Service in the military has often led to opportunities for minorities, assuring them the equal rights that they fought so hard to gain in their daily lives. However, this was not true for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs of World War II, also known as the Fly Girls and “Avenger Girls).” The WASP program was formed because of the efforts of two women, Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, both outstanding pilots.
In 1941, Cochran was one of the most famous pilots in America and known for national and international air racing. She could see the handwriting on the wall and knew that America would eventually be involved in the war, and she could help. Cochran contacted the Army Air Corps with an idea that women could ferry planes between bases, freeing the male pilots for active duty overseas. When the military turned her down, she went to England and worked for the Royal Air Force, recruiting American women pilots to help with the war effort there.
Nancy Harkness Love had the same idea as Cochran and convinced the army in 1942 to let her recruit women for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Nancy chose 27 women civilian pilots and trained them at the New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. Several months later, Army Air Force Commander General Henry Arnold activated the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and asked Cochran to return home and be in charge of the Houston program. Cochran recruited women with at least 35 hours of flight time and sent them to a 23-week flight training program, the same as the men’s program. The two women’s programs ran separately until 1943 when they were merged under the new name WASP. Cochran was named as director of the program with Love serving as head of the ferrying division.
Selection for the program was strenuous. The Air Force trained men to be pilots, but the women had to have a commercial pilot’s license when they came into the program. In addition, they had to be physically strong enough to complete the military training program. The Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) were considered part of the military and entitled to military honors and benefits, but the WASPs were considered civil service employees. They did not receive equal pay or military benefits. Even though 38 women were killed during their service, their families did not receive burial expenses or survivor benefits. Instead, the fellow women of the WASPs took up money for burial expenses and sent member pilots to accompany the bodies home for burial.
The women were protected from combat, but their duties were dangerous, and they were sometimes sabotaged by the men they were trying to assist in the war effort. The WASPs flew more than 60 million miles in the air and piloted every type of aircraft in the Army Air Force, including high-performance pursuit aircraft, P-51 Mustangs, and 4-engine bombers such as the B-17 and B-29. Besides ferrying aircraft from manufacturing plants to bases in the U.S. and Canada, they towed targets for aerial and ground-to-air gunnery practice so GIs on the ground could shoot at the targets. They also tested aircraft that had been repaired to be sure that it was safe before the male pilots went up in it. And they made demonstration flights and were flight instructors for the men. When some of the male pilots complained about the safety of B-17 and B-29 bombers, they were told that the women pilots had flown them, which shamed the men into flying the bombers.
Women flight instructors said that most of the male pilots had positive attitudes toward them, but they did experience some gender discrimination. On more than one occasion, women who had engine problems discovered that sugar had been put into their gas tanks. Another pilot died because her flight controls came loose after takeoff. Of the 38 who died, mechanical failures were often the reason for the accident. In spite of this opposition and even sabotage, the WASPs loved their work and went on serving their country. And they were determined not to complain because they felt that they represented all women and had to be exemplary in their service and lay the groundwork for future women military pilots. They won the respect of Army Air Force Commander General Henry Arnold who had at first doubted whether women had the strength to handle the controls of the large bombers.
To the dismay of the women, the WASP program was discontinued in December 1944, eight months before the war ended. At the end of 1944, the war was winding down, and male pilots coming back from combat were afraid that the female pilots would take their jobs. Civilian men who had served as flight instructors also feared that they might be drafted for the final months of the war, so the returning pilots and the flight instructors joined together to demand that the WASP program be discontinued. One newspaper quoted an informant who stated that the country would wake up one day and “discover there are no more WASPs to sting the taxpayers and keep thoroughly experienced men out of flying jobs.” The women were told to leave in a few weeks and pay for their own tickets home.
The WASPs never forgot their service and continued to have reunions. From 1972 to 1975, the WASPs lobbied for recognition. Imagine their anger in 1976 when the Air Force admitted women to the Air Force Academy and stated that women were allowed to fly for the U.S. military for the first time. The service of the WASPs had been overlooked. The WASPs bombarded the media and lobbied Congress for recognition and veteran status. The VFW, American Legion, and Disabled American Vets fought against their efforts, stating that other groups, such as the Merchant Marines, would also want veteran benefits. However, the WASPs found powerful allies in Barry Goldwater, who had been a ferry pilot in WW II and served alongside them, and in Air Force Colonel Bruce Arnold, the son of General Henry Arnold.
Finally, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Section 401, which gave WASPs veteran status. in May 2009, President Barack Obama signed a Senate bill that provided the Congressional Gold Medal to WASPs. On March 10, 2010, in a White House ceremony, over 200 WASPs of the original 1100 accepted a smaller version of the medal, along with family members of some of the deceased WASPs. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley stated that these women led the way for women to “forever be a part of United States military aviation.”
“WASPS Awarded Congressional Gold Medal,” www.af.mil
“Women Air Force Pilots,” www.worldwariiaviation.org
“Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls,” www.npr.org March 9, 2010
“Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII,” www.womenshistory.org
“The Legacy of WASP Dorothy Britt,” www.nationalww2museum.org