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Three WAVES navigators pose in a U.S. Navy flying boat at Naval Air Station (NAS) San Diego in August 1945. From left: Lieutenant junior grade Cecilia Heimlich, Ensign Helen Mayer and Lieutenant Elizabeth Allan. (Mike Minnich)
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WAVES Air Navigators

U.S. Navy WAVES were the first American female military personnel whose duties were truly those of regular aircrew members.

By Mike Minnich

Of the many thousands of individuals who wore wings and flew in support of America's massive war effort between 1941 and 1945, one small category has been virtually overlooked by the history books. They were women, but they were not the renowned WASPs (Women's Air Force Service Pilots) who tested and ferried Army aircraft Stateside, nor were they Army or Navy flight nurses who saved lives aboard medical evacuation cargo planes from Normandy to Okinawa.

America's unknown women fliers of World War II were a small handful of aerial navigation instructors in the U.S. Navy. The WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) earned a place in aviation history as the very first American female military personnel whose duties were truly those of regular aircrew members. The WASPs were officially federal civil servants during the war and were only retroactively militarized in 1977, while the flight nurses had a function that pertained to other passengers, not operation of the aircraft itself.

Unforgiving Work

There were a lot of ways a flier might die in World War II -- and sometimes the enemy had nothing to do with it. "On one of my early nighttime instructional flights well out into the Pacific from Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif., I was keeping my own navigation chart as usual," recalls Betty Turbiville of Gainesville, Fla., then a lieutenant junior grade in the WAVES. "[I] noticed that the hourly position reports being sent back by the designated crew navigator were getting farther and farther away from my own plots. He insisted that his were correct. At the turn-back point, he gave the pilot an easterly heading for our return to San Francisco.

"Well, I'd also been keeping a fuel-burn curve, and at that point I went up into the cockpit and said to the pilots, 'If you don't change this heading to due north right now, we're going to end up out of gas and over the mountains of central Mexico!'

"The aircraft captain complied...and we landed in San Francisco Bay down to our last few gallons of fuel. After that incident, if the crew navigator couldn't get good star shots, or was more than 50 miles off my findings relative to his position report, I aborted the flight."

Aerial navigation -- especially over water -- is an unforgiving task, and at the end of that dark night in late 1944 there would not have been too many supporters aboard one Navy flying boat for the argument that women could not handle the job. The saga of how a small group of WAVES came to wear aerial navigator wings begins with a message distributed throughout Stateside naval bases in the early summer of 1943.

Beginning Of The WAVES

"I don't think we ever learned exactly how that first dozen of us WAVES officers were selected to attend the Naval Air Navigation School down in Hollywood, Fla.," one-time Ensign Helen Feleki recalls. "There were some rumors that it was based on seeing mathematics training in our academic backgrounds, or possession of a private pilot license.

"I'd only reported for duty as assistant communications officer at the naval air station in Pasco, Wash., a few weeks before (this was June of 1943, just after I was commissioned) when a circular came around talking about a chance for female officers to volunteer for training to ultimately become air navigation instructors," she continues. "My CO suggested that I might be interested, so I put my name in and thought no more about it.

"Then, in late July, I was at breakfast one Sunday morning and some of the pilots showed me an article in the newspaper announcing this new training for WAVES, and it said I was going to be one of the students in the first class! A week later, my official orders arrived."

Feleki reported to Hollywood, Fla., just north of Miami, on August 7, 1943, and was billeted at the Hollywood Beach Hotel -- which, like many others, had been taken over by the military to serve as barracks or training facilities. The Naval Air Navigation School (NANS) had just been established there after the Navy let lapse a contract to train at the Pan American Airlines navigation school in nearby Coral Gables.

"We were assigned to the second floor, which was also being used for many other kinds of Navy activities," says Feleki. "We had 1,700 male officers on the floors above us, I recall. I'll never forget my first day there. I got in late, and must have missed the security briefing, because I later went back to my room that evening, turned on the light -- and heard all these shrill whistle blasts coming from the beach. They weren't male admirers; it was the Coast Guard beach patrol letting me know that my blackout curtains hadn't been lowered!"

Class Work

The 17-week air navigation course, which included 88 male students in the inaugural class for a total of 100 trainee instructors, imposed a full work schedule on the participants. Classroom activity ran from 0730 hours until lunchtime, and in the early weeks much of each afternoon was devoted to sports, for physical training. After dark, the students and instructors gathered on the roof of the Hollywood Beach Hotel at all hours -- depending on what constellations needed to be observed -- to study astronomy and the elements of celestial navigation. And long hours were spent each evening on homework assignments.

"In class, we studied not only all types of navigation techniques, but also aerology, which is meteorology as it relates to the air," Feleki recalls. "We had to draw countless weather maps, do forecasts, and master new terms like isotherm, isobar, occlusions and the adiabatic lapse rate."

On test days, there were the dreaded four-hour exercises known as a "dry swim" -- navigating a lengthy hypothetical flight among remote islands in the Pacific and making use of everything from the Mark-III plotting board to the HO-218 Air Almanac.

Training Flights

Starting midway through the second month of training, many afternoons were spent on in-flight training. Students navigated twin-engine Beech SNBs, similar to the Army's AT-11 Kansan, to points across the southeastern United States and out to the Keys, Cuba or the Bahamas and back. A total of 50 flight hours had to be logged by each student.

"Our training flights were out of Opa-Locka airport, which was a 17-mile ride from Hollywood in a rickety bus with inward-facing wooden bench seats that we soon nicknamed 'the cattle car,'" Feleki remembers. "I was one of the two shortest people in our class -- the other was Ensign Mary Freas, who got the nickname 'Sunshine' at nav school because she wasn't exactly a morning person, and had some difficulty with our early schedule -- and they had to issue us our own custom-fitted parachutes.

"Well, Navy regs said a chute had to be repacked before each flight, and if ours hadn't been, we couldn't fly that day, because we couldn't just grab any old spare. So, we'd end up going bowling that afternoon, and would have to make that awful 34-mile round trip to Opa-Locka even more times, to get our 50 flight hours accomplished."

Public Relations

Feleki's roommate at Hollywood was Ensign Madeline Burks, who would soon be known as "Alabam" by the other WAVES women because of her strong southern accent. Burks has never forgotten her first day of classes at Hollywood. "Because the 12 of us were the first women in the Navy to get into the flying side of things, there was a lot of public-relations activity when we arrived at Hollywood," Burks says. "Dozens of photos were taken of us in different locations, including out at the airport, in or next to the SNBs.

"For one of these shots, I was handed an octant -- an air-navigation cousin to the sailor's sextant -- and asked to look through it," says Burks. "Well, I'd certainly never held one before, and, yes, I ended up having my picture go out to all kinds of newspapers...with me holding the unit upside down! I got kidded about that picture everywhere I subsequently went in the Navy."

According to Burks, the person who got WAVES into the air navigation instructor business was a female senior officer in Washington, D.C., Lt. Cmdr. Joy B. Hancock, later a captain. From 1946 to 1953, she was director of the entire WAVES organization. "I remember Lt. Cmdr. Hancock came down to Hollywood and spent several days visiting with us, asking how we were doing and what we thought of the course," Burks says. "She apparently had put up quite a fight in Washington to get women into this previously all-male field."

Teaching

A new class was formed at the NANS every two months, and by the end of the war at least 100 WAVES trainees had become qualified aerial navigators. The standards were tough; anything lower than a 3.2 grade-point average out of a possible 4.0 got a candidate "bilged" out of the course. Some of the women went on to fly regularly while providing advanced navigation instruction at operational bases on the East or West Coast, but many others found that teaching duties kept them mostly earthbound in the classrooms.

"After graduation, I was assigned to Naval Air Station Olathe, Kan., where I instructed the cadets in basic navigation," Feleki recalls. "Then I was sent to Quonset Point, R.I., for instructor training on the Celestial Link navigation trainer, a device that helped aircrews learn how to handle nighttime long-distance flying. After that, I went to NAS Oakland, Calif., where finishing touches in navigation were provided to multiengine crews prior to their departure on a 'Trans-Pac' -- their trans-Pacific flight over to the war zone. I wasn't there long, though, when things wound down as the end of the war approached, and I ended up as public relations officer at NAS Livermore, Calif."

Madeline Burks was also stuck in a staff job for many months after graduating from NANS -- but she got back in the air during the last months of the war. "Upon graduation from nav school," Burks recalls, "three of us -- including Lt. j.g. Florence Judge, who I believe was the only WAVES navigator to have a close call during our training, when her SNB lost one of its engines and they had to make an emergency landing over near Fort Myers -- were sent to Annapolis, Md., to work at the Air Navigation Training Office, which was part of the Chief of Naval Operations organization. The duties there were to publish the instructional material for all the various phases of naval aviator training throughout the United States. My main job was to issue all the exams and course syllabi for the 93 CAA War Training Service primary flight schools."

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