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DeBary woman among WWII pilots honored in Washington
By Pat Hatfield
posted Apr 26, 2010 - 10:48:27am
As the men went off to fight in Europe or on islands in the Pacific during World War II, women took over on the homefront. They worked in factories. They planted victory gardens. They folded bandages for sending overseas.
Some women went into the service themselves. They have been little honored over the years, until recently.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) weren’t even recognized as veterans until 30 years after the fact.
Kathleen Hilbrandt of DeBary served her country in the WASPs during World War II.
“We ferried airplanes and towed targets and tested airplanes,” she said.
The women’s assistance freed up men for overseas duty.
Hilbrandt taught men how to fly.
She and a group of 200 or so WASPs traveled to Washington, D.C., in March, where they received Congressional Gold Medals in recognition of their service.
“We just felt like we were doing something to help the country,” Hilbrandt said.
Born on Long Island, N.Y., in 1924, Hilbrandt couldn’t join the WASPs until two years after the corps was formed in 1942. Before 1944, women pilots had to be at least 25 years old, with 500 hours of flight time, to be accepted. In 1944, a rules change allowed women to join at age 18.5, with 35 hours of flight time. Hilbrandt was 19 in 1944. She had a pilot’s license and 85 hours.
How did her parents react to the 19-year-old going off into service?
“My father was thrilled,” Hilbrandt said. Her mother, not so much.
Though he never flew, Hilbrandt’s father grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island. He saw Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh fly in and out of the local airport during the 1930s.
It was from her father that Hilbrandt got her fascination for flight.
As soon as she graduated from high school in Springfield, N.J., in 1941, Hilbrandt went to work for an insurance company, and started taking flying lessons at Staten Island Airport. She could afford only a little bit of training each week.
She built up her flight time, and worked in 1943 at the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors as a plane captain and mechanic on Grumman TBM Avengers.
As a WASP, Hilbrandt was stationed at Eagle Pass Air Force Base in Texas, where she taught male cadets instrument-flight techniques “under the hood,” or without being able to see the terrain.
The WASPs were keenly aware of differences in how women were treated in the service. Hilbrandt counts herself lucky to have had a commanding officer who appreciated the women and what they were doing.
After the WASPs were deactivated at the end of 1944, Hilbrandt returned to New Jersey, got a flight instructor’s rating, and taught flying at Lambros Seaplane Base and Mellor-Howard Seaplane Base, both in Ridgefield Park.
In 1948, she went to work for the Bendix Aviation Corp., where she stayed until retiring in 1981.
Hilbrandt never lost her early fascination for flying.
In 1960, she and pilot Selma Cronan flew a Cessna 172 in the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, know as the “Powder Puff Derby.” Bendix Aviation sponsored the pair.
Hilbrandt has been an active member of The Ninety-Nines Inc. International Organization of Women Pilots. She still goes on flights with organization members, and attends flying events.
Hilbrandt was thrilled to receive her Congressional Gold Medal. The invitation came from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
During a ceremony in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, fewer than 200 WASPs watched as one went forth to accept the Gold Medal on behalf of all of them.
“I was moved to tears,” said Hilbrandt, now 86.
The actual gold medal will go into the Smithsonian Institution.
Hilbrandt and each of the other WASPs at the ceremony received a copy of the gold medal, cast in bronze and covered with gold leaf. Each woman had a military escort who made the presentation.
Hilbrandt proudly displayed hers.
A total of 1,102 women joined the WASPs during the war. Most are receiving the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously; fewer than 300 are still alive.
Hilbrandt said Emancipation Hall was overflowing with more than 1,700 people for the March 10 ceremony. The Air Force String Quartet played. Speaker of the House Pelosi welcomed the WASPs. Newsman Tom Brokaw was one of the speakers. Deanie Parrish of the WASPs accepted the medal on behalf of all of the corps.
Hilbrandt said she will cherish the memory.
She’s lived in DeBary since 1991, coming to the area with her sister Frances “Marie” Adace. Never married, Hilbrandt has numerous nieces and nephews. Niece Loretta Leftly still lives locally with her five children. Hilbrandt returns to New Jersey often to visit other relatives.
Life is good. She’s active in the Village Improvement Association.
Hilbrandt cherishes her flying experiences and her medal. Even 66 years later.
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