Even now, at 97, Jane Tedeschi dates the origin of her brief but intense interlude with aviation from when she was just 8, and her mother — already grasping a young girl’s appetite for adventure — presented her a framed print of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis coursing through the clouds across the Atlantic Ocean.
Fifteen years later, Tedeschi resolved to turn a child’s affinity for flight into reality by taking the bus to a dirt-and-grass airfield near her Maryland home and enrolling in flying lessons. That’s basically what her mother told her father when he got home from work one evening and asked her whereabouts.
“And you let her go?” her father demanded.
“My permission was not asked,” replied her mother.
It was 1942, and the independent and adventurous Tedeschi would soon become a part of U.S. military aviation history — though a part that would remain largely hidden for decades.
The following year, she was selected from among 25,000 applicants to serve in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a collection of 1,074 women who flew military aircraft across the continental U.S. so male pilots, in short supply, could serve on the battlefront. Their contribution was largely ignored until the WASP program, technically a civilian undertaking, gained eligibility for veterans’ benefits in 1977 and surviving members were presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest U.S. civilian awards, in 2010.
Now, from the 18th floor of Denver’s Brookdale Park Place senior community, she enjoys a commanding view of the cityscape and mountains beyond.
The WASP program was established under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran, an accomplished pilot who was asked by U.S. Gen. Hap Arnold to study a program of female pilots serving with the Royal Air Force in England, according to a history authored by Nancy Parrish, who also created the Wings Across America website devoted to WASP. Facing a shortage of male pilots in the U.S., Arnold then asked Cochran to begin training women to fly military aircraft stateside.
The first class of women trained at Houston Municipal Airport before moving to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, three months later. They eventually ferried planes among 120 locations, tested aircraft that had been repaired, served as instructors and even towed targets for live-ammunition exercises. They flew every kind of military plane in every kind of assignment outside of combat, racking up more than 60 million miles.
When WASP was disbanded in December 1944, its records were sealed and classified, effectively erasing the chapter in military aviation history until many records were declassified in the 1980s. As Congress noted: “… there were no honors, no benefits, and very few ‘thank yous.’ ”
But when Tedeschi — then 24-year-old Jane Dunbar — began her service in 1943, it proved the adventure of a lifetime, a logical next step for a fearless young woman.
“It was just natural,” she says. “I wouldn’t think of it as being scary.”
Tedeschi preserved much of her experience in a collection of letters, spanning 1943 and ’44, that have been neatly typed and bound. The first, written Nov. 3, 1943, from Sweetwater, detailed her arrival with enthusiasm.
“March, March, March,” she wrote to her family back home. “We march everywhere and it’s fun… The uniforms we are due to get sound swell. … Our living expenses are deducted from our first pay. … I’ll not need all I have and shall probably send you about $40.”
Tedeschi, who had received some instruction before she left home on “the Army way” of flying, quickly gained confidence in her abilities. “The extra time I put in was well worth while I believe,” she wrote. “I suddenly don’t feel scared any longer of check rides. … Not cocky — just determined.”
Tedeschi’s letters recount the training flights, the mistakes and the successes, the lighter moments with other trainees and the periodic accounting of the war bonds she purchased and promptly mailed to her parents. About midway through her correspondence she notes her assignment to Craig Army Air Field in Selma, Ala.
She gave her account of one particular flight, in an AT-6 training aircraft, that involved a harrowing landing amid thunderstorms that played havoc with visibility. As she finally approached Craig Field and asked permission to land, she heard no reply on her radio. Those in the tower never saw her through the rain until she was nearly on the ground — and then told her not to land, but to proceed to an airstrip 10 miles away.
“The storm was worse ahead of me & I was so nearly down I just decided to face a court martial & land anyhow where there’d be help if I needed it,” she wrote. An officer at Craig later confirmed that she’d made the right decision.
Later that summer, after another landing at Craig, she walked into the operations room to find two Army majors complimenting her skills. “Since that landing the two Majors have been so nice to me,” she shared in a letter to her mother. “As if I’ve arrived or something and maybe I can fly after all.”
But by August 1944, her correspondence hinted at the political machinations that eventually would shut down the WASP program. A bill in Congress to make the organization part of the military failed to pass. The war was winding down, and where once the women filled gaps created by combat demands, they suddenly were occupying jobs that could be filled by male pilots.
“I guess we’re all tired of being a ‘political & social football …’ ” Tedeschi wrote to her family. “I suppose all we girls can do is sit & wait & take what comes.”
When WASP was discontinued, the women dispersed. She eventually married Romolo Tedeschi, who had been a prisoner of war in Germany, and the family lived for a while in New York before moving to Connecticut, where she taught high school biology in the public schools. Her husband died in 2012, and soon after she moved to Colorado.
After her stint with WASP, Tedeschi never flew again.
The middle of her three sons, Alan Tedeschi, recalls that while her children had a general sense about her wartime service, it wasn’t until much later that they, as adults, realized the full scope of her involvement.
“We were aware she flew airplanes,” he says. “My mother was always adventuresome and an imaginative person. She always loved flying. Whatever WASP meant, we didn’t know the details.”
He got a stronger idea of his mother’s service once he had moved to Colorado and joined his mom at a 1980s WASP gathering in Colorado Springs as the group began a push for official recognition.
“That’s when I got a chance to go down there and mingle with them and get a flavor for the kind of women they were as a group,” Alan says. “From my perspective, my mother was always very independent. The rest of the WASPs were the same way.”
Now, he finds that he’s “always telling someone about what my mother did in the war.”
“They did what they wanted to do for the right reason,” Alan adds. “I always admired that. They were the great generation, because they did what was expected and wound up doing things nobody expected them to accomplish.”