Flora Belle Reece holds a photo from her days as a WASP, training to be a WWII… (Don Kelsen, Los Angeles…)
For so many years, their service was largely forgotten.
In the midst of World War II, with legions of male pilots overseas, the 1,102 young women comprising the Women Airforce Service Pilots flew more than 60 million miles domestically, test-flew repaired military aircraft and ferried non-flying male military officers around the country.
But as the war neared its end and the men returned, their program was disbanded.
Nearly 70 years later, with millions of people watching, their service will be celebrated in grand style with a float in the 125th Rose Parade on Jan. 1.
WASPs from across the country have been raising money for the float and the trip to Pasadena for the reunion of a lifetime.
"They're all about 90 years old, but they're coming and they're saying, 'Give me a blanket and hot coffee, and we'll be fine,' " said Kate Landdeck, vice president of the nonprofit Wingtip-to-Wingtip Assn., which is sponsoring the float.
Flora Belle Reece, 89, will be one of eight WASPs to ride atop the float, titled "Our Eyes Are on the Stars" and built by Fiesta Parade Floats.
The theme of this year's parade is "Dreams Come True" — fitting for Reece, who had wanted to fly since childhood.
"I lived on a farm and watched the birds soar, and everything that had to do with planes I wanted to go see," she said.
When Reece told her father she wanted to be a pilot, he told her gently, "That's not something women usually do, Flora Belle. But if you can figure out how, more power to you." Her teachers chided her, saying she needed to find a "practical solution" to what she wanted to be when she grew up.
The WASP program gave her an opportunity.
Reece, who now lives in Lancaster, was 19 when she joined a group of women at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in November 1943 for her training.
Back then, she was Flora Belle Smith — or "Smitty the Kid" to her friends, who were amused she had never left Oklahoma before the program. The women, she said, were assigned housing by last name, and it was in the barracks that she met Alyce Stevens Rohrer from Provo, Utah.
Rohrer too will be atop the Rose Parade float. She was 18 when she joined the WASPs.
"I could fly a plane before I could drive a car," she said, laughing.
On a recent afternoon, Reece and Rohrer, whose friendship has spanned more than half a century, laughed over stories of their WASP days in Rohrer's Pasadena home, where photos of both she and her husband in uniform hang on the walls.
Rohrer, 90, smiled at a photo of herself in a flight suit with wide legs and a cinched waist hitched as high as it could go. The ladies wore men's gear, she said, and it dwarfed them. A colonel at their base made them wear turbans — which she hated — because he worried their long hair would get in their eyes.
Rohrer took on a high-risk assignment, testing problem planes after they were repaired to see if they were air-worthy. The planes were those used to train cadets preparing for combat.
"People ask me all the time, 'Why did you do it if it was so dangerous?'" she said. "My only answer was, yes, but it wasn't anywhere near as dangerous as my brother going on the beach in Normandy.... I don't even think I thought of the danger. I just enjoyed flying."
Rohrer flew AT-6 and BT-13 aircraft. Reece, who also test-flew repaired planes, flew AT-6 and B-26 aircraft, she said. She is thrilled that the Rose Parade float features a replica AT-6 plane.
The WASPs were promised that they would later be classified as military, Rohrer said. But in 1944 — as more male pilots returned — a bill that would have given them militarization was voted down in Congress. The program was disbanded in December 1944 and the women left the service as civilians, just as they had begun.
"It was like Rosie the Riveter getting kicked out of the factory as soon as the men came back to take the factory jobs," said Landdeck, who is a historian at Texas Woman's University and a private pilot.
Rohrer said it was a "terrible disappointment to all of us to quit flying those beautiful planes" after the program's disbanding.
"All the men were coming home and needed our jobs," she said. "So Congress just forgot the promise about militarization and said, 'They're women. Send them home.'"
When the women who wanted to continue careers in aviation applied for jobs, they often received letters from airlines offering them stewardess jobs, Rohrer said. She got one of those letters — and tore it up.
"There's nothing wrong with being a stewardess," she said. "But I wasn't one."
"We wanted to fly," Reece said, shaking her head. "That was the thing."
Both women said they would have stayed in the military if they had been able to. They became school teachers: Rohrer taught history and English at Arroyo High School in El Monte; Reece taught mathematics in Lancaster.
The WASPs were given military and veteran status in 1977 and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.
Thirty-eight WASPs were killed in service. Because they were not enlisted soldiers, many were buried with no military fanfare and no flag on their caskets, and their families paid to bring their bodies home, Landdeck said.
The WASPs' reaction to having a Rose Parade float has been mixed, said Landdeck, who knows many of the pilots and will be traveling to the parade. The WASPs are still fundraising, she said, to build the float and pay for the women to travel to Pasadena.
"This is a very frugal generation," Landdeck said. "But they're so excited about having people know who they are. It's so much fun to realize you can have hard times and can be on a Rose Parade float when you're 90."
Rohrer, who has lived in Pasadena for more than 60 years, said she's a bit nervous about riding the float in the cold weather at her age. But it will be well worth it, she said.
"There are still so many people," she said, "who don't know anything about us."