Maggie Gee’s future was mapped out for her when she entered UC Berkeley as a freshman in the fall of 1941. She was going to be a scientist.
That future didn’t last a year. World War II broke out and Gee, a Chinese-American who was born in and grew up in Berkeley, bid campus life goodbye. She created her own future — and hers was an extraordinary journey, one that has led to the proposal that Oakland International Airport should be named in her honor.
Gee, who was 88 when she died in 2013, was a pioneer of women’s aviation, one of the 1,074 women pilots who flew for the U.S. Army Air Force in relative obscurity during World War II. She followed her time with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) by returning to Berkeley to get a degree in physics. She went back into the army in the early 1950s, then went on to a long career working at the Lawrence Livermore Lab.
About three weeks ago, East Bay resident Tiffany Miller, whose grandmother, Elaine Harmon, trained with and flew alongside Gee in the WASP corps, pushed for the Oakland Airport name change through change.org.
“She was in school at Cal when the war started, and she dropped out,” says Marissa Moss, who was with Gee when she collected a long-delayed Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. “Her mother (Marion) was working in the Richmond shipyards and wanted Maggie to do that. Instead, she worked as a draftsman at Mare Island in Vallejo. But she didn’t stay long.”
Gee had grown up going to Oakland Airport to watch planes take off. She’d dreamed of being a pilot, but as a Chinese-American woman, she couldn’t even go to the local public swimming pool. Becoming a pilot wasn’t happening. The advent of war changed that. The military needed pilots, and some barriers against women were dropped.
“She’d never flown before, didn’t even know how to drive,” Moss says. “She and two friends drove to Texas to enroll in flight school. She taught herself to drive along the way. Then they were off to enroll in WASP training.”
Gee made it, one of just 1,074 to succeed. Her two friends didn’t make the cut. She was assigned to Las Vegas, and for the next two years she would ferry planes to where the military needed them (WASP fliers were considered volunteers and as such were on their own to return to their bases, frequently hitchhiking). She was a test pilot too – not testing new planes as much as testing planes repaired after damage to make sure they were safe enough for male pilots to take into a war in which she had no chance seeing up close.
And from time to time she would help to train male fliers, although three-quarters of a century later, the word “train” hardly does the practice justice. The WASP fliers were used for target practice, with male pilots in training using live ammo. There were relatively few fatalities from the practice, although overall 38 WASP pilots would die before the war was over.
“You have to remember that we were not in a war zone, we were in this country,” Gee said during a talk at Eastside Books in Berkeley about 10 years ago. “They just seemed to treat women different. Most of the fellows were shot at with cameras, most of the women were shot at with live ammunition. I don’t know if anyone was ever shot down.”
In those deaths, the military wouldn’t provide a funeral or even transport the bodies back for burial, citing the fliers’ “volunteer” status. In the second half of her life, Gee was one of many WASP fliers who fought for recognition and veterans benefits. They won the battle, but it would take half a century.
After the war, it was back to Berkeley to get her degree in physics. Gee left the sciences behind for a while after that, running military services clubs (think of the USO) in Germany before returning to the Bay Area. She’d spend the rest of her working life at the Lawrence Livermore Lab and working on community issues, including voter registration, advocating for the rights of women, fighting housing discrimination and representing the Berkeley Community Fund.
“Because she’d been a pilot, I think it gave her the confidence to come back and take up physics,” Harvey Dong, a lecturer in Asian Studies at Berkeley, says. “Not too many women went into physics at the time. She was always a fighter.”
After signing on with the Lawrence Livermore Lab, Gee remained in Berkeley and began carpooling to work. One of the other carpoolers in the group was Warren Heckrotte, who’d been at the Rad Lab run by the Department of Physics at Berkeley before getting his Ph.D. and moving on to Livermore. They hit it off and were a couple for the next 50 years before her death in 2013.
“She was too independent to marry, so they never lived together,” Moss says. “But they were close; and they worked on nuclear physics together.”
Moss, herself a Berkeley alumna and a writer of children’s books, became interested in the Maggie Gee story, went in search of her in the late 1990s and found that she lived practically around the corner in Berkeley. They became fast friends, and Moss wrote a children’s book, Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee, in 2009, although she said it took nearly a decade of shopping the book around before a publisher expressed interest.
The book was published about a year before the WASP fliers who were still alive were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. The Air Force took that time to apologize for the shortsighted way in which the women pilots had been treated in the war.
And there was an apology for the fact that the WASP program was dropped even before the war was over.
“We flew planes, all the planes that were available at the time,” Gee said during her book tour. “We were civilians. They never militarized us like they did with the WACs and the WAVEs. It was … we were competing with the men. It’s difficult to believe now, but there was a ceiling at the time. There really was.”
So when about 300 surviving WASP fliers made it to Washington, D.C., in 2010 to get the Congressional Gold Medal there was a sense of justice delayed but ultimate vindication.
“It was closure,” Gee said at the time. “It was kind of a sexist thing that the program ended. There were male pilots coming back from Europe. They saw these women flying. They said they should be home, having babies. They pressured Congress to disband us, and we all just went home after the war.”
Miller, who came across Gee’s story while researching this history of the WASP program on behalf of her grandmother, is well aware that there have been suggestions that Oakland International Airport should be named after Amelia Earhart, who flew out of Oakland Airport multiple times, or Bessie Coleman, who was based in Oakland as a stunt pilot.
“Amelia Earhart was a great, great pilot, but she wasn’t from Oakland,” Miller says. “Bessie Coleman flew out of here a lot, but again, she’s not a native. The fact that Maggie Gee was born here and lived her life here makes it right to have the airport named for her, in my mind.”
Miller isn’t alone. In the three weeks since the petition went up, more than 2,800 have signed their support at change.org. A similar petition for Amelia Earhart getting the honor posted in July 2017 has 110 supporters, although that may be because there is already an Amelia Earhart Airport in her hometown of Atchison, Kansas.
Will Miller be successful in getting Oakland Airport remained for Maggie Gee? It’s a longshot, even though Miller has already used change.org to open the door for WASP members to be eligible for burial in the Arlington National Cemetery.
“I think that we have a lot of challenges with this,” Miller says. “With my grandmother’s situation, it was pretty easy to convince people to get on board. They (the WASPs) did all the things that men did except go into battle. That argument was clear.
“The argument in Maggie Gee’s case is clear, too, but there is much more apathy. People will say why should we make a fuss over the name of an airport. They’ll say wait. But I think at this point in 2018, it’s time for us as women and people to speak up. There are no women on currency. There are no national holidays celebrating women. There is no major airport with a woman’s name.
“I can’t solve all of this, but I feel the drive to do more than sit around and wait. I have this vision. And at a minimum, now people are talking about this, reading about this. We’re keeping the legacy of the WASPs going. That legacy has been passed to us.”
And if it sounds like a dream, this is what Maggie Gee said about dreams in one of her book tour stops:
“If you have a dream and you are young, you have to go after that dream.”