Women's History: The WASP & Women Pilots
"This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and ever weapon possible. WOMEN PILOTS, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used." - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942 __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
There is a great story in women’s history that is enmeshed in America’s WWII saga, a story filled with women heroes, who did their duty and risked their lives. Nearly 70 years have passed since America fought in World War II, and unfortunately this story and its heroes have never received the full recognition they deserve. This grave oversight will be corrected this coming Wednesday, March 10, when the story (that was kicked to the curb for way too long) will be the focus of a Congressional Gold Medal Celebration. This Wednesday, the women pilots who made up the WASP will finally get the recognition they deserve.
American women had already made their mark as pilots before World War II. Women like Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, and Bessie Coleman were experienced women pilots and aviation record-holders. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that two women pilots, Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, shared the idea that women pilots should be used by the military. Each woman separately proposed the idea way back in 1940.
Love was successful in getting the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) established, and Jackie Cochran established the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). On August 5, 1943, the two were merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP, and a little under 1100 were selected.
Those selected had to pay their own way to the Texas training program. They were trained in “the Army way" and their graduation rate was similar to that of men who passed their program and became military pilots. The WASP was not militarized, so those who served were considered civil servants. The first class graduated on December 17, 1943.
The women who joined the WASP came from every walk of life. From 1942 to 1944, they test-piloted aircraft; and they ferried planes from factories to air bases throughout the United States. They did any work they were given to free up men for combat.
They were stationed at 120 Army air bases across America, and many towed targets for antiaircraft gunnery training. They flew in 78 different types of aircraft, from the smallest trainers to the fastest fighters. In fact, the Army Air Forces trained the women to fly the fleet’s largest bombers to prove to the men that the planes were safe to fly.
These pilots were trailblazers. But their opportunity of playing a critical role in the war effort was abruptly cut short by politics and resentment that hid behind the code words “a woman’s place”. In both the US press and in the US Congress, there was considerable opposition to the program. In spite of a highly publicized attempt to militarize them in 1944, those who sought to cut women’s wings eventually got their way.
The WASP was disbanded on December 20, 1944, after flying approximately 60 million miles of operations. During the existence of the program, 38 women pilots were killed. It would be three decades, before women would again break the gender barrier imposed on our skies.
The women pilots paid their own way to enter training and took up a collection to help pay for the expenses of burial when one was killed, since the United States Government refused to pay for the remains to be shipped to their families. The dead were sent home in cheap pine boxes, there was no military recognition, no gold star in the window, and no American flag on their coffin. When they were disbanded in 1944, the women pilots had to pay their own way back home. There were no honors or benefits, and the thanks were few and far between.
In 1949, the Air Force offered military commission in administrative and support positions to the women pilots who were the WASP. Of the 1,074 pilots who participated in the program, 115 accepted. Although 25 of them became career officers, they were never again permitted to fly military aircraft. Records of the WASP were classified and sealed, so our history minimized or ignored all together the role of women pilots.
In 1972, former WASP met for a reunion, and talk turned to the injustices dealt them by the military. By 1974, they had formed a militarization committee. Three years of concerted political action paid off in 1977, the year the Air Force graduated its first post-WASP women pilots. Congress granted veteran status to all who had served in the WASP, thereby recognizing them as military pilots. They were issued official honorable discharges in 1979.
Congressional Gold Medal
Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski introduced Senate Bill 614 on March 17, 2009. All of the remaining 15 female Senators were original Senate co-sponsors. The bill was co-sponsored in the House by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Susan Davis. President Obama signed it into Public Law 111-40 on July 1, 2009. The bill sailed through Congress in three months, thanks to the efforts of the many WASP supporters throughout the nation. The Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony to honor our WWII women pilots will take place from 11:00 AM to 12 Noon this Wednesday.
There will be one Gold Medal. This medal will be revealed to the public at the ceremony, and then donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Bronze medal replicas of the gold medal will be awarded to each WASP survivor at the ceremony. One family member from each deceased WASP will receive a bronze medal on behalf of the family.
In a guest editorial for the Wall Street Journal on March 5, Amy Goodpaster Strebe wrote a tribute to the WASP that included these truthful, moving words that underscore the impact the lives of these women pilots had and will continue to have on future women:
“When the WASP were unceremoniously deactivated in December 1944, five months before the end of the war, they never received the military status they were promised, even though many of them were sent to officers training school.Even today the WASP can only be buried at Arlington National Cemetery as enlisted members of the military, not with officers’ honors.
Finally these intrepid women will be honored for their heroic service. The surviving members of the WASP, who are now grandmothers and great-grandmothers, will unite for the last time in Washington, D.C. They will proudly take their place in history among the unsung heroes of World War II. Fueled by patriotism and a love of flying, their example will continue to inspire future generations of women aviators.”
On Wednesday, the WASP will be flying high, and they will be taking other women with them. The sky's the limit.