“Excuses were unacceptable.” A Conversation with WWII Test Pilot Alyce Rohrer
She was born to fly.
As a little girl growing up in Cedar City, Utah, Alyce Rohrer sat on her grandmother’s porch and watched the butterflies and the birds. It wasn’t their beauty she was drawn to so much though, as it was their flight. “I wanted to spread my wings, head straight to the sky,” she says.
Before she was fifteen, Rohrer had earned her private pilot’s license at the Provo Airport. Her parents expected her to head to Salt Lake City for college, but Rohrer heard about Jackie Cochran’s flying program. When she was 18 years old, the Army recruiting bus showed up. She lied about her age (women had to be 21 to be accepted into the WASP program), and climbed aboard to begin the journey of a lifetime.
Her journey was unique both for her time, the 1940s, as well as her family’s culture. Growing up Mormon, “girls were expected to get married and have lots of babies,” she said. “I never wanted to do that.” But her parents “didn’t give me any trouble,” she says. They knew their daughter, and she had been born to fly.
“I arrived at the barracks [at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas] with women who had all finished college,” Rohrer says. “It was quite a struggle.”
What specifically? I ask.
“Physics. I was just out of high school, and I studied day and night to learn physics. Some of the women were a little snarky — they called me the kid — but that’s to be expected. Most of the women tried to help me along.”
Despite what she says, I’m not at all sure Rohrer needed much help keeping up. 25,000 women applied to be Women Airforce Service Pilots in an experimental program of the Army Air Corps to train women as pilots, freeing up male pilots for combat duty. Only 1,830 women were accepted into the program and only 1,102 of those earned their silver wings.
“It sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t,” she said. “We were just flying the training aircraft that were all beat up. All they had were BT13s 450 HP and the AT6s Pratt and Whitney 650 HP and most of them were very old, because all of the good new airplanes were being shipped overseas. The ones that were used for training were the ones that had something wrong with them. I enjoyed it because I loved acrobatics.”
In Rohrer’s novel Girls of Avenger about the WASP training class 44-W-4, Rohrer thinly disguises herself as Kathleen, who has to accept a nickname of Kathy and makes sure always to put on her makeup. Given the stories Rohrer is prone to tell today, the character fits perfectly, though the story she writes is more feisty. Though growing up Mormon, the character of Kathy rejects the religion when she’s told men are in charge. “Nonsense, who told ’em they could be?” she asks.
Still, a strict upbringing results in affront from many aspects of military culture. Dismayed at the foul language of the mechanics, Rohrer (Kathy) calls them out, only to be further humiliated by taunts. She is embarrassed, but has far too much spunk to be easily extinguished. Like all the women in training, she is tested constantly by the men around her, and she’s up to the challenge.
When the women begin aerobatics training in the Stearman biplane, they are given strict instructions never to do a maneuver below 5,000 feet. Rohrer (Kathleen) is assigned a notoriously tough instructor, and after a successful flight, on return to the airfield at 4,500 feet, he asks her to do a spin.
“She glanced in the rearview mirror,” she writes. “He was grinning. She checked the altimeter. They were much too low to be doing any type of acrobatics, and she knew he was aware of it. He obviously expected her to protest and remind him of the fact in order to show she had been listening to his lecture. It might also just be a ploy to get her to talk to him. The thought increased her irritation. She yanked the nose of the plane high into a stall, kicked left rudder, spun three times, and pulled out at less than 1,000 feet. Glancing in the mirror, she saw him pull out his handkerchief and wipe his forehead.”
Rohrer tells convincing stories of training challenges with other women characters as well, from running into cattle and snakes on Texas landing fields, to following the wrong Stearman to the wrong landing field, to navigating relationships with the other women and fending off the constant advances of male instructors, to reeling from the deaths of classmates and, finally, Rohrer’s own forced landing due to a clogged fuel line on her final training flight.
The training environment was tough on everyone. “The test pilots had the miserable habit of pulling back the throttle to “kill” the engine at the most impossible moments…it was essential to think calmly and quickly but carefully under pressure. Excuses were unacceptable, and there was no tolerance for emotional reactions.”
Rohrer’s class worked to make up for lost flight time due to weather. In the cold weather, they flew the open cockpit PT-17 trainers for three flight periods a day, seven days a week. Their faces burned and chapped in the constant exposure to the sun and wind, and lips peeled, split and bled.
Rohrer (Kathy) came back from a cold afternoon flight, climbed out of the cockpit and fell flat on the ground. Her feet were frozen.
When her instructor asked why she hadn’t been wearing the fur-lined boots that had been issued, she explained that if she wore them, she couldn’t keep her feet on the pedals while flying inverted. He instructed her to stick to Lazy-8s until the weather warmed.
Class 44-W-4 was the first class picked to skip ahead to advanced aircraft training prior to training in instruments, and Rohrer and her classmates fell in love with the AT-6, which they dubbed “Sweet 6.”
After all that, “the thing I wanted most was to fly a P-51,” Rohrer says. “The P51 was the fastest and best airplane we had up till the end of the war. Of course jets didn’t come in until later. While I did my job at the field, I was memorizing the regs and everything I needed to know to fly the P51. I kept bugging my commanding officer about it, and he said how many guys do you think are ahead of you in wanting to fly that airplane? I said I didn’t care, I wanted to be on the list. It was almost the fall of 1944. Now and then someone would bring a P51 onto our base. At the time you couldn’t be taught how to fly it, you had to know, because it was a one pilot airplane. I knew it stem to stern, every bolt.” Her dream never came true.
She mentions obliquely that 38 women died doing her job; one of her friends died when the airplane fell apart beneath her. Flying wasn’t her biggest struggle though. She loved to fly.
“My biggest challenge was the mechanics,” she said. “They were all so careful with me. If a plane was in bad shape, they would assign it to a man. They always backed off from giving me the difficult assignments.
“I asked them why a woman’s life would be any more important than a man’s?”
It took time, Rohrer says, but she eventually convinced them she should be allowed to fly even the most challenging maintenance missions.
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose grit is courage, the determination to do what you want to do and succeed at it,” she says, before deflecting attention away from herself again. “It wasn’t courage that motivated me. It was the love of the sky.”
How can grit be developed? Rohrer is less sure of this. “Grit has to be born in you,” she says.
“I was just so young, and so completely unaware of all the horrible things that could happen. It was wonderful. I still dream of flying, but of course I can’t anymore. I’ve lost my voice too.”
“You were a singer?” I ask, because that’s my passion, too.
“I did solo work,” she said, and my mother did too. My great-grandmother sang in Queen Victoria’s court, so it’s just a gift that was passed down.”
Without flying or singing in her life, “I feel like a bird whose wings are clipped,” she says.
“I’d love to fly one of those new planes,” she says, and I hear life back in her voice. “You know what I’d like to fly? The F-15. I watched one pacing a P51 at an airshow a couple of years ago, and I just wept tears. The P-51 was the fastest we had when I was flying. It was a thing of beauty then and it still is.”
Rohrer is proud of her fellow WASP sisters. “Even after the Army threw us out we all made something of ourselves,” she said. “We had judges, businesswomen, and teachers. I don’t know a single WASP who wasn’t successful in her life.”
When she left the Army, there were no jobs open to women in aviation.
I mention that it must have been frustrating, and Rohrer’s response is full of emotion. “It was rotten.
It’s hard to make people of this generation understand how different things were in the 40s. When we were discharged there were absolutely no jobs open to women in the flying field. One minute we’re in the sky, and the next minute we’re grounded. It was extremely hard to make that transition. ”
ALYCE’S FAVORITE BOOKS
Two years ago, Rohrer talked with the Washington Post, sharing that two days after receiving the letter from the Army that she had been released from service (the WASPs were classified as civilian pilots, and promised to be granted military status later. It took over thirty years, until 1977, for military status to be granted.) she received a letter from an airline offering her a position as a stewardess. “I was so angry, I tore the letter up,” she says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a stewardess,” she says, “that’s a fine job. But I wasn’t one.”
Her husband, also a test pilot continued to fly, and Rohrer began teaching. When her husband was hired by Mitsubishi to help rebuild the Japanese Air Force, they took their young family to Japan, and Rohrer learned Japanese to teach English at the university. Rohrer does not mention that she has written and published several novels as well, including Girls of Avenger which I find in my library.
Rohrer ends our conversation noting the time. “I need to get to the club,” she says. It turns out the club is a Shakespeare Club which she has been leading for 30 years. “We do all the plays,” she says. They have just finished Julius Caesar and Henry V. Today they’re discussing Romeo and Juliet.
The bay of six women in Rohrer’s initial training group remained close friends throughout their lives, and their husbands became friends too. Of the six, Rohrer is the last remaining.
“I still dream of flying,” Rohrer says.
In Girls of Avenger, Rohrer (Kathy) takes a final flight before leaving for her assignment. “She checked her instruments and concentrated. The world straightened out again. The earth was the earth, and the sky was the sky, and all between was the glory of heaven.
“Watching the moonlight pouring over the earth beneath, a moment of complete happiness and contentment swept through her. This is what it was all about. This made the hard work, the study, the sand…worthwhile…
Then through the sound of the powerful engine, above and beyond normal sound, she heard the music: clear, ethereal and stirring: a full orchestra, wind instruments, strings, symbols, and her long neglected piano. It rose in quiet waves of sound, and filled the night with enchantment.”