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She left a mark on World War II

May 29, 2004|By TAMELA BAKER

As yearbooks go, the one for cadets attending the Navy's War Training Service flight school in Conway, Ark., during World War II was pretty thin.

In the back, its printers designated a page for "activities not logged." On this page, cadets were encouraged to record information on people they wanted to remember, including autographs, phone numbers - and lipstick imprints.

Near the bottom of the page was an editor's note: "If you need more space than this, brother, don't leave Conway."

Ask Boonsboro resident Emma Lou Schwagel whether she left any lipstick imprints in a young cadet's yearbook and she'll insist that she did not.

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But she made an impression anyway - and not the sort they might have expected.

The cadets who arrived in Conway for flight training were stunned to discover that the pretty and petite young woman was their flight instructor.

"The cadets were horrified at first to have me for an instructor," Schwagel recalled. "They just sort of got used to me," she said, spreading a collection of yellowing photographs across the kitchen table of her cottage at Fahrney-Keedy Home and Village.

All of the press surrounding today's dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. - and the 60th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 - gives Schwagel, 84, a chance to reminisce a bit about her years at the Arkansas school and the young pilots she helped train from 1941 until the end of the war.

Although the school was sponsored by the Navy, "we started out teaching all branches of the service - Army, Navy, Marines."

Once they got over the initial shock, most of her students came to respect her, she said. Some even wrote to her from their outposts in the war theaters.

"I heard from a good many who were involved in the D-Day drop," Schwagel said.

"They'd tell me stories about what they'd seen and done. Some of them, even though they did alright flying, you just couldn't see them in the situations they were facing," she said.

But then, one might be forgiven for having trouble seeing her in the situation she was in.

A Kansas native who studied home economics at Arkansas State Teachers College, Schwagel developed an interest in flying while living in a boarding house that also was home to some pilots. She managed to get into a government-sponsored program aimed at helping the country get on war footing by training civilian pilots. One in 10 students could be female.

But her uniform looked a little different from those of her male classmates.

"I never got a jacket like the rest of them," Schwagel remembered. "And I resented that."

After completing requirements for a private pilot's license, Schwagel continued training until she received an instructor's license. Though she'd been offered a job teaching home economics, she turned it down. She taught flying instead.

With the war, instructors at the school were taken into the service, Schwagel said. Her rank was second lieutenant.

Schwagel eventually did return to teaching home economics, however, after moving to Washington County with her husband, the late Rome Schwagel, who had been the flight school's physical training director. She taught at Boonsboro High School, where she later became a guidance counselor. Her husband served both as mayor of Keedysville and as a Washington County commissioner.

Looking back on the war years, though, "I just didn't really feel like I made that much of a contribution," she said. "But I guess I really did."

Schwagel doesn't remember as much about all those student pilots as she'd like, though.

"I wish I would have followed them better," she said.

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