Arlington daughter still proud of her mom's honor

Ethel Sheffler during World War IIEthel Sheffler more recently

Ethel Jones Sheffler (left in photo at left) during World War II, which ended in 1945, and, at right, much more recently. This article was originally published in YourArlington in 2010.

What is it like for your mother to receive the Congressional Gold Medal? Sue Sheffler, a former Arlington School Committee member, knows. Her mom, the late Ethel Jones Sheffler, was among 200 women who received the delayed award in Washington, D.C., in 2009. Called America's first "fly girls" during World War II, they served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, often known as WASPs. If she were still alive, Ethel Sheffler would be a centenarian.

"As part of that (greatest) generation, she rarely talked about her war experience," Sue Sheffler said of her mother, "so it was a revelation for me to go to the ceremonies this week and learn so much about what these women actually flew, and under what conditions.

"And to talk at length with them: They are a fiery group! Many wore their original WASP uniforms (yes, after 65 years), and were holding forth in the sports bar after we Baby Boomers shuffled off to bed. My cousin joked with a WASP, 'Now, isn't it time you went to bed?' And she snapped right back, 'I'll go when I feel like it -- but not with you, sonny.' "

The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, was presented to those present, most in their late 80s and early 90s. Some came in wheelchairs, many sporting dark blue uniforms.

June Bent of Westborough, Mass., clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died, the Associated Press reported.

"Most of these women ... had serious flight time in cutting-edge military aircraft and a passion for the 'wild blue yonder,' " Sheffler wrote in an e-mail. They "applied to the [commercial] airlines after the WASP was summarily disbanded. Not one was accepted as a pilot."

Sheffler traced the general arc of her mother's story after that:

"My mom, an Illinois village farm girl who grew up milking cows, traipsed down to Brazil to [attempt to become a commercial] pilot but couldn't even apply without her husband's signature -- and she had no husband at the time. She met my dad there, and [some time after they were married] I was born [in Sao Paulo].

"Back in the States, Ethel kept up her flight-instructing [career] while raising three kids. I grew up [in New Jersey] with the smell of aviation fuel as a given, as I got to spend many hours in small airports and in the back of mom's students' planes."

Did Sue herself ever learn to fly?

"There is a WASP song that includes lyrics, 'if you have daughters, teach them to fly.'  My mom made sure my two sisters and I had our pilots' licenses at 16 -- before our drivers' licenses."

Of her mother, Sheffler wrote, "She is the 13th woman to get her helicopter license (I have a photo somewhere of Ethel, chopper and three little girls). She instructed well into her 80s and had more than 20,000 flight hours logged at retirement. She was delighted to fly a Lear jet in her 70s." 

Returning to her account of the ceremonies, she wrote:

"So to see this group finally honored for their patriotism and achievements by the US government was wonderful.

"But to meet the granddaughters (literally, in some cases) of WASP who are today lieutenant colonels in the Air Force was profound. The first female Thunderbird, who was inspired by the WASP, was a speaker, as was a female astronaut who has commanded shuttle missions."

The elder Sheffler was not herself able to travel from Appleton, Wis., to receive her gold medal, but she said in an interview published in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online interview that she was proud to have served her country at a time when the military needed flyers. (That article apparently is no longer available online, but a similar one is here>>)

Asked in that interview whether she knew she was making history when she signed up to serve in the WASP, Sheffler preferred to talk about the female pilots who followed her in military service, such as Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, who became the first female member of the Air Force Thunderbirds.

"There are plenty of them who went way beyond anything I would ever do," the elder Sheffler said in the Journal Sentinel Online interview.

More than 1,100 WASPs served between 1942 and 1944, ferrying aircraft between US bases, testing fighter planes and towing targets for the men to practice shooting at with live ammunition. They flew every type of aircraft flown by the Army Air Corps [the predecessor of today's U.S. Air Force], including the B-26 bomber -- also known as the "widow maker" -- and the B-29 Superfortress. Thirty-eight of them died while serving their country.

Tom Brokaw, the former television anchor and author of the book "The Greatest Generation," praised the women, saying that all generations that followed them owe them a debt of gratitude.

Some facts about the WASP

-- They were the first women to serve as pilots and fly military aircraft for the United States during World War II.

-- The WASP served from some time in September 1942 to Dec. 20, 1944.

--  Some 25,000 women applied for the Women's Flying Training Detachment.

-- Some 1,830 women were accepted into and 1,074 graduated from the training program.

-- The WASP were stationed at 120 air bases in the United States.

--  The WASP flew 78 different types of aircraft.

--  The WASP flew 60,000,000 miles of operation flights.

This account by YourArlington founder/board president Bob Sprague, slightly copy edited, was originally published in 2010 and is now being presented again on "the front page" on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in honor of the 80th anniversary of D-Day -- and to recognize all U.S. veterans of WWII. Photos of the late Ethel Jones Sheffler were provided by another family member, Linda Sheffler of Wisconsin.