Back in 1944, Nell Bright was trying to land a B-25 bomber. A member of the WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots — the Salt Lake City woman had flown the aircraft cross country to California.
“We wanted to land in Long Beach to gas up before going on to Mather Field in Sacramento,” said Bright, who’s now 100 years old. But the control tower at the Long Beach airport would not respond to her radio messages. Eventually, “they told us, ‘Get off the line! We’re trying to land a B-25.’ And I said, ‘We are the B-25.’
“We finally landed, and they got a surprise. Because at so many of the bases like that, they did not know there were women flying military aircraft.”
Bright tells her story in PBS’ four-part documentary “American Veteran.” Which is somewhat ironic, given that WASPs weren’t recognized for their service or considered veterans until 1977.
The four-part documentary — which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. beginning Oct. 26 on Channel 7 — tells dozens of stories of draftees and volunteers from WWII until today. Every voice you hear in the documentary is that of a veteran, including episode hosts Drew Carey (“The Price is Right”), Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Wes Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans”) and J.R. Martinez (“Dancing with the Stars”).
“I think this series is a great opportunity for people to understand what veterans go through, what they deal with, what their family members potentially have felt throughout their experience,” said Martinez.
The veterans who tell their stories are men, women, straight, gay and a variety of ethnicities.
“It was really important for everyone involved in the project to choose veterans who were representing America,” said executive producer Leah Williams. “So we wanted to share some familiar stories, but also unfamiliar stories as well and some underrepresented voices, because we really felt like everyone’s story deserved to be told.”
And Bright, who appears in Episodes 1, 2 and 4, has a lot of stories to tell. She was “checked out in 12 different aircraft that they flew in the war.” Many of the planes she flew were state-of-the-art during WWII, but primitive by today’s standards. And, perhaps, harder to fly.
“Well, I don’t know,” Bright said. “The ones today look awfully complicated to me.”
Bright grew up in west Texas, and she was just a girl when her father took her to see a “barnstormer” — a pilot who flew an open-cockpit WWI airplane around the country. The pilot landed in a nearby pasture, and Bright’s father “took me out and let me go out for a ride. And I decided, I guess, at that point that I wanted to be a pilot.”
After graduating from college at the age of 19, she got her pilot’s license. At the age of 21, she saw that the Army Air Corps was looking for female pilots and quickly signed up.
Getting shot at in Texas
The WASPs’ primary mission was to ferry airplanes from factories to bases and from one base to another, freeing up male pilots to go overseas and fight the war in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. But they also handled some other duties.
When Bright got her wings, she was sent to learn to fly twin-engine, B-25 bombers. And even though she never flew outside the continental United States, she still got shot at. At one point, she was sent to an air base in El Paso where she was assigned to tow targets behind the plane during training exercises for soldiers at Fort Bliss.
“They were learning how to shoot down planes, but they were not supposed to hit our planes,” she said. The targets were on 2,500-foot tow lines, “but sometimes they got pretty close.”
“One night, the flak was breaking in front of us, so we got out of there so they couldn’t find us,” Bright said with a laugh. “We told them that we would come back and fly for them again when they learned how to shoot at the target.”
In the civil service
The stories of Bright — who now lives in an assisted living center in Sugar House — and other WASPs were kept quiet for more than three decades. “We didn’t get our honorable discharge,” she said, “because we were, technically, with the civil service.”
As a result, they had to pay for their own transportation from base to base, for their uniforms and for room and board. The bodies of the 38 WASPs who were killed on duty — in accidents and crashes — were sent home at their families’ expense. Their caskets were not draped with American flags, and their families could not display service flags in their windows.
Legislation to make the WASPs a part of the military was defeated in Congress in June of 1944. When the WASPs were disbanded in December 1944, women who had been flying military planes had to pay their own bus fare to get home. “We didn’t get our military discharge until 1977,” Bright said.
That year, Congress finally passed and President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill that retroactively recognized WASPs as members of the military and veterans. The WASPs were awarded Congressional Gold Medals in 2010.
Bright said she “already felt like a veteran” even before the recognition came from Congress.
“We had the same military training on the airplanes as the men had. … Everybody thought we were officers because we had the same training as the men,” she said. “We were under military rule and we went to the military mess and the officers’ club and everything else. A lot of people were surprised when they found out we were technically civil service.”
Just wanted to serve
The surviving WASPs fought for recognition, but they didn’t sign up looking for glory. And, Bright said, she and the other WASPs weren’t trying to make a statement about women’s rights; they were just trying to serve.
“Oh, absolutely. Everybody in the whole country was,” Bright said. “There was nobody talking about feminism and all that stuff back then.”
But, even then, she had no patience with men who told her that women couldn’t fly. “Well, we did. And they were so short of pilots, they needed everybody they could get.”
The WASPs were the first women to fly American military airplanes. About 2,500 women applied for the program, and 1,800 were accepted. “And out of that number, 1,074 graduated and got our wings,” Bright said.
Bright and other WASPs were assigned to an all-female military base in Sweetwater, Texas. (It’s now the site of the WASP museum.) The airfield soon experienced a rash of male pilots making “emergency” landings.
“That’s very true,” she said with a laugh. “Jacqueline Cochran, who was a famous aviatrix that time, was our commanding officer. Jackie put a stop to that.”
Came home and went on with their lives
For decades, Bright didn’t talk about her service. Her own children didn’t know she was a WASP until they were in their teens.
Like other veterans, WASPs “came home and went on with our lives. We had a career in something else and we didn’t talk about it. It was done and over with.”
Plus, people just didn’t believe that Bright and other WASPs had flown for their country. “They would say, ‘Oh, you’re kidding me. Women don’t fly,’” she said. “We always said we were the best kept secret in World War II … We proved that women could fly military airplanes. And now they have women in every branch of the service as pilots.”
But there were no opportunities for women pilots after WWII ended.
“When we went to try and get any jobs with the airlines — unless we wanted to apply for stewardess — they just laughed us out of the room,” Bright said. “‘We don’t hire women to fly,’ they said.”
So she got married, had two children and worked as a stockbroker for 50 years.
And now, 77 years later, Bright gets to tell some of her stories on national TV. And she’s been waiting several years to see how it turned out — she was interviewed by the filmmakers in 2018.
“It’s taken them three years to produce it, because they went all over the country interviewing veterans. It must be pretty complete to have taken that long to make,” Bright said with a laugh.