From Guinea Pig to WASP: The Oral History of Eleanor McLernon “Mickey” Brown
Seated in the cockpit of a PT-17, Eleanor Brown was ready for her lesson on inverted flight. She was one of the 1,879 women accepted from over 25,000 applicants for training in World War II. Of those, only 1,074 WASPs successfully completed the program to become Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.
Though not trained for combat, they performed test flights, towed aerial targets, transported cargo, and completed missions essential to the war effort. WASPs operated every military aircraft manufactured for the war and flew over 60 million miles combined. Eleanor’s journey here began two years earlier with an interesting question, “Would [you] be willing to be a guinea pig?”
Eleanor was born in Tampico, Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas at the age of four. After high school, she began business school to acquire secretarial skills and completed civil service exams that could be utilized at one of the city’s many military bases. Eleanor began working Kelly Field and soon fell in love with flying. It was her West Point brother-in-law who took her on her first flight. She recalled making plans to put herself through flight school the second they touched the ground. Eleanor immediately began pursuing her civilian pilot’s license and her supervisors took notice.
Several months later, Colonel Ott and his civilian counterpart Barney Van Horn called her into their office to ask if she was willing to be their guinea pig. At the time, women held many jobs at Kelly Field but they had yet to break into flight testing or engine repair. They saw an opportunity to utilize Eleanor’s skillset. She agreed with one condition, “If I don’t like it, I [can] come back to my job.” They agreed and Eleanor became the general mechanic’s helper at Kelly Field. “I loved it. I really did. I just loved working out there,” she recalled. After two years, she was on to her next adventure. Having been accepted into the WASP program, Eleanor headed to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to report for duty.
Of the 100 women entering training in April of 1944 alongside Eleanor, only 58 earned their wings that November. “The washout rate was comparable to the boys,” she recalled. After the rigorous training, Eleanor was assigned to Napier Field in Alabama. Her primary duties included flying mail to cadets temporarily stationed at Eglin Field, Florida, flight-testing planes after maintenance, and flying military personnel cross-country to other bases in the command. She had no idea that her time as a WASP would soon be coming to an end.
Even though they had cemented their place in the war effort, there were political concerns over the need for women pilots. “It seemed criminal to me to waste having trained 1,074 women to fly not to let those at least continue to fly, but oh, there was a lot of sparring going on [in] Washington because a lot of people did not want us,” Eleanor explained.
The WASPs were officially disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944 after Congress refused militarization and terminated the program. According to the Army’s website, the notification letter stated, “When we needed you, you came through and have served most commendably under very difficult circumstances, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteer services are no longer needed. The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know the WASP wouldn't want that. I want you to know that I appreciate your war service and the AAF will miss you..." “When it came to the end it was very, very sad. I mean we were just crushed, decimated at the end. We loved flying. We even said we will fly for free,” Eleanor remembered.
After the program was dismantled, Eleanor returned to Texas. She had begun her journey there as a guinea pig learning the ropes as a mechanic’s helper. She would now return as a WASP to assume the role as the first woman mechanic at Kelly Field. Sadly, she and her fellow WASPs received no benefits or credit for their military service until 1977 when they finally received veteran status.
Eleanor’s love for flying never wavered. According to an article in the Victoria Advocate, “When she was 86 years old, she took her last flight on an AT-6 airplane. It was like riding a bicycle. She never forgot.” In 2010, Eleanor and her fellow WASPs were awarded the highest civilian honor as they received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Listen to her Oral History HERE
Kyna Stys, Education & Museum Programs Director at the National Museum of the Pacific War