'I'll never forget that terrible flight path'

Retired Shady Cove forester recalls discovery of 1944 plane crash
Paula Loop was one of 38 women pilots to die during WWII while flying as a WASP.Courtesy USAO Archives

Paula Trudeau still gets emotional over what she saw on the mountain that day in 2001.

Trudeau, a Shady Cove resident and former Forest Service employee, was part of a team headed into the woods south of Tiller.

Her job was to prepare an environmental report that would allow removal of parts left over after a 57-year-old plane crash.

What she saw still brings tears to her eyes.

"When we got there, the forest archaeologist was looking down and around," Trudeau said, "but me, being a forester, I was looking up at the trees, and all of a sudden, I was saying to myself — holy cow, here's where that plane came in. I'll never forget that terrible flight path. All the cedars were sheared off. They were growing new tops, but you could still see the angle where that plane had crashed through the trees.

"I only hope this woman passed out before that crash."

The woman was Paula Ruth Loop, a pilot from Manchester, Okla. In July 1944, just a few weeks away from celebrating her 27th birthday, she died in that crash.

For Loop, flying had come easy. While studying for her master's degree at Oklahoma A&M, she entered the civilian pilot training course offered by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Authority. After 72 hours of ground school training, she passed the final examination and became the first woman in Oklahoma to receive a flight scholarship.

Following 35 hours of free flying instruction and a successful solo flight in September 1940, Loop claimed her private pilot's license. But she was still stuck on the ground, working as a secretary, typing letters and taking dictation.

After Pearl Harbor and the country's entry into World War II, Loop could only watch as former male classmates became military pilots and left to fight in the war. But all of that changed in the fall of 1942, when she joined the WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots.

The WASPs were more than 1,000 women who flew every type of aircraft during the war, freeing up male pilots for combat duty.

In all, 25,000 women applied for the program, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 graduated. By the war's end, they had flown 60 million miles in military planes.

A few weeks before Loop would pin on her silver WASP wings, she wrote home filled with pride.

"Dear Folks," she said. "This (aviation) course is what was given to the men officer candidates in 90-day sessions. We're getting it in 24. Weaker sex?"

Over the next year, Loop was in the air for more than 1,000 hours, delivering aircraft for the Army Air Corps and touching airfields in each of the 48 states and a few in Canada. From nearly every air field she sent a letter or postcard back to her family in Wakita, Okla.

The oldest of four children, growing up was difficult for Loop. She milked cows on the family's farm, helped her mother with canning, sewing and housekeeping, watched over her siblings, and studied hard in school.

Her mother knew Paula deserved a college education, so she scrimped wherever she could and saved money by sewing all of the family's clothes by hand. When Loop was accepted by the Oklahoma College for Women, there was enough money to send her on her way. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce, maintaining a 94.9 grade average. After graduation she received the master's degree from Oklahoma A&M.

In July 1944, Loop and two other pilots were delivering three Vultee BT-13 trainer aircraft to Seattle, Wash. On July 6, she landed for an overnight stay at Victorville, Calif. While waiting for a steak dinner, she wrote a short note home.

"Stopped in Albuquerque and then Kingman, Ariz. for fuel," she said. "Flew over the train wreck at Flagstaff."

Four people had died near Flagstaff when a Santa Fe passenger train had jumped the rails.

The next day, Loop landed in Sacramento, took on fuel, and writing another letter, she marveled that because the weather was so cool, army officers could wear their winter uniforms year-round.

"Next stop Medford, Oregon and then Seattle," she wrote. "All OK." — It was her last letter.

A few minutes out from the Medford airport, while flying over Richter Mountain between Trail and Tiller, she went down.

Smoke on the mountain brought a fire crew from the Tiller Ranger Station to the ghastly scene.

"The fire burned so hot," said Paula Trudeau, "that the metal parts in much of the plane melted into a large mass."

Loop's body was taken to Camp White and then sent home for burial. Because WASPs were considered civilians, the government paid no death benefits or any costs of transporting her body. She was one of 38 WASPs to die while serving during the war.

Into her headstone, Loop's parents embedded the silver wings their daughter had proudly worn, accompanied by the engraved words: "Into the Mosaic of Victory, This Priceless Piece Was Set."

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation granting the WASP members full military status for their service. In 1984, each WASP was awarded the World War II Victory Medal. Those who served for more than one year were also awarded the American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medal.

Fifty-seven years after Loop died, Trudeau was amazed at what she found on the mountain. She picked up engine pistons the size of five-pound coffee cans and even found remains of the plane's radio.

In late 2003, with a specially built sled, cables, pulleys and some hard tugging, volunteers from the Oregon Aviation Historical Society in Cottage Grove recovered the crashed plane's engine and a tubular section of the fuselage. Both are now on display in the society's museum, a memorial to the life of Paula Loop.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.



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