A possibly apocryphal story about Dorothy “Dot” Lewis: When she was 13, in what would have been 1929 or 1930, she absconded from church with her Easter collection plate money and hightailed it to a nearby airstrip, where she demanded to learn to fly.
A definitely true story about Dorothy “Dot” Lewis: In 1942, she was one of 25,000 women to apply, one of 1,830 women to be accepted, and one of 1,102 women to earn her “silver wings” with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. For two years as a WASP, she trained male fliers, flew the P-63, the B-26 and the P-40, and did a hell of a barrel roll.
Lewis died in September, a few weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her son, Albert “Chig” Lewis, a Washington lawyer, wants to put a float in the Rose Bowl parade, honoring his mother and all of the other women who performed domestic operational missions during World War II — but who were unsummarily dismissed when male pilots came home.
His group has raised more than $100,000. He still needs $29,000. He is trying to do it in less than a week.
“The WASPs were relatively modest,” Chig says. “The thing that got them going was that people didn’t know their history, or that this had happened.” The WASPs didn’t get the attention of some other women’s military divisions, in part because they were never awarded the military status they’d been promised at the start of the war.
“I taught school for 20 years,” says Alyce Stevens Rohrer, a former WASP. “Nobody in the classes ever knew anything about us. We’re not even mentioned in history books.”
And so? A float. A float, in a nationally broadcast parade with an estimated viewership of 15 million households. The members of Wingtip-to-Wingtip, the WASP nonprofit of which Chig is president, were inspired to this idea after seeing the African American Tuskegee Airmen ride in the Tournament of Roses parade in 2009. In early 2013, when the ban prohibiting military servicewomen from combat positions was lifted, Chig decided that the time for a WASP float had come.
But getting a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade is a difficult thing. Even after a formal application is accepted, the entrance fee is $5,000, and the total cost of float construction can approach a quarter of a million dollars.
The group began fundraising in earnest last February, accepting both $10 checks and one large $60,000 pledge from a former WASP in Texas.
Then, in the fall, Dot Lewis’s health began failing. Chig put fundraising efforts on hold. To give their float designer enough time to complete the project by the Jan. 1 parade date, Chig figured, they would need to have the money pledged by Veterans Day.
“It’s really a very public way to do a final honor for these women, to say thanks for their service,” says Kate Landdeck, vice president of Wingtip-to-Wingtip and a history professor at Texas Women’s University.
The WASPs were the creation of racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran and aviator Nancy Harkness Love, who envisioned a domestic team of female military pilots freeing up male pilots for combat abroad. WASPs flew recently repaired planes to make sure equipment was functioning properly. They hauled cargo and air-chauffeured top brass to meetings. They introduced green servicemen to the air, with the winking motto, “If we can teach them to walk, we can teach them to fly.” Thirty-eight women died in this service to their country.
WASPs were classified as civilian pilots, with a promise that they would later be classified as military. Instead, in December 1944, as the war’s end approached, the program was disbanded. The families of the 38 women who died were not allowed to display gold stars in their windows, because their daughters were not recognized as veterans.
The WASPs received a letter informing them that their service was over. Two days after that letter came, “several of us received letters from aircraft companies inviting us to come and be stewardesses,” remembers Rohrer. “I was so angry, I tore that letter up.”
The WASPs would finally be granted full military status in 1977, and they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals in 2010.
Chig Lewis says that a place in the Rose Bowl parade would have pleased his mother, although, ever the cool pilot, she wouldn’t show it too much. “She was a remarkable woman,” he says. “She was the bravest person I know.”