Between rolling bandages, tending Victory Gardens, collecting blood, working in factories, raising children, and just generally keeping the home fires burning, no one would argue that American women weren’t as busy as bees during World War II. Bees, yes. But what about WASPs? Today I’d like to tell you about a group of women who never received as much press as did Rosie the Riveter . . . and that is a crying shame because these WASPs deserve to have people buzzing about them!
They were the wartime aviators known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a group of 1,100 fearless civilian women who volunteered to ferry newly-manufactured aircraft long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested damaged planes that had been repaired and they even towed targets to give military ground and air gunners some training — with live ammunition. And they did it all so that our enlisted male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.
Heads in the Clouds
In 1942, the wartime fighter plane production was at its peak in America. The planes were flying off the assembly lines, figuratively speaking . . . and they needed to be delivered to military bases across the nation quickly. But the U.S. military was short on manpower and in desperate need of pilots. Most of the military’s pilots were serving overseas, in the thick of battle. It was a significant problem. How could they get the planes delivered without sacrificing valuable manpower? The answer was obvious. It was, however, an answer than the Air Transport Command ignored for as long as it could. Eventually, the answer could no longer be ignored. Eleanor Roosevelt launched the battle cry: “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 every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
Women to the rescue! Yes, military leaders finally admitted that they were so desperate that they were willing to train a select group of women to fly military aircraft. So, on September 14, 1942, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, approved a program that would allow an elite group of women to serve as ferry pilots. With women delivering planes stateside, male pilots were able to focus their energies on battling the axis powers in their own skies.
Ready for Take Off
When I say that women were trained as pilots, it’s not as if these were women who had never flown a plane. While most of the male Army Air Corps pilots had to be taught how to fly after their recruitment, these women were already experienced pilots when they joined the group. An aviator named Nancy Love was called to duty and appointed director of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and she immediately went into recruitment mode. Love sent telegrams to 83 female pilots who knew their way around the clouds. Of those, twenty-eight women qualified and entered the program.
The original twenty-eight were stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. They began ferrying light aircraft and quickly moved on to ferrying larger aircraft, like the P-38 and P-51. Later, a training school was established in Texas, operated by aviator Jackie Cochran. The sky was the limit!
In August 1943, the WAFS and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment were merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. Competition to join the WASPs was stiff. Out of the more than 25,000 women between the ages of 21 and 35 who applied to the program, 1,830 were accepted, with only 1,074 graduating to become WASPs. They each came bearing a pilot’s license, a passion for flying, and mad skills. Even though the minimum requirements stated that the women were to have 500 hours of flying time, their average hours exceeded 1000. They were women fulfilling their destinies! Plus, they probably thought the work sounded a lot more exciting than rolling bandages and planting rutabagas in Victory gardens.
Nineteen groups of women completed the exact same training as the majority of their male counterparts in the Army Air Corp. They each went through basic and advanced training, and many of women also completed specialized flight training. When their training was completed, the women were assigned to their posts.
Off to a Flying Start
The nation was at a patriotic high during WWII, and the WASPs were happy to do their part, but they were not always given a warm embrace. At the time, the WASPs were not considered to be a part of the military. They were hired under Civil Service as civilian volunteers, and their benefits made that clear.
In short, there were NO benefits. There was no military pension. No G.I. Bill. No public acknowledgement of their contribution. Each woman was paid $150 per month, while in training. Following graduation, they received $250 per month. From that, they paid for their own uniforms, lodging and personal travel.
The women lived as if they were in the military, however. Assigned to air bases across the nation, they roomed in barracks with six women to a room. One bathroom served twelve girls. They marched. They did required calisthenics. They were subject to inspections. They had infantry drills. And, at the end of each grueling day, taps was played.
Go Into a Tailspin
Without exception, the WASPs seemed to love what they did. (You might say they were on cloud nine!) However, as much fun as they were having, they didn’t lose sight of the dangers. Thirty-eight WASPs were killed while serving the nation. The families of those thirty-eight received no survivors’ benefits. In fact, the bodies didn’t even receive free passage home. The other WASPs would chip in to see that the bodies arrived to their hometowns.
By 1944, Congress was very close to militarizing the WASP program. That probably would have happened if not for one fact. The Allied Forces were winning the war! The WASPs had freed up so many male pilots to fight Hitler that they had worked their way out of their jobs. The program had succeeded with flying colors, but military brass was worried that the women were taking away positions from the men folk.
When the program disbanded, the daring WASPs did not receive a ticker tape parade. They received no military pension. No G.I. benefits. No medals to pin proudly to their chests. They simply received word that their services were no longer needed. And, just like that, each woman arranged for her own travel and made her way back to wherever it was she had come from.
Regardless of their qualifications, the women could not be hired as commercial airline pilots. It was a different time. Some of the women found jobs flying small planes, but, by and large, their days of flying professionally were at an end. OUCH! That really had to sting!
This Cloud’s Silver Lining
Just when it looked as if the WASPs would never gain recognition for their wartime contributions, something happened to change that. They got angry! It was 1974 and the U.S. Navy made a grand announcement that women were going to be permitted to fly military planes for the first time in history. Say what? First time in history?!?! That was enough to stir up a hornet’s nest, er WASPs nest! They came out of the woodwork and told their stories to anyone who would listen. It’s one thing to be ignored. It’s another thing to sit back and watch someone else receive the recognition that is rightfully yours.
For thirty years, the WASP records were not available to historians. No one thought of them as having been slighted because no one thought of them at all. Then, General Hap Arnold’s son, Bruce Arnold, and Senator Barry Goldwater, took up the cause. Goldwater was a WWII veteran himself and had commanded WASPs in his squadron. In 1977, the WASPs finally gained their militarization status. Their service records were unsealed and the women were flying high.
Out of the Clear Blue Sky
In 2010, the United States Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Of the 1074 WASPs, fewer than 300 women were alive to receive the honor. But those who were able made their way to Washington D.C. and finally received their just reward.
Today, the WASP archive is housed in the Woman’s Collection on the campus of Texas Women’s University. If you’re ever in Denton, Texas, stop by and pay your respects to a group of remarkable women who deserve our respect!
Watch this great video about the WASPs with wonderful documentary footage . . . I know you’ll enjoy it!