The Air Medal was established by Executive Order on May 11, 1942 as amended by Executive Order 9242-A, on September 11, 1942. This medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the U.S. Army, has distinguished himself or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Awards may be made to recognize single acts of merit or heroism, or for meritorious service as described. (https://www.govinfo.gov/)
From July 29 to August 6, 1943, WASP Barbara ‘B.J.’ Erickson, the Commander of the 6th Ferrying Group at Long Beach California, accomplished the delivery of P-51, P-47, and C-47 aircraft on four 2,000 mile transcontinental ferrying missions, covering a total of 8,000 miles in slightly more than 5 days of actual flying.
The ferrying mission was as follows:
July 29: P-51 delivery / Long Beach, CA – Evansville, IN
July 30: P-47 delivery/ Evansville, IN – San Pedro, CA (overnight en route, delivered July 31)
Aug. 2: C-47 delivery/ Long Beach, CA – Ft. Wayne, IN (then to Ferrying Div. Cincinnati for TDY)
Aug. 6: P-47 delivery/ FERD Cincinnati – San Pedro, CA
After this remarkable achievement, Erickson was recommended for an Air Medal and became the only WASP awarded the Air Medal during World War II.
Erickson initially tried to decline the honor, feeling that she had performed an ordinary mission and that she should not be singled out from among the other WASP for a special honor, but she was directed to comply and in a formal ceremony at the graduation of Class 44-W-2 in Sweetwater, Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold presented the Air Medal to Erickson. Seated on the podium at the ceremony were both Nancy Love, Exec. WASP/ATC and Jacqueline Cochran, Dir. WASP and several high-ranking U.S. Army Air Forces generals.
Tamara Keeton was a close friend of the late Barbara Erickson London. They met in 1992 when Barbara was awarded the Pathfinder Award at the Seattle Museum of Flight. Tamara recalled that whenever the subject of the Air Medal came up, Barbara seemed to feel a moment of imposter syndrome. “She knew why it was awarded to her and never talked about the medal as a personal achievement,” said Tamara, “I remember talking to her about it and she’d say, ‘” The weather was good and the planes were fast. Any one of us could have done it. I was just doing my job.”
Tamara recounted a time when Barbara told her of a day when she was on the 6th Ferrying Group tarmac in Long Beach and saw some men dressed in khakis getting off a C-47. They were all gaunt and very skinny. She got closer and realized they weren’t men…they were women. It was a group of Army nurses who had just arrived in the U.S. from Bataan. Barbara would never forget the look on their faces…something akin to a thousand-year stare. “She’d always say that it was those nurses who deserved a medal or the women who flew into combat during the Gulf War. But, she was also very proud to have received the Air Medal as a representative of the WASP. And she was also very proud of the job the WASP had done to help win the war,” added Tamara.
Fun Facts: Claudia Simpson-Jones was a Captain for Southwest Airlines. Terry, Barbara’s daughter, was one of the very first women hired by the airlines. She was the first woman to be hired by Western Airlines in 1976, became a Captain, and then flew for Delta.
Written by: Julia Lauria-Blum
Photos courtesy of: Julia Lauria-Blum, Mary Laraway Collection, Tamara Keeton
About Julia Lauria-Blum:
Julia Lauria-Blum earned a degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. An early interest in women aviation pioneers led her to research the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. In 2001 she curated the permanent WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) in Farmingdale, NY, and later curated ‘Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM. She is the former curatorial assistant & collections registrar at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island and is currently editor-in-chief for Metropolitan Airport News.
Julia is the proud mother of two daughters and a rescued Boxer. Her many interests include swimming, painting, traveling, aviation history, cooking, and storytelling.