It was an unusually warm Thanksgiving afternoon in Great Falls, Montana.
With partly cloudy skies, light winds and temperatures holding in the low 50s, operations at the nearby Army airfield were running with clockwork precision.
Yes, Nov. 23, 1944, was a holiday, but with a war on, this wasn’t a time for Air Corps pilots to take a break. Here, at the last U.S. stop on the Alaska-Siberia Air Route, rapid, nonstop landings and takeoffs continued well into the evening. Pilots were ferrying brand new aircraft from manufacturers across the country to Montana and then on to Alaska. From there, Soviet pilots, America’s allies, would fly them on to the Soviet Union.
In the early afternoon, the Great Falls tower gave Women Airforce Service Pilot Hazel Ying Lee Louie permission to land. Because her flight from the Bell Aircraft factory in Niagara Falls, New York, had been delayed by a snowstorm in North Dakota, she was anxious to land.
What Hazel didn’t know was that Lt. Charles Russell, in a much faster airplane, was attempting an emergency landing from behind without control from the tower. His radio was out and he didn’t see Hazel below him. When the controller saw the impending collision, he ordered both pilots to pull up and abort. Russell never heard the order, but Hazel did, and immediately pulled up and smashed into the belly of Russell’s descending plane. There was a loud explosion and a huge fireball as both aircraft fell to the runway.
Hazel was born and raised in Portland. The 32-year-old’s parents had come from China in 1910 and opened a grocery and variety store.
In September 1931, the Japanese Army invaded Manchuria and began bombing civilians. American-Chinese were outraged and donated money to fund flight training in the United States for pilots who would fly and fight for China. The newly formed Chinese Flying Club of Portland began accepting memberships, and, by May 1932, 36 students, including Hazel Lee and one other woman, were in the air over the Columbia River.
Hazel left for Shanghai in March 1933, hoping to fight with the Chinese national air force. She was disappointed to learn that women weren’t allowed to fly combat. Instead, she flew cargo and passengers, and by the spring of 1935 she was a flight instructor who occasionally dropped propaganda leaflets over the countryside. After six years in China, she came home.
She stopped flying and traveled to New York in an attempt to forget the devastation she’d seen. There she worked for the Chinese government, supporting the Chinese war effort by buying necessary war materials. While there, she reunited with Clifford Louie, now a major in the Chinese air force. They had learned to fly together in Portland and had left for China together.
After formation of the WASP in 1942, Hazel joined them as quickly as she could. Two months after graduation, and barely a year before her Thanksgiving collision in Montana, Clifford and Hazel married, but they would never see each other again.
Just after 2 o’clock, the flaming airplanes fell to the runway. Lt. Russell managed to get out and run to safety with minor injuries, but Hazel, knocked unconscious and trapped in the burning plane, had to be pulled out and rushed to the base hospital, There, she died a painful death two days later.
Officials at Portland’s Riverview Cemetery at first opposed Hazel’s burial because she was Chinese, but they later relented. On Dec. 1, 1944, Hazel Ying Lee Louie’s parents buried their daughter in a vaulted gravesite overlooking the Willamette River.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or WilliamMMiller.com.