Petition seeks to recognize trailblazing WWII WASP pilot by renaming Oakland airport
By ERIN BALDASSARI | East Bay Times | Published: October 22, 2018
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — She was a pioneering pilot, flying planes for the military during WWII, a coder in the early days of computers and a tireless community advocate. And now, one Walnut Creek resident is on a quest to rename Oakland International Airport in her honor.
History hasn’t always been kind to women like Maggie Gee, said Tiffany Miller, who posted a petition on the website, Change.org, to rename the airport after the Berkeley native. There are no major international airports in the country named after women. And, she said, it’s about time for that to change.
“Why not? Why can’t we get the airport named in her honor?” Miller said, standing inside the Women in Aviation room at the Oakland Aviation Museum. “She would really represent the personality of Oakland: unique, trailblazer. … People would fly into the airport and say, ‘Maggie Gee? Who is that?’ And they would learn about her and about the WASPs.”
The WASPs, or Women Airport Service Pilots, were a civilian faction of the Air Force who weren’t recognized for their service until more than a decade after the war, though they routinely put their lives at risk for their country, Miller said. She would know; her grandmother, Elaine Harmon, was also one.
They were shot at with live ammunition while pulling gunnery targets for their male counterparts and test-flew planes that had recently been repaired to ensure they were ready for male pilots to fly, she said. They ferried planes from base to base as needed for the war effort and trained new pilots. Thirty-eight WASPs died during their service doing something society at large didn’t think was possible for women to do, Miller said.
At the time, housing was very much segregated in Berkeley, with Chinese-Americans excluded from most neighborhoods, Gee told interviewers at UC Berkeley in 2003 for an oral history project at the Bancroft Library. Gee’s own mother, who was born in Monterey, lost her citizenship under the Cable Act when she married a Chinese-born man, due to immigration laws.
But, despite rampant discrimination, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and Gee saw her friends going off to war, she wanted to do her part in the war effort too, said Harvey Dong, a lecturer of Asian Studies Department at UC Berkeley.
“(Gee) actually changed the way we look at the role of Asian-American women in history,” Dong said. “She broke stereotypes of Asian-American women at that time.”
Gee had spent a number of Sundays with her family watching planes take off from the Oakland airport, Miller said. And she loved Amelia Earhart. So, when she saw a notice advertising the WASPs, she started scraping together paychecks from her work as a draftsman at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard for the $800 to pay for private flight lessons.
With the country still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, trained male pilots were in short supply. So, the military turned to qualified women. Twenty-eight women with commercial flying licenses initially signed up, but by 1944, their ranks had grown to 1,074, said Jean Harman, a Palo Alto resident and fellow WASP who trained with Gee in Texas.
“It’s a mystical thing, flying,” Harman said. “Every WASP was a WASP because she loved to fly.”
Though they were necessary to the war effort, the WASPs were not necessarily welcome in the military, Harman said. Many of her male instructors were annoyed at having to spend their time training women, she said. But the women completed the same training program as the men, learning to fly every plane the military had to offer, including the B-17, a big bomber Gee described as a slow and noisy machine.
It didn’t matter. Gee loved being in the air.
“I felt that I was in another dimension that gave me a sense of freedom,” she told the UC Berkeley interviewers in 2003. “It’s a disassociation with the Earth, that’s really what I liked so much. I felt as if I were above, looking down.”
By the time they graduated, the war was already beginning to wind down. With male pilots returning home, Congress refused to militarize the WASPs, Harman said. And, about two months after they had been reassigned to their respective posts, the program abruptly ended. With no opportunities available to women to fly planes commercially, neither Gee nor Harman ever flew again.
For Harman and her fellow pilots, it was a crushing blow. “We weren’t given severance pay. Even our way home wasn’t paid,” she said. “We were dumped. Just plain dumped.”
Gee returned home, but her service didn’t end there. She finished college at UC Berkeley and became a physicist, working on defense projects at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Working in its theoretical division, Gee designed code for “large computing machines,” she told George Michael, who, in 1998, compiled an oral history of the early days of large-scale scientific computing at the Lawrence lab.
But her spare time was devoted to her community. According to longtime friend Susan Kennedy, Gee served on the rent board in Berkeley, became very involved in the Berkeley Democratic Club and the Berkeley Community Fund, made registering citizens to vote a lifelong pursuit, and advocated strongly for the rights of women.
“She never had her own children or got married, so community was a big part of her life,” Kennedy said. “She was a very outgoing person, and she loved Berkeley.”
It’s this legacy — of a pioneering trailblazer, long overlooked by history, who was devoted to her community — that Miller wants to honor in renaming the airport, she said.
But she’ll have competition.
Another Change.org petition is seeking to rename the airport after Amelia Earhart, whose final flight took off from Oakland and was due to land there before her plane disappeared without a trace somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And there have been past efforts to honor Bessie Coleman, the first African-American pilot to earn an international aviation license, who landed a job as a stunt pilot for the Coast Tire and Rubber Co. in Oakland.
“Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman were amazing pilots,” Miller said. “But Maggie Gee is a local. And she got inspired to fly watching planes take off from the airport, so how poetic would it be to have the airport named after her?”
Earhart and Coleman both have streets near the airport named after them, and Miller is keenly aware of the years it took to make those changes. And even though, as of Sunday evening, her petition had already received nearly 2,000 signatures, Miller knows she’s facing an uphill battle.
It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the signs at the airport, Miller said. But first, she’ll have to convince Chris Lytle, the port’s executive director, to make a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners. And early conversations with the board’s secretary, Daria Edgerly, left Miller less than optimistic, she said.
“There are a lot of streets and buildings at the airport that you could petition the executive director to rename after Maggie Gee,” Edgerly wrote to Miller in an email.
But Miller doesn’t want a street or building named after Gee. Women have been told to “think smaller” for decades, Miller said. Centuries.
“If we showed that we value women’s contributions as a society, I think people’s attitude would change,” she said. “I could take my daughter to the airport and point to the sign and say, ‘See? Maggie Gee’s contributions were so important they named a big airport for her.’ “
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