Lest We Forget ...

... Helen Dettweiler in World War II

 By Rhonda Glenn, USGA 

This past week a debt was paid to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service during World War II. They were the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft and, according to the Associated Press, 38 died in action.

The honor comes too late for Helen Dettweiler. The LPGA co-founder, Women’s Western Open champion, golf course architect, major league baseball broadcaster and noted golf instructor died of cancer at the age of 71 in 1990. She was also a WASP.

In the book “Fly Girls,” about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, Dettweiler is pictured with ground-school instructor R.J. Patterson and a few other trainees. She is a tall, good-looking woman, bent over a table where she inspects a radial aircraft engine part. This was serious business and Dettweiler, like the others, threw herself into her war duties.

The women pilots had high standards. Their pilot accident rates and fatality rates were lower than those of male pilots during the war. The women pilots were somewhat demeaned, but it was in the context of the times and they soon earned grudging respect.

“…They are carrying some tests on engine heat, and what have you,” wrote Major Harry Shilling, Air Corps director of maintenance. “Quite a big job for two delicate dishes of femininity. Perhaps they should take some of our supermen for a ride and show them how to get off the ground with speed dispatch at a low head temperature.”

“Fly Girls” pointed out the difficulties of women pilots in the military. Male pilots who returned to the states in early 1944 competed with the women pilots for flying jobs in private industry and they forced the women out through a public relations campaign in Congress and the press.

“Just six months earlier it had been heroic to do a man’s job, but by mid-1944, it was considered unpatriotic,” one WASP said.

Dettweiler was born on Jan. 1, 1919, and grew up near Washington, D.C., in a family that loved golf. When she graduated from nearby Trinity College, her grandmother gave her $500, and Helen used it to play the Florida winter women’s amateur tour.

“I liked it, but there wasn’t too much prospect for women in tournaments,” she said in an interview in the 1980s.

Vivacious yet possessing a soft charm, Dettweiler was a popular player, and Wilson Sporting Goods sought her for their women’s staff to give exhibitions and promote the sale of clubs. Dettweiler accepted the offer and turned pro in 1939, joining Opal Hill and Helen Hicks Harb on the company’s staff. Patty Berg joined them in 1940.

Dettweiler won the 1939 Women’s Western Open but the Women’s Western Golf Association had dubbed their championship an “open” simply to attract national players. When professionals showed up, the WWGA was actually a bit startled. No prize money was offered and Dettweiler received only a silver Revere bowl for her victory.

But Helen had a lot going for her. Clark Griffith, a Washington Senators executive, was one of her golf cronies and he arranged for Dettweiler to do play-by-play for his baseball team on national radio, sponsored by Wheaties cereal. Dettweiler successfully took over the microphone, the first woman to do the job.

The fledgling women’s professional circuit had but a handful of tournaments in 1941. Total prize money was $500 and, like other women professionals, Dettweiler’s income largely came from her sporting goods company contract. Soon sports would pale.

“When the war came along,” she said, “women’s golf went downhill. Everything was for the war effort.”

Dettweiler became a receptionist for the Air Transport Command and was assigned to the cryptographic section in Washington. She soon headed the section, commanded a staff of women, and was sent around the nation to set up code-cracking operations.

In 1943, Dettweiler applied for admission to the WASPs. She was assigned to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, then was sent to Columbus, Ohio, to finish training. Soon Dettweiler was flying B-17 bombers, the famous “Flying Fortresses,” ferrying the planes to Europe for the U.S. military.

After the war, she enjoyed new opportunities. In 1946 she joined WASP flying ace Jacqueline Cochran to design a nine-hole course in Indio, Calif.

Dettweiler competed in the few tournaments for women professionals. In 1947 she virtually ran the new Women’s Professional Golf Association as its second president, and then became vice president. When the WPGA floundered, Dettweiler pressed ahead to help form a new women’s professional golf organization, the Ladies Professional Golf Association, serving as its vice president.

She even took a fling at Hollywood. In 1949 she joined Babe Zaharias, Betty Hicks and Beverly Hanson in supporting roles in the George Cukor-directed MGM film, “Pat and Mike,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Helen retired from the tournament grind to become head professional at the course in Indio and trained her male assistants, Homer Martinson and Bill Kidd, to become two of the best club professionals in the nation. Martinson eventually took the head job at Edina and Kidd went on to Interlachen, both in Minnesota.

Dettweiler became a noted teaching professional at Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif., for many years and then served a stint at nearby Eldorado. An article she wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1956 was geared toward high-handicap women golfers but Dettweiler also was a popular teacher for the Hollywood crowd.

The first recipient of the LPGA’s Teacher of the Year award, in 1958, was Helen Dettweiler.

When Dettweiler retired, she opened a shop selling fine clothes in Palm Springs and split her time between her houses in Palm Desert and Portland, Ore.

One of her last public appearances was at the 1987 Founders Classic, a tournament near Dallas for senior women professionals, organized by LPGA founder Marilynn Smith. The kickoff cocktail party was a noisy affair. Ben Hogan, in a nod to the women, was making a rare appearance at the party. It was a night when people had to shout to be heard.

Dettweiler sat quietly on the sidelines. She was 67 years old, but had not aged well. Arthritis made it difficult for her to get around and she was, like nearly everyone, a bit heavier than in her playing days. There’s a good chance that the cancer that would take her life a little more than two years later had already made inroads on her health.

Yet her eyes had a spark in them and her generous smile was still wide and bright as she greeted old friends. Most of the players that night were closer to 50 than 70, and Dettweiler knew only a few women in the room.

A reporter who had once interviewed her via telephone stopped by for a chat, and remembered the amazing landmarks of Dettweiler’s career.

“How did it all happen?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, a friend helped me here, a friend helped me there,” said Dettweiler with a modest smile. “I was lucky. I had a lot of friends.” 

Today the nine-hole course Dettweiler designed in Indio is Indian Palms Country Club. It has 27 holes and the original nine has generous fairways and towering trees. Few even know that a woman masterminded the design. When “Helen Dettweiler” is researched on the Internet, nearly all of the many listings refer to her bit part in “Pat and Mike,” and Dettweiler is mostly listed as a subject in filmographies and “fan forums.” But Helen Dettweiler discussion forums are blank. No one comments.

Few know of Dettweiler’s very real and essential role as a member of that greatest generation. Like most authentic heroes, she didn’t discuss her war exploits and would barely touch upon them when urged.

Helen Dettweiler, in her quiet way a key figure in women’s golf, is largely forgotten. Her role in the war and the role of other women who flew planes for their country is just now being acknowledged. Those tributes are long overdue. 

Rhonda Glenn is a Manager of Communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.
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