'classified' and sent for storage to the government archives. History of WASP not recorded by historians in official historical accounts of World War II. Reason: records not available."

Caldwell doesn't have specific memories of the shutdown of WASP almost 65 years ago. She paid some attention when in 1977 the Air Force poked the WASP nest when it issued a news release claiming that, for the first time in history, it was graduating 10 women pilots from flight training, making them the first women in history to fly American military aircraft. An aggressive campaign brought the WASP story into the light, and on Nov. 3, 1977, Congress passed a law giving WASP veteran status.

"I understood why people fought hard for that," Caldwell said. "But I didn't care that much, I'd been a civilian so long."

A WASP World War II Museum opened at Avenger Field in Sweetwater in 2005, and now the entire operation has been rewarded with the Congressional Gold Medal. Details are still being worked out how the medals will be conferred on the WASP recipients, most likely at a special event in Washington, D.C. Caldwell doesn't plan to be there.

"Why the hell would I go all the way out there," said Caldwell, adding she doesn't travel much anymore. "My nephew will go for me. He'll pick up my medal and get it to me."

Caldwell keeps a scrapbook with yellowed press clippings and memorabilia from her WASP days in a permanent spot on a table in her front room. The cover of the scrapbook remains wrapped in its original plastic packaging. She flipped through the book recently and stopped on a page in the middle.

On it was a photo scissored from a Life magazine story about the WASP program published in 1943. The photo showed a young woman in an open-cockpit Fairchild PT-19 airplane, presumably taken from an airplane flying alongside. The co-pilot's open cockpit behind her is empty. The woman, who is staring intently straight forward, is shown from about the shoulders up. Her hair streams behind her in the wind.

Caldwell tapped the photo with an index finger.

"Moi," she said.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or at