More than 15,000 people watched as Irene Lefcheck approached the P-51 Mustang that sat incongruously on the Ellipse. It was her duty to christen this lithe, fearsome fighter plane, the newest addition to the Army Air Forces’ inventory.
Next to the Mustang was a hulking Navy F4U Corsair, its nose still glistening from the champagne that Edith Disney had doused it with.
Irene reared back with her own bottle of champagne. The crowd held its breath. It was May 9, 1943.
Three months earlier a letter appeared in The Post’s Federal Diary column. It was signed “Government Girl,” the nickname given to the thousands of young, single women who had flooded into Washington since the war began.
We look at Government Girls with fondness and gratitude now — they toiled in federal agencies whose ranks had been depleted — but at the time there were plenty who thought they were in D.C. just to sightsee and bed soldiers. Government Girls were understandably tired of this stereotype.
The pseudonymous letter-writer had an idea: What if government employees in Washington each contributed $1 toward the purchase of a warplane?
Irene slammed the champagne against the Mustang’s propeller but instead of shattering, the bottle bounced back, unbroken.
All spring, Federal Diarist Jerry Kluttz peppered his column with the phrase GIVE YOUR DOLLAR FOR GOVERNMENT GIRL WARPLANES. By April 11, $7,809 had been raised. A week later, the total was at $15,000 and Kluttz revealed whom the original letter writer had been. She was Agnes Richardy, a contact representative for the Veterans Administration.
Both of her parents had immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1898. Wrote Kluttz: “Many of Miss Richardy’s cousins are serving in the Italian army and she inspired the GOVERNMENT GIRL idea with the full knowledge that it could possibly harm members of her own family. But Miss Richardy and her parents consider themselves Americans first, last and always. She wants to do everything possible to help win the war ...”
There were nervous titters in the crowd. Wasn’t it bad luck when a christening bottle refused to break, jinxing all who sailed or flew upon the craft? Military officials hurried forward to the Mustang’s propeller and reattached a protective plate that had been dislodged. Irene gripped the champagne tightly and took another swing.
On May 4, 1943, a 19-year-old working in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was informed that her design had won the contest to design a logo for the two planes being purchased with the $157,000 federal workers had raised. Her name was Phyllis Grothjan and she had taken art classes in high school.
“I expect to study art later on,” she told The Post, “but just now there is a war going on.”
Phyllis had used red and blue pencils to sketch her submission: a young woman standing on the back of a giant eagle as it soared through the sky, encircled by the words “Government Girl.”
When the design was applied to the two planes, government contractors had altered it slightly: The woman’s skirt was shorter and her breasts were perkier, almost mimicking the bombs the eagle now clutched in its talons.
On May 9, a Sunday, people streamed to the Ellipse for the 3 p.m. dedication ceremony. There were two bands: one from the Army-Air Force and one from the Navy. There was an 80-person honor guard, composed of Government Girls who had vied for the honor. There were speeches from Jerry Kluttz and Post publisher Eugene Meyer. President Roosevelt sent a message that ended: “On behalf of all the boys in the services to whom these planes are sent, I salute you.”
Agnes Richardy handed one check to Capt. Ted Lawson, a veteran of Doolittle’s Tokyo raids, and another to Lt. Cmdr. Leroy Simpler, whose Navy squadron had destroyed 35 Japanese planes in the Solomon Islands the previous fall.
When Irene swung a second time, the bottle shattered in a sparkling spray and a cheer went up. Military officials assured the press that as long as the bottle broke eventually there would be no bad luck.
If later press reports are to be believed — the Pentagon sometimes christened the same planes over and over again— both the Mustang and Corsair were shipped to Asia. The Corsair was “staunchly and proudly zooming to its destiny and in hungry search of Jap Zeroes” over the Pacific. The Mustang joined the China-Burma-India theater, where it flew 107 missions and destroyed two enemy aircraft, its pilots earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Not bad for a bunch of Government Girls who gave a buck a piece.