State’s famous aviatrix brought to life at humanities talk
Evelyn Sharp biographer, others share memories.
Thelma Peterson of Gothenburg remembers “Sharpie,” a famous Nebraska woman pilot who barnstormed the state and pioneered aviation for women, especially during World War II.
So does Bev Soller whose cousin flew with Evelyn Sharp in an open-air cockpit during the summer of 1939.
Peterson rode with Sharpie, as she preferred to be called, when Peterson was 17 and the aviatrix gave 15-minute rides for $1 in Cozad during a summer festival.
“What a hero she was to me because she could fly,” Peterson said.
Sharpie was brought back to life Monday at Gothenburg Public Library when Diane Bartels, author of Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharp talked about Nebraska’s “queen of the air.”
Her speech was sponsored by the Nebraska Humanities Council and the Gothenburg Library Foundation.
“She was truly remarkable,” said Bartels, about Sharpie who became one of the first women to ferry U.S. Army Air Force fighters during World War II.
At one time, Sharpie was also the nation’s youngest licensed pilot—soloing at age 16.
Born in Melstone, MT, in 1919, Evelyn Sharp was adopted at age 2 and later moved with her mother and father to Nebraska. They ended up in Ord.
Bartels, who is also a pilot, said Sharpie started to fly at age 15 when a flight instructor from Broken Bow began giving her lessons.
“John and Mary Sharp ran a boarding house and restaurant where Jack Jefford (the instructor) stayed,” she said. “He was not making enough money to pay room and board so John suggested he give his daughter free flying lessons.”
A natural athlete, who lettered in sports four years at Ord High, Sharpie also taught 250 children and adults how to swim in the North Loup River.
In January of 1936, while accumulating flying hours, Sharpie would land Jefford’s Aeronca C-3 on the frozen river.
“When Evelyn first started to fly reporters started writing stories about her because she was female,” Bartels said. “Her best boyfriend was her dog Scottie who flew with her.”
An animal lover, Sharpie is pictured with horses and dogs throughout the book—many of them with her beloved dog Scottie.
Several months after she started lessons, Sharpie earned her private pilot license at age 17.
Optometrist Glen Auble who knew her parents raised money from local businesses for a down payment on a 1937 Taylor Cub which Sharpie intended to repay by giving people rides.
One memorable ride mentioned in the book was taken by Mearl McNeal of Gothenburg who said he was in love with the young, good-looking aviatrix.
“Evelyn pushed the throttle forward, the plane slowly gathering momentum...suddenly Evelyn begins to fidget,” McNeal said. “With one hand on the stick, she undid the top button of her blouse.”
Mearl said he was aghast and tried to look ahead. Still, he saw her pull back on the stick and with the other hand, retrieve a grasshopper from inside her blouse.
Sharpie enrolled in the Lincoln Airplane and Flying School in 1938 where she learned such things as how to tear down and build back engines.
“She was the only woman in a class of 75 men,” Bartels said.
After getting a commercial pilot’s license, Sharpie flew an air route delivering mail from Grand Island, to Ord and Greeley.
She bought a 1930 Curtiss Robin airplane and continued charging and taking people for rides throughout Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa.
After an emergency landing near Lexington, Bartels said the plane’s tail section was damaged and Sharpie didn’t have enough money to repair it.
The pilot returned to Lincoln and became a flight instructor for the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She then moved to Spearfish, SD.
Bartels described the program as a government “pre-war” one where officials invited women pilots to be in each class so citizens wouldn’t think the nation was preparing for war.
Sharpie later moved to Bakersfield, CA, to teach flying. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the base was moved inland to Long Pine.
At the time, Sharpie was one of 10 women flight instructors in the United States.
In 1942, she and other women pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time were invited to qualify to fly military aircraft which Bartels was part of an experiment to see if women were strong, brave and smart enough to do the job.
She passed as did others and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was born with different ferrying locations across the country.
Sharpie was based out of Long Beach, CA. The elite WAFS later became the more well-known Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
At the time, Bartels said women air force service pilots—unlike male pilots—had to buy their own uniforms, didn’t have access to on-base medical care and their families were offered no death benefit if they were killed.
“They also were given smaller per diems,” she said. “They were also not allowed to fly across the ocean.”
For about two years, Sharpie and other WASPs learned to fly and ferry fighters and other military planes. Because the P-38 twin-engine fighter plane had no second seat, Bartels said pilots learned how to take off and land the craft by themselves.
Sharpie was ferrying a P-38 from California to Newark, NJ, when she landed at a naval station in New Cumberland, PA, because of bad weather.
The next day, she climbed into her plane and was saluted by a military person on the tarmac who—minutes later—was horrified to see black smoke spewing from an engine as Sharpie took off.
Bartels writes in her book how the woman aviator looked for a place to land, selecting Beacon Hill because it was away from people and buildings.
“The descending aircraft struck a cluster of trees with the left wing tip and hit the ground in a flat position...,” she said. “The violent impact of the P-38’s pancake landing had driven the retracted nose wheel into the cockpit. Breaking the straps on her safety harness, the force catapulted Evelyn out through the bubble canopy. She had died instantly.”
Sharpie was brought back to Ord where, at age 24, she was buried. After the war, in 1948, the Ord airport was named Evelyn Sharp Field. A Nebraska State Historical Society highway marker designates the entrance to Sharp Field.
On March 10, Bartels said she will accept Sharp’s congressional gold medal when WASP members are honored in Washington D.C.
Bartels decided to write the story of Nebraska’s most famous aviatrix after attending a Nebraska State Air Show at Sharp Field in Ord in 1973 where she met Auble who had mentored Sharp early in her flying career.
“I was drawn to her and her story which he was afraid was going to be forgotten,” she said.