Betty Jo Staff Reed, 44-7

Betty Jo Reed was so proud of her silver pilot’s wings and Santiago-blue dress uniform.

But after she turned in her parachute and went home, she did little bragging. Few knew that 1,074 women had served as military pilots during World War II.

A still clip from a 1943 newsreel featured Jo Myers Wheelis flying a twin-engine Cessna. Even her husband’s buddies were skeptical when she tried to recount her experiences.

“Their eyes would roll back and they’d look at their friends, so you just didn’t talk about it,” she said. “No one knew about us.”

Ms. Reed is 82 now and lives in Corinth, but in 1943 she was a teenager fresh out of high school who dreamed of being a pilot.

After six months of training in Sweetwater, Texas, Betty Jo Streff became one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew military planes stateside, freeing male pilots for overseas combat missions.

Today, Ms. Reed and two other WASP program members, Jo Myers Wheelis, 87, of Weatherford and Marion Stegeman Hodgson, 84, of Wichita Falls, will relive history when they fly into Dallas Love Field – passengers this time – on three vintage bombers.

The veteran aviators are part of the six-day “Wings of Freedom Tour” at the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

The U.S. was desperate for military pilots when the WASP program was organized in 1942. The women ferried planes from factories to air bases across the country. They towed targets and got shot at by pilots training for combat missions. They trained men who flew off to war.

Thirty-eight of them died in the line of service.

But the WASP program was deactivated in December 1944 before the women were sworn into the military. They were not recognized as veterans until 1977.

Sixty years later, many people are not aware of the pilots’ service during World War II. A museum was established last year in their old training hangar at Avenger Field, and exhibitions like the one in Dallas are raising their profile.

“I call them the unsung heroes of World War II,” said Nancy Parrish, founder and director of Wings Across America, a project to document the experience of her mother and other female service pilots.

Ms. Reed knew as a little girl that she wanted to be a pilot. Her father would take her to barnstorming shows and read her newspaper stories about aviators.

“My parents were proud of me. But my friends I’d gone all through school with, I think they thought I was weird,” she said. “They were having babies, and I was flying airplanes.”

Ms. Wheelis was a young Dallas divorcee when the call went out for women pilots during the war. Her husband had bought her a plane, and her romance with the air lasted longer than the marriage.

Ms. Hodgson wrote a book, Winning My Wings, about her experience as a WASP member and the wounded Marine pilot she married.

She was terrified of flying.

“But we were at war, and they needed pilots,” she said.

Ms. Hodgson was stationed at Love Field during the war and lived for 50 years afterward in Fort Worth.

“The thing you saw then that you don’t see now is that the whole country pulled together,” she said.

She didn’t feel like a pioneer for women back then, and she didn’t care if she got a medal or a thank-you ceremony. “I was grabbing a glorious opportunity to help my country,” she said.

By GRETEL C. KOVACH / The Dallas Morning News; E-mail

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