StoryCorps traveled to Alaska in February to record the voices of our service men and women as a part of its military voices initiative.
At StoryCorps, 92-year-old Nancy Baker tells her friend, Susan Grace, what it was like to fly.
Nancy flew in a female auxiliary pilot group called the WASP. They flew military aircraft during World War II to free up male pilots for combat.
Nancy Baker and other WASP pilots were recently awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon civilians by Congress.
Susan: “When do you first remember thinking about flying?”
Nancy: “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think about it. I always wanted to fly. I didn’t want to have kids. I didn’t want to be a housewife. Didn’t want to be a teacher. An office worker. I just wanted to fly!”
Susan: “Do you remember when you decided to learn to fly planes?”
Nancy: “It was a time when the government started what was called the civil pilot training program. I think they were anticipating a war and wanted to have some pilots ready. So the government started the civil pilot training program, which they put in certain colleges all over the United States. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who popped her head in there and said for every 10 they taught to fly, one had to be a woman — which meant that a lot of women all over the United States learned to fly.”
Susan: “You had to be a certain height and you had to weigh at least a hundred pounds, and you were pretty close to that.”
Nancy: “I was 5-foot-2 and a half. And that was the minimum height for getting in. So when they went to measure us, boy, a couple of other people too maybe even padded their shoes — anything to stretch the neck to get the proper height. So we were accepted. I was accepted.”
Susan: “What was one of your favorite planes to fly?”
Nancy: “Oh I think a P-51 Mustang. Best looking plane, too. And the P-47 was good also. The P-47 was called a Thunderbolt. And, somebody reported one of them flying over the airport without a pilot. They told the tower this. And then the tower called up to the airplane — you know they can do it with the radio — and found out that I was the pilot, but nobody could see me, I was so small in it!”
Susan: “What was the best part about being in the WASP?”
Nancy: “Well the best part about being in the WASP was the flying. Some of us towed targets. Some of us ferried airplanes.”
Susan: “It was kind of dangerous though — some of those planes were right off the assembly line and hadn’t even been tested. And you women would pick up the planes and take off flying them.”
Nancy: “Oh yeah. We had 38 women die. Some of them would be in plane crashes. The main thing I think we did do, is we opened the way for women to fly in the air corps.”
Susan: “And you felt pretty lucky you got to fly. I know for all of you, that was the highlight.”
Nancy: “Oh yes. We were all doing what we wanted to do, the women were.”
Susan: “And I remember you talking about that poem you wrote about flying through the clouds….”
Nancy: (reciting poem)
“You didn’t know, I’ll bet that I was a king one day,
I rode a throne of silver wings over mountains and fields and bays.
Whole fields of wheat would bow to me as I came passing by,
And nature’s greens would change their hues just to please my eye.
Each wisp of wind went by and I said ‘hi,’
And each cumulus cloud just winked!
The mountains did but proudly nod,
As I the heavens daily trod.
Great big cities waved to me,
For many miles they bid me tarry over them,
And spread my wings and play.
Each child and each tree over which I fly,
Was happier for my passing by.
And so was I!
And each steepled church over which I’d fly,
A beautiful service all for me.
For no obdurate king was eye,
As was plain to see,
In the ecstasy they saved for me.
But humble under a proud earthly whim,
And thankful to them,
For letting me play king.”
Susan: “That’s beautiful. And that’s just one of the things I really admire about you, Nancy, is that’s one of your passions. Just watching you recite that poem, I can just see that twinkle and spark in your soul, that you loved flying.”
You’ve been listening to StoryCorps with service men and women of Alaska. Nancy Lee Baker’s interview is archived at the Library of Congress.
This piece was edited by Travis Gilmour at Alaska Public Media.