Who is "Fifinella?"
When the women of the WASPs took to the skies in WWII, Walt Disney let them have a guardian befitting of their grace and bravery.
When it comes to showing off the artistic side of mechanical world, nose cone art does the job, and a very special group of women had one of the most wonderful designs of their own.
My family and I were heading home from our Spring Break trip in the Dallas area, and wanted to break up the drive with an overnight stay in Sweetwater, Texas. We were doing our best to make it before 5 p.m., because I had to see Fifinella.
Sweetwater isn’t a large town, and is currently best known as the “Wind Energy Capital” where more than 500 giant wind turbines can be see on the mesa outside of town.
However, when World War II was in full swing, Sweetwater was home to Avenger Field, and Avenger Field was the training home of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). These women helped inspire a generation of girls who, because of them, knew they could take to the skies in service to their nation.
Since 2005, the site houses an information-packed National WASP WWII Museum, which pays honor to their service and legacy. It also features prominently the WASP mascot, Fifinella.
The WASP was established by famed aviator and racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran (the first woman to break the sound barrier), and Nancy Love, as a combination of Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Women’s Flying Training Detachment. Their first training site was in Houston before moving to Sweetwater. The program was active from November 1942 to December 1944.
Fifinella’s story also began in 1942. When author Roald Dahl had to leave the RAF due to an injury, he wrote about the dangers of combat flying in "The Gremlins,"published in 1943 for Walt Disney Productions. "The Gremlins" had already been the legendary scapegoats for aviation malfunctions, and the word “fifinella” referred to all female gremlins.
Everywhere you look in the museum’s hangar, there were images of Fifinella from fine art pieces to WWII artifacts.
Disney had intended to create an animated film based on these creatures, but that never came to be. When the WASPs asked Disney if Fifinella could be their mascot, he granted them the rights and gave her a special design. She was soon adorning flight jackets and noses of bombers. There was also an Order of Fifinella Award for outstanding service to the WASP.
This wasn’t just a group of enthusiastic volunteers. These women had to meet some strict criteria, and be able to keep up with the rigorous training program to qualify. According to our guide, around 24,000 women signed up for the program, but only 1,102 made it into this elite group.
Jobs included ferrying aircraft, acting as tow-target gunnery pilots, test pilots, and trainers. They operated out of at least 110 air bases nationwide and flew more than 65 million miles. Although they did not participate in combat, they were part of some very dangerous missions. In total, 38 WASPS were killed serving their country.
These women loved their fellow members, their country, the contributions they made to the war effort, and their Fifinella.
Our girls getting ready to sign up and do their bit for WWII. Thankfully, that ended more than 60 years ago.
In a document I found on an old Texas Portal site, sculptor France A. Withers talked about the Fifi award she designed for the Order of Fifinella.
“Walt Disney was so intrigued with the work of the WASPS that he dreamed up their patron saint, a dainty little sprite they call ‘Fifinella,'” she said. “She is the sister of the ‘gremlin,’ but unlike her prank playing brother, she is a kind hearted little elf who helped the WASPs out of tight spots.”
We loaded up on Fifinella souvenirs, particularly as proceeds go toward the free museum's improvements and expansion efforts.
A large-scale version of Withers’ statue created in 1976 is a favorite photo op at the WASP museum. We certainly took a few images, and our museum guide also confirmed “Fifi” was the opposite of her male counterparts. She was a fixer and a guardian.
Some of the items she can be seen on at the museum, include nosecone art, handmade items such as blown glass figure donated by a former WASP member during the 2015 reunion, and on an American Girl doll outfit available for the now-retired WWII era doll, Molly. Former WASPS also donated other items, and one member even offered an oral history video of her experiences with the program.
This wasn’t the biggest or most elaborate air museum I’ve been to, but the contributions, abilities, and service of these women will leave a giant impact on anyone who visits. It’s nice to know that Fifinella is there in artistic form and spirit quietly keeping watch over their incredible legacy.