Etta Mae “Holly” Hollinger Grasso
November 7, 1921 – March 9, 2014
Training Location: Avenger Field (Sweetwater, Tex.)
Planes flown: PT-17, BT-13, AT-6
Assigned bases: Foster Army Air Field (Victoria, Tex.)
As a young woman, Holly worked for Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The outbreak of World War II inspired her to do her part in the nation’s war effort. She volunteered as a trainee in the newly-created Women’s Air Force Service Pilots-the WASP. Holly flew at an airfield in Victoria, Texas, where she trained Mexican and Cuban pilots at Foster Field in Victoria. Interpreters helped with the preflight briefings, but because she couldn’t speak Spanish, she had to use her hands to guide the trainees when they were in the air with her.
“Now I realize that was very dangerous,” said Grasso during an interview with My SA news.
As a WASP, Grasso also used to tow targets for pilot trainees who fired live rounds. Though her plane never was hit, she did have problems when thick fog rolled in one day. She said she used a highway and water tower to guide herself to the airstrip, and she landed just as her engine ran out of fuel and died.
She said that although she’d had some flying experience, her training in AT-6s at Avenger Field in Sweetwater was grueling.
“I studied all night long with a flashlight under the covers,” Grasso said.
By the time she was refining her landing technique, Grasso couldn’t stand the thought of washing out and not getting her wings.
“You’re up for a checklist tomorrow,” her instructor told her after her plane had almost done a “ground loop,” or rotation, during a landing.
“I called home and told my mother, ‘I’ve got to pass!’” Grasso said. “She and Dad got down on their knees and prayed. I thanked them the next day, because it worked.”
Though she kept flying recreationally, Grasso and other WASP couldn’t find work as military or professional aviators after the war. She said she tried to apply to be a pilot with Braniff Airways in the 1950s, “and they thought I’d lost my mind.”
Holly worked in Albuquerque about two years for the FAA controlling traffic on the designated airway between Kansas City and Los Angeles. It was about this time she met and married her husband, Clarence H. Grasso. Holly continued her relationship with flying by remaining a member of the Air Force Reserve. In 2010 she, along with the other WASP, received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. commemorating her efforts during World War II.
Holly served as chairman of the local Salvation Army Advisory Board, she was President of the San Antonio Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, and she founded the Helping Hand Project (which was emulated by many communities around the country and for which she was named an Honorary Texan by Governor John Connally), and she is listed in Who’s Who in Texas. For her PTA work, the Express News named her Woman of the Year.
Holly served San Antonio on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and she worked with the Blue Birds for the Methodist Hospital for about 20 years.
With all of this, Holly Grasso also managed to be an active assistant to her business-owner husband, to design and build three homes, and to have a successful career brokering, dealing in and operating real estate.
Let’s not forget a lifetime of travel. Holly ventured to just about everywhere one can go on planet Earth, including Antarctica. In 2003 she took her entire family on a trip to the Atlantis resort.
Original Caption: “Swinging down along the ramp at the AAF’s Training Command’s Advanced single engine pilot school at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas, are eight feminine pilots, members of the AF WASP. Left to right: Pauline S. Cutler of Cleveland, Ohio,; Dorothy Ehrhardt, Bridgewater, Mass.; Jennie M. Hill of Harvey, Ill.; Etta Mae Hollinger, Paola, Kans.; Lucille R. Cary, Joliet, Ill.; Jane B. Shirley, Brownfield Tex.; Dorothy H. Beard, Sacramento, Calif.; and Kathryn L. Boyd, Weatherford, Texas.” Credit: Image Number 4A-22689-K3616, Record Group 342, National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, College Park, Maryland
Texas Women’s University, Denton, Texas. WASP collection