President Barack Obama, meet Beverly Beesemyer.
The 97-year-old Laguna Woods resident is one of 1,074 women who, during World War II, were accepted into the U.S. Army’s Woman Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women to fly military aircraft.
Among other things, Beesemyer trained male pilots to use machine guns to attack enemy aircraft.
“I towed targets and they fired 50 caliber machine guns at the sock (target) I was towing,” she said during an interview at her home.
Her plane was hit by errant fire once, but she wasn’t injured. But 38 of her colleagues died between 1942 and 1944 while transporting aircraft, conducting training or other military work.
This month, Obama signed bi-partisan legislation backed by Beesemyer and other former colleagues and their relatives to allow WASPs to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
There are 104 surviving WASPs. The youngest is 91 and the two oldest are 103.
The Arlington legislation was another important milestone in what has become a watershed year for women in the military. In March, Defense Secretary Ash Carter gave final approval for women to serve in frontline combat positions for the first time in U.S. military history.
That same month, Beesemyer took the controls of an AT-6, the plane used in the final step of training World War II pilots for combat flying. It was a surprise for Beesemyer arranged by Red Door Films, which is producing a mini-series on the WASPs.
“I always said I wanted to fly (again) in an AT-6 before I died,” said Beesemyer, who is now legally blind and relies on a walker.
“It was hard to get me in (to the co-pilot seat) and just as hard to get me out,” she recalled.
But once the pilot had them off the ground, he let her take the controls for a few turns. “What else would you like to do,” she said he asked her.
“I would like to do a roll … a loop roll.
“So, he did one and I said ‘can I do one now?’ And he said ‘sure’ and boom, I did another one!” she said, describing her first experience in an AT-6 in 72 years.
The pilot “said I did real well. My turns were perfect and everything.”
Becoming a WASP
Beesemyer, born in Hollywood and raised in Beverly Hills where her father was a dentist, attended USC and then art school, seeing her future in painting and drawing.
But when World War II broke out, she, like millions of other women and men, sought a way to join the war effort. Women were barred from enlisting in the military, so she took a job at Lockheed in Burbank. Then, in 1943, she heard about a little-known opportunity for women to aid the U.S. Army.
The U.S. Air Force hadn’t been formed yet, so the Army was the main source of combat aircraft. With so many experienced pilots assigned to the war zones, the Army needed flight trainers.
Only women who already knew how to fly could qualify, so Beesemyer took a leave of absence from Lockheed, paid for flying lessons and achieved the minimum 35 hours of flight time. Soon enough she became one of the few accepted for Army training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.
They were Civil Service employees, not military, and had to pay their own way to the base, among other expenses.
Beesemyer recalls getting off the train from California wearing a dress and high heels and, along with other WASPs, climbing into the cargo trailer of a semi-truck.
Once on the base, they lined up to receive their flight clothes, parachutes and other equipment.
Apparently it never occurred to anyone in the Army supply ranks that women and men wore different clothing sizes. The women were given men’s sized coveralls and jackets.
Rubber bands were in high demand to keep sleeves and pant legs in place, Beesemyer remembers.
Using the bathrooms was another clothing challenge. Jump suits provided to the women had a neck to groin opening so they could climb into it and a hole in front but no other openings. The women had to nearly undress to use the latrines.
But even if the Army didn’t exactly welcome them enthusiastically, Beesemyer said, “we were given the opportunity to fly wonderful aircraft that women hadn’t flown. We were the experimental thing.”
So it was a big disappointment in December, 1944, when the Army disbanded the WASP program, saying the war was winding down.
“They said ‘we don’t need you anymore’ and they dumped us,” she said.
WASPs received no military benefits or insurance, according to Carol Cain, associate director of the National WASP Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
The 38 who died couldn’t have an American flag on their coffin or be buried in military cemeteries and their families couldn’t hang a Gold Star in their windows, the symbol for those who died for their country. The Army also didn’t pay to ship their remains home.
That changed in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed an order allowing WASPs to be buried in Arlington. But in 2015 former Army Secretary John McHugh determined the law didn’t allow it and stopped the burials.
McHugh’s order was fought by the family of WASP Elaine Danforth Harmon, who died last year at age 95. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) pushed through legislation, backed by WASPs, including Beesemyer, that was signed this month by Obama.
In 2010, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal which is given to those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.“
A Lifetime Love of Flying
It wasn’t easy, but after the WASPs were disbanded, Beesemyer wasn’t done flying. She eventually found a job as a flying instructor at the airport in Monrovia where her work included everything “including cleaning the latrine.”
The airport was sold and she briefly worked in Texas, flying new planes to their owners. But the quality of the work on the new planes was so poor, and they had so many problems “it’s a wonder I’m still alive,” she said.
She and a partner began their employment agency business, but then came the Korean War. Even though she wasn’t an official World War II veteran, when she left the WASPs she was offered an inactive reserve commission.
In 1951, “they drafted me back,” she laughed. The military didn’t want her to fly but they did use her as an administrator at a base in Marin County.
After that war, Beesemyer and her business partner successfully ran the Beverly Hills employment agency they created.
Since retiring from that work and moving to Orange County 28 years ago, Beesemyer has refocused on art. In the home she shares with two indoor rescue cats, she paints and creates cartoons, including some from her WASP days.
Three years ago she provided the cartoons for the book, “We Love to Fly, Women Airforce Service Pilots WWII” by Nancy Robison.
And, although she is blind in one eye and only has peripheral vision in the other, with the help of a caregiver, who identifies paint colors, she continues her artwork.
Her uniforms and some other wartime memorabilia were donated to the Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.
And, in spite of strongly supporting the right of WASPs to be interred at Arlington, her long-term plan is to be cremated and have her ashes scattered at sea. She and her business partner owned boats and enjoyed sailing.
But flying never has left Beesemyer. The patio at her home holds a variety of bird feeders — and from her living room window, you can watch wrens and hummingbirds and mourning doves and almost every other variety of Southern California birds fly in, dine, and take off again.
You can contact Tracy Wood at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.