ABSTRACT

Chairperson: Susan H. Armitage

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served in the Army Air Forces (AAF) from September 1942 until 20 December 1944. However, they were not military personnel but civilian service employees who were recruited for the purpose of releasing male pilots for combat duty. The study examines the varied attitudes and perceptions which affected the service and acceptance of the WASP.

The Commanding General of the AAF, H.H. "Hap" Arnold, recognized the value and effectiveness of the service provided by the women pilots. Throughout the AAF, however, there were commanders and officers who viewed the women fliers as a nuisance, a threat, or a waste. Military authorities were unable to reconcile these attitudes and in the end chose to demobilize the WASP rather than challenge conventional attitudes about appropriate roles for women.

Jacqueline Cochran, as AAF Director of Women Pilots and Nancy Love, WASP Executive in the AAF Ferry command, were leaders of the WASP, though they had no military command authority. Despite the ambiguities of the WASP's status as civilian pilot of military aircraft, it was up to Cochran and Love to provide leadership and protection to the women within the confines of AAF operations and discipline procedures. Of the 1,830 women who entered training, 1,074 earned their wings and flew military assignments as ferriers, target-towers, test engineers, and experimental test pilots. Though 39 WASPs were killed in service, their families received no survivors' benefits of any kind.

The military public relations effort on behalf of the WASP showed that the AAF was sensitive to societal expectation of women. Press releases were restrained and inoffensive and did not mention any negative aspects of flying such as maintenance, poor weather, or accidents. Thus, the public knew little about the work of the women fliers until a militarization bill was debated in Congress in 1944. Opposition to the WASP quickly grew, led by civilian male pilots who believed the women were a threat to their jobs. Congress agreed with the male pilots' contention that the men should get aviation jobs before any women pilots. Six months later, in December, 1944, the AAF ordered the deactivation of the WASP.

Thirty years after the first women fliers entered military service surviving members of the WASP began an effort to obtain veterans' recognition for themselves. Debate on the legislation was very similar to the debate in 1944. Nevertheless, the bill passed and was signed into law in November, 1977, though the former WASPs did not receive official veterans' status until May, 1979.

Personal interviews and an examination of the wartime records of WASP service provide the basis for the study which examines the major perspectives on the WASP work. The ideas of the military, the dedication and enthusiasm of the women fliers, and the attitudes of the public and politicians could not be reconciled in 1944. Therefore the contribution of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II remained officially unrecognized until 1979.

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Lieutenant Colonel Natalie J. Stewart-Smith, New Mexico Military Institute
Maintained by David J. Reyes

Last Updated 18 May 1998
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