Civil Air Patrol

Former WASP Member Honored for World War II Service

By Mitzi Palmer

Tex Meachem, 92, after her trip to Washington D.C., shows off her replica of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Women Airforce Service Pilots during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in March. In the black-and-white photo, a younger Meachem takes the controls of a Cessna while serving in Civil Air Patrol in 1942.

Most women in their 90s aren’t interested in flying in a plane, much less piloting one. Tex Amanda Brown Meachem is different. On April 23, at 92, the former World War II Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) climbed into her favorite two-seater, an AT-6 trainer aircraft, for one more joyride.

Meachem, who lives at the continuing care retirement community of John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, Fla., is one of the estimated 300 surviving World War II WASP members who received the Congressional Gold Medal in March.

The same day she accepted her replica of the medal at the U.S. Capitol, Meachem, almost jokingly, expressed a wish to fly the AT-6 Texan — as she had dozens of times during her World War II service — just once more.

To her surprise, History Flight Inc., a nonprofit foundation in Marathon, Fla., offered for her to fly theirs. With the assistance of History Flight’s pilot, John Makinson, up in the sky she went from Fort Lauderdale’s Executive Airport about a month later.

During her 50-minute flight over the Everglades, Meachem took control of the AT-6 for the first time in 66 years. She even urged the pilot to do two impressive rolls and a chandelle — a maneuver that combines a turn with a climb.

“It was a terrific, terrific thrill,” she said. “It felt wonderful to get back on the controls.”

Cheering her on from the ground was a notable group of about 100 spectators, including members of the Red Hat Society’s John Knox Village chapter that Meachem founded, the John Knox Village men’s choir, a local ROTC contingent, several family members and friends and Broward County Mayor Ken Keechl, who declared April 23 Tex Meachem Day.

“I was floored about what a fuss they had made over it,” Meachem said. “This is the only time I’m really sorry that I’m 92, because I won’t have that many years to really remember this.”

Flying for CAP

Tex Meachem gets ready for takeoff in her favorite type of plane, an AT-6 Texan, which she flew during World War II.

Meachem’s love of flying stems from her youthful post-college days, when figuring out the fastest way to Daytona Beach with her girlfriends was the only thing on her mind.

“I was working at the University of Florida as a secretary and living with three other gals,” she said. “We loved going to Daytona for the weekend, but it was the Depression and we had to take the bus to get there.”

By chance, one of her roommates discovered a pilot training program that offered the girls an opportunity to get their pilots’ licenses for free. They joined a flying club for just $25 a year.

“We got the plane rental for half-price, so the cost wasn’t much more than the bus ride to the beach,” Meachem noted.

Not too long after she secured her license, she heard about the Civil Air Patrol squadron in Sarasota.

“They needed a bookkeeper,” she said. Meachem had majored in economics and minored in accounting at Florida, so it was a perfect fit.

“I took the position under one condition — that I could fly,” she said.

When she joined CAP in the early 1940s, Meachem was one of three women out of nearly 125 men in the Sarasota squadron. “They weren’t all there at one time,” she said. “A lot were businessmen, serving a month or two at a time.”

Still, Meachem was outnumbered, to say the least, as women pilots were a rare breed at that time. But she and the other women kept a sense of humor about the imbalance.

She remembers a time when they were standing in line waiting to get shots CAP required for medical reasons. “They were teaching orderlies how to give the shots on potatoes,” recalled Meachem. “So when the men insisted we ladies go first, we went to the front of the line and pretended the shots hurt so badly. One man even passed out from the fear.”

Serving as a WASP

Tex Meachem and pilot John Makinson of History Flight Inc. taxi down the runway in a World War II-era AT-6.

While she was logging some flight time in CAP, Meachem heard about WASP — a group of young World War II pilots who were the first women in history trained to fly American military aircraft. At that time, pilots had to have 200 hours of flight banked to become a WASP member.

“If it weren’t for CAP, I wouldn’t have had that many hours,” noted Meachem, who just made the height requirement of 5 feet, 4 inches by a scant quarter-inch.

After being accepted into the program, Meachem completed her WASP flight training at an airfield in Sweetwater, Texas.

“We flew old planes to the salvage yard, picked up new planes at the factories and transferred planes between bases,” she said. Others were assigned as instructors, chauffeured VIPs and even towed targets to be shot at with live ammunition.

“I was very lucky,” Meachem said. “Some COs (commanding officers) didn’t want women flying, but ours was delighted to have us and put us to work right away.”

WASP members’ duty also included taking care of flights in the U.S. while the men flew in battle, she said. During World War II, WASP members flew 60 million miles in every type of aircraft in the Air Force arsenal, from the fastest fighters to the heaviest bombers, and every type of mission any male pilot flew during the war, except combat.

“We had been promised we would be inducted into the service, but we were not,” Meachem said. “They were afraid we would take the jobs from the men.”

When WASP was unceremoniously disbanded in 1944, its records were sealed for 32 years.

Even though the service Meachem and other female pilots contributed during World War II was revolutionary and 38 WASP members died in the line of duty, not until late 1977 were they given honorable discharges and officially recognized as veterans.

In addition, they weren’t acknowledged publicly until March 10, when each of the remaining veterans was presented with a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol. The original Gold Medal will be showcased in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

In attendance at the ceremony were Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Republican Leader John Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and other members of Congress.

“Out of the 250 to 300 remaining WASP veterans, 175 of us were physically able to be there to receive the award,” she said. “In just our class, we only had nine out of 59 alive at the time of the ceremony.”

Although times are different today, Meachem remains an inspiration to women of all ages. “I would give women of today the same advice my mother gave me,” she said. “She told me all my life I could do anything I wanted to do. You just have to work for it. Nobody’s going to just give it to you. But in addition to that, you’ve just got to be bold and push on.”

To view a YouTube video of Meachem’s recent flight, compliments of the Miami Herald, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOfgYIYKZ3Y.

WASP Fast Facts

  • Women Airforce Service Pilots was initiated in 1939 by Jacqueline Cochran, who proposed to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt that women pilots be used in the line of duty to release male pilots for combat.
  • After America’s entry into World War II, experienced women pilots were first able to fly aircraft within the U.S., starting in 1943, to compensate for the shortage of male pilots.
  • In August 1943 all women pilots flying for the Army Air Force were consolidated into the WASP program.
  • Members of WASP went through the same training as every male cadet in the Army Air Force.
  • Nearly 25,000 women applied to the WASP training program, but only 1,830 were accepted.
  • Of those accepted, 1,074 earned their wings. The remaining 756 “washed out” for various reasons before they completed the training.
  • After graduation, WASP members were given assignments as flight training instructors, glider tow pilots and engineering test flying pilots, often towing targets or ferrying aircraft pilots.
  • During World War II, WASP members were stationed at 120 bases across the country, and 38 members and trainees were killed.
  • WASP was unceremoniously disbanded in 1944 without benefits. Veteran’s status wasn’t given until 1977.
  • Today, WASP members are known as role models for women of all ages. Tex Meachem and pilot John Makinson of History Flight Inc. taxi down the runway in a World War II-era AT-6.

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