FlyGirl: longtime Manhattan Beach resident Edna Davis is among the Forgotten Fliers of WWII whose story will be told in an upcoming television miniseries
by Randy Angel
On a clear morning above Dodge City, Kansas, in 1943 Edna Modisette Davis became the first woman to solo pilot the twin-engine Martin B-26 Marauder. The hard-to-fly World War II bomber, with its cigar-shaped fuselage and stubby wings, didn’t have a good reputation.
Its loss rate in strafing missions over North Africa was 90 percent. Combat pilots were refusing to fly the plane they dubbed the “The Widow Maker” and “The Flying Coffin.”
Davis was one of 17 women pilots transferred from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to Dodge City to learn how to pilot the bombers.
“Our job was to show it could be flown, and basically, embarrass the men,” the 94-year-old Manhattan Beach resident recalled.
The plane’s safety record wasn’t Davis’ biggest concern before her historical flight.
She was more concerned about her three male crewmembers. Only after they were threatened with being court-martialed did they finally agree to climb aboard with her.
“The men didn’t think women were stable enough,” Davis laughed. “But we showed them. We trained the same as the men without any special compensation. But that didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to fly.”
Davis’ story is one of many that will be told in FlyGirls, a dramatic ten-part television miniseries in development by The Red Door Films about the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and the barriers these courageous women broke while serving their country.
The project has been a labor of love for Oscar-nominated Director Matia Karrell (Cadillac Dreams, Behind the Red Door), who has been researching the WASP for more than 20 years.
After her mother’s death, Karrell came across two photographs of her mother – one where she was wearing a uniform and the other showing her standing in a group of women dressed in men’s overalls.
Sending copies of the photos back to Boston, Karrell discovered that the MWDC on the uniform stood for Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps, a volunteer group during WWII that served as plane spotters.
“I knew about Rosie the Riveter. I knew about Amelia Earhart. How was it that I had never heard about these women?,” Karrell said. “It turns out that there was a lot of women’s military history that I knew nothing about and that’s usually the extent of most people’s knowledge. What people don’t know is the story of an extraordinary group of women pilots, who came from all parts of our country to fly for Jackie Cochran and the WASP. What people haven’t seen, are the amazing images of women who have that look: determined; strong. What people haven’t learned is that these women have an indefatigable passion to contribute to their country’s war efforts.”
Karrell is quick to point out that FlyGirls is a dramatic limited television series and not a documentary, possessing the power of storytelling that can be seen in some of the most memorable films and miniseries in the last 15 years, including Band of Brothers (2001), Island at War (2004), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Days of Glory (2006), and The Pacific (2010), Red Tails (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), American Sniper (2014).
“What they have in common is memorable characters,” Karrell said. “Narrative storytelling can humanize a time in history that makes that era come alive. It is by experiencing the characters’ lives through their eyes that makes us cry, laugh, or even scream back at the screen. This is palpable storytelling. This is what we want for FlyGirls.”
Karrell made a promise to her dear friend Violet Cowden, (WASP Class 43-W-4, 1916-2011) that she would do whatever it took to tell their story..
“In 2009, 300 WASP received the Gold Medal from President Obama,” Karrel said. “Today, less than half of these women are alive. It is crucial that we make this series now for the women that remain with us, so they know they will not be forgotten. This miniseries could not be more timely. Women in the film industry are clamoring for equal opportunity for women’s roles, both in front of and behind the camera.”
FlyGirls is based on Byrd Howell Granger’s book, On Final Approach, and the unpublished diaries of Ann Wood-Kelly, one of 24 American women recruited to fly for British Air Transport Auxiliary before the U.S. entered the War.
Karrell has assembled a team for FlyGirls that includes Oscar-Winning Cinematographer Robert Elswit, award-winning producer Hilary Prentice, and several veterans that serve in roles ranging from production to consultants to bring the project to the screen.
“I didn’t know about these women until I met Matia, and I was shocked by that,” Prentice said. “It’s important to me that young boys and girls know that women haven’t just “arrived” in this more modern time where gender equality is more apparent. Women have played a part of history all down through the ages – we just don’t always get included in the text books, movies, and TV shows. FlyGirls will capture this incredible moment in history. Between the amazing roles this series will create for women and the subject matter, as a producer, one could say this is a project of lifetime.”
Davis has been playing an active role in promoting FlyGirls, attending events that join The Greatest Generation with the Next Generation (recent female veterans of the U.S. Air Force ) in discussions that include the history and future of women serving in the U.S. Military covering such topics as the ground-breaking ruling to allow women in combat in all areas of the Armed Services to the controversial ruling denying women WWII Veterans the right to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.
“I’m absolutely thrilled about this project,” Davis said “ I hope all the generations to come will know the magnificent story of the WASP. It’s about time.”
Davis’ early training in the B-26 Marauder paid off. By the end of World War II, bombing from medium altitudes of 10,000-15,000 feet, the B-26 Marauder had the lowest loss rate of any Allied bomber – less than one-half of one percent.
The B-26 was used in combat by the British, Free French, Australians, South Africans and Canadians, in addition to the U.S. It dropped 150,000 tons of bombs. In 1945, when production of the plane was halted, 5,266 had been built.
Davis was among the first female pilots to serve in the U.S. military. Their duties included ferrying planes across the country and testing them after repairs. WASPs logged over 60 million miles in 1943 and 1944 alone.
Although the WASPs did not see combat, they still got shot at while towing targets for gunnery practice by airborne and anti-aircraft gunners.
“We were in Harlingen, Texas, and had only three weeks to train hundreds of anti-aircraft gunners,” Davis said.
“The weather was terrible. We were sitting on the ground in pouring rain, when all of a sudden the sun shone through and we heard, ‘Everyone up in the air!’
“I was towing a target about 250 yards behind our B-26 for a group of Chinese B-24 gunnery trainees who had just arrived in the U.S. for training. Each gun had different colored bullets, so after the training exercises, the instructors could tell which guns were hitting the target.
“Unfortunately, the B-24 didn’t have an interpreter on board. The Chinese thought they were to shoot at the plane.”
An American pilot in another B-24 helped Davis maneuver out of harm’s way, but not before her fuselage was hit seven times with 50-caliber machine guns. The B-24 pilot was a University of South Carolina law school student named Jack Davis, whose studies had been interrupted by the war.
Edna and Jack married at the end of the war and celebrated their 65th anniversary before Jack passed away in 2013 at the age of 92. The Davis family called Manhattan Beach home since moving to the beach-side community in 1994.
Edna was born in Cleveland in 1921. Her father died when she was seven, but not before instilling in her a yearning to fly by taking her up in his open cockpit plane. After her father’s death, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where Edna’s passion for aeronautics continued to grow.
“It was The Depression, so people didn’t have much money,” Davis recalled. “I got 11 cents a week for my allowance. A double-feature matinee at the movie theater was a dime.
“I had a little tin tea can at home that I had cut a slot in and labeled it ‘Flying Money.’ I would save my nickels and dimes, and when I had enough, my mother would take me to Clover Field (now Santa Monica Airport), where I would pay 50 cents and a pilot would take me up for a 15 minute ride.”
After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Davis enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where she took extra classes to earn her degree early. With the threat of war and recognizing the need for pilots, the school began a Civil Air Patrol program.
“I ran down to the university and said, ‘Here I am,’” Davis said. “They said, ‘But you’re a girl.’ I know that, I said, but that shouldn’t make any difference. I bugged them and bugged them until they finally told me that Mills College, an all-girls college in Oakland, also had the CAP program and was having trouble filling its quota. So off I went.”
Davis earned her private pilot’s license and joined the WASPs in 1943. Then she traveled to Texas to meet with Jacqueline Cochran, who had proposed employing women pilots in 1939. Cochran was one of the most famous women pilots of the 20th century. At the time of her death in 1980, she held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot, male or female.
“I had to go to Texas to meet Jackie in person because she wasn’t answering my letters,” Davis said. “When we met, she told me that I was too skinny and I had one week to put on weight. I ate and ate and ate, everything I hated I ate.”
Davis was sent to Avenger Field, Texas to begin her military career. Even though the WASPs served a vital role in the war effort and records show that 38 women pilots were killed in aircraft accidents, it wasn’t until 1977 that Congress finally recognized the WASPs as military veterans, enabling them to take advantage of the benefits of other World War II veterans.
After the war ended, Jack Davis finished law school and Edna earned her commercial pilot’s license. She logged more than 2,000 hours in the air before curtailing her flying in 2004.
Not one to stay grounded, Davis kept involved with aviation in different ways. She was the owner and president of a travel agency in Los Angeles, The Tour Company, where she organized group tours to Africa. She has visited 187 countries on her trips around the world.
“I love to travel, especially in the air,” Davis said. “As soon as I would get home from a trip, I began planning my next. It really is an addiction.”
Every now and then on commercial flights outside the U.S., Davis would give the flight attendant her pilot’s license and have it passed up to the cockpit, where she would be invited to fly.
“It was such a thrill for me,” Davis said. “One year, I was taking a group of 17 ladies on a tour, and we were flying over Ethiopia, where they were having a war. It was decided that we should get out of there, and I was asked to come up and sit in the right seat of an old DC-3, a plane that could go on forever and any pilot could fly. So I flew it over north Ethiopia back to the capital.
“The male pilot kept correcting me — ‘I said 60 degrees, not 65.’ I felt like I was back in training.”
Davis also stays active with the WASP. She has served as their vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
Along with making history, Davis has always fought to preserve it. She became a board member of the B-26 Marauder Historical Society (MHS) in 1997, later serving as secretary and editor of its publication, The Thunder.
“Pilots who flew the B-26 Marauder have a special bond,” Davis said. “Despite its early reputation, it really was a remarkable plane. It was the fastest landing plane, which made it fun to fly.”
in 2003, Davis broke another gender barrier, becoming one of the first women to join the “Order of Daedalians,” an organization begun after World War I to honor people who lost their lives in an aircraft. In 2003, the previously all-male organization opened its doors to WASPs.
“It was great fun to be one of the first women in the club,” Davis said. “But I’m used to being around only men.”
To view the trailer, learn more or to get involved with the project, go to flygirlstheseries.com.