On October 16, 1944, two women stood on an airfield in Sumter, SC and flipped a coin. The two women, Marybelle Lyall Arduengo and Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck were members of WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, a civilian group attached to the Army Air Force.
As a young woman in the 1930’s, Jeanne Lewellen grew up in Columbus, IN. She became interested in flying and earned her pilot’s license while attending State College of Washington at Pullman, WA where she graduated with a degree in English.
Jeanne married Edward Norbeck in 1940 and they were living in Honolulu, HI on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They both served as volunteer air raid wardens for a time, then Edward enlisted in the US Army Intelligence Service and Jeanne returned to Columbus to be with family.
In 1943, she applied for and was accepted into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The women of WASP completed the same course of study as any Army Air Force cadet, minus combat training. Women of that time were not trained or employed as combat pilots, their main duties were moving planes from one airfield to another and engineering test flights. They could not fly combat, but they could test the planes combat pilots would be flying in their training exercises.
Let me say that in laymen’s terms…they tested new plane designs, as well as planes that had been repaired or reported as requiring repairs before being returned to service.
Following training, Jeanne was stationed to Shaw Field, Sumter, SC where she reported on May 16, 1944.
To quote a history written by her nephew, Rod Lewellen and niece, Margaret Marnitz for the Atterbury Bakalar Air Museum:
Her job was to fly “red-lined” Army Air Force trainers to analyze problems needing repair and write engineering reports for the maintenance department. She also flew repaired trainers, putting them through rigorous flying tests to make certain they were safe for instructors and cadets to fly. The planes she tested at Shaw Field were the Vultee BT-13 and BT-15 basic trainers, the North American AT-6 advanced trainer, and the Beechcraft AT-10 twin engine advanced trainer.
By 1944, most of the engineering test flying at training bases was done by the WASP, which freed male pilots from this dangerous job and made them available for instructor or combat duty. The WASP were part of the Civil Service, so Jeanne did not have an army officer’s commission, pay, or benefits. She lived in the Women Army Corps (WAC) officer’s quarters at Shaw Field and worked ten hours a day, six days a week, with time off on Sunday.https://www.atterburybakalarairmuseum.org/jeanne-norbeck.html
October 16, 1944 Jeanne and Marybelle were assigned to test two BT-13 trainers. They decided to flip a coin to see which plane each would fly. The plane Jeanne won in the toss had been red lined with a possible structural problem in the left wing.
The two pilots climbed into their respective planes and took off for the test area south of Shaw Field.
At some point into the test flight, Jeanne felt something was definitely wrong with the plane’s wing and turned back towards base but on the way, the plane rolled over and went into a deep spin from which she could not regain control.
Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck, aged 31, perished when the plane crashed upside down and burned.
There are so many heroes in so many conflicts, but many of those heroes don’t get the recognition they deserve. There are veterans all around us in everyday life who stepped up, fought and returned. There are many more who never came back and many of them never saw combat, but are heroes just the same.
This is the story of one woman who took on the responsibility of testing the planes our fighting men depended on for training and it is a story that should remind us of all the quiet sacrifices and unsung heroes that have insured our freedom.
There were 1,074 female pilots who earned their wings during the brief WASP program. Norbeck was one of 38 who died in accidents during their duty in World War II.
In May 1998, the restored chapel in a WWII barracks at the Columbus Municipal Airport (formerly Atterbury Air Base and later Bakalar Air Base) was named the Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck Memorial Chapel and dedicated to her memory. A plaque in front of the chapel on the former Atterbury Air Base dedicates the building to the memory of Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck, a local hero who gave her life so others might live.
Had a bad day? This Veteran’s Day, take a moment to think about what others gave up so that you could live the life you take for granted.
You can read more about Norbeck at: