The Real Hero of the Piece

I just wanted to make sure we’d spelled her name right.  

I was reading a proof of a story for the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018 souvenir program, and doing some general fact checking. The story, “First to Fly,” was about how the Green Bay Packers became the first NFL team to fly to games. As I tell people, I was born without the sports gene. I know a lot about some things, a little about a lot of things, but I know less about football than I do about anything else. I have no idea what a down is, first, touch, or otherwise, so I didn’t think I’d have a lot of edits, and I was right.

But one of the pictures caught my eye. It showed two of the Packers players mugging with a stewardess (this was decades before they were flight attendants) in front of a United Airlines DC-3 in November of 1940. Aside from the United connection — my dad started flying DC-3s for United about a dozen years after the photo was taken and met my mom when she started work as a stewardess about six years after that — I thought it was unusual that the stewardess was identified by name: Roberta Schilbach.

She wasn’t the focus of the story at all, and I don’t mean it in any kind of demeaning way when I say that she didn’t need to be named. It could simply have said, “Two sports guys kidding around and pretending to do sports things with one of the airline crew,” or something like that. But, for one reason or another, the source material our writer worked from had included her name in the original caption. Because she was a bit player in the piece, I thought I should double check to make sure we spelled her name right.

So, I Googled her, wondering if I’d find anything at all.

I did.

One of the first results that popped up mentioned a Roberta Schilbach Ross who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal awarded to those who display “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” Of the several thousand DFCs awarded over the past century, I would have guessed that only a few hundred, at most, would have gone to women.

I was wrong. Starting with Amelia Earhart, the first woman, and the last civilian, to earn the DFC, the number is somewhere closer 20.

Roberta Schilbach Ross

I was fascinated and instantly hooked.

After a little more digging, I learned that the medal recipient was a nurse. This was intriguing, because, prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, United required that all of their stewardesses be registered nurses. Another requirement at that time, aside from the retroactively preposterous physical restrictions — weight between 100 and 118 pounds, height between 5 feet and 5 feet 4 inches — was that stewardesses had to be single. When a stewardess got married, she was automatically fired, just as my mom was 20 years later. Assuming Ross was Roberta’s married name, this all made sense.

Before long, I’d found an obituary that confirmed what I’d suspected — Roberta Schilbach and Roberta Schilbach Ross were the same person. The petite stewardess posing with two hulking athletes who were pretending to toss her like a football was the toughest person in the photo, and the real hero of the piece.

She was born Roberta Schilbach on May 2, 1917, but, before long, everyone was calling her “Bobsie.” She grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, and met her future husband, Carleton “Buzz” Ross in high school, but they didn’t really get together until she’d graduated from nursing school at the Mayo Clinic and started working for United in about 1939.

There was something about Bobsie, some mix of vivaciousness and humility, that drew people’s attention, and, intentionally or otherwise, she had a knack for getting her name in the papers. A few months before her flight with the Packers, she was mentioned by name in an article about a businessman who’d chartered a United flight as the sole passenger, “whose only companions on the trip were the pilot, copilot, and stewardess Roberta Schilbach.” In January of 1941, she was featured in a minor slice of newspaper cheesecake titled “Air Hostesses Stay Charming with Exercises Between Runs.”

Even Bobsie’s relationship with Buzz, by then a sergeant in the Army, made the news in November of 1941, when widespread stories were published about how he used ham radio to stay in touch with her while he was stationed at Camp Polk in Louisiana and she was flying out of Chicago. The stories, usually packaged with cutesy headlines like “Cupid Takes to the Airwaves” and “Radio Keeps Romance Alive” said they used a secret code to communicate.

A month later, everything changed as the United States was pulled into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Against this backdrop of chaotic uncertainty, Bobsie and Buzz were engaged in January of 1942. A couple of months later, she went to visit him at Camp Polk, and, sure enough, made the papers yet again, this time in a story in the March 28, 1942 issue of the Alexandria Daily Town Talk. The headline read “Airline Hostess Takes Ride in Tank at Polk”, and lays out in detail the ways in which she “charmed” the whole camp. The opening sentence offers some insight into Bobsie’s personality.

“You couldn’t quite figure out the ‘why’ of the whole business until you met Roberta Schilbach herself,” it said. The story went on to describe her ride in a tank and how she was “queen of the post and being shown more sights than a visiting congressman.”

During her airline career, Bobsie met and interacted with all kinds of people, including numerous movie stars, high-ranking military brass, and politicians like Wendell Willkie and Fiorello La Guardia. When United Airlines won a safety award for flying 300,000,000 passenger miles in 1942 without a fatal accident, Bobsie was the one up on stage with company president W.A. Patterson, representing all United stewardesses.

Bobsie and Buzz got married in November of 1942 in the chapel at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. Not too long after that, Buzz was sent off to Europe. At a time when women were bombarded with ads that had slogans like “Beauty is your duty,” when legitimate news stories described Bobsie as pretty and charming while her fiancée was clever and capable, it was expected that she would stay home and wait for Buzz to come back from the war.

Instead, she joined the Army.

In December of 1943, she was commissioned as a first lieutenant, possibly outranking her husband, though stories suggest he later earned a commission as well. She trained as a flight nurse, hoping for a chance to deploy to Europe to be closer to her husband.

The Army sent her to India. She was billeted in a flat with couple of Englishwomen and started flying medevac missions throughout the China Burma India (CBI) theater. As a flight nurse, she tended to patients aboard C-47s and C-46s, flying back and forth over “the Hump,” the brutal and unforgiving route over the tops of the eastern Himalayas that was the only way to move people and materiel before the completion of the Ledo Road. In a three year period, nearly 600 aircraft and more than 1,600 people were lost on these trips.

While a forced landing in such hostile terrain was often a death sentence, according to her nephew, Mike Schilbach, Bobsie was in a crash and then worked to rescue the survivors and walk them out, all while she was suffering from a broken wrist and shoulder and a fractured skull. Caregiver became patient as she recuperated in the hospital for nine months after that incident.

Pictures of Bobsie from this era show a gritty competence often coupled with a sense of humor. One photo shows her in coveralls talking to a couple of guys while wearing not one, but two .45s on her belt — if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if George Patton and Florence Nightingale had a daughter, there you go. Another photo that she apparently thought was unflattering shows her looking out of the open cargo door of a transport, with her own handwritten inscription that reads “This is so terrible I thought you’d get a laugh out of it. Throw it away now!!”

Thankfully, nobody did.

Bobsie went on to fly hundreds of missions back and forth over the Hump, eventually earning two Air Medals and, of course, the Distinguished Flying Cross, only the third one in history awarded to a woman. The citation for the DFC reads, in part:

“The Distinguished Flying Cross is hereby awarded to Roberta S. Ross, First Lieutenant, Army Nurse Corps, Flight Nurse, Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, for extraordinary achievement by participating in operational flights totaling more than three hundred hours over Burma, during which enemy attack was probable and expected. These flights, performed in unarmed transport aircraft, were made for the purpose of evacuating by air, sick and wounded personnel from forward areas and were accomplished with industry and a devotion to duty above and beyond that normally expected. Disregarding the hazards of weather, terrain and enemy action faced regularly and continuously, she demonstrated such consideration for her patients and such constant energy as to reflect great credit upon herself and the Army Air Forces of the United States.”

Nowhere does it say anything about her being charming and pretty. With the award of her DFC, she joined the ranks of people like Doolittle, Gabreski, and Alan Shepard.

“The story had it that Eleanor Roosevelt awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Bobsie’s daughter Linda Kurcab told me. “It was hot, so she had unlaced her boots and bloused out her pants, and Eleanor Roosevelt said to my mother, ‘Now, come in proper attire next time we meet!’”

We think of heroes like we see them in the movies. They set their jaws and square their shoulders, and the bad guys never stand a chance. That’s not real. A hero like Bobsie was up to her ankles in blood and up to her neck in chaos, offering comforting words to dying kids. Maybe she would lie and tell them that they were going to make it, just to give them a bit of peace as they lay prone on the floor of a loud, growling airframe, clawing its way over the mountains while the enemy and nature itself bet against them. She went through hell, not to kill the bad guys but to heal the good ones.

After the end of WWII, she and Buzz reunited, and Bobsie mustered out in November of 1945. After a stint at TWA, Buzz stepped into the family business, which was founded by his father in 1933. As Linda said, they made their living out of dirt, building washing equipment for trucks, buses, and trains, and the company is still going strong today. So Buzz and Bobsie did okay — Mike told me that Bobsie spent a lot of her life wearing fancy coats and driving Lincoln Continentals, and I’d say she more than earned it.

There was very little media coverage about Bobsie’s time in the war, which is surprising given her occasional celebrity status beforehand. Like so many of her generation, she didn’t talk about it all that much with her family over the years. Other than a shadowbox full of medals, the only real acknowledgment of her Army career was her vanity license plate, CBI MS.

“She was just Bobsie,” Mike said. “I knew she had been in the Army, but didn’t realize any of this stuff until the last five or six years when I started doing research.”

Mike went on to talk about how Bobsie’s son — Mike’s cousin — would react when friends were over and would comment on the medals on display.

“His friends would always go, ‘Wow your dad won a lot of medals in the war’, and he’d go, ‘Oh those are my mom’s medals, dad’s are over here.”

Roberta’s medals

After her gallant and extraordinary service, Bobsie deserved a happily ever after.

Of course, reality tells us in its gritty, ugly way, that there’s really no such thing. After the war, Bobsie had more than her share of heartbreaks. The same courage, strength, and grace she’d shown in the war saw her through the tough times as her family was touched by multiple miscarriages, alcoholism, a teen suicide, divorce, and, finally, the heartless grip of Alzheimer’s.

I absolutely hated hearing these things. It seemed so unfair, and I kept thinking that Bobsie didn’t deserve any of this. She didn’t deserve it — but she could handle it.

“She rose above it with incredible strength,” Linda said. “She taught me, with the example of her life, courage and strength and grace.”

It wasn’t always a fairy tale, but there were plenty of peaks to go with the valleys. At the time of her death at age 86 in 2003, she was a loving mother and doting grandmother to a bevy of grandkids who knew her as “Mimi.” She’s buried in a cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois, and, in 2015, she was posthumously inducted into the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I typed her name into Google, but it led me to a story that I’ll never forget.

Photos courtesy of the Schilbach/Ross Families and the Green Bay Press Gazette

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