Prior to World War II, women aviators made contributions in the development of both general and military aviation. Ruth Bancroft Law and Katherine Stinson amazed the public by setting serious speed and distance records in the early days of aviation. Stinson and Law were both flight instructors for combat pilots in the First Word War; and both used their skills to support the war effort at home. Not allowed to join the service as pilots, they instead conducted flying exhibitions at Liberty Bond rallies and flew for the Red Cross in the United States.1
Women pioneers in aviation constantly challenged the limits of their aircraft and the human body. Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love, as well as other women fliers eagerly volunteered to test new aircraft. In 1938 Cochran, flying the prototype of the Seversky P-35 (which became part of the air arsenal of the Second World War) won the Bendix Air Race against a field of male pilots.2
America's military leaders were aware as early as 1940 that women pilots were serving in the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). However, General Arnold stated in August, 1941 that "the use of women pilots serves no military purpose in a country which has adequate manpower at this time."3 Not needed at home, a group of 25 American women fliers joined the British ATA in June, 1942. Jacqueline Cochran led this contingent of Yankee fliers at the urging of General Arnold.4
The American fliers signed 18-month contracts with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to serve as ferry pilots. However, Cochran served without pay on the condition that she be allowed to return to America if and when her services were needed. General Arnold sent word to her to return in early September, 1942. He wanted to utilize Cochran's expertise and experience to develop a program for women pilots in the Army Air Forces. Arnold had promised Cochran, prior to her departure for England, that she would be appointed director of any women pilots' program, if it ever gained approval.5
Cochran had initially suggested the use of women pilots in a letter to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939. In July, 1941, at the personal request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cochran researched and wrote a report on , "Organization of a Woman Pilots' Division of the Air Corps Ferrying Command."6 Fourteen months later, with her work in England behind her, Cochran was well aware of the need for and practical uses of women aviators in the military.
Jacqueline Cochran was not, however, the only person interested in the use of women in the Army Air Corps. After General Arnold had stated his opposition to women pilots in the Air Corps, the military developed no official policy or contingency plan for the use of women pilots in any capacity. This did not mean, however, that other officers could not evaluate the use of women pilots. Lower echelons of the Air Corps formulated plans, but their programs did not have the endorsement of th General Arnold, the Army Air Corps, or the War Department.
General Robert Olds, Commander of the Ferry Command, submitted a plan for the use of women pilots which would have fully integrate women into ferrying operations. A similar plan, drawn up by Nancy Love and Colonel William H. Tunner, head of the domestic wing of the Ferry Command, envisioned a group of women able to fly right along with the men on ferry missions. It was to be a group which could be established and administered with a minimum of deviation from the procedures and standards for male pilots. As far as their sex permitted, women in this group were to be fully integrated into the ranks of the civilian service pilots flying for the Ferry command.7
Both Olds and the Love/Tunner plans differed from Cochran's proposal. Cochran recommended that the women pilots be organized much like the Women's Army Corps (WAC), separate from the other (male) branches of the AAF. She believed that the women should receive Air Corps Reserve commissions so that they could be called to active duty in a crisis. In essence, Cochran wanted a military unit, not a civilian group. She wanted a separate command, not an integration of women pilots into the established military structure. She believed that women pilots needed a command system that was attuned to the special needs of aviators and could see to the fair treatment of women. Cochran also wished to avoid any semblance of scandal involving women pilots. To her way of thinking, the best way to insure the reputation and protection of the women was to provide female commanders.8
Before she left for England, Cochran used her considerable influence at AAF Headquarters to have the Olds plan tabled.. At her urging, Arnold directed General Olds not to develop or implement any plans for the use of women pilots until Cochran returned. While she was away the Love/Tunner plan was proposed and given support by various AAF officers who were unaware of Arnold's directive to Olds. Much to Cochran's chagrin and amazement, on the very day she returned from overseas, the AAF announced a plan to establish the Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron headed by Nancy Love. Cochran believed that her departure from Great Britain had been suspiciously delayed so the WAFS plan could be accepted and announced by the AAF before her return.9
Cochran met with General Arnold the day after her arrival in the States, and asked for an explanation of why the WAFS program was accepted; she failed to understand how any women pilots program could be approved without her direct involvement. Arnold pleaded innocence and claimed that subordinates had established the WAFS without his authorization. He then called in the responsible officers and reprimanded them in Cochran's presence! They were told to give her every assistance in the development of her women pilots training program. The Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) headed by Jacqueline Cochran was announced to the press five days after the WAFS program was unveiled.10
The WAFS program met an immediate need for qualified pilots for ferrying missions. The WFTD met a long-range, continuous need for a reserve of trained pilots. Both programs were valuable. Unfortunately, because they involved women pilots, both programs presented subtle problems for the Army Air Forces.
The differences in the two programs were personified by their leaders, Cochran and Love. Jacqueline Cochran, in her early thirties, was the premier aviatrix in America, having received three consecutive Harmon Trophies for her contributions to aviation. Born in Florida, Cochran was orphaned at four. She had a third-grade education - and was always embarrassed by her penmanship - a grade school scrawl. But she never let any of her hardships stop her. Her determination got her a job as a beautician in a top New York salon, She met and married Floyd Odlum, founder of Atlas Corporation, a millionaire who encouraged her to earn a pilot's license. Once she was certified, he supported her efforts to pioneer all aspects of aviation. Odlum bought a cosmetics firm for Cochran to manage and Cochran also set up an orphanage. Coming from such dire, "Tobacco Road" circumstances, Cochran's life story was like a Cinderella with wings. She always fought for what she believed in and seldom took "No" for an answer -no matter whose toes she might step on. She approached the challenges of heading the WFTD with the same dedication and administrative skill used in her business enterprises.11
By contrast, Nancy Harkness Love, 28, was Vassar-educated and the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia doctor. She had been a test-pilot for tricycle landing gear in the 1930's and was an accomplished flier. She worked for the Bureau of Air Commerce helping to air-mark cities and towns as a navigational aid to pilots. Love was the wife of Robert Love with whom she had built Inter-City Airlines, a Boston-based firm. He entered the Air Corps as an officer to serve as deputy chief of staff of the Air Transport Command in Washington, DC.12
These two women were at the forefront of aviation history and offered their services to the military. Unfortunately, various commanders and senior officers chose to favor one woman or the other. Politics, which pitted Cochran working with the Air Training Command, against Love, working with the Ferry Command, were not initiated by either woman. They knew that to heighten any real or imagined differences would only detract from the work they were trying to do. The two women kept a respectful distance from each other so as to avoid encouraging controversy and internal politics within the AAF. In the end, the women of the Ferry Command saw Cochran as the more controversial, self-serving individual and Love as a wonderful, caring leader.13
Cochran and Love had too much to be concerned with to spend their time arguing about methods and techniques involving the use of women pilots. They both worked to meet the purposes of the program to utilize women pilots. Military use of women aviators was an experiment "to determine whether, in any grave national emergency, women could serve as pilots." The projects provided a "nucleus which could be expanded to almost any degree should the requirements of war so dictate." Using women in routine, non-combat jobs would "release male pilots for higher grades for duty and for combat." Women pilots offered a manpower reserve that allowed the Army Air Force to decrease its demand for what the AAF called, the "physically and intellectually superior men," "the cream of the over-all manpower pool, from which the military services and industry must draw men."14
As soon as the women pilots programs were suggested, problems developed at AAF Headquarters. Since many military aviators did not take the women seriously, Cochran and Love had to convince them of the skill and worth of women pilots. Some commanders felt that the presence of women aviators was an encroachment on a sacred male domain, or that the women were a bad luck omen, or a nuisance. Some saw the women as a group of witless lasses seeking glamour and adventure at the military's expenses. Suspicion and antagonism toward the women pilots also reflected the fear some commanders and officers had regarding Cochran's power and influence within General Arnold's staff.
Old-time military men were uncomfortable with the fact that women assigned to their units had a line of communication outside normal command channels which when directly to the office of the Commanding General. This informal line of communication was established solely to deal with problems peculiar to the women pilots. However many commanders were apprehensive that any comments or observations by WASP to Cochran would reach higher levels of command, and reflect poorly on them.15
The problems of utilizing a group of women pilots were compounded by the fact that the women were civilians performing military duties. As many problems arose from the civilian status of the WASPs as were caused by the gender of the pilots. However, unlike the sex of the pilots, their civilian status was not tied to social and cultural expectations. Any difficulties with the civilian status were resolved on a case-by-case basis. For example, medical care was given to the WASP in military infirmaries with each base commander establishing specific policies for the WASPs' treatment in military hospitals.16
Whatever solution worked with a minimum of disruption was accepted, and could be changed or rejected as necessity dictated. Housing for the WASPs was also a practical problem which had a variety of solutions at the airfields. Initially the women were assigned to large bases where they could bunk in the nurses' quarters of the WAC barracks. Some WASPs were given Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQs), or even housed across the street from the base commander. A few commanders did require the WASPs to find their own housing off base and to arrange their own transportation to the field. As the women began flying into smaller bases, the AAF recognized a need to be aware of housing availability for women fliers. The AAF directed the Ferry Command to identify the types and availability of accommodations for women pilots at its bases. Consequently some bases were required to make adequate improvements for women on RON (Remain Over Night) status, or they were no longer acceptable bases for women fliers.17
The WASPs were pioneers challenging all known and accepted opinions about the ability, stamina, dedication and effectiveness of women as military pilots. The primary physical issue was that of menses. At the time the Civil Aeronautic Authority maintained a rule that a woman could not pilot a plane from two days before until two days after her monthly cycle.18 The major commands of the Army Air Forces set up their own standards. In the Ferry Division a directive was put out that women could not fly for ten days of the month, centered on their menstrual cycle. There was certainly no medical basis for such a restriction and Nancy Love moved to rescind it immediately. The Air Surgeon found the directive unrealistic and the policy was changed. Thereafter a woman only missed flying if she had dysmenorrhea.19 At Avenger Field, the WFTD training base, the post medical officer, Captain Nels O. Monesrud, conducted a survey during his 16-month tenure there. His extensive study of medical considerations of the cadets, compared to their performance on the flight line, found that "menstruation is not a handicap, to prevent a woman from fulfilling her job as a pilot of military aircraft.".20 During training the women cadets were told to report their menstrual cycle each month to the Establishment Officer or the infirmary. At the time the women were not told the reason for this request; some cadets believed it was to insure that the women were not pregnant.21
The major non-medical problem was the reaction of male pilots to the WASPs. When the first women pilots joined the WAFS at New Castle, Delaware, in September 1942, male pilots showed their resentment by refusing to speak to the women.22 The women received little assistance or encouragement from male aviators. Some of the women were given check rides and instruction by their own former students. The women were relegated to the most primitive aircraft, planes which all of them were truly overqualified to fly. In terms of their skills and experience, it was a waste to assign the WAFS to liaison and primary training aircraft.
Problems resulting from negative attitudes toward the women pilots existed throughout the history of the WASP. In March, 1944, At Camp Davis, North Carolina WASP Alta Corbett, 43-W-4 (denotes WFTD class, see Appendix A) refused to sign an evaluation of the women pilots. She informed the Director of Women Pilots that in the course of testing "punches had been pulled." The WASP had not been allowed any practice time as first pilots before they were tested at that level.23
At Perrin Field, Sherman, Texas male pilots refused to fly with women pilots after a WASP was killed. The boycott caused WASP Starley Grona, 44-W-3, to call the men's actions "stupid and prejudiced." The focus of the boycott was the idea that women ought not be flying at all. WASP Grona observed: "The well-known belief. . . . that women are inferior to men in fields ordinarily presumed to be exclusively male, works against us, so that we find it necessary to be especially circumspect in our actions, particularly in flying, in order to prove our worth."24
A history of the WASP prepared by the military in 1945, stated that "the unique and most important aspect of the WASP, of course, was their sex."25 So long as gender was the primary consideration the women pilots would seldom gain ready acceptance of their work. The women could not help but feel defensive at certain bases. WASP Grona maintained that "the feeling we lack the confidence and respect of many men with whom we must work puts us at a decided disadvantage and it is, I believe, somewhat unfair that we should have to feel that way." It was little consolation that "men who work in close association with the WASPs are, I believe, definitely in favor of the organization and thoroughly convinced of the ability and integrity of the WASPs as a whole."26
Not every military pilot or commander was happy to have the WASPs around. Members of class 43-W-4 stationed at Love Field, Dallas, Texas sent an urgent telegram to Cochran on 22 September 1943. It read: "There appears [sic] to be unfair checks and elimination among W-4 girls by Ferry Command this base. Would like to consult you at your earliest convenience some girls ready to resign. class W-4."27
Cochran took immediate action and requested the Air Inspector General's office to investigate various reports of problems with the use of women pilots. The report was completed in November, 1943 and provided Cochran with valuable information. On the basis of the inspector's recommendations Cochran moved to modify the WASP training to eliminate weaknesses in the women's training curriculum. More importantly, cases of actual discrimination were brought to the attention of AAF Headquarters.28
The commander of Love Field was admonished officially for allowing prejudice to negate the work and progress of women pilots assigned to his command. He was found to have tolerated and condoned discrimination against the WASPS in both training and assignments. One practice he failed to stop was similar to the Camp Davis procedure. WASPs were not allowed to practice or familiarize themselves with the aircraft prior to a check ride.29
Accidents often fueled the negative attitude toward women pilots. Any crash involving a WASP further convinced their detractors that women were not safe pilots. As a safeguard against public comment, all accident reports on WASPS were classified "secret." In addition any fatality of a woman flier was reported directly to General Arnold's office.30 These unusual measures showed the military's sensitivity to the cultural limits which restricted women's role in the war effort.
Cultural limits meant nothing to major commanders of the Ferry Division who saw very quickly that the women pilots could do the jobs they were assigned. The Ferry Division had to deliver aircraft of every size and horsepower to bases and depots around the country to meet training and operational commitments. The duties of a ferry pilot were demanding and offered little opportunity for rest. As women pilots joined the Ferry Command units they were accepted after a time as qualified and necessary personnel.31 The circumstances at Love Field previously mentioned were the exception which proved the rule within the Ferry Command.
Women pilots took on every type of flying assignment. They had a record of accepting, even preferring, the more hazardous missions such as target-towing and engineer test flying, which male pilots chose to avoid. Commanders were gratified that the women never complained about their duties and that the WASPS made hazardous or tedious missions a matter of pride. The preponderance of pursuit class aircraft - - without question, the most dangerous military aircraft - - were flown by women.32
The military mission of the women pilots of World War II was simple. It was complicated, however, by the restrictions, real and assumed, which reflected cultural expectations of women. It was further hampered by the attitudes of men in the field regarding the use of women in aviation in time of war. The WASPs met the challenges directly and opened new doors in aviation achievement for women.
Despite the problems, the WASPs fulfilled their military mission in World War II. What made them unique was the fact that they were not recognized for their service for 35 years.
Last Updated 18 May 1998
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