EXCERPTS from 'Flying Into Yesterday'
by Jean-Vi Lenthe
Chapter One: Ricki's RideChapter Two Think Purple & Rohatsu
On the first day of October 2008, I was sitting in a Denver motel near the airport waiting for a shuttle when I noticed a woman wearing a t-shirt that screamed "Think Purple!" She was in her late 50s, with gray hair and inquisitive eyes that looked all around the lobby but never rested on me, even though I was wearing a turquoise felt derby that stood out among the drab business-gray crowd. I was on my way to New York to feed my muse, with plans to write a play about my family, and I had tickets to eight shows, both on and off (and way off) Broadway. I didn't want to risk being sidetracked by a strange woman using her chest to proclaim a message, but on the shuttle she was the last passenger to board, and the only available seat was next to mine.
So I bit. "What does 'Think Purple!' mean?" I asked politely.
She turned to me without hesitation.
"It's from a conference I was just at. We were helping women who have
earned -- or are about to earn -- engineering degrees hook up with potential employers."
"Ah. Okay. But what's the purple part?"
"It's about parity for women in all the sciences and professions, especially engineering," she said. "Just think how completely different the world would be if fully half the engineers were female. Women have such different sensibilities than men. Imagine how the everyday world would look and feel with women contributing equally to all the designs and materials we live with. I mean, every last thing around us is designed by somebody, usually a man."
"Yeah, more women engineers. Great idea." I looked at the flat brown
fields whizzing past, trying to decide whether to share a piece of information I knew would impress her, but knowing that if she wanted details, I couldn't supply any.
"My mother was an engineer, in aeronautics, during World War II."
"Really?" said my companion. "How'd that happen?"
"The Curtiss-Wright Company. They trained a whole bunch of women.
They called them Cadettes, though they weren't really military. My mother studied at Purdue and then worked at the company's plant in Columbus."
"That's just amazing," said my shuttle companion. "You should write a
book about it."
"No, no, no. I don't think so. My mother's dead. And she never really told me anything about it. She never had any connections with engineering after the war. Her only passion was theater."
"I see. But still, don't you think other women would be interested?"
"Oh maybe. But I don't write history. I write poetry and plays. That's why I'm going to New York."
She nodded and seemed to give up. We were already arriving at the airport, so I just shifted my gaze back out the window. We wished each other well as we got off the shuttle, and she said it again.
"Really -- I think you should write that book."
I laughed and headed for my plane. I was so amped about returning to the Big Apple that I planned to spend the whole flight reviewing my elaborate theater-hopping itinerary. But after takeoff, staring past the silver wing at a cloudless blue sky, I started wondering what the hell my mother had really been doing at Curtiss-Wright. From everything I knew about her, aeronautical engineering was simply not in her nature. But maybe young Ricki had had talents she'd later felt compelled to hide. Something about this time in her life was really beginning to click.
On the morning of December 8, 2003, less than two years after my father passed away, I received a call that my mother was desperately ill. Flu symptoms had turned into pneumonia, and the previous day she had been taken by ambulance from the nursing home in Moorhead, Minnesota, to a hospital across the river in Fargo. At the time, I was living in the California Bay Area, 1,500 miles away. When I called her room, I was told she couldn't breathe well enough to speak on the phone. I started making frantic calls to find out if I needed to fly out immediately.
I finally managed to get through to the head nurse on her ward. I asked whether she thought my mother was close to death, but she refused to speculate.
I lost it. "Just tell me!" I screamed. "Do I need to get on a goddamn plane?"
She paused briefly and then responded coolly, "None of us knows when God will summon us home."
"Just forget it," I said, banging down the phone, furious at this woman's need to put a religious curtain around my mother.
Three hours later, my mother died in that hospital room, with none of her children at her side. Both my Moorhead siblings had gone home for lunch, not realizing she was so close to the end.
For several years after her death, I was stranded on the back side of the moon. I didn't understand why Mom hadn't given us more warning.
What was her hot urgency to leave right then? Though she had never really accepted my independent lifestyle or my artistic efforts, she was my closest connection in the family. Even if I couldn't get her blessing, I wanted her back -- I needed some kind of final goodbye.
Finally, on the sixth anniversary of her death, after I'd already been tracking down the missing history of the Cadettes for a year, I found a good explanation for why my mother had departed right then.
I was lying on a surgeon's table, my arm raised above my head, having a benign lump removed from under my arm. I told the surgeon, a soft-spoken, practicing Buddhist, that my mother had died on this date. He raised his eyebrows.
"Ah," he said, with an enigmatic smile, "Rohatsu."
"What?" I said.
"Yes, December 8th is called Rohatsu in Japan. It honors the day the Buddha achieved enlightenment."
The doctor's gnomish voice was so calming I almost forgot he was carving away at my armpit.
"Huh," I said. "I wonder if my mother knew about Rohatsu." She had loved Asian art but never talked about Buddhism or any other spiritual path.
"Few people know this," he said, "but Japan's military timed the bombing of Pearl Harbor to be right on Rohatsu because they thought they would have Buddha's blessing."
"How could they think Buddha would bless such violence?"
"Good question, especially since Hawaii is on the other side of the International Dateline, so it was still only December 7th on Oahu when they attacked."
"So, basically, they were 'flying into yesterday' to try to knock out our Pacific fleet."
"Yes. You could say that," he confirmed.
I'd spent the last two years struggling to master sitting meditation again, the first time since my brief Zen trial on the Illinois farm. I couldn't imagine how such a militant tyranny as Japan's WWII government could have embraced Buddha's precepts, even for a moment, while executing a bloodthirsty campaign in the Pacific. I'd long despised the hypocrisy of Western states, supposedly built on Christian ethics, waging war in spite of the First Commandment. But hearing that the other side was doing the same thing while huddling under a Buddhist umbrella made me even more uncomfortable.
I let the good doctor finish sewing me up and got off the table, my head swimming with possibilities. Did my mother choose Rohatsu to pass over? Or did the roulette wheel for her mortality simply stop spinning right then?
How ironic that the plane she helped engineer at Curtiss-Wright, the Helldiver, had helped deliver the deathblow to Japan's Navy.
It made sense that my mother would escape her physical body the same way she had left East Texas: with a blast of self-willed determination. For the Texas caper, she had hitched a ride on the "Curtiss-Wright Starlight Express." And now it looked like, for her final departure, she had latched onto the Buddha's moment of enlightenment to escape a pneumoniastricken body -- pretty stellar stuff.
When all the stardust had cleared, I could see that my quest for the lost history of the Curtiss-Wright Cadette Program -- and my mother's participation in it -- is my own version of "flying into yesterday." But unlike the Japanese planes zipping over the international date line to pulverize Pearl Harbor, I was taking the risk of never returning to the present moment. Sixty-six years after the Japanese signed the surrender papers, fascination with World War II -- especially our deadly use of airpower to defeat the Germans and the Japanese -- is a fog so dense and captivating that some people who go wandering in it never come back.
But to find young Ricki and get my final goodbye, it was a risk I had to take.
Chapter Two: All My Daughters Cadettes Invade Campus
Forty years after Orville and Wilbur first took to the air in the Wright Flyer 1, there was a blizzard in progress in West Lafayette, Indiana, with almost six inches of snow already on the ground. It was February 12, 1943, and 98 young women were arriving by train from schools all over the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, and Appalachia. They had each completed at least a year of college and were ranked in the top third of their math classes and the top half in everything else. Somewhere in that gaggle of courageous young women lugging suitcases across the campus was my mother, picking her way carefully through this cold white stuff she'd never seen firsthand.
Wood Women's Residential Hall, the three-story stone fortress that would house the Cadettes on the campus of Purdue University, was a 15-minute walk from the engineering buildings where their courses would be taught. The airport -- with its hangars, machine shop, engine test cells, and wind tunnel -- was 25 minutes in the other direction. Members of the Cadette Engineering Society, with chapters on each of the seven participating campuses, would have the opportunity to "practice tearing down and
rebuilding airplane engines, and discuss topics such as high-altitude flying."
Most of the males on campus were servicemen enrolled in short-term, federally funded training programs. They were preparing for technical jobs to aid the war effort. Of the men who would have been enrolled in the standard aero-engineering track, a great many had enlisted or been drafted before they could complete the four-year "graduate engineer" course.
With enrollment numbers so reduced, most aero teaching staff were happy about the Cadettes' arrival: they had a group of bright-eyed females to keep them busy. And though they had never imagined teaching this material to "girls" (as they were always called on campus), they had hammered out a common curriculum with engineers at Curtiss-Wright and representatives from engineering departments at the other universities participating in the program.
The course of study was equivalent to two and a half years of the upper-division graduate engineering curriculum. For 44 weeks (or about ten months), with one week of vacation in the middle, the women would study engineering mathematics, theory of flight, aerodynamics, properties and processing of aircraft materials, job terminology and specifications, stress analysis and strength of materials, and applied descriptive geometry and aircraft drawing. When they emerged from this training, they would be equipped to function in a variety of engineering capacities in the various Curtiss-Wright plants, thus freeing the male "graduate engineers" to do more complex engineering assignments.
A sense of female "invasion" of male-dominated engineering departments was playing out at all seven of the universities that had contracted with Curtiss-Wright to train women as "assistant" or "primary" aeronautical engineers. Trainees were required to be at least 18 years of age, and most of them had leapt at the chance to become Curtiss-Wright Cadettes. The program, which had only been authorized in late 1942, would give them free tuition, room, board, transportation expenses, and an opportunity to study
aeronautical engineering, a technical field women had been denied access to, with few exceptions, since it had been added to a handful of mechanical engineering departments in major American universities in the mid-'30s. As employees of Curtiss-Wright, they would be paid $10 a week for supplies and other expenses. By today's value, about $120, this was a great deal of spending money for young women in post-Depression America.
Curtiss-Wright recruiters (nine women and three men) told the applicants that the plant they picked to work in would determine which school they would be sent to, even though management retained final authority to change their plant assignment after they graduated. For the most part, though, they would try to match them with their first or, at the very least, second choice of plant location. If a Cadette chose to work in the Columbus or Louisville plants, she would be sent to either the University of Minnesota or to Purdue. Those who chose the Buffalo plant would train at Cornell or Penn State, and Cadettes who selected the St. Louis plant would study at the University of Texas or Iowa State. All four of these were airframe plants. The Propeller Division, whose main plant was in Caldwell, New Jersey, trained its Cadettes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
in Troy, New York.
The curriculum was the same for all seven universities for the first 22 weeks. In the second half, RPI Cadettes would focus on propellers, while the six other groups zeroed in on airframe structure and design. It was a given that, for all seven groups, the initial emphasis when they arrived at the plants would be on technical drawing. Cadettes could look forward to hours and hours at the drafting table drawing the constant changes to the aircraft designs or copying complete sets of drawings for use by subcontracting
firms. But unlike people who worked as mere "tracers," the Cadettes would be using their technical expertise to translate complex engineering descriptions into clear graphic form. Their accuracy would enable Curtiss-Wright's various fabrication departments to produce exact structural components for the planes being designed -- and redesigned -- by senior engineers.
So really, the fact that women aero-engineers were finally allowed to participate in aviation design resembled dominoes falling back the other way: without the Cadette "invasion" of previously male-only engineering sanctuaries, U.S. military leaders would have had insufficient airpower to use in their invasion of lands that had previously been seized in yet another invasion -- by the Germans and Japanese. Essentially, if there had been no tide of American women pushing back against the Axis surge, there would
indeed have been no spring, as Western democracies knew it, in 1945.
But the Cadettes weren't focused on where their work entered this larger historic picture. They were just showing up to do a technically sophisticated job, slide rules at the ready and ten months of upper-division aeronautical engineering foremost in their minds. It's doubtful that very many of them even knew about the genesis of this manufacturing giant that had decided to grant them access to aviation's hallowed halls.
My body lies under the ocean
My body lies under the sea
My body lies under the ocean
Wrapped up in an SB2C
-- Helldivers Drivers Song
In May 1939, more than two years before America entered World War II, Curtiss-Wright won a Navy design competition and signed a contract to build a large folding-wing, carrier-based bomber of unusual capabilities and dimensions. The Navy's specifications were challenging: it needed to fly longer distances and carry more tonnage than the smaller, fixed-wing Douglas SBD Dauntless, which until then had been the dive-bomber of choice. An added requirement made the task almost impossible: two of
these bigger, badder planes had to fit side by side in the ship elevators to speed their delivery from a below-decks hangar to the flight deck.
And so was born the SB2C (Scout Bomber 2nd Series Curtiss) Helldiver.
It would be a full four and a half years before the company managed to fulfill its contract and produce a reliable version of the plane. Among pilots it was known as the Big-Tailed Beast (or the Son of a Bitch 2nd Class) because it was so unwieldy with its heavier, bigger tail on a short, squat fuselage. Redesigned versions of the Helldiver continued to fail flight tests and carrier takeoff and landing trials. Even without a mission-worthy plane, the Navy was so desperate for dive bombers that the number of Helldivers
they ordered just kept going up.
To throw an even worse wrench into the machinery of production, more and more company engineers were being drafted into the military. The seemingly endless design changes the chief engineers came up with to try to solve the plane's problems couldn't be drawn fast enough by the dwindling engineering staff. An unbelievable 889 major and minor design changes were ordered between January 1942 and January 1946.
Curtiss-Wright's airplane division was also falling behind in its production
commitments in two other plants (Buffalo, New York, and St.Louis, Missouri), where they made planes for the U.S. Army, again due largely to engineering personnel losses. But the problems with the Helldiver were so severe that Curtiss-Wright risked losing its valuable Navy contract. In late summer of 1942, management finally decided there was no choice: women had to be trained in aeronautical engineering and drafting to take up the slack.
Between February 1943 and the end of March 1945, 918 women began the Cadette training in the basics of aerodynamics and airplane design. Of the 766 Cadettes who graduated and actually reported for work, 365 were assigned to the Columbus plant. Together with the male engineers in the plant, these women helped Curtiss-Wright fulfill its commitment to produce a dive bomber that could help destroy Japan's navy and bring the war closer to an end.
Thus the Helldiver, with its mythical name and its beastly reputation, opened a place for women in aeronautical engineering. And my mother, as an editor of the pilot's handbook, had played her part in making the operations of the plane comprehensible to young recruits.
So why didn't she ever tell me about that plane and her training? Had she faked her way through it? Or had she just endured it, moving on toward her real interests after she left the plant? Either way, I knew she had graduated from he intensive training program and worked in their Columbus plant, so she must have known something about aeronautical engineering. I just wanted to see proof.
Don't send my girl to Lockheed
The dying mother said
Don't send her to Consolidated
I'd rather see her dead.
But send my girl to Douglas
Or better still to Bell
But as for dear old Curtiss-Wright
I'd see her first in hell. -- Cadette Song
Click on the images to enlarge.
Author's mother Betty Lu/Ricki Cruse, just after
graduating from Curtiss-Wright aeronautical training
at Purdue University, 1943, 19 years old.
Jean-Vi & Ricki
Class of '45 Cadettes In front of "Curtiss House" (fraternity on loan)
Josephine Johnson Jackson - Class of '43, Purdue Jayne Allen Abney - Class of '43, Purdue
George Palmer, senior aero student, teaching aerodynamics
to Class of '44 Cadettes at Purdue University
Johnnie Hemphill Coyner - Class of '43, Purdue
Lois Neff Haynes - Class of '43, Purdue
The SB2C Helldiver, aka "The Big Tailed Beast"
Helldiver test pilots in front of four-blade propeller model -- the SB2C-5
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