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Michigan’s last surviving WWII Women Airforce Service Pilot dies at 97

Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots on a runway in Laredo Texas, in 1944.

COURTESY U.S. AIR FORCE

By KRISTEN JORDAN SHAMUS | Detroit Free Press | Published: February 2, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Michigan’s last surviving World War II fly girl, Jane Doyle of Grand Rapids, has died.

Doyle, who received the Congressional Gold Medal for serving in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during the war, was 97 when she died Friday at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Born Mildred Jane Baessler in Grand Rapids, she was a was a trailblazer, and was among 1,102 women recruited to fly stateside for the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war, freeing up male pilots to serve in combat.

She was among 38 Michigan women who served as WASP pilots during the war.

“The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots were groundbreaking in the same way that the iconic Rosie the Riveters were — one in flying and one in building the aircraft,” Kristen Wildes, director of the Ada Historical Society, told the Free Press for a 2017 news story about Doyle.

“When the men left to serve in the war, these remarkable women stepped in to assist in the war effort and get the jobs done. Through their dedication and service, the WASPs got a foot in the door of a future that would slowly open to women in aviation.”

Doyle told the Free Press during a 2017 interview that her father, Karl Baessler, was a German immigrant who worked for the Pere Marquette Railway.

It was her mother, Emma Baessler, who took her to see the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh when he came to Grand Rapids in August 1927. She recalled hearing Lindbergh speak in the outdoor amphitheater at John Ball Park. Doyle was just 6.

It wasn’t until she enrolled in what was then Grand Rapids Junior College in 1939 that Doyle considered flying an airplane was something she could do.

“I was taking engineering drawing and I was the only girl in the class,” Doyle said. “ I was ordered to sit in the back in the corner and the instructor came in and was talking to the fellas about this Civilian Pilot Training Program.

“After the class, I went up and said, ‘How about women? Can I get in?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ll find out.’ And then he told me that one woman could get in for every 10 men.

“Men had to be 5-foot-4, but women could be 5-foot-2½. So I stretched, and passed the physical and got into the program that summer.”

By the fall of 1940, Doyle was enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and flying with the Civil Air Patrol to keep her pilot’s license.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Doyle’s brother, Fredrick Baessler, enlisted in the Navy as an officer, serving on a destroyer in the Pacific. Her sister joined the American Red Cross.

And one day, a telegram arrived.

It was from Jacqueline Cochran, the founder of a flying program that was recruiting female pilots from around the country to join the war effort.

“I got a telegram asking, was I interested? … I responded that I was interested.

And then I got a notice that said … I had to go pass a physical at Selfridge Field,” Doyle said.

She passed the tests and made her way to Texas for seven months of training at Avenger Field in the town of Sweetwater. Cochran was insistent that her pilots would be trained to fly every aircraft in service.

Altogether, Doyle and the other WASPs flew 60,000,000 miles of operation flights from 1942 to 1944 and piloted 78 types of aircraft, according to Kimberly Johnson, the director of special collections at Texas Woman’s University, the repository of historical information about WASP pilots.

Because they weren’t considered part of the military at the time — they were civilians — the WASPs had to buy their own uniforms and to cover the costs of traveling to the training center and to their assigned bases. They had to pay rent and to cover other expenses. And when a woman died on the job — as 38 of them did — her family got nothing.

“For those that were lost, whose lives were given during the war, the government didn’t pay to get them back home, for their families to lay them to rest. There was a lot of sacrifice, but they did so willingly,” Johnson said.

“What they did was open so many doors.”

Doyle met her husband, Donald Doyle, a flight instructor and check pilot, at Freemont Field in Indiana in June 1944.

“He had to check me out along with the engine,” she said, chuckling. Two months after they met, Jane Baessler became Jane Doyle.

“They said it wouldn’t last a year,” Doyle said. Instead, it lasted 67 years, and gave them five children, a dozen grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.

Doyle didn’t do much flying after the WASP program was disbanded.

“I rented a small plane and flew around to keep my hours up … but I didn’t have any real purpose,” she said. “And then we had a family and we settled down, and so I gave it up.”

Though she had a degree in design from the U-M College of Architecture, she worked at a school for visually impaired children for a few years, then took a series of jobs for Aquinas College.

Doyle was proud of the work she did during the war.

“They call us pioneers, … the women in different fields of aviation, even the astronauts and the gals in the military, they all say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be doing this today.’ ”

Visitation is planned for 2-5 p.m. Sunday at the Arsulowicz Brothers Remembrance Chapel, 3525 Remembrance Road, Walker, Mich. A burial mass is to be celebrated at 11 a.m. Monday at the Parish of the Holy Spirit, 2230 Lake Michigan Drive NW, Grand Rapids. She will lie in repose one hour prior to the Mass, with interment at Rosedale Memorial Park Cemetery, 50 Lake Michigan Drive, Grand Rapids.

The family suggests memorial contributions in her honor may be made to the National WASP WWII Museum, 210 Avenger Field Road, Sweetwater, Texas 79556.

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