Once upon a time and not so many moons ago (after my Civil War discussion group’s trip to follow Lee’s Retreat), I was temping in Alexandria, Virginia and would spend my lunch breaks wandering around the neighborhood. There were a lot of eateries and a Whole Foods nearby, but when the allure of eating out wore off, I had to expand my wandering radius, and it’s a good thing I did because I discovered Alexandria National Cemetery.
Talk about a hidden gem!
Holy cow! I’m so glad I discovered this place. Overshadowed by its much bigger, more famous sister Arlington National Cemetery (located less than ten miles away), I had never heard of it, but being my parents’ daughter, I spent almost every subsequent lunch break there, walking the rows of headstones and reading the names.
The cemetery was originally founded in 1862 during the Civil War as a burial ground for Union soldiers stationed in Alexandria to protect DC. By 1864, it was nearly full, which led to the creation of it’s much better known sibling Arlington National Cemetery.
The main feature of the cemetery was a traffic circle, in the middle of which sat a flagpole. By the flagpole, within the traffic circle, were some of the oldest headstones, and a small historical marker said that these were the graves of the four civilians who died in the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth: Peter Carroll, Samuel N. Gosnell, George W. Huntington, and Christopher Farley. That was interesting – these men’s names were lost to history but are notable for a single moment in their lives.
However, beyond the four civilian graves was where I struck gold.
There was a brand new, sparkling white headstone that caught my attention because it was so bright and the engraved text so dark. I saw the name on the front – Ruth Glaser Wright Guhse – and thought it was interesting her name was on the front side of the stone. But then I thought that maybe her husband would still be alive, because the spouse gets the front side until the veteran dies. When that happens, the veteran’s name/service record goes on the front of the stone, and the wife’s name is moved to the reverse side.
Then I read the stone again.
Women Air Force Service Pilots.
This woman was a WASP – an elite group of women who flew planes in non-combatant roles during World War II to free the men for combat flights. That means she was buried in a national cemetery in her own right, not by the merits of a spouse.
So back at my desk, I decided to do an internet search for her on the off-chance there was some sort of information on her. The main hit was a blog dedicated to memorializing the life of each WASP as they passed from this life to the next. You can read her link here: http://waspfinalflight.blogspot.com/2014/10/wasp-ruth-glaser-wright-gushe-44-w-10.html
Information collated from the internet: It looks like she had an early job at North American Aviation (building aircraft?), which inspired her and several female coworkers to learn how to fly. They would drive away to an airfield for weekends to learn how to fly. Then she joined the WASPs and was part of the 44-10 class, where she was trained primarily in PT-17s, then AT-6s. She did instrument training in BT-13s and then flew AT-6s again for advanced and cross-country training. After graduation she was assigned to Aloe Army Air Field in Victoria, Texas, for tow-target duty. The 44-10 class was notable, being called the “Lost Last Class of Avenger Field.” They were called that because “they know they will serve for only 2 1/2 weeks before the program disbands. The women are addressed by Gen. Arnold, who says, ‘It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.'” (Source)
The WASP program was officially deactivated December 20, 1944 (while the war was still in full swing), right after Class 44-10 graduated. Because the members were women, they faced a lot of sexism in applying their skills, training, and patriotism elsewhere. Many women transferred their skills to the army, but many others had to make their own way forward, including paying their own way back home. Ruth – the heroine of this story – applied for a job at Pan Am.
Ouch. In scouring the internet for all references to Ruth, I thought I had read something about these four women suing Pan Am for discrimination and losing, but I cannot locate it. But she was able to travel the world and later, after she married, she and her husband took over a (now extinct) flight school in Western Sacramento called Capitol Sky Park.
The majority of her professional career, however, was as an office/financial manager at an architectural/construction firm. At the WASP Final Flight blog linked above, she is quoted as saying, “I have always felt that the WASP experience was the greatest achievement in my life and everything thereafter was anti-climatic! …I still look to the sky at any sound of aircraft, and remember the good old days…” Imagine going from flying an AT-6 to being an office manager. At least as a stewardess she got to visit exotic places.
Further search results pulled up many editions of the WASP Newsletter, where her name would pop up regularly, usually jetting off to distant parts of the world with fellow WASPs. It was great seeing how she stayed active with the unit and maintained her friendships.
^ A link with a database of WASP newsletters. It’s a little clunky, but searching for “Ruth Glaser” brings up her name several times.
I was also pleased to note she was alive and well in 2010, when the Women Air Force Service Pilots were (finally) recognized for their service and awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama. I was pleased even more to see the number of living WASPs who were able to attend the ceremony. The formal Congressional hearings of the Gold Medal can be found here.
I want to say that Ruth has secured her place on my list of “Badass Women of History” (and she has, definitely). But she’s far from being the only one. If you go here or here, there are so many more accounts of and by these remarkable women during and after the war. We are fortunate that, although this group was elite, there were still nearly two thousand women who all made their own way, who had a sense of adventure, who overcame the odds to join the ranks of history.
Ruth Wright Guhse’s Find-a-Grave entry: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/136963754
Personal accounts of the WASP program: http://www.wbur.org/npr/124367587/wasp-women-with-wings-in-wwii
A summary of the WASP program and aftermath, including campaigns for militarization and veteran status: https://www.npr.org/2010/03/09/123773525/female-wwii-pilots-the-original-fly-girls
Another database of newsletters: https://www.scribd.com/document/270537578/WASP-Newsletter-12-01-72