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Honors at last for WWII's women with wings

TAMPA

Dorothy Ebersbach waits in an armchair, her library books and gardening catalogs in close reach. She still lives in the South Tampa home she moved into as a headstrong young woman who dreamed of flying. But now seven decades have passed, and instead of her family, round-the-clock caretakers stay with her. The mailman knocks on the door. He asks if he can come inside to watch her open a special delivery from the U.S. Mint, something he has never seen before.

The velvet blue case feels heavy in the 95-year-old's hands. Ebersbach recognizes in a glance the airplanes emblazoned on the dusky gold medal. The advanced trainer AT-6; the twin-engine bomber B-26. She flew them during World War II.

Ebersbach was among a select group of female aviators, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, called to duty so male pilots could fight overseas.

For two years, the WASPs flew every kind of plane that men did during the war. They just did it in the United States, running test flights, ferrying cargo and towing targets for the men's shooting practice.

Walt Disney designed their symbol, worn on flight jackets, a winged girl with a sweetheart figure named Fifinella.

The WASPs were dismissed unceremoniously as men were returning from war. For 65 years, their contributions were largely forgotten among history's footnotes.

This spring, they were recognized and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award. Ebersbach is one of just 300 of the 1,100 WASPs still alive to receive the honor, also awarded to Ruth Clifford Hubert of St. Petersburg.

While Ebersbach wasn't well enough to travel to the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, she welcomed a visitor's questions about her adventures, and still chuckles as she recalls her WASP training.

Clifford Hubert, 93, suffered a bad fall a year ago and can no longer talk about her flying days. But they are meticulously documented in her scrapbooks, proudly shared by her daughter.

• • •

When the war started and men were enlisting, "I thought I'd like to get in on it too," said Ebersbach, who had already logged over 200 hours flying out of Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport to help promote her father's construction company.

Ebersbach had to buy her own uniform and arrange her transportation to Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, where she and her classmates bunked six to a room, a dozen to a bathroom, in the military barracks. They were trained as rigorously as any male pilot. When a bedroll disappeared, Ebersbach knew that yet another classmate had washed out.

She remembers summer nights so hot that they pulled their cots into the open air to cool off. Some women drenched their sheets in water before going to bed, but the Florida girl was used to the heat.

Two of her classmates from the fifth class in 1943 were among the 38 WASP members who died in the service. They were killed in a plane crash while flying at night, which Ebersbach never cared for after that.

After graduation, Ebersbach was sent to Arizona, where she flew test flights and practiced shooting drills with the servicemen. "I was in the plane towing the target and they were shooting — at the target, hopefully," she said, laughing.

Ebersbach wanted to continue flying with the military after the war. But the WASP program was disbanded and the commercial market for pilots was flooded with men. She sold her plane and became a nurse, working for 20 years at the Hillsborough Health Department. She never married, but lived with her older sister until her death eight years ago.

She says curtly that she didn't miss flying much; the WASP years feel like "another life."

Yet when Ebersbach wrote down for a neighbor the story of her 95-year life, on a single piece of lined paper, those WASP experiences fill half the sheet.

• • •

"Being a member of the WASP was undoubtedly the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," Clifford Hubert wrote in cursive on a note that she tucked into a scrapbook for her daughter to find.

"And believe it or not, I almost missed out on it."

The "Lakeland girl pilot," as newspapers called her at the time, Clifford Hubert was smitten with flying in 1939 on a trip in a Cub airplane to shoot aerial photographs. She earned her pilot's license, although men chided her about wasting her time and money, because no one, they insisted, would fly with a woman.

A flight instructor when the WASP program started, Clifford Hubert stayed at home, believing she was in line for a manager's job at the airport opening in Winter Haven. When the slot went to a newly hired man, she decided to join her sister, Mary Clifford, already a WASP.

With over 450 hours of flying under her belt, she was immediately given a spot in the class that trained in Sweetwater in March 1944. Issued man-sized coveralls and an Army cot, she advanced from primary training to mastering planes with adjustable pitch propellers and retractable landing gear. Eventually, she flew cross-country.

More than half of the women in her class washed out. But Clifford Hubert wrote that her own "training was climaxed by graduation, where we received our beautiful silver wings and Santiago blue uniforms."

She was shipped to Macon, Ga., to test-fly planes as they came out of maintenance, mostly a fun job that allowed her to get in lots of flying time. "Occasionally, something would not work right, which meant a hurry-up return to base," she wrote. Within months of her assignment, the WASPs were deactivated.

She came home and continued as a flight instructor, eventually at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, where she met her husband, Peter Hubert. She was a leader in the Civil Air Patrol and helped organize an all-women air show in Tampa after female pilots were shut out of the men's program in Miami.

She raised two children and held various jobs over the years, but her passion was always being in the air. At 80, she was still flying and had logged over 2,300 hours.

Clifford Hubert now lives in a St. Petersburg nursing home. Her daughter, Linda Hubert, says the 93-year-old no longer can recall her past adventures, or much of anything else, on many days. Clifford Hubert barely recognizes her visitors. But when they mention airplanes, she just smiles and smiles.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the official ceremony: "We are all your daughters. You taught us how to fly."

Honors at last for WWII's women with wings 05/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 8:37am]

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