In March of this year, a special Congressional action signed by President Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the “WASPS” of World War II. Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck ’33 was awarded the medal posthumously.
Jeanne graduated from Washington State College with a degree in English. President Roosevelt had funded the start of construction on the Grand Coulee Dam, and Jeanne was an early hire. She married a young engineer on the project, Ed Norbeck.
Later, Jeanne and Ed became managers of a large plantation in one of the outer islands in the Hawaiian chain. Given the lack of transportation between islands, Jeanne and her husband purchased a light airplane and both became accomplished pilots. They were at home on the plantation when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With war raging, Ed joined the Army, and in 1942, when the WASP Corps was formed, Jeanne was one of the first to volunteer.
The WASPS flew over 60 million miles and logged nearly 300,000 flying hours in every airplane in the American arsenal, from P-51 Mustang fighters to the B-29 Superfortress. Also, they ferried more than 12,000 aircraft to bases abroad. A few of the more experienced women pilots—and Jeanne was one of them—served as test pilots.
When you think of test pilots you automatically think of exotic new aircraft just off the assembly lines. But these test pilots tested aircraft that had been badly damaged or worn out in war, then rebuilt to fly.
In October 1944, Jeanne was testing a BT-13 in South Carolina. It crashed, and Jeanne was killed.
The WASPS were civilians hired by the Army, with no benefits whatsoever. According to Lt. Col. Yvonne Pateman, neither the military nor the U.S. Government assumed expenses for Jeanne’s funeral, nor even provided a military escort or a flag for her coffin. Jeanne’s fellow WASPS took up a collection to pay for her funeral, and one of the ladies volunteered to accompany her body home to her parents.
Three other test pilots were killed in the line of duty, as were 34 other women pilots—all without military benefits or honors.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting veteran status for the WASPS. For Jeanne and most of the WASPS it was too late in coming.
Now the women flyers have been awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing their courage and service to their country.
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James Quann (’54, ’60 MA, ’71 EdD) was WSU’s registrar from 1971 to 1990. He is the founder of the WSU Veteran’s Memorial and author of WSU Military Veterans: Heroes and Legends (Tornado Creek Publications 2005), which chronicles 120 case studies.