Pilot receives honor posthumously

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

Marjorie Logan Rolle served as a pilot with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots in World War II.

On Tuesday, her service as a WASP was recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at Billings Logan International Airport. Friends, family and national and local officials gathered on the second floor of the airport for the half-hour ceremony.

Sen. Jon Tester presented the medal to Ken Rolle, Marjorie’s widower. She passed away in 2002.

The medal, Tester said, is the highest civilian honor presented by the U.S. Congress.

The original gold medal was presented to the WASPs as a unit in March in Washington, D.C., and has been donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Rolle was given a bronze replica of the medal.

Tester was co-sponsor of a Senate bill that made the honor possible. On Tuesday, he read from the legislation about the role the WASPs played in the war.

They were the first women in history to fly American military aircraft, Tester said. During the war they flew fighter, bomber, transport and training aircraft in defense of America’s freedom.

More than 25,000 women applied to become WASPs but only a little over 1,000 were accepted and completed training, Tester said, including Rolle and seven other Montanans. They didn’t have it easy.

“They faced overwhelming cultural and gender bias against women in nontraditional roles and overcame multiple injustices and inequities in order to serve their country,” Tester told the group.

The women pilots flew aircraft from factories to the U.S. air bases. They also tested aircraft, including the B-26 “Widowmaker.”

“It was called the ‘Widowmaker’ for a reason, and the WASPs were asked to prove to male pilots that it was safe to fly,” Tester said.

During the war, 38 WASPs lost their lives, he said. Their bodies were sent home in pine boxes and their families had to pay for their funerals.

Because the women were not considered members of the military, American flags were not allowed to be placed on their coffins.

“You can see why it’s so important that all WASPs get the honor that they deserve, the Congressional Gold Medal,” Tester said. “It took an act of Congress last year to do this.”

Rolle grew up around aviation. Her father, Dick Logan, sold the land to the city for the Billings airport and then managed it for 33 years until his death in 1957. Logan introduced his daughter to such aviation luminaries as Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart when they flew into town.

Tom Binford, director of aviation at the Billings airport, praised Logan for his vision and for his contribution to the airport and the community. He said Rolle’s own wartime service will never be forgotten.

Binford said he planned to place a framed photograph of Rolle accepting his wife’s medal prominently in the terminal building, “so that our many visitors can understand, appreciate and never forget the service that Marge and the other WASPs provided our country.” 

Greg Curtis, a nephew of Ken and Marjorie Rolle, spoke about the primitive aviation technology the WASPs used during the war. Unlike today, when pilots have GPS, landing systems and all sorts of electronic helps, the women flew by star navigation with a compass.

“And they did it with a skeleton crew,” Curtis said. “Not only did they fly these huge airplanes, they didn’t go with 10 people on board or even four people. There were typically just two of them. It’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about it.”

He spoke of the impact that Marjorie and Ken Rolle, her parents and siblings had on the ensuing generations. The family today includes engineers, doctors, lawyers, educators and entrepreneurs, following a philosophy of “I can, I will and I do,” he said.

There are also four or five pilots, including Curtis, and a great-nephew who flew Blackhawk helicopters for two tours in Iraq.

“I’m proud of what Marge brought to us and I’m proud of the example that she set,” Curtis said.

Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, who attended the presentation of the medal in Washington, D.C., said that as more and more of the WASPs pass away, it is important to keep in mind what Rolle and all the other women pilots did for their country.

“The courage and determination that not only she displayed and she put forth but all of those others that were with her is special to each and every one of us,” Hanel said.