June Braun Bent
WASP Class 44-W-3
March 1, 1913 – April 3, 2015
Planes flown: PT-17, BT-13, AT-6, UC-78
Assigned bases: Merced Army Air Field (Calif.) and Minter Field (Bakersfield, Calif.)
June E. Bent’s cousin happened to owe her some money. He also happened to work at a flight school. So, he paid the debt by setting her up with flying lessons.
“They called me the flying secretary,” she said, for she was, at the time, a secretary for a lawyer in her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa before joining the WASP.
That was over 66 years ago, when it was unusual for a woman to be in the cockpit. But rude comments from doubtful men didn’t deter Mrs. Bent or the 1,101 other women who decided to use their piloting skills to help their country win World War II. They became the Women Airforce Service Pilots, women who were trained to fly non-combat missions in 1943 and 1944. They didn’t fight, but their work freed male pilots for overseas combat. Thirty-eight WASP were killed in service.
They were under appreciated, overlooked and the first women ever to fly U.S. military aircraft. For that they will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. President Barack Obama signed a bill in 2010 that gives each WASP or her family the highest honor a civilian can receive.
“Nobody thought about awards when we were doing this, we just thought about the feeling of being able to fly those great airplanes.” But she was proud to receive the much-awaited recognition and spoke fondly about the girls she served with.
She trained in Sweetwater, Texas, and served for about a year, doing engineering test flights on various planes. When a new aircraft was tested, or an older one had to be checked after repairs, that was a job for the WASPs. They tested the planes to make sure they were safe for male pilots to use in combat.
It was like being a guinea pig, but Mrs. Bent said that was part of the fun.
“You did it every day, like pounding a typewriter,” she said. “You just took your turn and tested the plane. We were always scared before check rides. … But immediately, the adrenaline sets in. So you just do it.”
How female pilots were treated by their male counterparts differed from base to base; it depended on the commanding officer. “Some of them thought women shouldn’t be flying, others thought it was fine,” Mrs. Bent said. Sometimes, junior male officers weren’t sure whether to salute the women. Sometimes they said unkind things. Mrs. Bent said she was too busy to care.
“We proved women could be taught to fly the same as men,” she said.
Women pilots who served in World War II were considered civilians, even though they had almost the same training as male cadets and served alongside military officers. They didn’t get any benefits: if a WASP died in service, her family had to pay to bring her body home. They weren’t recognized as veterans until 1977.
“They performed these magnificent things because they were asked to, but they had to do it better, because they had to prove themselves,” said Nancy A. Parrish, whose mother flew twin-engine bombers in World War II. “They really had to prove every time they got into a plane that they could fly it. They proved airplanes don’t know the difference between a man and a woman.”
Many women lost their husbands in the war; Mrs. Bent found hers. She was June Braun when she met a fighter pilot who had just returned from combat in North Africa. He was John T. Bent, known to friends as Jack, and he noticed her while she was sitting with a friend at the Air Force base in Merced, CA.
“He asked, ‘May I sit with you?’ He did, and two and a half months later, we were married.”
They were married at the chapel on base, in their uniforms, in July 1944. “I didn’t have any civilian clothes with me,” Mrs. Bent said. So the first thing she did on her honeymoon was buy a purple suit, a matching hat and black suede sandals.
After the war, the couple lived in Kingsport, TN Chicago and Rochester, NY. They had two daughters. Mr. Bent worked for Kodak and Mrs. Bent designed jewelry for fun. Neither of them flew planes again, but they took up gliding as a hobby. And they traveled around the world.