#WarriorWednesday: The Original Fly Girls – WWII WASPs Flew With Honor and Courage

WASP (from left) Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their B-17, called Pistol Packin' Mama, during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Air Force base in Ohio. They're carrying their parachutes.

WASP (from left) Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their B-17, called Pistol Packin’ Mama, during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Air Force base in Ohio. They’re carrying their parachutes.

In 1942, the United States was faced with a severe shortage of pilots, and leaders gambled on an experimental program to help fill the void: Train women to fly military aircraft so male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.

The group of female pilots was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots — WASP for short. In 1944, during the graduation ceremony for the last WASP training class, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, said that when the program started, he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”

“Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” Arnold said.

A few more than 1,100 young women, all civilian volunteers, flew almost every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers — as part of the WASP program. They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition. The WASP expected to become part of the military during their service. Instead, the program was canceled after just two years.

WASP with a plane named "Miss Fifinella," the mascot designed for the women by Walt Disney Studios

WASP with a plane named “Miss Fifinella,” the mascot designed for the women by Walt Disney Studios

They weren’t granted military status until the 1970s. And now, 65 years after their service, they will receive the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress. In July 2009, a bill was signed awarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. The ceremony took place in March of 2010 on Capitol Hill.

Women With Moxie

Margaret Phelan Taylor grew up on a farm in Iowa. She was 19, had just completed two years of college and was ready for adventure in 1943 when a Life magazine cover story on the female pilots caught her eye. Her brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her? She asked her father to lend her money for a pilot’s license — $500, a huge amount then.

“I told him I had to do it,” Taylor says. “And so he let me have the money. I don’t think I ever did pay it back to him either.”

But there was a problem. She was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2-inch requirement.

“I just stood on my tiptoes,” she says. When she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASP were trained, “Well, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.”

Short, tall, slim, wide, they all came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the female civilian volunteers.

“They didn’t want to bring in a bunch of girls who didn’t know how to fly an airplane,” says Katherine Sharp Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, who’s writing a book about the WASP, tentatively called Against Prevailing Winds: The Women Airforce Service Pilots and American Society. “So you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they had to learn how to fly so they could be a WASP.”

A Dangerous Job

Once when Taylor was ferrying an aircraft cross-country, somewhere between Arizona and California, she saw smoke in the cockpit. Taylor was trained to bail out if anything went wrong. “But the parachutes were way too big. They weren’t fitted to us,” she says. “The force of that air and that speed and everything, w

Women With Moxie

Margaret Phelan Taylor grew up on a farm in Iowa. She was 19, had just completed two years of college and was ready for adventure in 1943 when a Life magazine cover story on the female pilots caught her eye. Her brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her? She asked her father to lend her money for a pilot’s license — $500, a huge amount then.

“I told him I had to do it,” Taylor says. “And so he let me have the money. I don’t think I ever did pay it back to him either.”

But there was a problem. She was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2-inch requirement.

“I just stood on my tiptoes,” she says. When she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASP were trained, “Well, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.”

Short, tall, slim, wide, they all came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the female civilian volunteers.

“They didn’t want to bring in a bunch of girls who didn’t know how to fly an airplane,” says Katherine Sharp Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, who’s writing a book about the WASP, tentatively called Against Prevailing Winds: The Women Airforce Service Pilots and American Society. “So you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they had to learn how to fly so they could be a WASP.”

Margaret Phelan Taylor was a WASP during World War II.

Margaret Phelan Taylor was a WASP during World War II.

A Dangerous Job

Once when Taylor was ferrying an aircraft cross-country, somewhere between Arizona and California, she saw smoke in the cockpit. Taylor was trained to bail out if anything went wrong. “But the parachutes were way too big. They weren’t fitted to us,” she says. “The force of that air and that speed and everything, why that just rips stuff off you. You’d slip right out.”

So her plane was smoking and Taylor faced a defining moment.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going until I see flame. When I see actual fire, why, then I’ll jump.’ “

Was she scared? “No. I was never scared. My husband used to say, ‘It’s pretty hard to scare you.’ “

The plane’s problem turned out to be a burned-out instrument.

But 38 female pilots did lose their lives serving their country. One was 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, Mich.

“I’ve always known of her as the family hero,” says Rawlinson’s niece, Pam Pohly, who never knew her aunt. “The one we lost too soon, the one that everyone loved and wished were still around.”

Rawlinson was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina. She was coming back from a night training exercise with her male instructor when the plane crashed. Marion Hanrahan, also a WASP at Camp Davis, wrote an eyewitness account:

I knew Mabel very well. We were both scheduled to check out on night flight in the A-24. My time preceded hers, but she offered to go first because I hadn’t had dinner yet. We were in the dining room and heard the siren that indicated a crash. We ran out onto the field. We saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire, and we could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare.

It’s believed that Rawlinson’s hatch malfunctioned, and she couldn’t get out. The other pilot was thrown from the plane and suffered serious injuries. Because Rawlinson was a civilian, the military was not required to pay for her funeral or pay for her remains to be sent home. So — and this is a common story — her fellow pilots pitched in.

“They collected enough money to ship her remains home by train,” says Pohly. “And a couple of her fellow WASP accompanied her casket.”

And, because Rawlinson wasn’t considered military, the American flag could not be draped over her coffin. Her family did it anyway.

Even though she was considered a civilian, Mabel Rawlinson's family draped her coffin with a flag, a tradition reserved for members of the armed forces. Though the funeral appears lightly attended, many were lined up behind the photographer, as seen in the reflection of the car.

Even though she was considered a civilian, Mabel Rawlinson’s family draped her coffin with a flag, a tradition reserved for members of the armed forces. Though the funeral appears lightly attended, many were lined up behind the photographer, as seen in the reflection of the car.

The Program Is Pulled

The head of the WASP program was Jacqueline Cochran, a pioneering aviator. (After the war, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier.) Cochran’s goal was to train thousands of women to fly for the Army, not just a few dozen integrated into the men’s program. She wanted a separate women’s organization and believed militarization would follow if the program was a success. And it was. The women’s safety records were comparable and sometimes even better than their male counterparts doing the same jobs.

But in 1944, historian Landdeck says, the program came under threat. “It was a very controversial time for women flying aircraft. There was a debate about whether they were needed any longer,” Landdeck says.

By the summer of 1944, the war seemed to be ending. Flight training programs were closing down, which meant that male civilian instructors were losing their jobs. Fearing the draft and being put into the ground Army, they lobbied for the women’s jobs.

“It was unacceptable to have women replacing men. They could release men for duty — that was patriotic — but they couldn’t replace men,” Landdeck says.

And so, Arnold announced the program would disband by December 1944, but those who were still in training could finish. The Lost Last Class, as it was dubbed, graduated, but served only 2 1/2 weeks before being sent home on Dec. 20, along with all the other WASP.

Lillian Yonally served her country for more than a year as a WASP. When she was dismissed from her base in California, there was no ceremony. “Not a darn thing. It was told to us that we would be leaving the base. And we hopped airplanes to get back home.” Home for Yonally was across the country in Massachusetts.

That was a familiar story, but Landdeck says there were some bases that did throw parties or had full reviews for their departing WASP.

Lillian Yonally in a 1943 publicity photo at Camp Irwin in California.

Lillian Yonally in a 1943 publicity photo at Camp Irwin in California.

Riling The WASP’s Nest

The women went on with their lives.

A few of them got piloting jobs after the war, but not with any of the major airlines. And some of them stayed in the air as airline stewardesses. In those days, no major commercial airline would hire these experienced women as pilots. Like many World War II veterans, most WASP never talked about their experiences.

And according to Taylor, they never expected anything either.

“We were children of the Depression. It was root hog or die. You had to take care of yourself. Nobody owed us anything,” she says.

The WASP kept in touch for a while. They even formed a reunion group after the war. But that didn’t last long. Then, in the 1960s, they began to find each other again. They had reunions. They started talking about pushing for military status. And then something happened in 1976 that riled the whole WASP’s nest.

“The Air Force comes out and says that they are going to admit women to their flying program,” Landdeck says. An Air Force statement says “it’s the first time that the Air Force has allowed women to fly their aircraft.”

Thirty years later, that comment still upsets former WASP Yonally.

“It was impossible for anybody to say that. That wasn’t true. We were the first ones,” Yonally says.

Margaret Phelan Taylor at her Palo Alto, Calif., home

Margaret Phelan Taylor at her Palo Alto, Calif., home

The fact that the WASP were forgotten by their own Air Force united the women. They lobbied Congress to be militarized. And they persuaded Sen. Barry Goldwater to help. He ferried planes during the war, just as the WASP did. And then, in 1977, the WASP were finally granted military status.

Over the years it has been reported that the WASP records were sealed, stamped classified and unavailable to historians who wrote histories about WWII. According to archivists at the National Archives, military records containing reports about the WASP were treated no differently from other records from the war, which generally meant the WASP records weren’t open to researchers for 30 years. But unlike other stories from the war, the WASP story was rarely told or reported until the 1970s.

“It’s hard to understand that they would be forgotten and difficult to believe that they would be left out of those histories. But even they forgot themselves for a while,” Landdeck says.

In 1992, to preserve their history, the WASP designated Texas Woman’s University in Denton as their official archives.

Yonally is proud to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, 65 years after her service, but she’s sad that fewer than 300 of her 1,100 fellow WASP are alive to receive it.

“I’m sorry that so many girls have passed on. It’s nice the families will receive it, but it doesn’t make up for the gals who knew what they did and weren’t honored that way,” Yonally says.

Taylor is also excited about the medal. She served her country out of loyalty, she says. That was certainly part of it. But the other reason? “I did it for the fun. I was a young girl and everybody had left and it was wartime. You didn’t want to get stuck in a hole in Iowa; you wanted to see what was going on.”

On the Web:

#MilitaryMonday: US Army’s Mighty 8th, Savannah, GA

In the month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army’s 8th Air Force is established in Savannah Georgia.

It has seven men and no planes.

Less than a year later it is tasked with defeating the most powerful Air Force in the world – the German Luftwaffe.
This is their story in six high-definition videos…
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#WarriorWednesday: The Story of Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown

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1943. A badly damaged B-17 was spared by German Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler.

The forgotten story of the German pilot who saved the Allied B-17 crew: The amazing story of enemies who became brothers 47 years later. Charlie Brown & Franz Stigler.

Christmas 1943 : Allied bombing campaign in Germany was going at full tilt. Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown was a freshly minted bomber pilot, and he and his crew were about to embark upon their first mission — to hit an aircraft factory in northern Germany. Brown’s B-17F Flying Fortress, dubbed Ye Olde Pub, was typical of American heavy bombers of the time. Along with an 8,000-pound bomb capacity, the four-engine plane was armed with 11 machine guns and strategically placed armor plating. B-17s cruised at about 27,000 feet, but weren’t pressurized. At that altitude, the air is thin and cold — 60 degrees below zero. Pilots and crew relied upon an onboard oxygen system and really warm flight suits with heated shoes.

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

As Ye Olde Pub approached Bremen, Germany, German anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the formation. Unfortunately for the pilots and crew of Ye Olde Pub, one of the anti-aircraft rounds exploded right in front of their plane, destroying the number two engine and damaging number four. Missing one engine and with another throttled back due to damage, Ye Olde Pub could no longer keep up with the formation. B-17s were known for being able to soak up a lot of bullets and anti-aircraft flak and still make it home, but that came at a cost. The armor plating protecting crew and vital areas of the plane was heavy and affected cruise speed.

Things went from bad to worse for Brown and his crew. Falling behind the formation, Ye Olde Pub weathered merciless attacks from 13 German fighters. The damage they sustained was immense. The tail gunner was killed and four were injured, including Brown, who caught a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. The only defensive guns left in service were the top turret and the nose gun, and the bomber’s hydraulics and oxygen systems had also been knocked out. The plane went into a spiral, plummeting earthward. On the way out to the sea, Ye Olde Pub passed a German airfield. Lt. Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot just in from shooting down three B-17s, saw Ye Olde Pub limp by. Naturally, he scrambled to give chase. With 14 German fighter planes behind them Brown knew that the end was near…

Back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

Back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

What happened next is according to the memory of Brown, who told interviewers years later that his mind was a bit hazy at the time; his shoulder was bleeding and he needed oxygen. He was surprised when Ye Olde Pub was spared further harassment by enemy fighters except one (Stigler). Somehow, he and the co-pilot managed to get the plane flying level again at about 1,000 feet of elevation. As Stigler told interviewers in 1991, he was aghast at the amount of damage the bomber had sustained. Its nose cone was missing, it had several gaping holes in the fuselage. He could see crew members giving first aid to the wounded, and most of the plane’s guns hung limp, unmanned as they were…

Stigler kept his distance, always staying out of the line of fire of the two guns still in service, but managed to fly within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17. He tried to contact Brown with hand signals. His message was simple: Land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden. That heap will never make it back to England. A bewildered Brown stared back through his side window, not believing what he was seeing. He had already counted himself as a casualty numerous times. But this strange German pilot kept gesturing at him. There was no way he was going to land the plane, but the Stigler stayed with him, keeping other German attackers off until they reached the North Sea. When it was clear that Brown wasn’t staying in Germany, Stigler saluted, peeled off, and flew out of Ye Olde Pub‘s nightmarish day…

Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown's first meeting.

Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown’s first meeting.


The bomber made it back to England, scarcely able to keep 220 feet between itself and the ground by the time it landed in a smoking pile of exhausted men and shredded aluminum. Years later, Brown would say that if Stigler had been able to talk to him, offering the land in Germany or fly to Sweden ultimatum, he probably would have gone to Sweden. But Ye Olde Pub did make it, and Brown got a much needed stiff drink handed to him when he got off the plane. The incredulous debriefing officer(Brass), wowed by Brown’s story, went off to tell the brass what had happened. He recommended Brown’s crew for citation, but the glory was short-lived.

Brass quickly decided that word getting out about a chivalrous German fighter pilot could endanger the lives of other crews if it caused them to let their guard down. All details of Ye Olde Pub‘s first mission were classified Secret. Stigler was never able to speak of his actions that day, as it would have meant certain court martial. He flew many more missions, though, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots. By the war’s end, he was one of the 1,300 surviving Luftwaffe pilots from some 28,000 that had served…

The crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’

The crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’


After the war, Charlie Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. But in 1972, he hung up his government service hat and moved to Miami to become an inventor. Stigler finished the war a midst ruin.

Anti-Third Reich post-war authorities in Germany were unimpressed with his exemplary service record, and the economy was wrecked. He subsisted on food stamps and work as a bricklayer’s helper for a while, but moved to Canada in 1953. There, he enjoyed success as a businessman. Many years went by without either man ever thinking much about what had happened on that day in 1943. But in 1986, then retired Colonel Charlie Brown was asked to speak at a big combat pilot reunion event called Gathering of the Eagles.

Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II. Brown thought a minute, then dredged up the story of Stigler’s salute which had been buried somewhere in the deep corners of his mind for decades. Jaws dropped and story spread like wildfire about an unknown Nazi pilot who saved the allied crew from other German pilots. Brown knew he would have to try to find the man who had spared his life…

Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers

Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers


After four years of searching vainly for U.S. and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the pilot was, Brown hadn’t come up with much. So he wrote a letter in a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Canada. It was from Stigler. “I was the one,” it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the salute; everything Brown needed to hear to know it wasn’t a hoax.

From 1990 to 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers. Introduced by the bond of that first powerful meeting, their friendship was cemented over the years. The two men remained close throughout the rest of their lives, dying within several months of each other in 2008.

On the Web: Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident on Wikipedia

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Grumman FM-1 (F4F-4) Wildcat

Wildcat1

Today in 1937: The prototype for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the XF4F-2, made its first flight. During the early days of World War II in the Pacific, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the U.S. Navy’s most widely used carrier-based fighter.

Leroy Grumman’s F4F Wildcat was not the fastest or most advanced fighter aircraft of World War II. But during the dark months after Pearl Harbor, Wildcat pilots stood firm, held the line, and stopped the Imperial Japanese military air forces when they seemed invincible. After war erupted in the Pacific, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the primary fighter aircraft operated by the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. By 1942 every American Navy fighter squadron flew the F4F. Wildcat pilots encountered Japanese pilots flying the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (see NASM collection) more than any other enemy aircraft. The Zero could outmaneuver the F4F, but the Wildcat’s heavy armament and solid construction gave it an advantage when flown by skilled pilots.

By the mid-1930s, the fast, low-drag monoplane was rapidly replacing the biplane in every major air arm in the world. A team lead by Grumman Chief Designer William T. Schwendler created the first Grumman monoplane fighter, the XF4F-2. Extended development trials delayed production and led the Navy to award a production contract for the first United States carrier-based naval monoplane to the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Brewster built several hundred F2A Buffalos but Grumman engineers reworked the XF4F and came up with a greatly improved model that outperformed the Buffalo. The Navy accepted the Grumman design and awarded contracts to the company to produce thousands of F4F fighters.

Wildcat2

Photo courtesy of USN

Wildcats went to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and to the French, who desperately needed military aircraft. When France capitulated, the British Purchasing Commission assumed that country’s production contracts. The F4F was named the Martlet and it served with the Fleet Air Arm. It became the first U.S. aircraft flown by a British pilot to shoot down a German aircraft in World War II, a Junkers Ju 88 twin-engine bomber that fell over the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, Scotland, on Christmas Day, 1940.

In the Pacific during December 1941, American Wildcat pilots finally met the enemy as they tried to defend Wake Island. On December 8, the first day of the battle, Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-211 lost eight of its twelve F4F-3 Wildcats. The remaining four fighters flew day and night, fighting heroically for two weeks, breaking up many air attacks and sinking a cruiser and a submarine with 100-pound bombs before the last two Wildcats were destroyed on December 22. That day, the Japanese landed on Wake.

Wildcat3

Photo courtesy of USDOD

Despite similar losses throughout the Pacific, pilots flying this tough fighter destroyed an average of seven enemy aircraft for every Wildcat lost. By 1943, Grumman was ready to introduce a new naval fighter, the F6F Hellcat, but the Navy still needed the F4F. The Wildcat’s small size and modest weight made it suitable to operate aboard convoy escort carriers.

To make room for Hellcat production at the Grumman plant, the company transferred Wildcat manufacturing tools and equipment to the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors. GM built two versions of the F4F that the Navy designated the FM-1 and FM-2.

Wildcat4

Photo courtesy of Grumman

The Wildcat in the National Air and Space Museum, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics serial number 15392, is the four-hundredth FM-1 built at the Linden, New Jersey, Eastern Aircraft Division plant. The Navy accepted it on July 21, 1943, and it operated almost entirely from Naval Air Station Norman, Oklahoma. After thirteen months of service, the Navy struck the fighter from the active roster and placed it in storage. It was transferred to NASM in 1960.

In 1974 the Grumman Aerospace Corporation agreed to restore the Wildcat for exhibit in the new National Air and Space Museum building set to open in 1976. Former and active members of the company worked on the fighter — many of them had built Wildcats for Grumman during the war. Early in 1975 the Wildcat emerged, looking like new and in nearly flyable condition. It wore new paint that duplicated the U. S. Navy blue-gray camouflage used early in the war. The markings were patterned after an FM-1, aircraft number E-10, that operated from the escort carrier U.S S. “Breton” in the Pacific in mid-1943.

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At some time during storage, a major component went missing from this FM-1, the nose cowl ring that covered the front of the engine. This discovery led NASM officials to search for a spare. In 1965 the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Virginia, lent NASM the nose cowl ring from the Wake Island Memorial. When the Grumman craftsmen received it, the ring cowl was still riddled with bullet holes incurred during the Japanese assault. This historic component perpetuates the memory of those Marines who fought and died on the island. The Wake Island Memorial reads, “dedicated to the gallant Marine, Naval, Army, and Civilian personnel who defended Wake against overwhelming Japanese invasion armadas, 8 thru 23 December 1941.”

Physical Description:
Single engine, mid-wing, carrier-based fighter aircraft.

Country of Origin: United States of America
Manufacturer: Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation
Date: 1940

Location: National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC

Exhibition: Sea-Air Operations
Type: CRAFT-Aircraft

Materials: Semi-monocoque all-metal.

Dimensions: Overall: 450 x 880cm, 2612kg, 1160cm (14ft 9 3/16in. x 28ft 10 7/16in., 5758.4lb., 38ft 11/16in.)
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