PEORIA — Mildred “Duke” Caldwell, the Peoria woman who earned a Congressional Gold Medal for her service flying military aircraft during World War II, died early Friday morning in her Peoria home. She was 99.
Caldwell, who settled in central Illinois in the 1950s and taught physical education at Bradley University for 28 years, took part in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots program, known as WASP, from April 1943 until it was abruptly shut down in December 1944. WASP women piloted military planes in the United States in varying capacities to free up male pilots to fly combat missions in the war.
Stymied for decades by military indifference, the 1,100 women who served as WASPs were bestowed veteran status by Congress in 1977 and were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal when President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2009.
Caldwell was born in Caanan, Conn., and graduated from college in Troy, N.Y. A dream to fly airplanes took her to a job at the Piper Airplane Company in Lock Haven, Penn. It was there where she learned to fly.
"Apparently, this effort must have been part of the agreement with the government with Mr. Piper was that these ladies would also have a chance to learn to fly, thus freeing the male pilots for overseas combat duty," Len Caldwell, Caldwell's nephew, said Friday. Len Caldwell lives in Philadelphia. "Well, that offer was too good to be true, and she was off. In hindsight, it is pretty clear that Piper was aware of the future creation of a women's branch of the flying service and he hoped to provide some ready recruits."
When the WASP program was officially created, Piper paid the way for his young female employees to Sweetwater, Texas, where they joined up.
"Duke was in heaven," Len Caldwell said. "She was a fine pilot, fulfilling a number of roles, including towing targets for male gunners soon to join the war, ferrying planes, transporting officials, and more. Unlike most of the other women, she understood engine mechanics from her dad who was an auto mechanic and insisted that if she wanted a car, she needed to fully understand how they worked! Very helpful in her training."
WASP ended unceremoniously in late 1944 as men were returning to the United States from the war and the services of the women pilots were no longer needed.
"It was delightful. I loved flying," Caldwell said in an interview about her WASP career with the Journal Star in 2009. "Loved it!"
After WASP shut down, Caldwell moved to Florida, where she worked at a small airport with some of her friends just so they could keep flying — crop dusting, aircraft maintenance and other duties. There she met her lifetime partner, Jo Pearce, and returned to college for a masters degree from the University of Missouri. Eventually, she and Pearce moved to Peoria in the mid-1950s, where Pearce was an English professor at Bradley and Caldwell became a physical education instructor, and eventually the department head, of the Bradley physical education department. Caldwell retired from Bradley in 1953. Pearce died in 2008.
Caldwell had been ill for a long time and had received hospice care in her home since May 2016. She passed away at 1:30 a.m. Friday.
"Duke is an inspiration to all who know her, and has influenced so many young people, especially young women, to pursue their dreams wherever they may lead," Len Caldwell said.
At Caldwell's request, there will be no formal services. After a long fight, federal legislation passed last year that allowed WASP veterans to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Caldwell had no interest in that, her nephew said. Her ashes will be buried in Canaan, Conn., with her parents, probably in the summer or fall.
During a Journal Star interview for a story about WASPs receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, Caldwell downplayed the honor with humility and self-deprecating humor.
"Not bad for an old gym teacher," she said.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.