The Woman who Flew a B-17

On a hot September day in 1923, in the rural community of Butler, in east Tennessee, 8-year-old Geneva Slack was playing with her doll in the shade of an old walnut tree on her family’s farm. It was a quiet, peaceful day with crickets chirping in the grass, honeybees buzzing lazily around the daisies and birds tweeting sweetly in the branches. Suddenly a loud roar pierced the stillness, frightening the little girl. It took her a few seconds to realize it was coming from high above her in the sky. She ran out into the field and looked up in time to see a large object fly over, making a loud noise and leaving a thin trail of white smoke.

“It looked like a giant bird, a big, beautiful metallic bird,” she told me, almost sixty years after that eventful afternoon. “I ran into the house and asked my father what it was. He said it was an airplane.”

For the next several days, she looked into the sky and hoped to see another plane flying over. And she wasn’t merely contented to see one; she wanted to be in one, flying it through the clouds, high above the trees and the fields. It became an obsession.

On that summer afternoon almost sixty years later, in 1982, when I met Geneva Slack, she introduced herself as Mrs. Scharlau. “But you can call me Gene,” she added. “You know, like Gene Tierney, the old movie star.”

She had contacted The Elizabethton Star, where I was working as a summer intern in the newsroom, with an idea for a feature story. She said her husband, Robert Scharlau, had lost both of his legs but still managed to run a large farm, even driving the tractor and helping with the harvesting. Our editor asked me if I’d like to interview Mr. Scharlau and write the story. I was 19 and had only been given a few minor assignments, so I jumped at the chance and drove up to Butler. It was easy to find the farm on one of the back roads at the edge of Roan Creek, and it was Mrs. Scharlau who answered the door of the big white house with its expansive front porch.

She led me into the comfortable living room, where I was introduced to her husband. “I know why you are here,” he said. “But I am not the real story in this family. My wife is the one you should interview.”

I looked at him with a puzzled expression as he motioned toward the wall on which several framed photos were hanging.

“Just look around you,” he said. “Go ahead. Take a close look at those pictures.”

It was then that I noticed they were military photos, with women standing next to planes, women in marching formation, women climbing out of fighter jets.  And my eyes fell onto the portrait of a pretty young woman wearing a uniform.

“Is that you?” I asked, turning toward Mrs. Scharlau, and she nodded. She told me the photos were taken during World War Two. “I was a WASP,” she added. “You’ve probably never heard of us, but we played a very important part in the war effort. I don’t think our story has ever been told.”

When I got back to the newspaper office later that afternoon, Rozella Hardin, our editor whom everyone called “Rozie,” asked if I had enjoyed meeting the unusual farmer. “Oh yes,” I said. “He was very nice, but I have a different story. I’m writing about the farmer’s wife.”

Rozie did not seem especially pleased, but did agree to let me write the article with the understanding that I’d go back and talk to the farmer if she didn’t think it was newsworthy. I said that was fine. The next day I handed her the story and waited for her reaction. The way she smiled told me everything I needed to know, and the story appeared in the paper the following Sunday. I did finally interview Mr. Scharlau, but I didn’t get back to their farm until the next summer.

The dream of flying was very unusual for a poor country girl in the 1920s, but Gene was a very determined young lady and never lost sight of her goal. By the mid 1930s she was working at a factory in Johnson City and one day she spotted an announcement in the newspaper.

“A flying school was opening and students were invited to attend,” she told me. “So I applied. The classes were held in the auditorium of a local high school, and when I showed up for the first class, there were three hundred of us, 297 young men and three women!”

It was obvious on the first day that the three women were going to have a difficult time. “We were not taken seriously,” Mrs. Scharlau said. “The male students treated us like sex objects, always making wisecracks, whistling and flirting. And the instructors didn’t have much faith in us, either. I don’t think they knew how to to handle three girls in a such a large group of men. But we stuck it out and worked very hard.”

When the course was over, the ten students with the highest grade point average were given 50 hours of free flying time, which was an invaluable learning experience. Geneva Slack and her two female classmates were three of the ten. She was awarded her pilot’s license in 1938, but female pilots were a rarity. There were very few commercial airlines in the 1930s and they were not hiring women to fly the planes.

“Now that I knew how to fly, and was darned good at it, I wanted to put my skills into practice,” she said. “But I couldn’t get a piloting job, so I had to figure out another way to use my talent.”

Also having an interest in writing, she convinced the editor of the Johnson City Press Chronicle to let her write a weekly aviation column, in which she could discuss the almost daily advancements in the field and promote women pilots. It was called Heard Above the Prop and was eventually picked up by several local papers.

“Amelia Earhart had recently vanished while trying to fly around the world,” Mrs. Scharlau said. “And I used a lot of column space to encourage other women to take to the skies and finish what Earhart had started. I was tempted to try it myself, but I wasn’t prepared to be quite that daring!”

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered the world war, Miss Slack was no longer satisfied to write her weekly column for the small-town paper. She joined the staff of the Nashville Tennessean as a reporter and also became the public relations officer for the state wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

Her title at the Tennessean was Aviation Editor, but she was also given other challenging duties, which offered her the opportunity to meet and interview important people who were passing through Nashville, including the Prince of Wales and Helen Keller.

“Miss Keller could not see or hear and needed an assistant to interpret my questions and her responses,” Mrs. Scharlau explained. “But I was so fascinated by her lovely face, white hair and clear blue eyes that I kept forgetting to listen to the assistant!”

I was fascinated to learn that her interest in journalism had never waned, and that she had recently completed a biography of a pioneering pilot named Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie “who did more for the advancement of women in aviation than Amelia Earhart. Maybe it will be in print one day, but even if it isn’t, I enjoyed the research and the writing.”

“I’ve also written about my experience as a WASP,” she admitted. “But I don’t think it will ever be published. No one seems to care about us.”

Geneva Slack enlisted in the WASP branch of the military in 1942. The letters stand for Women Air Force Service Pilots. The women were part of a U.S. Army Air Force program that tasked some 1,100 civilian women with noncombat military flight duties during World War II, making them the very first women to fly U.S. military aircraft. During the war, more than 25,000 women applied to be WASPs, 1,074 of them actually graduated and when the war ended in 1945, 916 were on active duty. Geneva Slack was one of them.

“The young women trained for various jobs,” she said. “Some towed targets, others tested aircraft while a few, like myself, ferried aircraft from the factories to the military bases. That was the most dangerous job. The planes only had a few hours of flight time and we were essentially testing them.”

She trained in Sweetwater, Texas and when her training was completed in 1943, as a member of the fifth graduating class, she was stationed in Long Beach, California.

A farmer’s wife when I met her, the former pilot looked back with fondness on her days as a WASP. “Even though the war was an unhappy time for the world, it was a fun time for me,” she said. “I was getting to fly, which was always my first love, and I was helping with the war effort, doing something good for the country and for the men who were risking their lives every day. I was testing the bombers, making sure they were ready for battle. It was a very important job.”

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. She remembered one day when she and four other girls, in an over-crowded plane, came within ten feet of colliding with a B-13 over Arkansas. “I was lucky,” she said. “I didn’t have many close calls, but a lot of the girls were killed. But it was a risk we were willing to take. Dying for one’s country is an honorable death, even if it isn’t on the battlefield.”

The WASPs were women from all over the United States and from a variety of backgrounds. “In my class, there was a concert pianist, a girl whose brother was the mayor of New York City’s Chinatown and a woman from Chicago who said she had once delivered groceries to Al Capone’s hideout!”

Mrs. Scharlau told me she was very proud of her war service as a WASP. “We were a unique group,” she added. “And we were pioneers, the first women aviators in the US military. When we were flying, we didn’t have radar or advanced technology to guide us. We used an old iron compass and a map. Pilots have it easy today.”

She said that when she and her fellow pilots were doing their work, they were too busy to think about any recognition. But in the years since, she felt that the contribution of the WASPs had been overlooked. “You hear about the WAVEs and the WACs but never the WASPs,” she said, shaking her head. “But there was a time when Hollywood did take notice of us.”

In 1944, a motion picture was released called LADIES COURAGEOUS, which did focus on the women pilots who risked their lives to fly aircraft to the bases. “But it was a bomb if ever there was one,” Mrs. Scharlau confessed with a chuckle. “We were glamorized beyond recognition and the movie didn’t show us flying planes as much as it showed us looking for boyfriends. We were shown kissing men in the cockpits of B-17 bombers, which is a very precarious place to kiss anybody.”

She and a group of other WASPs went to a theater to watch the movie. “We were wearing our uniforms, but as the movie went along, we started sinking lower and lower in our seats,” she told me. “We were embarrassed and hoped that no one would notice us.”

When the war ended and the WASP program was disbanded, Gene and many of her fellow pilots continued working for the government, flying old warplanes to airbases. She remembered one particular assignment that was particularly uncomfortable.

“It was the middle of winter and I was told to fly an old bomber from Ponca City, Oklahoma to an air force base in South Dakota,” she said. “The plane had an open cockpit and before I got to South Dakota, I flew into a blizzard. I had to fly as close to the ground as possible and by the time I reached the base, my hands were so frozen that my fingers had to be pried loose from the controls.”

By 1950 she had flown for the last time and settled permanently on solid ground. But she continued her career as a journalist, first penning articles for the Tennessee Bureau of Aeronautics and then hosting her own radio program called Mike-Flight which was broadcast over NBC. And in the early 1950s, she produced Tele-Flight, a program that aired on one of Nashville’s first television stations.

Another chapter of her life began in 1952, when she married Robert Scharlau and accompanied him to his Army post in Hawaii. From there they lived in Virginia, Texas and Arizona before retiring to Johnson County, Tennessee. “We’ve lived here for almost ten years,” she said. “It’s a quiet peaceful life here. I’ve kept up my writing, and I also paint a little. This is the farm where I was born, so I guess I’ve come full circle.”

As I was leaving, she pointed to a green field beyond the barn.

“Do you see that old walnut tree by the fence? That’s where it all began for me. I still go out there once in a while, lean against the trunk and look up at the sky.”