‘The Best Kept Secret of WW2’ — A conversation with WASP Nell Bright

Interview by: Ms. Errin Phou

     Errin Phou: Can you tell me a little bit about your career path and what led you to becoming a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP)?

     Nell Bright: I decided when I was eight years old that I wanted to learn to fly because my dad took me out to the pasture in West Texas where the World War One planes would come in, land and take people up. I got to go up in an open cockpit plane when I was 8 years old.

     I finished college when I was 19, so I was ready to start taking flying lessons. In 1943, I saw an article that the military was going to train women to fly military airplanes, in what was then the Army Air Corps, for the first time in history. I already had my license and 75 hours of flying when I read this, and I applied and was accepted into the 7th class. We had the exact same training the men did. Of course, at that time of Pearl Harbor, the military was very short of pilots and needed all the pilots they could get. 

     So it was quite an honor for us, as women, to get to fly the military airplanes. There were 25,000 women that applied, and of that, 1,800 were accepted and out of that, 1,074 graduated and got our wings.

WASP Nell Bright

     I believe 57 graduated in our class, and I was chosen among 20 to go to B-25 transition school, the medium bomber. Most women hadn’t flown the B-25 before that.

     After we were approved for training, we were stationed at Sweetwater, TX, and went through primary, basic and advanced there. Then the 20 of us went to Major Field, Sacramento, CA, where we logged a little over 165 hours in the B-25 and got our first pilot rating.

     We were sent to Biggs Field in El Paso, TX, to a tow-target squadron to tow targets and do other kinds of missions like searchlight mission strike and so forth to train the men that were going into combat who were stationed at Fort Bliss at that time.

      Our mission was to fly in the states, so that the men could go overseas in combat. We were not allowed to go out of the United States, so we picked up a lot of the flying that the men always did here. We were promised that we would be militarized — we were technically civil service that would be militarized when we finished our training. But that didn’t happen.

     In 1944, Congress had voted, by three votes, that we didn’t deserve to be militarized, so we were deactivated in December ’44, and our records were frozen for 30 years. We finally got our veterans status in 1977 when they decided that they would start training women to fly military airplanes again.The publicity they put out stated for the first time in history, women were going to learn to fly military airplanes. Well, we didn’t appreciate that at all. So we started things through Congress, and that’s how we got our military status and veteran benefits after 30 years.

     We felt we were serving our country. They needed us at that time. It was a wonderful experience for us to fly the military airplanes because they were, of course, a lot bigger than what we’d flown before.

I was checked out in 11 of the military airplanes because we had to fly different airplanes for different missions that we flew in the tow-target squadron.

     We had a wonderful time. It was something we felt was needed at the time and a little unusual, I guess. It took quite a while for people to realize there were women pilots in WW2. A lot of people still don’t know it. We are the best kept secret of WW2. There are only about 25 left out of the 1,000.

     It was an honor. It takes a few years to realize how much of an honor it really was.

We felt we were serving our country and doing something necessary, but it was also a challenge for us to show that the women could fly the same airplanes and do our job in that field also.

     EP: What were some of the challenges you experienced?

     NB: We were already flying, so the challenge was to learn the same airplanes that the men were flying, and to show that women could do the same thing. In that era, there were already some famous female pilots like Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran, who was our commanding officer for the whole group. She was a very strong woman, and great person. Probably, if it hadn’t been for Jackie, we would have never had the opportunity to do this. 

     We felt we were serving our country and doing something necessary, but it was also a challenge for us to show that the women could fly the same airplanes and do our job in that field also.

     EP: What were your day-to-day tasks like?

     NB: During training, we flew in the mornings. Our classes had two flights. Flight 1 would fly in the morning, attend ground school in the afternoon, and instrument training in the evenings. The next week, we would do the opposite. We did night flying and instrument training so we would have our instrument rating when we graduated. 

     After we graduated, we lived on base and were treated as officers, because everyone thought we were since we had graduated from flight school too, even though we were technically civil service. 

     We did a lot of flying. We would fly the P-47 and the two Navy helldivers, the A-24 and A-25, on strafing missions to strafe the troops that were going out in the desert to teach them what was going to happen when they were in combat. Of course, we didn’t shoot at them, but we made a lot of noise.

     In the evening, we would fly the twin engine Beech, teaching the boys how to use the search lights. They would have to follow us in the patterns that we would fly. 

     In the day and night, we would tow targets behind us, and they would shoot at the targets, and hopefully hit the targets and not our airplane, which mostly they did. In our squadron, we didn’t have any accidents like that, but some places around the country did.

 It was an honor. It takes a few years to realize how much of an honor it really was.

     EP: What skills do you think are important for someone interested in flying?

     NB: Well, in the first place, I think you have to really want to fly; you have a passion for it. I’ve had people ask me, “Weren’t you scared?” and my answer to that is, “If you are scared, you shouldn’t be flying in the first place.” You not only have to have a passion for it, but you have to have a good education for it. Especially nowadays.

     I think you have to have a determination — have a goal set and go after it and make it. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but if you want to fly, you’ve got to really want to do it.

     EP: What are some things you wish you would have known as you started out in your career?

     NB: I remember being told when I was growing up, I should set goals for what I want to do, and I can do anything I want to if I want it bad enough.

     When I decided I wanted to fly, I had a lot of support from my family and parents. They said if that’s what you want to do, then do it. I think that was a little bit unusual for parents with the girls. I mean the boys could go off and fly and do what they wanted, and it was fine. It was a little different for the girls in that era. But I think all of us had pretty strong backgrounds like that.

     EP: What is your philosophy of public service, and why is it important to our nation right now?

     NB: We have to have good people in public service that are going to do things for our country if we are going to keep it like we all fought for. 

     Of course, I really love the military, and I think they should get whatever they need. I think the military is necessary, and we don’t need a war to have a military. There are a lot of things that they can do, and women have shown a lot of what they can do. I think that should be respected.

     I think there is a large aviation future, and it’s great.