The Women Who Defied the Times and Took to the Skies: The Squadron of Death
Ho 'tis the Squadron of Death you see
Riders of the wind are we;
Clouds like castle turrets high
Are our playgrounds of the sky.
Happy landings, S.O.D.
May they always three points be,
May the eagles' path be ours
To while away our leisure hours
With loop the loops and tailspins gay,
Happy landings for ever and aye.
Contact, a roar, and a whirling of props,
Then we're off and and then we're up
Swiftly where the eagles fly,
Where the cloud banks drift and lie.
- Julia Feiling, Squadron of Death member
I was in my teens when I learned that my grandmother had flown airplanes. An intriguing fact, I instantly pursued the subject. All the details were to be gathered from my father's memory, a few letters of correspondence, and a ratted photo album.
My grandmother, Jessie Kilburn (nee Budrick) was born October 4, 1913 to Mary and John Budrick, Lithuanian immigrants. She married WWII Sergeant-Major and later refrigerator repairman, Kipling "Kip" Kilburn in 1941, and had two sons, my uncle Kent Kilburn (b. 1942) and my father, Jack Kilburn (b. 1947). At this time she had done her flying and settled down as a wife, mother, homemaker and co-operator of the family grocery store. Jessie was in her eighties when I was born. For the time I did know her as a little girl, we were inseparable, until she passed away in April 2000, at the age of 86. It wasn't until after her passing that I had learned that she had been a pilot.
"She never really talked about it," my father tells me, "She was awfully modest in that way." My grandmother never liked pictures of herself, so once she had taken the entire album and tossed it into the cellar, where it stayed for some time.
"I was furious when I found out she did that." My father adds, shaking his head in disbelief.
The photo album, although rather tattered and the pages browned, contains rare photos and newspaper clippings of her life as a female pilot. Her family spent a bit of time in the United States, a still-surviving immigration card showed they traveled there in 1929, when my grandmother was only 18.
During this time, whatever her inspiration was, Jessie decided to join an all-women's flying club, morbidly named "The Squadron of Death" or "S.O.D" for short, stationed in Akron, Ohio.
It wasn't only their name that defied superstition. The group of young women, who all must have shared a daredevil streak to take to the skies in the first place, went full out. Their squad's lucky number was 13 - they attempted to have their meetings, if possible on Friday the 13th -, their mascot was a black crow named "Soddie", and their emblem was a skull and crossbones. They also wore high heels when flying.
Although all the members of the Squadron of Death are unknown, I am able to list the names of the women, based off the pictures and articles, that were known to be members of the flying squad. Frankie Renner, president; Babe Smith, Lydia Griggs, Hazel Schippel, Ruby Berau, Isabelle Chapell, Julia Feiling, Lorena Clark, Henrietta Faux, Marion Coddington, and Jessie Budrick.
Flying wasn't their only feat. It wasn't enough to fly an airplane, they also wanted to jump out of them - the S.O.D girls had an interest in parachuting. According to a newspaper clipping from the photo album, the idea was apparently planted by the newsreels who wanted to film the women in their jump, although it was eventually squashed. The girls hadn't undergone any training and it was deemed too dangerous. Frankie Renner, president of the S.O.D, admitted the idea to cancel was the smart thing to do. My grandmother, along with fellow pilots, Babe Smith, Henrietta Faux and Isabelle Chapell were the women set to make the jump. Babe Smith was the main parachutist for the group, and it is known that aside from this failed attempt, she did make several jumps.
It is also known that they were acquainted with male pilots (there are a few pictures in Jessie's album), perhaps whom had a flying group similar to the Squadron of Death. A young pilot named Chester Betts, with whom my grandmother kept correspondence, was killed in a plane crash in 1937 when flying from Kentucky to Akron. Ralph Wensinger, another fellow pilot, was killed in 1933 when he crashed over Chippewa Lake.
The S.O.D girls, despite these terrible accidents of those close to them, kept to the skies for quite some time, holding regular meetings, often at the homes of the squad girls. Although it is unsure when the squad disbanded, it is known that the girls continued to keep in contact with one another for quite some time after, friendships founded over an exciting and dare-devilish interest.
A series of letters survive of correspondence between my grandmother Jessie and one of the members, Julia Feiling-Hilliard, over the course of the 70's and 80's. Julia expresses that she is retired and living with her husband in a small town in Arizona. She also speaks often of planes. In one letter, dated 13 May 1977, she writes to Jessie:
"Remember that flying club we belonged to almost 50 years ago? And the picture a group of us had taken in front of an airplane? Well the 99'ers are going to put it in an aerospace (or something) museum in Dayton, Ohio. And they are trying to locate all the members."
I wonder if that picture she mentions is the very one I own.
Family history can be quite interesting, especially when you find rare and special stories like these. No longer do the Squadron of Death have to remain simply in a photo album. Jessie and her female pilots are an inspiration, as well as women that defied the times and got their wings.
Are you related to one of the SOD girls?
If you are related to one of the girls from the Squadron of Death, please do not hesitate to contact me. I have already made contact with a relative of Babe Smith, and it's exciting to have such a wonderful thing in common. Also, if you have any pictures or stories that you would like to contribute to the hub, also please do not hesitate to make contact!
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