‘They did not recognize us for anything, even flags on our coffins’

Nadine Nagle was accustomed to teaching in a classroom more than flying in the cockpit of a warplane.

But the Kettering woman signed on to become one of a select few in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in the midst of World War II.

Her life changed Jan. 3, 1943 when her husband, Dale Canfield, was killed in a bomber crash in England on a mission to bomb German submarine pens in France.

“At his death, that just kind of ruined my life,” Nagle, 95, said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

She read a magazine article about Jackie Cochran, who formed a group of women pilots who ferried warplanes across the country to help the war effort.

Nagle, who grew up on a crop farm and was a school teacher in her native Kansas, wanted in.

“I thought if Dale isn’t here to fly, I will fly in his place,” she said.

She traveled to Wichita to earn a pilot’s license. Later, in April 1944, she trekked to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to begin seven months of learning how to fly “the Army way.”

“It was exactly the same training that the male cadets were getting” prior to deploying, she said.

The WASPs were considered civil service aviators, she said, and weren’t officially accepted into the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force.

Most of the WASPs-in-the-making had jobs far apart from the world of 1940s aviation. They were factory workers, teachers, nurses, businesswomen, a pro-golfer and even a Broadway dancer, she remembered.

“It was wonderful to get there and meet all these other kinds of women,” she said.

The hardest part of her training was learning to fly at night, she said.

“I was so afraid I wasn’t going to pass then I cried and my pillow was wet with tears,” she said.

Of the 105 women who started in her class, 55 graduated. And so did she.

“The ladies were washed out because they could not fly the Army way,” Nagle said.

She ferried passengers and planes, such as the troop carrying C-47 Skytrain and the B-24 Liberator bomber.

When D-Day arrived, Nagle “knew that things were going to be coming to a close” on the warfront.

Before the war ended, the WASPs would be out of the cockpit. Congress disbanded the women’s aviators group in December 1944 – despite Cochran’s attempt to make the WASPs a full-fledged part of the military.

Of the more than 1,000 women who became WASP pilots, 38 died flying in uniform. Since they were not part of the military, the female aviators were not recognized as veterans and did not get any death benefits, Nagle remembered.

“We were civil service, and it was sad that we were not remembered,” she recalled. “… In the beginning, they did not recognize us for anything, even flags on our coffins.”

When she left the WASPs, she continued to serve in the American Red Cross. “I did not want to get out of uniform,” she said.

But she never returned to the cockpit.

“My goal in life was married, family and teacher, so that’s what I did,” she said.

In 1947, she married Frank Nagle, an Air Force officer, and the couple had four children. Nagle’s career brought them to the Miami Valley when he was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She retired in 1982 as a kindergarten teacher.

She’s acted as a mentor to young women with aspirations in aviation for decades. A granddaughter graduated from the Air Force Academy and became an aviation maintenance officer.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that recognized the WASPs as World War II veterans.

In 2010, the Women Airforce Service Pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Nagle joined her fellow WASPs there. “It was a wonderful life and the WASPs taught me one thing: that I would be able to do anything that I wanted to do,” she said.

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