|Betty Jane sat in
the den of her Woodland Hills home praying for another couple of years,
the last time I saw her.
"Dear Lord, please don't take me until
I clean up that back room," the 86-year-old retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant
colonel was saying.
The Lord listened. He gave Betty Jane
almost three more years to clean up that back room filled with her flying
service medals and commendations, thousands of black and white photographs
and dozens of yellowed newspaper stories of heroism, sadness, joy and memories
that could fill a history book.
|Betty Jane Williams
posed in front of her
"ego wall" in
her Woodland Hills residence.
Betty Jane died Monday, and if her afterlife
is anything like her life down here for 89 years, she's probably giving
free flying lessons to every woman in heaven and then trying to unionize
Every A-list female star in Hollywood
would kill to play the life of Betty Jane Williams in a movie. She was
She grew up in a rural Pennsylvania
town during the Depression, constantly bugging her father for flying lessons
he couldn't afford.
"Girls just didn't do those kinds of
things," she said. "But the 1940s had arrived, and so had war. Everything
Betty Jane signed up for a civilian
pilot program the government had started to include teaching women to fly
because men pilots were soon going to be very busy fighting overseas.
"There were maybe 50 guys and five women
from my area accepted," she said. "Each week, another woman would drop
out until I was the only one left."
Betty Jane had learned to fly. Now all
she needed was a chance to get in the cockpit. Along came Pearl Harbor.
The Air Force began the WASPs - Women
Airforce Service Pilots - and Betty was one of the first to join. Her first
job was flying combat-weary planes to repair depots.
"We also served as aerial target practice,
flying target sleeves behind the plane so ground troops could practice
firing live ammunition at a moving target," Betty Jane said. "A couple
of times they almost blew me out of the sky."
As the war wound down and male pilots
returned home, the WASPs were disbanded and forgotten. Betty Jane spent
the next 25 years working for Lockheed and as a flight instructor.
It took 34 years for Congress to pass
legislation recognizing the WASPs' service to the country and granting
them veteran status.
"I look at women flying combat aircraft
and commercial airliners today, and it makes me proud to be there at the
beginning," said Betty Jane, who never married because no man could compete
with an airplane.
All those memories and medals she needed
a couple of more years to tidy up in her back room will be donated to the
library at Texas Woman's University, including her award for being inducted
into the Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2006.
"My great-great-aunt was an incredible
woman, a true pioneer," says Skip Williams, her great nephew who is helping
set up a memorial service in January for her.
That she was. Betty Jane Williams taught
the country that an airplane doesn't respond to gender, it responds to