I see veterans regularly. In fact my husband is a four-year Air Force veteran of the Vietnam Era. Did he go to Vietnam? No. And he seems to regret that. Because I’m producing a twelve-part series entitled “Veterans’ Voices” for local cable television and I work with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, I have been privileged to hear and record the oral histories of almost 100 veterans in the past two years.
Today, I want to share with you the story of Nadine Nagel, age 95, whom I interviewed recently and whose son, John Nagle, did serve in Vietnam. John was in the U.S. Navy from 1969-1973.
Legally blind in one eye, Nadine is one of the most beautiful (Come on. All you men I’ve interviewed should not mind taking a second-seat to Nadine), intelligent, and powerful women I’ve ever known. Is she loud like me? No. It’s all about her story: why she served, how she trained, and her service after training.
As she settles into the chair and we adjust the lights, do the testing of the voices, author Sarah Rickman, who has driven Nadine to the studio at the college today and is the author of seven books on women like Nadine, adjusts Nadine’s hair and her Congressional Gold Medal (awarded in 2009).
Nadine was a WASP, a paramilitary aviator during World War II, a pilot. Let’s begin her story with the beginning. I think you’ll like it. I know I do.
Nadine was born on Oct. 25, 1918, into a hard-working farm family in Chapman, Kansas. During the Great Depression she learned to “use it, wear it out, make it do or do without.” She studied to be a teacher and in 1940 earned a lifetime teaching certificate and was employed as a kindergarten teacher making $88 a month.
In college she met her future husband, Dale Canfield, who also planned to teach. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, changed their plans. Dale joined the Army Air Corps rather than be drafted into the Army, and they were married in California in April of 1942.
In August of 1942, Dale, a pilot, was deployed to the European Theatre. Following a bombing mission to the coast of France where German submarine bases were located, his plane crashed upon landing and he was killed (I have all my asides. When I was visiting this site of the German sub bases in France three years ago, I never thought I would ever connect with anyone who had a story that would be at all related).
Nadine says, “I didn’t know what to do. I heard about Jackie Cochran’s training program for women pilots, and I said to myself, Since Dale isn’t here, I’ll fly in his place. I’d never even been on a plane or even near one.” With the war there was a shortage of male pilots.
In the summer of 1943, Nadine got her pilot’s license, a requirement to apply for the training program. Joining her group was “a pro golfer, a stripper, all kinds of women,” and Nadine says, “I thought that finally I was going to be able to do something for my country.” Her next step was to go to ground school and then flight school. Cochran had determined that the training for female pilots would be as rigorous as that for male pilots. Of the 105 women who started in Nadine’s group, 55 graduated in November of 1944.
Their jobs were administrative flights and ferrying, and they were required to know the Morse code and to be able to navigate across country.
Nadine is a natural story teller and with a smile on her face, she told about the day she was checked for her ability to fly the AT-6, “a beautiful plane.” The check required for her to take off and land the plane three different times. On the third landing she forgot to pick up her instructor and as she departed the plane, she saw him at a good distance trudging across the runway carrying his parachute. In the hangar, there was no shortage of teasing before her instructor finally said, “You passed.”
On one of her longer flights, she had told an aunt in Ellis, Kan., that she would buzz her when she got there. Her aunt and a neighbor were in the yard waving dishtowels as she circled them and waved her wings good bye. She went on to Burlington, Kan., where her sister lived, circled the town and gunned her engine. When she and others returned to base, her instructor said, “None of you did any buzzing, right?” They all denied such maneuvers, and he proclaimed, “You’re not my students if you didn’t.”
Another story involved ferrying five officers to San Antonio with the expectation that she would fly them back to Lubbock in daylight. She was piloting an AT-10 which allows for two pilots, but she was the only one. The meeting went on and on until it was dark. What did Nadine do? What any woman of courage would do. She flew the team back to Lubbock without ever mentioning it was her first time in ferrying at night.
As the war ground down, there were many BT-13s that needed to be flown to San Antonio from Garden City, Kan., and that was her final job.
Jackie Cochran had not been able to convince Congress to militarize the WASPs and they remained Civil Service. The WASPs were disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, and Nadine reports that she was “heartbroken. We loved what we were doing and we were doing a good job for our country. We had made friends. We had to find our own transportation back home. I caught a ride from Lubbock to Salina where my mother and brother were waiting for me. Our WASP records were sealed and classified for 35 years.”
Nadine says, “I went home, but I was lost in a society that I no longer understood. I could not think of not being in uniform so I went for five weeks of Red Cross training. Following that training, I went on to serve in San Antonio, Wichita Falls, and at Chanute in Illinois.”
You’ll all be pleased to know that Nadine remarried in 1947, another military man, Frank Nagle, and went on with her life.
Thank you, Nadine, for sharing your life with me.
Note: To learn more about the history of the WASPS in World War II, just Google the subject at Wikipedia or other web sites. Also, you can locate information about author Sarah Rickman, who interviewed Nadine and made her the subject of her award-winning novel. From that novel Rickman moved into non-fiction with the first squadron of women to become WASPs as the focus of her research. www.sarahbyrnrickman.com.
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