With the August 13, 2015, passing of Gertrude Meserve Tubbs Levalley, 95, a finite group of 28 extraordinary women — known as “the WAFS” or “the Originals” — all are gone.
Gertrude was the last of Nancy Love’s elite Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron; the first 28 women hired by the Army Air Forces, specifically to ferry military aircraft for their country in World War II.
As of March 10, 2010, when the WASP received their Congressional Gold Medals, five of “the Originals” remained. With the passing of Barbara “Donnie” Donahue Ross August 21, 2010, Phyllis Burchfield Fulton June 21, 2012, Barbara “B.J.” Erickson London July 7, 2013, and Florene Miller Watson February 4, 2014, Gertrude was the sole survivor. And now she, too, is gone. Three of them — Gertrude, B.J. and Donnie — were present in the Capitol when the Gold Medals were handed out.
Nancy Love was hired by Col. William H. Tunner in the summer of 1942 to find and recruit experienced women pilots to ferry liaison and primary trainer aircraft for his command, the Ferrying Division, the main arm of the newly formed Air Transport Command. A woman had to have 500 hours to qualify. Most of the 28 had far more than that — including Gertrude, a young flight instructor with 1964 hours. They were the first squadron of women pilots who later became known as WASP and they were the first of the more than 300 WASP who eventually flew for the Ferry Command under Colonel, later General Tunner.
Gertrude Tubbs, of Boston, MA, was number 12 to qualify.
“Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I wanted to fly. Nothing else interested me,” she told this author when I interviewed her in 1999. She won a contest, the prize for which was a thirty-minute flight. She was hooked. She was 16. She excelled in math and science and by the time she had graduated from high school, she had notched a few hours of instruction. “Then I was able to concentrate on getting all of my flying licenses — private, limited commercial, commercial, and flight instructor.” She earned her instrument rating in 1939, when she was 19.
Like many of the WAFS and WASP, CPT gave Gertrude her break. “We had a little trouble with the insurance company. They had never insured a female pilot before, but CPT needed instructors. I taught eight classes at Logan Airport [Boston] then transferred to Canton- Norwood. My first class was a group from MIT. The MIT boys had to wear a suit and tie, but the boys from Harvard wore sport coats. I also taught students from Northeastern University and Tufts. I dated a couple of them — after training. They told us never to date someone while he was your student.”
Given her hours and experience, one would think she was a shoo-in, but first she had to earn her 200-horsepower rating, which she did immediately.
Gertie spent her entire WAFS/WASP career in Wilmington, DE, at New Castle Army Air Base as part of the 2nd Ferrying Group. She went to pursuit school as part of the first class — December 1943 — graduating January 10, 1944. Immediately after graduation, she and all the other male and female graduates picked up P-51s at Long Beach and ferried them to Newark, NJ, before reporting back to their squadrons.
Gertrude, Nancy Batson and Teresa James were later checked out on the twin-engine C-60, which was used to fly the P-47 ferry pilots back from Newark to Farmingdale — on Long Island — where they were stationed, TDY for two weeks at a time throughout 1944. Rather than navigating back across New York City and over to Long Island via land transport, it was the quickest return possible so that the ferry pilots could pick up yet another P-47, fly it 50 miles west as the crow flies, and deliver it to the docks for shipment abroad. Gertrude delivered 200 P-47s between January and December 1944, in addition to her periodic C-60 flights and other pursuit aircraft.
In April 1944, she married fellow pilot Major Charles J. Tubbs. And that changed her life drastically because soon after the WASP deactivation, December 20, 1944, she found she was expecting her oldest son, Charles J. Tubbs Jr. She and Charlie added twin boys to their family and Gertrude left the flying to Charlie, who was an executive pilot with Curtiss-Wright in Caldwell, NJ.
In 1969, they moved to Florida. After Charlie’s death, Gertrude married Russell LeValley, who died in 1998. In 2008, her son Paul moved her to Knoxville, TN, to be nearer him and his family. In 2010, Charlie Jr. escorted his mom to Washington to receive the Gold Medal.
By Sarah Byrn Rickman
Photo of Gertrude taken in 2009 at the memorial ceremony (held prior to the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony) for the 38 WASP who lost their lives.