Congressional Gold Medal awarded posthumously to wartime pilot
By Julia Green
In the pocket of Ruth (Franckling) Reynolds’ flight slacks, there could always be found a 1922 silver dollar. The edges were beaten and dented from hours spent bouncing it on the hard concrete while she and other Women Airforce Service Pilots waited for the fog to lift so that they could take off.
And, when they were finally able to take to the skies, they had no idea the history they were making.
Ruth is one of the 1,103 women who became the intended recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal for her service as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II when President Obama signed Bill 614 into Public Law 111-40 on July 1. All 17 female United States senators served as co-sponsors on the bill.
“As time went on, I think they began to realize more the absolutely magnificent contribution they made,” said Ruth’s daughter, Peg DiBenedetto of Halcott Center. “But at the time, it was just something they loved to do. They just saw it as that was their duty at the time.”
“To her, it was just a job she wanted to do for her country,” said Ruth’s other daughter, Nancy Reynolds, also of Halcott Center. “That’s what made her happiest – knowing that she helped out. And the love of flying.”
Ruth Reynolds was born in New Rochelle in 1919 and grew up in Woodstock, attending Kingston High School and graduating when she was only 16. Upon graduating, she struck a deal with the airport in Kingston that she would work for the airport, fueling and lining up planes, in exchange for flying lessons.
“I’m not exactly sure when it began, but we do have a picture of her at about four or five, sitting in a cardboard-looking airplane like a little toy,” said Peg. “So I think she was always fascinated with airplanes.”
Ruth immersed herself in the lessons, making her first solo flight in August of 1940 and earning her private pilot’s license that October; a year later, she became the first woman in Ulster County to earn a commercial pilot’s license.
As Ruth continued to log flight hours in Kingston, the war in Europe escalated, and in the summer of 1941 a woman pilot by the name Jacqueline Cochran submitted a proposal for the use of female pilots in noncombat missions with the motivation of freeing up male pilots for combat roles. As proposed, the roles of the female pilots would include transporting aircraft from factories to military bases and towing aerial targets.
While the proposal was not accepted initially, a year later in the summer of 1942, it was taken into serious consideration by then-commander of the United States Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, along with a similar proposal by another female pilot, Nancy Harkness Love. Cochran and Love’s teams were then established as the 319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), respectively.
In July of 1943, the two squadrons merged to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Ruth was in one of the first classes to graduate from the WASP training, earning her wings in May of 1943 after six months of training in Houston, Texas. She was then stationed in Palm Springs, Calif., where she flew 19 different types of aircraft, including: L-2 and L-5 observation planes; PT-19; BT-6; AT-6; AT-19; AT-10 trainers; C-78 transport; C-47 troop carrier; B-25 medium bomber; A-20 attack bomber; and fighter planes P-40, P-39, P-63, P-47 and her personal favorite, the P-51 Mustang.
“They would come into a base with their P-51 and they would do something a little bit out of the ordinary,” Peg remembers, “and then they would land and hop out of the cockpit and take off their flight cap and their hair would come out and the guys would realize that it was a woman that just landed the plane very expertly. They would say that the guys would always have their mouths hanging open as they walked to their hangars… they liked that reaction.”
Both her daughters say that the time she spent flying for her country was the source of her fondest memories, despite the challenges it presented.
Women serving as WASPs were considered civil servants, and as such were not afforded military status or benefits. Perhaps the hardest part of that lack of recognition for many of the women serving was what it meant when a female pilot was killed as a result of her duty.
“Thirty-eight women died, because if something was wrong with the planes, women were the guinea pigs,” Nancy said. “And when these women died, their families had to pay to get them back home. There was no flag, they weren’t even treated with respect. It was really sad – there was no help, no counseling, nothing from the government. But they loved what they did. They never said anything about the recognition.”
Peg added, “The women would often pool their money together for a train ticket to put the body on the train, and then if they had enough money, one of them would go along with the body to the home. It was a lot of sacrifice, but they were never bitter about anything – they were always very grateful that they got to fly at all. Until they disbanded in 1944, they just loved their lives.”
Upon disbandment, a number of the women offered to continue flying for their country for a dollar a day; however, the government deemed the continuation of the WASP unnecessary.
Ruth returned to Woodstock, where she continued to work as a flight instructor at the airport in Kingston.
“They just had to turn back to their regular lives of being wives and mothers and just trying to find jobs and go back to their lives,” Peg said. “That was hard for them. The hard part for her was to stop flying with these women that were such good friends, but it was probably easier for her than it may have been for other pilots because she went back to the airfield in Kingston.”
It was there that she met her husband, Ward, when he turned up at the Kingston airport for flying lessons. The couple married in 1946 and Ruth moved to Ward’s home in Halcott Center.
“For awhile they had their own little airport,” Nancy remembered. “They each had their own plane and they were both instructors and they gave people rides. But they sold the planes in 1948 and that was it. I used to ask, ‘Why did you sell the planes?’ and she’d say, ‘That was then and this is now, and I have my family now.’”
Women who served as members of the WASP corps were finally awarded full military status in 1977, when then-President Jimmy Carter signed The G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977, and in 1984 each WASP was awarded the World War II Victory Medal.
The Congressional Gold Medal that will be awarded to the 1,103 women who flew for their country during World War II is currently being designed by the U.S. Mint and will be presented at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., at a date that is yet to be determined.
And, while both daughters agree that their mother would have been honored by the recognition, they both say that the true joy of their mother’s experience was the experience itself.
“I talked to her about how that was really ahead of their time, for women’s lib and stuff like that, and she’d say, ‘It had nothing to do with that.’ That wasn’t even part of the conversation for them. It had nothing to do with women being able to fly as well as or better than men. It was that they were doing their patriotic duty that they absolutely loved to do.”