Marion Stegeman Hodgson, Winning Her Wings

Marian Stegeman Hodgson was born December 16, 1921 in Athens, Georgia. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in the spring of 1941, not quite six months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Around that time the federal government had instituted a flight training program called the Civilian Pilot Training Program, or CPT, and during her senior year, she was selected to participate. Part of the planning was to admit one female for every ten male trainees.

She applied for and completed the program. Upon graduation from Georgia, she began to do clerical work in the area and later found a job in Chicago. Then in the spring of 1943, she applied for the Women’s Flying Training program under the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command. After America entered the war, the program that became known as the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program had been instituted. Later in 1943, she was one of the pilots selected for training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. After six months of training, she won her silver wings and was assigned to Ferry Command and the 51h Ferrying Group at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. She recalls often being detached to Wichita, Kansas, which was a hub for military aircraft manufacturing.

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In 1944, she learned that an older male friend named Edward Hodgson, also from Athens and who was currently serving as a fighter pilot, had been involved in a very serious plane crash and had been badly burned. The Stegeman and Hodgson families had been friends for some time. She and “Ned” as he was called, had been corresponding via letters. Ned was a Marine pilot about to be shipped off to the South Pacific. Ned had practicing night landing without landing lights in order to simulate combat conditions. He had been cleared to land but a bomber was parked next to the runway and was in his path. The two aircraft collided and though the bomber crew was uninjured, Ned and another passenger were extracted from the wreckage. Both were injured when both aircraft caught fire. Marion and Ned corresponded by mail and in person as he recovered. Her relationship with the pilot continued to blossom and the couple were married later that year.

Marion flew medium sized aircraft and logged about 500 hours during the war. She did not fly the big bombers or the faster fighters, but was proud of her contribution. As the war wound down, the program was disbanded and she served until 1944. Ned served until 1946, and retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Speaking of larger aircraft, in one of her interviews, Marion relates a story about WASP pilots and the B-29 built by Boeing. When the bomber first came on line, it had a reputation for being dangerous. The lead test pilot for Boeing had earlier been killed in a crash of the model. At the time, it was the largest military aircraft used in the Air Force war effort. In an effort to dispel any fears about the model, Colonel Paul Tibbets received approval to train two WASP pilots to fly the B-29. Tibbets set about to do that and Dorothea Moorman and Dora Dougherty were mastering the big aircraft in a short time. Shortly after it began, the test program was discontinued by the War Department, but the implication is that at least partly due to Tibbets’ and the WASP pilots’ successful efforts, male pilots accepted the aircraft.

After the war, she and Ned located in Fort Worth, where they would remain for the rest of their married lives. Marion became a writer of short stories, cookbooks and articles to national magazines and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, often about the experiences of her fellow pilots. Ned had flown for Eastern Airlines before the war, but in Fort Worth, he helped to found a life insurance company and became an executive there. Ned and Marion became actively involved in the community.

Marion became inspired to write about her own experiences in a book called “Winning My Wings, A Woman Airforce Service Pilot in World War II,” published by the Naval Institute Press in 1996. It is told through letters she wrote, mostly to her family. In it, Marion related her first memorable experience with aircraft when she was five years old. She recalled being terrified of taking a flight with the rest of her family in a barnstorming Ford tri-motor. How she overcame her childhood fear to become a WASP pilot is part of her interesting story.

Marion lived in Fort Worth until Ned passed in 1997. She survived him until 2016. Both are interred in Athens, Georgia. Marion’s honors include being named to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame and the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. The services of the WASP pilots was considered civilian duty until 1977 when they were awarded veteran status. She and the others were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

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