WASP flies through memories as trail-blazing aviator

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
"Jesus Christ," said the captain as his newest test pilot saluted and reported for duty. "No sir, Barry Vincent," retorted the young woman.

It was 1944 and with America in the midst of World War II, female aviators were being accepted as Women's Airforce Service Pilots to test aircraft and fly support missions in the U.S., freeing up men for combat roles overseas.

Now 91, Barry Vincent-Smith began her journey to becoming one of America's first female pilots in Chittenango, N.Y., in 1942. Only 22 at the time, she was living with her parents and working at a telephone company for $25 a week.

"My brother George, a pilot who flew missions over Japan, called and told me women would soon be accepted as pilots," said Barry, "but only if they already had at least 35 hours of flight time under their belts."

Every Friday after work, she took a bus and hitchhiked to a nearby instructor's school, where she paid $14.50 for weekly flying lessons. Soon, she had enough hours to apply to the WASP program.

"Between my lessons and a job testing radar over a factory, my dual and solo hours built up," said Barry. "I called and made an appointment for an interview. I had never been to a big city before. I traveled to New York City and was immediately accepted as a WASP. Others had to wait to hear back if they got in or not."

Out of more than 25,000 women to interview, fewer than 2,000 were accepted. Of those, only 1,074 made it through the training and earned their wings.

"I waited six months to start my training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas," Barry said, who reported to the base in early January 1944. "I was in a class of 137 girls, including Jackie Cochran. We were busy every day from 6 in the morning to 10 at night. We spent four hours on the flight line, four hours at ground school, an hour exercising and an hour marching. There were meals thrown in there somewhere."

After seven months of that training, she was sent to Blackland Army Air Force Base in Waco, Texas. After three hours of training in an A-T6 Texan, she was told she was done with her training.

"They said, 'If you can fly an AT-6, you can fly any fighter the Air Force has," said Barry. "That was exciting. We got to fly Stearmans and BT-13s (Valiants) and I had a personal AT-10 (Wichita) I got to take out on weekends. We could leave Friday evening and had to return by midnight on Sunday."

She used some of those weekend trips to visit her brothers who were stationed at Moody Field, Ga., now known as Moody Air Force Base.

"I got to fly in formations with my brothers over Florida on weekends in my personal plane," said Barry. "Not many people now can say that. It was a great experience."

Barry admits that while some men were surprised to see a woman in uniform flying, they didn't cause her any problems.

"I didn't have any trouble with the guys and became friends with quite a few who worked on my planes," she said. "On one training mission where I was co-piloting, a male pilot climbed in the cockpit, looked at me and asked where his co-pilot was. I said 'You're looking at her.'

"Few people knew that women were flying planes, and even fewer knew that we were civilians flying military aircraft," Barry added. "We went through seven months of intense training and wore uniforms, but we never even had ranks. We were just told to act like officers."

Barry's service as a WASP was cut short after less than a year when the program was shut down on Dec. 20, 1944. From there, her life took a different route.

After the WASPs disbanded, Barry headed to her mom's ranch in Sebring, Fla., to decide what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. There, she ran into an old friend on leave from the Marines- Les Smith.

"Les and I had dated four times before, but I saw him that time and my goodness, he was handsome," she said. "He told me he had been writing a girl, Betty, the years I was gone and that they had a date that night.

"I suggested that I come along and he agreed," she said. "I don't think Betty was too happy to see me. But Les and I, we drank and smoked and danced. At a friend's wedding later that weekend, he was the best man and I was the maid of honor. We had a great time."

But Barry didn't stay a maid for long. A few weeks later, Les was back in Sebring for 10 days of leave, and as he got in her car after she picked him up from the bus station, he surprised her.

"Les was reaching down and pulling a shoestring out of his shoe," she said. "On the end of it was a diamond ring and he proposed right there. I was driving and we almost ran into a ditch."

They enjoyed "10 wonderful days" together before he left again. A few weeks later, she was passing through Camp Peary in Virginia on her bus ride back up to Chittenango. She had just planned to spend her 30-minute layover there, but ended up staying a little longer.

"I opened the door on the bus and Les asked me to marry him right then," said Barry, who later had four children with him. "The whole bus was clapping and cheering and we went and found a church right away."

Although Barry had a happy ending, not all WASPs got that chance- 38 of them died during the years they flew.

The reasons for death were varied: aircraft structure failures, crashes with other aircraft, bad weather and others. Some survived the initial crash or failure only to die later of injuries sustained during the accident, including burns. One even completely disappeared on an eastward flight from Los Angeles- no wreckage was ever found.

Because WASPs weren't formally a part of the military, they didn't receive a military burial.

As for the remaining WASPs, Barry though she had missed her chance to say goodbye to them after they disbanded in 1944.

Because she didn't return from a mission to take a sergeant home on emergency leave until Dec. 22, two days after the official order was issued, she missed the chance to say goodbye to her fellow trail-blazing aviators.

"I thought I'd never see them again," Barry said. "We all went our separate ways, but a few years later someone suggested a reunion and we all got to meet up."

There are approximately 300 WASPs still living and they try to reunite every other year or so. Some of them flew again, but some, including Barry, never piloted again. This was mainly because of the men returning from the war and taking back their old jobs.

The sacrifices and accomplishments by all WASPs were recognized in 2009 when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest and most distinguished award Congress can give to civilians.

"Getting into aviation is one of the best things anyone, even women, can do," said Barry. "I speak to a lot of people about my experiences and everything the WASPs did. If there's a goal they're trying reach, I tell them to not waste time and to get to it."