By Fred Brown, © 2010
MARYVILLE, Tenn.–With the winds of war blowing across America, the military turned to a group of groundbreaking women to ferry the wings of war to their last destinations before heading overseas for aerial combat duty.
They were WAFS–the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II. There were only 27 in the beginning, who became known as “The Originals.” Later they merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, WASPS.
Gertrude LaValley, 90, Maryville, is one of The Originals who joined about 200 other women aviators of World War II to be recognized earlier in 2010 by Congress in a Washington ceremony.
The WAFS, with only three of the 27 known to be alive today, and the WASPS, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.
LaValley and the other female veterans received a bronze individual medal since the Gold Medal is for display at the Smithsonian Museum in honor of all the women pilots of World War II.
LaValley was born in Boston, Mass., but grew up in Marblehead and Winchester where she graduated from high school in 1938.
As a child, she remembers running to a window in her home to listen to thunder of the airplanes flying low over her home.
“It was just exciting,” she says from a conference room at Sterling House of Maryville, assisted living for seniors, where her son and daughter-in-law live.
“Women didn’t get to fly back then,” she says.
After high school, LaValley took flying lessons for $7 per hour. She quickly moved through all the license requirements and soon was teaching others to fly.
That’s when she drew the notice of Nancy Love, first commander of the WAFS, which was a part of the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army.
At first LaValley transported trainer aircraft to fields in Oklahoma and Texas. But after more training in California, LaValley began transporting high-powered bombers and fighters.
“The P-47 (Thunderbolt) was my baby,” says LaValley with a spry laugh. “It was just so easy to fly. It was fun.”