The Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame honored the four Rhode Island women who flew as WASP during World War II. These women are Phyllis Marsden Johnson Paradis, Bea St. Claire Smith Thurston, Ann Kenyon Morse, and Eunice Oates.
The WASP program grew out of efforts led by noted aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran to integrate women into the Army Air Force pilot training program. In 1943, the U.S. finally permitted the WASP program to go forward as a civilian division of the AAF. 25,000 women applied, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 graduated from training and served as non-combat pilots. The women who passed this course entered into the flying corps of the Order of Fifinella. Walt Disney himself designed the character of Fifinella, a winged and begoggled female gremlin which became the logo of the group.
Assignments included ferrying planes, transporting dignitaries, flying target-tugs, and teaching flight school. The program was abruptly disbanded in 1944 as the war turned in favor of the Allies and male pilots returned from combat, displacing the women from their jobs.
The WASP were suddenly deactivated on December 20, 1944, and told they had to find their own way home. This came as a blow to the women led by Cochran who were still trying to push a bill through Congress that would grant WASP the same pay, health, and death benefits as regular military. Nonetheless, the program alumnae stayed in touch and formed a national organization, which fought to win official veteran status. It took 33 years, but they won this battle in 1977 and gained full veteran privileges, including access to burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Mrs. Paradis (then Phyllis Marsden) grew up in Saylesville and attended Pawtucket schools. She was flying by age 14, earned her civilian license and logged enough flight hours to qualify for the WASP program at age 20. She loved flying the powerful military craft and had little interest in piloting relatively tame civilian airplanes after the war—although she did take up helicopters when she was in her 50s!
Bea St. Clair Smith was born in New York but settled in Barrington after the war. Mrs. Thurston by then, she taught math at Mt. Pleasant High School in Providence for more than twenty years and raised five children. She obtained her pilot’s license at age 15 and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Penn State. As a Wasp, she flew fighters in Texas and towed targets for gunnery practice. Thurston was one of very few WASP to be able to continue flying after the war; Charles Babb Company, a well-known aircraft broker of the day, hired her to ferry aircraft across the country. After moving to Rhode Island, she earned her teaching certificate at Barrington College, and also a Masters degree from Providence College.
Ann Kenyon was one of the few women in the nation who was flying commercially and held a multi-engine license before the war. One of the most experienced fliers among the WASP, she test-flew high-performance aircraft such as Hellcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers. She also ferried B-26 Marauders and other multi-engine aircraft.
Despite her aviation prowess, Ann Kenyon Morse was better known locally as an accomplished horsewoman, national skeet champion and prize winning sheep breeder. She is remembered today for her donation of 365 acres of land to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services, which formed the basis of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown. This major donation was characteristic of Mrs. Morse’s passion for animals and environmental causes.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the first Rhode Island WASP, Eunice Oates of Providence. She graduated fairly early in the program (Class 43-4), and was assigned to 2nd Ferrying Group at Newcastle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Later in life she lived in Memphis, where she died in 1981. We would welcome any additional information anyone can provide.
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