“I wanted to do something no one had done, pave the way and forever change the way of aviation. Someone had to do it, we had to start somewhere.”
~WASP Deanie Bishop Parrish
Deanie Bishop Parrish, like so many of the Greatest Generation, doesn’t consider herself a hero. She regards her service as one of the elite Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) as an honor and a privilege. Born in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, in 1922, Deanie grew up in Avon Park.
Encouraged by her mother that she could be anything she wanted to be if she studied hard and put her mind to it, she never missed a day of school, graduating as valedictorian in 1939. In 1940, a primary flying school for Army Air Corps cadets moved into her hometown. There were no female pilots in Avon Park, but Deanie believed if boys could learn to fly, so could she. She convinced one of the flight instructors to teach her. On her first solo, flying from the rear seat of the instructor’s J3 Piper Cub, she reached altitude and started to level off when the control-stick suddenly came off in her hand. She quickly tore off her seat belt, hung over the front seat, pushed on the front joystick, and held it there until the plane was no longer in danger of stalling and crashing. She then climbed over and into the front seat to fly the aircraft. When she landed, her stunned instructor assured her, “Now you know. You have the ‘right stuff’ to be a pilot!” During the early months of WWII, huge losses of American combat pilots created a desperate need for more pilots.
Deanie learned of a new experimental AAF flight-training program, comparable to the one the AAF cadets were taking, to teach women pilots to fly military aircraft. She took the military oath of office. “Our training program was the same as the one male cadets were going through all over the country: ground school, flight school, cross-country flying, night flying, instrument flying, daily calisthenics, flying link trainers, and constantly marching — the Army way,” Ms. Parrish said. “At the end of each phase of flight training, we were given Army check rides by Army Air Force officers. Those who didn’t pass washed out, packed their bags, and paid their way back home.”
On November 1, 1943, and seven months later graduated and received her silver WASP wings. Her first AAF orders were to Greenville AFB,
Mississippi, as an engineering test pilot in BT-13s and UC-78s. She was soon transferred to Tyndall AFB, Florida, completed B-26 training, and was retained as an air-to-air tow target pilot to train gunners for combat.
After earning her WASP wings, Ms. Parrish was assigned as an engineering test pilot at Greenville, Miss. After the red-lined planes were fixed, she and other WASP test pilots flew them to see if they were air worthy for the cadets to fly.
“WASP lived in the officers’ quarters and took their orders from (Army) Air Force commanders,” Ms. Parrish said. “WASP flew every type of aircraft the Air Force owned –trainers, fighters, bombers — and they flew them in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of adverse conditions. They ferried personnel and hauled cargo; they delivered aircraft to points of embarkation; and they test-flew new planes, old planes, rebuilt planes and some planes that male pilots refused to fly. And they delivered many old war-weary airplanes to the junkyards and scrap heaps of America.”
Her most memorable assignment was at Tyndall for two reasons. First, as a tow-target pilot, she had the ability to master her flying skill in a twin-engine aircraft most pilots felt was too dangerous to fly, the B-26 Martin Marauder, and it became her favorite plane to fly. It had short wings and appeared to have no support, hence the reason the aircraft was nicknamed “Widow Maker,” “The Flying Coffin,” and others.
“I towed targets for ground-to-air anti-aircraft gunnery practice, and targets for air-to-air gunnery practice — always for gunnery trainees firing live ammunition,” Ms. Parrish said.
“Needless to say, these were ‘green gunners’ which means they were learning and some couldn’t shoot as straight as others. The plane had the worst training record but was the best in combat,” she said.
The second reason Tyndall was so memorable for her became a life-long treasure. It was a routine training mission that would result in her base commander walking her down the chapel aisle.
“During a target-towing mission, 1st Lt. Bill Parrish instructed his gunners to aim close so he could meet the ‘cute girl pilot’ towing the target,” she said. “They came so close, they put a few holes in my tail. When I landed, I started to give Bill a piece of my mind, but instead, I fell in love and we were married for 47 years.”
In less than two years, WASP flew more than 60 million miles for their country before they were disbanded on December 20, 1944. They flew every kind of non-combat mission the Air Force had and 39 of them made the ultimate sacrifice.
Deanie then became the chief aircraft dispatcher at Langley Field, Virginia, as the first and only civilian in base operations.
When her youngest daughter graduated from Baylor University, Deanie enrolled in the University of Houston, graduating Summa Cum Laude/Phi Kappa Phi. In 1998, five years after losing her husband, Deanie became the associate director of Wings Across America, founded by her daughter, Nancy.
She has traveled to 19 states and interviewed more than 100 WASP, co-founded the National WASP WWII Museum at Avenger Field, Texas and the WASP “Fly Girls” traveling exhibit, composed a WASP rap song, “The Right Stuff”, and represented the WASP through speeches and writings.
Her work directly resulted in the Women Airforce Service Pilots being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, she accepted the award on behalf of the 1074 WASP aviators. Deanie was inducted into the WAI Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2015. Parish has been highly influential in the efforts to get the work of the WASP recognized, and has organized several websites, written books and created initiatives to achieve this.
As she continues to share the history of the WASP, she still believes that ‘With God, nothing is impossible.’