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Interview with Violet Cowden [08/15/2003]

Owen Chappel:

This is Owen Chapel of the Children of the American Revolution interviewing Ms. Violet Cowden, a WASP in World War II in Huntington Beach, California, on August 15th, 2003.

Owen Chappel:

Ms. Cowden, why did you decide to become a WASP?

Violet Cowden:

I already had my private pilot's license before war was declared so when war was declared, everyone at that time wanted to do their part, and I thought, "Well, what better way to serve my country than to fly and do the thing that I love the most, and I didn't have to pay for the gas."

Owen Chappel:

What was your experience on planes before the war?

Violet Cowden:

Before the war I was a teacher, and I always wanted to fly. I was born in a sod house on a farm in South Dakota, and the hawks used to be flying, and I thought, "Gosh, if I could just do that." They'd be flying around. They -- they were kind of resting on -- they looked like they were resting on a big bag of air and then they would spot a little chicken in the chicken yard and they'd zoom down on that old chicken, and I thought, "Oh, if I could only do that." And so I think that I wanted to fly from the time I was about six or seven years old. So when -- one day when we were out at the airport -- I was -- that's with my girlfriend, and her husband was shooting landing and I looked at her and I said, you know, "Ester," I said, "I'm going to learn to fly." She said, "Oh, you must be kidding." So I went up to the fellow that was giving the lessons, and his name was Clyde Ice, and I said, "I want to learn to fly." And he looked at me and says, "Come on. I think you'll make a damn good pilot. Let's go." And that's how I got started. So, I mean, it was kind of like a dream come true. It's just something that you wanted to do. So I feel that the time was -- was perfect. I didn't have a car. I was teaching. I had to drive -- I mean, ride my bike six miles out to the airport for class in the morning. And thank goodness it was downhill on the way back. And the little kids would say, "You flew today." And I said, "Well, how do you know?" They said, "Well, you're so happy." So I think I'm -- really, I think I'm an air person because the minute I get in the air, and even now, you know, in an airliner, I just feel so comfortable and I feel so good when I'm in the air. It's such a -- a wonderful feeling to be up in that beautiful sky with the clouds and everything and looking down on just beautiful, earth that we have. And I know sometimes when I go out to fly, if I was upset about something, when I got up in the air and you look down and you see a car that's maybe the size of a bug and you are even smaller than that, so your problem or whatever you had is so insignificant. It's -- it's a wonderful -- I mean, you have the freedom of this big sky and you can just go where you want to go and do what you want to do. And I think every person should -- should fly, have that experience. I met a young girl at the air show in Dayton just a couple of weeks ago and she's been wanting to fly, and I said, "No, you must do that if you really want to, really want to accomplish that and do that. And then I want you to call me on the day that you -- that you flew because it's such a -- a release, it's a feeling of just getting up in the wind. It's -- it's a great experience."

Owen Chappel:

What kind of planes do you work on and fly?

Violet Cowden:

When I was taking my private pilot's license, I flew Aronkas and Cubs which are little single engine, like a 172, very small motor. And -- but you learn all the maneuvers and your landing procedures. And I'd go to ground school at night and fly in the daytime. And it was in the Black Hills of South Dakota and we had to climb -- I mean, come over the top of a mountain to drop down into the airport and my instructor said if you can fly here you can fly anywhere, because air has updrafts and downdrafts and when it, the air, goes and it kind of flows over the mountain and when you're trying to come down, it's going up, so, I mean, you have a pull there. So -- And this instructor lived to be a hundred years old. It was -- he was -- it was just amazing what he could do in an airplane. I mean, it was like it -- like a second skin for him. I met him when he was a hundred years old at a air show in Reno and he was so sharp. I hadn't seen him in 40 years. And we sat and had breakfast with him every morning. And he'd go out to the air show because he was honored because he was a hundred years old. And he'd be flying -- he'd be driving around in an open vehicle. And at night he'd come back and he'd be playing blackjack with no glasses. If that wasn't disgusting.

Owen Chappel:

What does WASP stand for?

Violet Cowden:

It's Woman's Airforce Service Pilot.

Owen Chappel:

What happened to the WASP program?

Violet Cowden:

The WASP program, being it was an experimental program, we were paid by civil service and we had -- we were under the jurisdiction of the -- of the Air Force so we did -- I mean, we took our -- the training that we took in Sweetwater, Texas, was exactly the same training that the men had. It was -- we went through primary with the PT-19, in basic the BT-17, and then to advance, the AT-6. And it's the same program that the men went through. But we weren't paid by the military so when the men started coming back from overseas, they wanted their job back. And really our job was to release men when we did all the missions in the U.S. which was -- I mean, we did -- we flew all the missions. I mean, we did everything that the men did, and I was in the Air Transport Command so I -- I delivered airplanes. But when the men came back, they wanted their jobs back. So they deactivated us. And we didn't have our veterans benefits until 1977.

Owen Chappel:

When did you join the military?

Violet Cowden:

I joined the military March 1943. I think it was -- I think it was -- the day I soloed was on March the 5th. And the reason I remember that was because I was out here staying with my sister because she was going to have her first baby. And I got my call to go into -- go to Sweetwater. So I had to leave, and I felt so bad because I wanted to be with my sister. And on the day that I soloed with the Air Force, somebody came out with a telegram that said that my nephew was born. So he was -- that was on March the 5th. So last year on his 60th birthday I flew up to Washington to be with his -- to be with him. So, I mean, to think that 60 years have passed, it's -- it's unbelievable.

Owen Chappel:

As the war progressed how did the planes improve?

Violet Cowden:

I felt when we -- when the war first started, the P-51 pursuit plane that -- that I loved the most that I flew, wasn't even built. And of the planes, as the war developed, improved because, I mean, if something went wrong, I mean, then they -- then they'd make the improvements. And I imagine that a lot of the fellows that were flying combat overseas, I mean, they probably said, "Hey," you know, "this plane," you know, "when you're at a certain angle," I mean, "isn't performing well," they'd probably have to change the way the gas was let into the tank or whatever. So I feel that aviation advanced an awful lot during the war because there was a need. There was a need to have fast special planes.

Owen Chappel:

Did you have any preferences on types of planes?

Violet Cowden:

Well, absolutely. I was -- I was a pursuit pilot. There were 25,000 women applied. There were 1,800 that were accepted. Of the 1,800, 1,074 received their wings. Of the 1,074, there were only 114 pursuit pilots, and I was one of those. And my favorite airplane was the P-51 because it was the fastest plane made at that time. I would pick the plane up at the factory and take it to the point of debarkation. Sometimes it would be in Long Beach because I was in Dallas, Texas, and sometimes it would be at Newark, New Jersey. Sometimes I'd take the plane -- a plane -- Long Beach and fly it all the way to Newark, New Jersey, and it was, I think, as close as you could ever come to having your own wings, because once it was trimmed, you could just -- if you leaned forward, it would go down, if you leaned backwards, it would go up, if you leaned sideways, it would turn. It was wonderful and I think to this day if you talk to any pilots, they will always say the P-51 was their favorite airplane. And that's because it was so much like your own wings. And, I mean, the people that are flying for the airlines now, I mean, they all say that that's their favorite airplane. And I say that's why. And there -- it had some instruments on it but now that -- I mean, they're -- they're so sophisticated, I mean, they have the GPS and it -- you're really flying a computer, where before you were really flying an airplane that was a part of you.

Owen Chappel:

Where did you join up?

Violet Cowden:

I joined, I was in Long Beach, California. And you had to pass a physical. I knew that you had to be five feet four. I was just maybe five feet two, three, somewhere along in there. I knew that I had to be five feet four so I put a wrap in my hair and pulled my hair so I was tall enough and anyway I didn't -- I didn't pass my physical because I didn't weigh enough. So being a determined person that I am -- I'm German descent -- I said, "Give me a week and I will weigh" -- I was supposed to weigh a hundred pounds and I weighed 92 so that was eight pounds I had to gain the weight. And my sister -- I was staying with my sister and she was such a good cook and she gave me all of the fattening foods and a lot of milks and everything. And on the day that I was supposed to go I still didn't weigh quite enough. I was a couple of pounds under and so I had heard that if you drink water and eat bananas and drink water and eat bananas, why, you would gain the weight. So I gained the weight and I went down to Long Beach to the -- to see whether or not I passed my physical. So anyway, when I got on the scale, the doctor looked and he said, "It's a hundred pounds." He said, "How did you do it?" And I said, "Look." Just visualize this: little skinny arms, little skinny legs and a big tummy. And he said, "That's the funniest thing," he said, "I've ever seen. Do you mind if I call in another doctor?" And I said, "No. I don't -- I don't mind a bit, but first you sign here that I passed my physical. And that other doctor came in and they both stood there and laughed. And, you know, I didn't care at all because I knew I had passed my physical.

Owen Chappel:

What kind of work would you do on the planes?

Violet Cowden:

Well, I would -- my mission really was to go to the factory and pick up the planes and take them to the point of debarkation either the east coast or the west coast. Sometimes I'd pick up the plane in Buffalo, New York, and fly it to Great Falls, Montana. And I flew all over the United States, but the trainers that we -- when they needed the trainers. So it -- it was -- really it was like a taxi. I mean, I'd pick up the plane and take it where -- where they needed -- where they needed it. And every plane that I was supposed to pick up had been -- should have been flown an hour. And this one time I jumped in the plane, it was a P-51, and I looked at the ship's papers, and it hadn't been tested. So I went back into operations and I said, "This plane hasn't been tested." And so the mechanic went out, he wrote down one hour in the ship's papers, so I knew that it had been flown. I probably flew others, you know, that hadn't been flown, but this one I knew hadn't been flown. So I wouldn't have had to flown it. I could have gone in, said, you know, "This plane hasn't been tested." So, I mean, but I had orders to pick it up. So I thought, "Oh, well, I'll give it a try." We're going down the runway -- the P-51 was, you know, you had to go a hundred miles an hour for takeoff. I went zooming down the runway, looked the -- a hundred miles an hour. I thought, "I wanted to pull back on the stick in this airplane." It was the most wonderful feeling because I knew I was the first person who had ever flown this wonderful plane. It was -- and to think I almost missed out, you know, and didn't do it. So sometimes in your life when these opportunities come, I mean, it might be a little bit risky, but if you take it, then it makes it so worthwhile. To think I almost missed it.

Owen Chappel:

What were some of the worst planes that you flew?

Violet Cowden:

I think the worst -- the worst plane would be to me was the P-39 and the reason was it -- you had to -- it was so hard to fly. It'd -- you had to work at it to make it go, to make it fly right. And there were some, may -- and to pilots that -- I mean, it killed them because it wasn't -- it just wasn't a good plane. So when we picked up the plane in Buffalo, New York, we'd take it to Great Falls, Montana. Then a fellow would -- another pilot, an American pilot, would fly it to Fairbanks, Alaska. And the Russians would come over from Russia to pick up the plane. And I think the reason, I mean, it was a land lease type airplane. So I have never seen a documentary that the P-51 was, I mean, the P-39 was ever flown in combat or anything like that so I think it was a plane that just wasn't quite ready to do the job. When I went to Russia a couple --

Owen Chappel:

I'm sorry.

Violet Cowden:

When I went to Russia in 1990, I met one of the pilots in Russia that had picked up P-39s at Fairbanks, Alaska, and we also met the women pilots that flew in Russia during World War II. And they flew combat. And they were called the Night Witches because they flew at night. And the way this worked, the men would do the dog fighting during the day and then they had the women fly at night and they were little tiny kind of rickety planes and they even tied the bombs underneath and then they -- they never got 10 miles behind -- behind the war -- the war zone. And when they dropped the bombs at night, the guys couldn't sleep, so they weren't so sharp the next day. But anyway, that was the reason. And I met, I think -- we met about 120 pilots that time. And this last April we went back to Russia for one of their get-togethers and we -- there were still 17 of them that we -- that we met.

Owen Chappel:

That's cool. How did you get back after flying?

Violet Cowden:

When we delivered an airplane at a certain field, sometimes they -- they would send a DC-3 which was a 36-seated airplane which was the biggest airplane at the time. They would fly us back to the base, and it didn't have regular seats. It had what they called bucket seats. They were metal seats on the side. And they'd -- we'd go back with them. Sometimes we'd have to take a train if there wasn't -- if they didn't pick us up. My trips to New York or Newark, New Jersey, and to Long Beach there was airlines would be flying. And we would -- had a very high priority at that time. The only party that could bump us was the President's party. So we usually got on the -- on the airplane. And sometimes if there would be a bereavement person, that would be wanting to, you know, go home or whatever, I would give up my seat to them and then I would take maybe a later flight -- flight at night. So I would still get back to the base. And I was very lucky because I wasn't too -- too large so I could curl up in the seats on the way home, and by the time I -- I got -- I got back to base in morning I'd be all rested up so I could pick up orders again and go out and pick up another plane. So that's -- that's how we got back to the bases. Sometimes it would take us a while.

Owen Chappel:

And I know that you said you weren't recognized for veteran benefits until 1977. Why was it that that happened and who got the veterans benefits for you?

Violet Cowden:

The -- the reason we didn't get our -- our veterans benefits because there -- there was a prejudice against women. When we came back, I mean, if we went to the airlines for a job, they said, "You're qualified, but we can't give you the job because you're a woman." So to get this group of women into the veterans was almost impossible, and Ernie Powell was a very famous reporter at that time and he was really prejudiced against women flying in the first place, especially getting their veterans benefits. So he wrote a lot of articles that were very detrimental. So when Congress voted, they voted it down. So when Jimmy Carter was President, there was a veterans bill came up and by that time we were pretty well organized as a group. So they -- we had a red alert and all of us wrote to our Congressman and there were, I imagine, about 10 or 12 WASPs dressed in their uniforms, went to all the Congressmen, rapped on their door, and just really lobbied. And we got our -- and that's how we got our -- our veterans benefits. And all during this time I never could say that I was a veteran. And I truthfully thought it didn't make any difference. I mean, I had the chance to fly these wonderful airplanes, and I had a chance to serve my country. I mean, it really didn't matter. So right after we got our veterans benefits, we had a reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, and they have a big air show there and the -- I think it was Eisenhower's B-25 was sitting on the tarmac. And I imagine at that time we probably -- we had about 250 WASP that were sitting there and we had, I don't know, maybe it was a month or two before that that we had gotten our veterans benefits. And I don't know whether you know what the Golden Knights are but they're a parachute group and usually at the air shows, I mean, they jump. At Cleveland that time there was a couple of small planes that swooped, had made a big smoke ring around the airport. And the Golden Knights were -- I imagine they were up about 5,000, 10,000 feet and they would all bail out through this -- come down through the smoke ring. And the last jumper came down with the American flag. And they played the Air Corp song. And they handed the flag to the President. And then I knew I was a veteran. It was amazing.

Owen Chappel:

While pioneering in aviation what do you think is your greatest contribution?

Violet Cowden:

When I was going through the program, I certainly didn't think I was a pioneer. I was doing a job. It was a job that was strictly in the male field. It was opening the doors for young women of today through what we did then that they can now fly combat, they can almost do -- do anything they want. But they still -- there's still a ways to go. But I'm glad that I was a pioneer that opened the door for Eileen Collins the first woman to fly the shuttle and Trish Beckman who is working for Boeing. She's a test engineer. She flies on all the flights now to test out the airplanes for -- for Boeing. And I'm glad that I'm their mentor. I feel that at the time I didn't think I was contributing anything, but now, I -- I realize that through my experiences I now can experience what the women of today are doing in aviation as well as other fields, I mean, doctors and lawyers. It's -- I mean, I'm glad that I had that opportunity at that time of -- in history.

Owen Chappel:

Thank you. All right. Were there any WASPs ever killed during the war?

Violet Cowden:

Yes. There were 38 that made the supreme sacrifice for their country. It's -- a lot of it was inexperience and some was malfunctioning airplanes. But we had a better safety record than the men, and I think the reason for that was because we tried so hard to do the right thing. But these women gave their lives for their country.

 
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