Over the course of my 25-year affiliation as a ‘Friend of WASP’ and through a concerted effort to help bring their history and legacy visibly to the forefront over the years, I had attended and experienced many remarkable aviation events and WASP commemorations that highlighted their achievements during the Second World War. Most of these events took place in the New York metropolitan area and in the presence of WASP invitees local to the northeast region.
One of these events occurred in July of 2003, at the kick-off of the Centennial of Flight ‘Born of Dreams, Inspired by Freedom’ Commemoration at Rockefeller Center. This commemoration marked the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first powered flight on December 17, 1903, and the opening of an exhibit illuminating the historical, social and political growth of aviation that began with the Wright Brother’s flight and followed with the contributions of the pioneering aviators in the generations to come.
The Centennial of Flight exhibit was presented by General Electric and included full-scale replicas of historic aircraft ranging from the Wright Flyer, World War I, the Golden Age of Aviation, World War II, to a full-scale replica of the Lunar Module and the Space Shuttle cockpit, and a GE-90 jet engine. At the center of the exhibit was the Aerospace Park on the Rockefeller Center Plaza, which included a full-scale replica of the Mercury Redstone Rocket.
This year, as we approach the 120th anniversary of the Wright’s first flight at Kitty Hawk, I find myself reflecting upon the 2003 celebration and the three extraordinary women who I was fortunate to share that momentous day with… twenty years ago.
For me the day began with an early wake-up call, before a 50-minute drive into the city, along with my two daughters, Maggie and Danielle, who eagerly anticipated the celebration’s kick-off ceremony at 45 Rockefeller Plaza.
Amongst the many distinguished guests who attended the exhibit’s opening ceremony on that blue-sky day in July were WASP Dawn Rochow Seymour, Katherine Willinger, and Eleanor Collins Faust. Dawn was a graduate of Class 43-5 who piloted the infamous B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’; Katherine, Class 44-8, served at Goodfellow Army Air Field for instrument instruction in the AT-6; BT-13 and ferrying the PT-19; Eleanor Faust, Class 44-10, was a member of the last class of WASP to graduate the Women’s Flying Training Command on December 7, 1944.
Even though nearly 50 years had passed since the final WASP graduation took place in 1944, and the women had not personally known of each other in the decades after their service, the heartfelt camaraderie that they shared was palpable as they met and greeted one another on that fine morning.
At the opening ceremony, Dawn, Katherine and Eleanor sat front and center, along with other special guests who included Tuskegee Airmen, Lee Archer, Roscoe Brown and Spann Watson, Apollo Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the Great-Grand niece of the Wright Brothers, Amanda Wright, and many other prominent aviators and professionals in the aviation industry.
After the opening ceremony, the women were given a flower bouquet and then we had lunch at a grill on a lower platform at Rockefeller Center. Eleanor and Katherine took leave afterward, and Dawn, who was accommodated at a nearby hotel, stayed on. We then took a ride past the Fulton Street Market on our way to the Staten Island Ferry, where the four of us boarded one at Whitehall Terminal. As the 30-minute ferry trip to Staten Island circled back to the city, we passed the Statue of Liberty, standing majestically in New York Harbor.
Later that evening, there was an outdoor Centennial of Flight reception back at Rockefeller Center. The reception opened with Patti LaBelle, who delivered NASA’s Centennial of Flight theme song, Way Up There’, to a crowd of thousands, backed by Skitch Henderson and his orchestra.
While walking alongside Dawn Seymour, a young woman passed by, asking the male companion she was with, a question about airplanes. Dawn, in her humble, gentle voice answered her question as we walked by. The young women rolled her eyes as if to say, ‘who asked her’? I excused myself for a moment, caught up to the young woman, and said, “That woman who you just passed by and who answered your question…she flew B-17 bombers during World War II.” The young woman stopped dead in her tracks, looking like a deer in headlights, and replied, ”Oh my God!… could you introduce me to her? Do you think she’ll give me her autograph?” I paused for a moment, smiling, before rejoining Dawn, who graciously obliged the woman’s autograph request. After that, we continued circulating the crowd, before Dawn crossed paths with Neil Armstrong…both of them shaking each other’s hand.
It was a splendid day and evening, which I and my daughters, shall always remember and treasure.
Written by: Julia Lauria-Blum
Photos courtesy of: Julia Lauria-Blum
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.