By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Not everyone who served wore a uniform. Bette Babb kept planes flying safely in World War II, as a civilian air-traffic controller.
Still living on her own in Champaign, Babb, 98, remembers her service as the best years of her life, and she has plenty of memories, including meeting famous people.
She grew up in Peoria, and vividly remembers when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“People thought Hawaii was a foreign country,” she says. “I said, ‘That’s us!'”
She wanted to do something to aid the U.S. war effort, and volunteered for the Red Cross. They had her rolling bandages.
“That wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she says.
She had visited a friend in Montgomery, Ala., and decided to move there to get a job at Maxwell Field, now Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, home to six different aviator schools during World War II.
In 1942, she applied for a job at Maxwell.
“Do you type?” she was asked. She did. “Well, you won’t need it,” the man answered.
Next, “Do you know anything about dispatching aircraft?”
This time, she answered no, and he said: “That’s exactly what we want. We train our own.”
Babb worked eight-hour shifts scanning the skies for B-24 Liberator bombers, and later the B-29 Superfortress.
“It was very exciting, and I met wonderful people,” she says.
Winter in Alabama was always instrument weather, Babb says. But crashes were rare; she considers herself especially lucky she wasn’t there when a civilian woman walked into a moving propeller.
World War II had its glamour, with movie stars like Jimmy Stewart serving as pilots. At Maxwell, the big celebrity was Glenn Miller.
The big-band leader’s hits include “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “A String of Pearls.”
Babb said a clerical error sent Miller to Maxwell instead of Washington. But while he was there, she met him through her roommate, Shorty, whose father was head of protocol on the base.
She and others lunched with Miller at the officer’s club.
“Everybody said, ‘That’s Glenn Miller!’ He wasn’t conceited at all; he turned pink,” she recalls.
Later, Shorty, Babb and her boyfriend hosted Miller for a home-cooked meal. In a tiny kitchen, they ate breaded pork chops and potatoes au gratin. They were delighted that Miller “ate two portions of everything.” Later, they learned it was the only home-cooked meal he had at Maxwell.
On Dec. 15, 1944, Miller flew from England to France to play for the soldiers there. His plane disappeared over the English Channel.
Babb remains curious about that to this day, and keeps up with research on why Miller’s plane may have crashed.
After the war, she was pushed out of her job in favor of a veteran.
“That was the end of my job. I was heartbroken,” she said, though she felt the veteran deserved his job back. She continued to work for the government, first for the Navy, then for the FBI. There was nothing exciting about it, she says; she was a typist.
Eventually, she came to the area to work at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.
“Nothing I did there was ever as interesting as being in the tower in World War II,” she says.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.