Aircraft Wrecks in the
Mountains and Deserts of the American West
This Article Appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, Memorial Day, May 30, 2005
the Los Angeles Times
Her Memory Still Soars
Relatives of a young
woman killed in 1944 while co-piloting a B-25 bomber await the return of
mementos found at the Mojave Desert crash site.
By H.G. Reza,
Times Staff Writer
Written for the female
pilots of World War II, the poem "Celestial Flight" still brings chills at their
funerals and warm recollections on Memorial Day.
"She is not dead — But only flying higher, Higher than she's flown before,"
begins the soulful elegy read at the funerals of America's last-remaining
members of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots program, known fondly as the
WASP. The poem is also recited at the funerals of many other female pilots.
This Memorial Day, the
woman whose death inspired it is being honored again by her family members as
they await the return of a few last personal belongings recovered in February at
the Mojave Desert site where the B-25 bomber she was co-piloting crashed in
The life of Marie Michell Robinson was a tragic World War II story of love found
and lost that read like a movie. Now it may have a Hollywood ending.
Robinson, who earned her wings as a WASP, died in a fiery crash just days after
her secret marriage to an Army doctor from a wealthy Texas family.
Robinson, who was 20, was stationed at Victorville Army Air Field, about 70
miles northeast of Los Angeles in the High Desert. In a letter to her father
written the day before she died, the flier said she was thinking of getting
married "one of these days."
About a week later, her family was surprised when Maj. Hampton C. Robinson
accompanied her body to Michigan, Marie's home state, and announced that they
had been married in Reno two weeks before she died.
Marie Robinson and two other crew members perished when their twin-engine bomber
plunged into the desert Oct. 2, 1944. Her story ended with the funeral and the
poem, written the day of the crash by a fellow WASP. Or so the family thought.
Every Memorial Day, Marie Robinson's brother, Roy G. Michell, has saluted his
sister and her short but patriotic life. But this year is special: A few last
remnants of her life are coming home.
Earlier this month, he was rocked by a phone call from a stranger in California
who said he had recovered his sister's bracelet, her Bulova watch, wedding band
and her uniform collar insignia from the wreck site.
The brother, himself a World War II veteran, knew about the bracelet. It was a
gift from his mother, who had given her son and daughter bracelets with their
names engraved when they went off to war.
The stranger on the phone was David Schurhammer of Fullerton, an amateur
aviation archeologist who related how he and two associates became aware of the
1944 plane crash involving a WASP and began to search for the wreckage.
He obtained a copy of the crash report from the Air Force, learned that Robinson
was among the victims and began the hunt. After an Internet search, he learned
of the poem written about Robinson and found several photos of her.
Still, Schurhammer, G. Pat Macha of Huntington Beach and Macha's son, Pat, had
not located the crash site. It became an obsession for the "wreck finders," as
they call themselves. Only after searching on and off for more than a year did
they come upon the wreckage in February along with a few mementos of the young
"She was so young and beautiful. The secret marriage. The tragic death. The
hands on her watch stopped at 1:40 p.m., the time of the crash," Schurhammer
said. "You couldn't make up a story like this one."
The aircraft was piloted that day in October 1944 by Lt. George D. Rosado, whose
wife lived in San Diego. The other crew member was Staff Sgt. Gordon L. Walker,
from John Day, Ore. Schurhammer also has some of their possessions that he wants
to return to their families.
Marie Robinson's brother was stunned when the phone call came to his home in
Purcellville, Va., a suburb of Washington.
"All of this seems like a movie, but the ending wasn't really the end. To know
that she was wearing [the recovered items] that day. Well, I don't know what to
think," he said.
As Memorial Day approached, Michell found himself thinking more about his
sister, nudged along by a melange of emotions and memories. Always proud of what
she had accomplished, Robinson and 1,073 other WASPs blazed a trail for women
who today routinely fly for all branches of the military, Michell said.
"Marie was the only one in the family who died while in the service. Memorial
Day has a special significance this year," he said.
Robinson was not
scheduled to fly the B-25 she co-piloted on that fateful day.
"She was in her room, writing a letter to my mother. Her roommate was
supposed to fly, but she had a toothache. My sister said she'd fly instead —
not a surprise because she loved flying. Mother received the letter after
Marie's death. It tore her apart. She grieved the rest of her life," he
served in uniform less than seven months, her story has become part of WASP
lore. "Celestial Flight," written by her best friend and fellow WASP Elizabeth
"Kit" MacKethan Magid, was meant to preserve her memory. Magid, who died last
year at 86, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Michell marvels at how much his sister accomplished in her brief life. As a
teenager, she danced professionally at the swank Edgewater Beach Hotel in
Chicago, where she lived with her mother and stepfather after her parents
divorced. She graduated from preparatory school in Maryland when she was 18 and
had a private pilot's license before she joined the WASP.
He recalled his sister's wartime romance with Robinson, a doctor nine years her
senior whom she met in Dallas. The love affair continued after she was assigned
to Victorville. Her husband went on to remarry two more times and become a
prominent Houston surgeon, according to the Houston Chronicle. He died in
The WASP program was in existence for only 22 months, from 1942 to 1944, and
members were civil servants, not military pilots. About 25,000 women applied for
the program, but only 1,830 made the cut. Of these, 1,074 graduated from the
training program. Robinson was one of 38 WASPs who died while ferrying fighter
planes, bombers, cargo planes and other aircraft across the United States for
For the privilege of serving their country, the women earned $250 per month and
had to pay for their own uniforms, food and lodging at the military
installations where they were stationed. They finally received veteran status in
In an era when World War II memories are catching public attention, the WASPs
are also snagging Hollywood's attention. Stuart Benjamin, producer of "Ray," the
Oscar-winning 2004 movie about singing legend Ray Charles, is among those
interested. He said he would focus on "getting the WASP story told."
"There's a particular spirit and courage about them. They stepped up when they
were needed and did everything that men did. There was no reward for them except
for the satisfaction of knowing what they did," he said.
Robinson's story, Benjamin said, "is in many ways typical of the WASPs…. They
are people who did heroic things without recognition. There's a real spirit
here, and I think that's part of what attracts me to the project."
It is the spirit reflected in "Celestial Flight":
And understand a pilot's fate
Is not the thing she fears,
But rather sadness left behind,
Your heartbreak and your tears.
So, all you loved ones, dry your eyes,
Yes, it is wrong that you should grieve,
For she would love your courage more,
And she would want you to believe
She is not dead.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times