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The Story of One Wisconsin WASP: Happy Landings, the Jeanette Kapus Story

Jeanette Kapus posing on the wing of an F-86 Sabre.

Jeanette Kapus posing on the wing of an F-86 Sabre.

Whether they were WACs, SPARs, WAVES, or WASPs, no witty acronym or cute nickname could belie the fact that women performed dangerous jobs across the country and around the globe during World War II.  By 1945, there were women serving in every branch of the United States military, standing a remarkable 350,000 strong.  Many of these women dedicated their time in the more traditional role of nurse; others offered their skills as clerical workers.  Even though the original impetus had been merely to “free a man to fight,” it was greatly underestimated at the onset just how many of these women would be truly needed.  Despite the ever-growing demand for men in active combat, the military remained cautious about what duties they would allow women to perform.

It was only after the Europeans proved successful that some American service women were offered more mobility.  This is particularly the case for the WASPs—Women Airforce Service Pilots—an elite group of service women who rose to a different challenge during the war.  Unlike their other sisters in the military—who by this point were all recognized with reserves status by their respective branches—these courageous women put their lives on the line as civilians.  Only a handful of female fliers like Amelia Earhart had ever garnered any significant attention, but over 25,000 women submitted applications to become a WASP.  Only 1,830 were accepted to the elite program, and of them, only 1,074 made it through the rigorous program to reach graduation.  While their numbers were only a small fraction of the other branches of servicewomen, the WASPs lost 38 fliers during the line of duty – attesting to the disproportionate danger of their job.

Even before war was officially declared, Milwaukee-native Jeannette C. Kapus had already set her eyes to the skies.  Encouraged by her father, a World War I veteran, Kapus joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program in Davenport, Iowa in July of 1941.  She was already working as a clerk stenographer at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois just across the river from Davenport, making it possible for her to take evening courses at St. Ambrose College and flight training at Cram Field.

While Kapus worked and studied and the war intensified, famed flier Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran was struggling with how to best suggest the use of female pilots as part of the effort.  She’d already mentioned the idea to Eleanor Roosevelt back in 1939, but she was promptly turned down.  Independently, pilot Nancy Harkness Love toyed with the same issue, proposing a program with the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command, but she too was denied.  Their first efforts were turned down not because of lack of skill, but because of perceived lack of need.  At the onset of the war it was assumed the United States had more than enough male pilots to do the job, and no one had yet seen a reason to believe otherwise.

Fellow WASPs posing together in their flight gear.

Fellow WASPs posing together in their flight gear.

So, Cochran left the United States to offer her help as a captain with the British Air Transport Auxiliary in England, whose country’s dire circumstances left them open to accepting any pilots who could assist.  By 1942, recognizing the ATA success with women in Europe paired with a decline in male pilot availability, General “Hap” Arnold, commander of United States Army Air Forces, rescinded his earlier denials and requested that Cochran and Love start ferrying programs stateside that employed women.  Love assigned a small number of females to the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, putting the WAFS to use in ferrying new aircraft directly from factory to bases or ports.  Cochran’s program was larger in scope, incorporating more women and broader flight-related duties.  In August of 1943, the programs joined together to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Kapus was keenly aware of Cochran’s new program, although she had not met the 200 flight hours requirement.  Eventually, entry requirements dropped to 35 hours, at which point Kapus’ then-38:10 made her eligible.  She applied and was accepted to the 44-W4 WASP class, and became one of only 52 of her original class of 104 to graduate from Sweetwater, Texas on 23 May 1944.  She’d had three, nine week phases of training, with Primary phase requiring 70 hours in either a PT-19 Fairchild or a PT-17 Stearman, Intermediate phase needing 35 hours on the BT-13, 35 hours on the AT-6 the Texan, and Vultee instrument training, and finishing with the Advanced phase which worked with the largest aircraft, demanding 70 hours of cross-country flying, including two solo 1,000 mile flights.         

Aside from ferrying, WASPs delivered a variety of cargo, flew tracking and searchlight missions, worked as instructors, and had the unenviable task of testing aircraft after maintenance, a job Kapus was well familiar with.  Kapus was often asked to try out aircraft after parts were replaced, assuring good working order.  Test piloting was a job male pilots notoriously spoke out against, believing that if they were going to die in an aircraft, it should at least be in combat.  This hazardous assignment then often became the responsibility of the WASPs, and it was not one to be taken lightly.   

In one test flight, a mechanic asked Kapus if he could tag along since he had never been in a plane before. She invited him to test out the new engine, never guessing the mechanic’s first flight might very well be his last.  While flying “fast time” the throttle got stuck, and despite both their best efforts, neither of them could free it.  After radioing the tower for help, she was told to cut the engine and land in a nearby field.  While neither was hurt in the incident, it obviously impacted the mechanic, who made certain to let her know that he was never going to fly again.  Some women were not so fortunate as they had been, such as Kapus’ own roommate Mary Howson, who just prior to their graduation had crashed into another student during a landing, losing her life.

Jeanette Kapus holding flight gear. (WVM Mss 445)

Jeanette Kapus holding flight gear. (WVM Mss 445)

Just when it seemed the WASPs had hit their stride, they were dealt a terrible blow.  On 1 October 1944, each WASP was sent a letter from General Arnold, stating in part “…the nation can count on thousands of its young women to fly any of its aircraft.  You have freed male pilots for other work, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteered services are no longer needed.”  He went on to state that if they continued they’d be “replacing rather than releasing” other men, a sentiment that would ring true for all women who were displaced from their wartime occupations—military and otherwise—once the men came home again.

Kapus’ love for flight didn’t let this set back end her profession.  Instead, she returned to Milwaukee and acquired her flight instructor rating, and taught pilots at what is now Timmerman Airport.  In 1949, she was challenged by AmVets to break the world spin record, which stood at 48.  After coaching and practice, she succeeded with room to spare, clocking a total of 64 spins.  She later unofficially smashed her own record, performing an unbelievable 73 spins.  Kapus was also one of the first women in the state to enlist in the United States Air Force in 1947.  During the Korean War, her request to fly was rejected, instead she served in personnel.  She continued to dedicate the next two decades of her life to the Air Force, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1972.

Jeannette Kapus passed away in Germantown, Wisconsin at the age of 88 in 2009, one and a half years before she was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.  Thankfully, she shared her unique story during her lifetime, and has left extensive information on her days as a WASP in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum archives.  Jeannette Kapus’ uniform and beret are also on permanent display as part of the Museum’s 20th Century gallery.

August 2, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

 

Aug. 2, 1917

 

Dear Folks:-

 

Received your letters and yesterday afternoon received by parcel post a bundle of Saturday Evening Posts from April 7th to July 28th inclusive.  They were all labeled B.K. Mills and had a Western Malleables tag so I judged they came from Mill and have written them thanking them for the package.

Everything is about the same here.  We are not out of quarantine and will not be before Sunday.

This morning I was ordered to report to the Captain’s Office.  He asked me about the camp at Fort Sheridan and how long I was there.  Then he appointed me acting non-commissioned officer in charge of my squad in place of the man we had at first.  Now I am on the same plane as the rest of the drillmasters here as they are only privates acting as non commissioned officers.  Capt. Pierson also asked to what company I had been assigned.  Guess that means a recommend to the Company Commander.

You wrote me about the kit the Red Cross was going to send.  That will be fine.

Of course you can send me a cake for my birthday but don’t send it unless I let you know in advance positively where to send it because I may or may not be with my company.  The cake can come any time.  I don’t know of anything else I want or need.

Had a letter from Ruth today inviting me to dinner Sunday but I am afraid I can’t make it.

Will you please have Will look up and see if he can get me a pocket edition Gillette, one of the new style that comes in a flat metal case.  The one I have is rather bulky to carry around as it won’t roll up in anything small.  If Will can get what I want have him send for it and I will see that he gets the money in a few weeks.

Must stop now.  Love to all,

 

Mortimer.

 

MMLJune26FB

Mortimer Lawrence at Fort Snelling

July 28, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

July 28, 1917

My dear Lawrence-

I must offer apologies to you for not having written you sooner, but tho’t I had. However I have just found out that I did not. Was very glad to hear you had enlisted. I knew you would and if you get a chance to go up for a commission take it. Had you been able to stay I feel sure you would have been one of those selected as officers. Your work was very satisfactory in the Battery & I disliked very much seeing you go. I feel sure you have the qualifications of an officer and your education and intelligence are quite in line with what is desirable in an officer. I should not hesitate to recommend you for examination for commission or for commission in either the Infantry or Artillery.

I feel sure that hereafter the system of officering the Armies to be raised after these contemplated at present be by promotion and commission from the ranks. I have heard that you are a non-commissioned officer, if it is true congratulations. Keep your eye on and work for commissioned grade – Study & work hard, be anxious to absorb knowledge from any one who has it and if you have the wide awake interest and knowledge you exhibited here you will make it alright. If it is a recommendation you want let me know, you can make your own way. Keep your eyes & ears open, use your common sense and keep your mouth closed unless asked about something is the rule for all soldiers who succeed. Let me hear from you again. I shall take great interest in hearing of your advance.

 

Very truly yours

James P. Marley

Capt U.S.A.

July 23, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

Fort Snelling,

July 23, 1917.

Dear Folks:-

Well we are settled here for a week or ten days and then we move again. As soon as the quarantine is raised, which may be tomorrow or not for two weeks, we will be assigned to companies and start work in earnest. At present we have no drills, nothing except a five mile hike each morning and nothing more to do unless detailed to help the cook or guard camp.

We are living here in tents, large square tents which hold eight men. We have eighteen tents on our company street and we are not allowed off the company street. On account of the fellows receiving typhoid inoculations and having sore arms from vaccinations we will have very little drilling during quarantine but after that work will start in regular order. I expect I will be in the 42nd Infantry when I finally get set.

We left Jefferson Barracks Saturday afternoon about 4 o’clock. There were 520 of us and we had a train of a baggage car, for eats, and 12 pullmans and tourist sleepers. We were assigned between 30 and 45 to a car according to size there being 3 men to a section, 2 men in the lower and one in the upper. Each section had a table and we were fed right on the train, not luxuriously, you understand, but plenty of it.

We came via Iron Mountain to St. Louis, CB & L to Burlington, Ia. and CRI & P to Minneapolis, the most direct route possible. Sunday morning we stopped for an hour at Albert Lea, Minn. And everybody got lots of exercise. We arrived here about 4 P.M.

If you can’t find any of my bandanas buy me two more blue ones and send them. I have about a dozen white ones but they take too much washing. Also you might put in one of those hand towels I had at Ft. Sheridan and that small bottle of “DDD” which I think is in the left hand drawer of my bureau.

“Chow time” at Fort Snelling

“Chow time” at Fort Snelling

I don’t need a new housewife because Uncle Sam gave me a perfectly good one but I am going to try to find some kind of a roll for toilet articles when I get into Minneapolis. If you have any thing around the house that I haven’t read and that you aren’t particular in what condition it is returned please send it because we are cut off from any source of supply now.

The weather has been rather warm but the nights have been good both here and at Jefferson Barracks.

Hope you are well. I am fine and eating like a horse. My vaccination worked only a little and didn’t make my arm sore. I hope it took enough so that I don’t get another.

Love to all. Remember me to all who inquire and tell them I like the army fine. I really think it will do me lots of good physically.

Love to all,

 

Mortimer.

Address mail to

5th Recruit Co.

41st Infantry,

Fort Snelling,

Minn.

 

There is no need for a “Mr” or any prefix whatever.

A Son’s Service

More than 122,000 Wisconsin men and women served in the military during World War I, in all branches of service and in hundreds of different units. However, the largest concentration of Wisconsinites served in the 32nd Division, which consisted of the Wisconsin and Michigan National Guards.

Much like today, individual Wisconsin National Guard units were based in communities scattered across the state. When these units were called into federal service, it was a big deal for the civilians in the community as they saw their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, and friends go off to war together. Tracking the whereabouts and well-being of these local men during the war became an important duty and it was often carried out by the local newspaper.

First to Enlist

First to Enlist

For example, the Stevens Point Daily Journal and Gazette carried articles about local men that spanned their enlistment through their returning home over two years later. Articles tracked their movements and promotions, their training and conditioning, the visitors they saw and gifts they received, and their illnesses, injuries, and fatalities. Families shared letters that they received from their loved ones overseas, and the paper reprinted them. These articles provided the citizens of Stevens Point a lifeline to their loved ones during World War I. Today, they provide us with an incredibly intimate and detailed record of exactly what happened to a specific group of soldiers throughout their wartime experience.

Hans and Ella Moen’s son, Russell, joined the Stevens Point National Guard company in April 1917. Ella clipped newspaper articles and, along with photographs and other ephemera, created a 180 page scrapbook. These pages detail her son’s service specifically, but also provide a level of detail about the activities of his unit that are invaluable to researchers today.

The articles in Ella’s scrapbook reveal that Russell Moen, a twenty-nine year old postal worker who was nicknamed “Pug,” was the first local man to volunteer and be physically examined (“found sound as a dollar”) on April 4, 1917; however, the official enlistment papers had not arrived in Stevens Point yet, so Moen had to wait till the next day. George Macnish, another local man, technically signed his papers before Moen, so the article split the honor of first to enlist between the two.

The local company was Troop I of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, and an article two weeks later states that Moen was selected as 1st Lieutenant. “Mr. Moen, while without military training, has the good will and respect of the men and of a large circle of friends. It is believed he will make an excellent officer.”

Ella and Hans Moen

Ella and Hans Moen

From there, the scrapbook describes banquets, ceremonies, and parades in Stevens Point as the community celebrated and sent off their young men to Camp Douglas and then Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas. Interspersed with the articles about the local men are some more general articles about the first American troops arriving in France and the overall effort there, which puts the activities of Moen and the Stevens Point men into context.

As their training hit full gear, the scrapbook begins to include photographs that Russell sent home to his mother. Articles about the unit’s transition from a cavalry troop to Battery E, 120th Field Artillery reflect some uncertainty. George Arnett, who died aboard a ship while crossing the Atlantic, was eulogized as the first Stevens Point man to give his life to the war. Two scrapbook pages later, Ella included a telegram from Russell assuring her that he had arrived safely in England.

Soon after, reprinted letters from Russell to Ella begin to appear along with articles that tracked Battery E’s movements through Europe. Censorship prevented extremely specific information, but the newspapers printed what they could, mixed with calls for liberty loan contributions. The scrapbook reveals that George Macnish, who shared “first to enlist” honors with Moen, died in France in July 1918, one of sixty Portage County residents to die during the war.

Moen Home

Moen Home

Articles from November 1918 celebrate the war’s end and immediately begin tracking the homeward progress of Battery E, sharing rumored embarkation dates. Other articles start to summarize and celebrate the war record of Battery E and the 32nd Division as a whole, including the adoption of the Red Arrow as their insignia. May 1919 finally saw the Stevens Point men return, and items in Ella’s scrapbook detail the parades and celebrations that accompanied them. However, a separate article reveals that Russell did not return with his friends; rather, he chose to remain in France to help with inspection work at the U.S. camp in Brest.

The remainder of the scrapbook contains postcards, photos, and other paper souvenirs that Russell sent home from his months in post-war France and several other countries he visited. His eventual return home in September 1919 is well documented by articles, along with his decision to remain in the National Guard at the rank of Major.

To "Our Soldier Boy"

To “Our Soldier Boy”

Ella’s scrapbook, lovingly dedicated to the service of her son, is a priceless memento for the Moen family. It is an incredibly valuable historical resource for scholars and researchers seeking to learn about an individual, a field artillery battery, or a Wisconsin community’s response to war. It also highlights the value of period newspapers, an often overlooked resource, for learning about those topics. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is proud to preserve it, and the story of Russell Moen’s World War I service.

July 13, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

Dear Folks:-

 

Arrived here O.K. and when I reported to the Recruiting Office was told to be on hand to leave for St. Louis at 8 P.M.

Don’t be surprised if you get a telegram soon saying I am on my way home for I know that the physical exam I received was only a preliminary and we will all get a regular exam when we get to St. Louis.  Maybe they will object to my weight then.

This afternoon I went for a farewell swim in Lake Michigan out at Clarendon Beach.  There is a dandy municipal beach now where we used to go swimming four and five years ago.

Don’t say anything about the Army till you hear from me that things are O.K.

By the way will you have Father or Will find out my draft registration number, my card is #5 of the 4th Precinct of Beaver Dam.  The County board of Exemptions had taken all the names and given them consecutive numbers, so each one must know his new number to determine his fate.

Will let you know how I land in St. Louis.

 

Love to all,

 

Mortimer.

MMLJuly13FB

July 10, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

July 10, 1917.

Dear Folks:-

 

As I wired you this morning I have been discharged on account of being underweight.

Thought I’d like to have a few days vacation so I am going to stop in Chicago and elsewhere but will be home soon.  Don’t worry about me because I am O.K. and am not going to do anything foolish.

Am enclosing two express orders.  The one for Sis includes the T.P.A., hose, pictures and the $5.00 I borrowed Sunday.

 

Love to all,

 

Mortimer.

The La Crosse Light Guard Flag

When the Civil War began and President Lincoln called for volunteers in April 1861, Wisconsin’s volunteer militia companies answered the call. Among the first to offer their services to Wisconsin’s Governor Alexander Randall, the La Crosse Light Guard marched into Madison under a beautiful white silk flag made for them by the ladies of La Crosse and became Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.

On Thursday, May 2, 1861, the Wisconsin State Journal announced the company’s arrival at Camp Randall:

The flag has a personalized dedication painted on the front

The flag has a personalized dedication painted on the front

“The first two companies of the Second Regiment arrived last evening… The La Crosse Light Guard, who were the first to enter the camp, were shown their quarters and relieved themselves of their accountrements…. The La Crosse Light Guards have gray coats and pants, striped and trimmed with black, with a dark blue cap. They bore a white silk flag, with blue fringe and inscribed on an oval ground in the center: ‘Presented by the ladies of La Crosse, July 4th, 1860, to the La Crosse Light Guards.’”

On Tuesday, May 2, 2017, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum officially unveiled that very same flag in its new home on display in the Civil War Gallery. Through the generous donation of La Crosse’s American Legion Post 52, the Light Guard’s flag has once again returned to Madison 156 years later.

The seal painted on the reverse makes this one of the earliest known flags still in existence to bear the Seal of Wisconsin.

The seal painted on the reverse makes this one of the earliest known flags still in existence to bear the Seal of Wisconsin.

Reunited with the rest of its brethren in WVM’s Civil War battle flags collection, the Light Guard’s flag tells the story of the unifying of local and state identity. On the one side is the hand painted personalized dedication from the Ladies of La Crosse – a physical representation of the hometown love and support that those local companies marched off to war with. While on the other side, the flag bears a version of the 1851 Seal of Wisconsin – a symbol of the state that these militiamen volunteered to serve and defend.

With the assistance of those that have cared for and preserved the flag over the last 150 years – especially the American Legion, the La Crosse County Historical Society, and Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Association – this priceless piece of State history will forever stand as a voiceless witness to the deeds of those that answered their country’s call and served their state with the support of their families, friends, and communities back home so many years ago.

La Crosse Light Guard flag

La Crosse Light Guard flag

July 3, 1917 – The Life and Letters of World War I Aerial Observer Lt. Mortimer M. Lawrence

July 3, 1917.

 

Dear Folks:-

Well tomorrow is a holiday and I think we will all appreciate it.  Some of the men are going to march in the parade at Highland Park but I didn’t volunteer so I am not going.

If this letter gets home before my laundry goes please look up my drawing triangles and the steel rule I bought just a couple of months ago and enclose them with the laundry.  They are probably in the left hand drawer of my chiffonier where I put them when I brought them home from the office.  The rule may be inside the case with my drawing instruments.

This morning I went before the Board of Reviews.  Of course I don’t know definitely how I came out but I received the impression that I would be allowed to stay.  I was only in with the board a short time, much shorter than the rest of the men and they seemed satisfied with my answers to their questions which were along the line of general health, normal weight, education and previous military training.  I think my instructors all gave me a good boost.  Well here’s hoping I come out O.K.  I will probably know by the end of the week.

Must go to the Post Office so this goes out tonight.

Lots of love,

 

Mortimer.

 

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs