EDWARDS AFB – Antelope Valley residents said ‘good-bye’ to World War II-era Women Airforce Service Pilot and Congressional Gold Medal recipient Flora Belle (Smith) Reece Dec. 1 at the age of 90. Reece died peacefully in a UCLA medical facility after being removed from life support.
Those who knew Reece well will remember she had three priorities in life: God, family and aviation – in that order.
Reece was born Oct. 21, 1924, in Sayre, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression. She had three siblings James Evan, Mary Lea and LaWanda. Her parents, Robert and Agnes Smith were sharecroppers.
As a toddler, Reece would ask to hold her baby sister LaWanda and when she’d had enough, she’d stand up, “dumping LaWanda unceremoniously on the ground.”
According to her daughter Connie Fox, Reece “Kept the adults watching her closely. She basically did as she wished and everyone around her scrambled to make sure all was okay.”
Her father was a Southern Baptist preacher and her mother a homemaker. Before she entered kindergarten, Reece was assigned regular chores like keeping the kindling box full for the cast iron stove.
Her son, Russell Reece, remembers hearing stories about a cow that had to be milked three times a day. The cow would come as close to the house as she could and bawl for Reece’s father to come milk the cow.
Later on, she was assigned to plowing the fields.
“She would guide the horse to the end of a row, wait for her older brother Evan to turn them around to start the next row,” said Fox.
And as she plowed, she would look to the skies, watching the birds as they effortlessly soared by. She knew that like the birds, she wanted to fly.
When she told her father, as a young girl, that she wanted to fly, he would respond, “Flora Belle, that isn’t something girls usually do, but if you can figure out a way to make it happen, more power to you.”
In school, when Reece was told to write down what future career she would like to pursue, she would write “pilot.” This resulted in being called into the office and told that girls could not be pilots and that she would need to choose something more practical.
“Never once did her enjoyment of or her desire to fly waiver,” said Fox.
During her senior year in high school, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese.
After graduation, she responded to a notice that Lt. Col. Jacqueline Cochran had placed in the local papers looking for 21-year-old women to fly military aircraft for the Army. She sent for her birth certificate, knowing it would be a few years before she was old enough to join. However, someone in the county clerk’s office mistakenly put her older sister’s birth year on the document, making her eligible right away.
After being interviewed and given a physical, she was told she would need 35 hours of flight time logged in order to join the W.A.S.P.
Reece once mentioned in an interview that it was as if he’d asked her for the moon because the cost of flying was so high. Her older brother, an Army lieutenant, was the answer to her problems when he agreed to lend her the money for private flying lessons.
As a W.A.S.P., Reece was assigned to a bay with five other women at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She was often teased about looking young by the other women who did not know she was only 19.
“After about six weeks, she couldn’t stand that she’d entered W.A.S.P. illegally and went to the commanding officer,” recalled Fox.
Since the age requirement was set to be lowered and she was doing well in her training, the issue was dropped.
On the day that she soloed in the North American T-6, Reece forgot to pick up her instructor and bring him back to the hangar. She ran out to meet him, offering to carry his parachute, although he declined.
Then one rainy day, that same instructor allowed her climb through an opening to fly above the clouds because “Flora Belle never gets lost.”
The wide open space was wonderful for practicing her acrobatic maneuvers. But, after rolling and spinning, her hole in the clouds was gone and she was lost. As she had been instructed, she found a farm with phone lines and prepared to land, worried that she would be sent home if any damage came to the airplane.
She was met by local farmers who helped her call the base and put on an impromptu potluck. The next day, she was picked up by her instructor and a mechanic in a cattle truck. The most embarrassing part of the whole experience was carrying her parachute in that morning, because everyone could see she didn’t make it back in time to turn it in the day before.
For weeks, Reece thought she would wash out of the program, and when could not stand it any longer, she asked her instructor about it.
As it turned out, he had known for weeks that everything was fine.
When she asked why he waited so long to tell her, he said, “Remember my having to walk back to the hangar carrying my parachute? Now we’re even.”
Of the 25,000 women who applied, less than 1,900 were accepted and only 1,074 earned their wings. Reece graduated with hers in May of 1944 with Class 44-W-4 and served until the W.A.S.P. was disbanded in December of that same year.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the W.A.S.P. were granted full military status for their service. Prior to that, they had been considered civilian pilots. In 2010, they were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal for their distinguished achievements. Both Connie and Russell were in attendance at the ceremony in Washington D.C.
Though she appreciated the gesture, Reece once remarked that she would have preferred to have been given military status at the time, so she could have continued flying.
Reece spent the majority of her time as a W.A.S.P. flying the North American AT-6 “Texan,” which she called a “beautiful airplane.” Her assignments usually involved transporting non-flying officers, photographers for the newspaper and chaplains wherever they needed to go. She was later trained to fly the B-26, known as “the widow maker,” which she used to tow targets for gunner’s practice.
Her dream though, was to fly the P-38. She was never given the chance, but she was certainly ready for it. When ace pilot Maj. Richard Bong toured a base she was stationed at, she convinced the ground crew to let her sit in the cockpit so that she could memorize the instrument panel.
She was finally afforded the opportunity to ride as a passenger aboard a P-38 in Burbank, Calif. at the age of 79.
After leaving the W.A.S.P., Reece returned to Oklahoma in 1945, where she married her high school sweetheart Ralph, an Army Air Force mechanic. The two moved to California and had their first child, Connie. They were married for 62 years before Ralph’s passing, and they gave birth to two more children, Cherryl and Russell.
“Mom taught us to help others. She stressed this particularly in regard to including unpopular school mates in activities,” recalled Russell. “At one time a school [administrator] commended Connie because Connie had included a minority student in some activity in the face of considerable peer pressure.”
Years after moving to California, Reece went to school, got her credential and became a teacher. She taught math at several schools, including Park View School in Lancaster. At that school, she started the first computer lab using Apple IIe computers and attempted to recruit the support of other teachers. Only one of those teachers would allow her students to turn in type-written homework assignments. The rest insisted that computers were “just a fad.”
In their retirement years, the Reeces spent two years with the Peace Corps in Malaysia, India and Thailand.
Even after Ralph’s death, Reece continued to find ways to serve others. In 2009, she went with a group from Faith Community Church to the Philippines.
For years, she presented photographic slides from her W.A.S.P. days to military groups, schools and community organizations. She was an active member of the Antelope Valley 99s, the P-38 National Association, and participated in many W.A.S.P. functions.
Reece also stayed very connected to Edwards AFB.
“I recall young men assigned to Edwards coming to the house after church or for church-sponsored activities for many years,” said Russell.
Reece was one of four W.A.S.P.s who lived in the Antelope Valley. The other three were Margaret (Castle) McAnally, Irma “Babe” Story and Marguerite “Ty” Hughes Killen.
A memorial with pictures of all four women is in the Lancaster Cemetery Veterans Court of Honor.
Reece is survived by her daughter Connie, her son Russell, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“God is the center of everything I do,” said Reece in a former interview. “That’s who I am.”
Reece will be interred at Lancaster Cemetery Feb. 7.