The women who volunteered for service as pilots in the Army Air Forces in World War II filled an immediate military need. The ambivalence of military authorities toward the WASPs stands in striking contrast with the attitudes and experiences of the women themselves. Officers in the War Department made decisions about the WASPs' training, operations and mission status while the women were intent upon doing their jobs. As the crucial decisions were made few of the women fliers were aware of the internecine politics involved.
The women pilots knew that their purpose was to release male pilots for strategic and combat flight duty; but that did not diminish their enthusiasm for the WASP work. The WASPs were glad to have the chance to fly modern airplanes and to fly in service to their nation in time of crisis. They came from all over the country --some with college degrees, a few without high school diplomas. Some of the women came from wealthy families while others had saved and scraped together the funds to pay for their flying lessons over the years. The common denominator for all the women who entered training for women pilots was a sense of patriotism equaled by a love of flying which enabled them to overcome obstacles and become Army pilots.
Candidates for the Women Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) met strict requirements. They had to be American citizens, with a high school diploma or equivalent. The minimum height allowed was 60 inches and the age limits were 21 to 35. Each applicant had to have logged 200 hours flying time and have both a flight surgeon's physical examination and an interview with Jacqueline Cochran or her representative. The age requirement was lowered in 1943 to 18 when it was recognized that the best pilot material for men and women were cadets 18 to 21 years of age. The flying experience required was reduced by half, and later lowered to 75 hours and finally to 35 hours as the need for manpower increased and the applicant experience level decreased.1 These changes coincided with alterations of the WFTD curriculum.
In contrast to the women cadets, male cadets never had to have private or commercial pilot's licenses when they entered their training. Other than that, the training programs for women and men cadets were initially the same.
There was never a need to recruit women pilots as over 25,000 women applied for the program. A handful of Chinese women was accepted as cadets; but no Black women were accepted. Jacqueline Cochran did interview a Black pilot at her New Your City office. Cochran explained to her the difficulties the program was having gaining military acceptance, and suggested those problems would be compounded if Black women pilots were in the WFTD program. Cochran did not refuse to accept the interviewee who was well-qualified, but following the interview the woman removed her name from consideration. The former applicant spoke to other Black pilots interested in the WFTD and no more applications were received from Black candidates.2
The women paid their own transportation to the training center in Texas. Before their arrival, or during their processing at the WFTD each cadet took an oath of office which made her a "Civilian Student Pilot, Unclassified, 9C-1."3
The first class began at Houston's Howard Hughes Municipal Airport, 1 November 1942, and was followed by two more full classes there. The fourth class had students start at both Houston and the permanent site for the WFTD at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The fourth class, 43-W-4, was the largest class in the history of the program with 112 out of 150 cadets earning their wings.4
While the training was based in Houston the cadets lived in auto courts or motels with three or four women to a unit. Every day the women rose at 7 AM and readied for the bus ride to the field at 7:45. They marched to the mess hall for breakfast. The juke box seemed to play, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To, from dawn until dark. Prunes were the only dessert offered, three times a day, seven days a week. The women paid 30 dollars a month for meals and 20 dollars monthly for their rooms while in Houston.5
At the flying school classroom work and flying schedules alternated between morning and afternoon sessions on a weekly basis. Classwork covered the basics: flight theory, mathematics, physics, code work, and engine and power plants.6 The instructors were civilians employed by a contract school.
There was homework every night. Often the cadets did not return to their rooms until 8:30 PM and lights-out was at 9:30. This gave them only one hour to prepare lessons, complete flight logs, and in the remaining minutes write letters home or add to their diaries. At Houston the cadets paid a maid to iron their uniform blouses and straighten their rooms. When the trainees learned about their imminent transfer to Sweetwater one cadet wore home: "It's going to be an entirely different set-up there, Army barracks, six to a room, Army cots --no maid service!"7
Sweetwater was very different from Houston for it was an Air Corps base under the jurisdiction of the Gulf Coast Training Command with a civilian contract aviation school on the premises. The officer in command in 1943 was Major Robert Urban. Like any armed forces training base, military discipline was part of every waking moment. Demerits were assessed for daily inspection of barracks and seven demerits placed a cadet on restriction for the weekend. The barracks building, which formed a quadrangle around the Wishing Well, was divided into rooms called bays of six trainees each. Army cots were made with square corners, with hoods and pillows folded alike. Sheets and blankets were pulled taut because the bed had to be tight enough to bounce a coin. On Saturday mornings a senior officer conducted a stand-by inspection of the barracks and gave each cadet a personal inspection as well.8 During such stand-by inspections the officer in charge could ask a cadet any question about course work and procedures. The women were tested constantly.
Marching was second nature for the trainees as drill was an important part of the curriculum. If two cadets were walking between buildings, they were in step. Sometimes the classes developed rivalries on the drill field and worked very hard to be the best marching unit at the graduation review parades.9
The Avenger Field mess hall was a delight to the trainees. The cadets from Houston found that the mess hall manager allowed second helpings, had ice cream and pies for dessert (and no prunes).10 In June, 1943, Mrs. A.J. Whately, called "Mom" by the cadets, arrived to take charge of the kitchen staff. She was warm, plump woman with rimless glasses who managed the mess hall like her home kitchen,. Her homestyle baked goods were legendary. Any trainee who was flying during mealtime could always count on a meal when she returned. "Mom" provided box lunches and coffee thermoses for cross-country trips, She and her staff surprised as many as three cadets a day with birthday cakes.11
The mess hall, with its luncheonette booths and safety slogans painted on the walls, was one of the few places where male visitors could go on base. All men had to be escorted and could not go to the barracks. Director Cochran set high standards to avoid any suggestion of scandal. Avenger Field earned the name, "Cochran's Convent." If a trainee was caught dating an instructor she was given demerits. When the women went into the town of Sweetwater they were not allowed to go above the first floor of the Blue Bonnet Hotel. One married cadet was allowed to visit in her husband's hotel room only after receiving special permission.12
Major Urban arranged for a room for the women to gather off-post. This social center opened in May, 1943, and gave the women a non-military place for relaxation on the weekends. The women danced together or with male cadets from air training schools in Abilene, Stamford or Big Springs who often came to visit. Another popular gathering place was the Lake Inn on Lake Sweetwater. Both places were bring-your-own bottle establishments and in an otherwise dry county they offered the cadets a chance to socialize on their free time.13
Off-post the cadets had to wear dresses or suits and look their Sunday best. They were to present themselves to the community as young ladies, well-mannered and pleasant. Their duty clothes during the week were Army-issue "Zoot-suits -heavy, man-sized coveralls. These were not designed for the small female trainees and the joke was that the uniforms came in three sizes--42, 42, and 42. The heavy suits were most uncomfortable in the warm Texas weather and in the summer months the cadets took several showers throughout day or wore nothing under them.14
The health of the trainees was constantly monitored by military authorities. Colds and other respiratory infections were common to all classes during the first weeks of training. Some classes were quarantined for the first two weeks as a precaution.15 Each cadet took a series of shots as part of in-processing procedures. Cadet Martha Wilkens, 44-W-1, did not take the shots, however. As a Christian Scientist she objected to the medication and had classmate Genevieve Yetter take her place. Cadet Yetter could barely carry a parachute with two sets of injections burning in her arms; but she did, and no one was the wiser.16
The regimentation was an essential technique to force cadets to unlearn bad habits of civilian flying and learn to fly the Army way. The adjustment was rather a shock when the women first entered the WFTD school. After a month in the program one cadet admitted: "The first week I was here I hated it so much I didn't' care very much if I made it or not except for the letdown my ego would have suffered knowing I wasn't good enough, but now I really love it here even though it gets harder and they expect more, every day."17 The strongest inducements to a cadet's success and enjoyment of her training were the other women in the course. As with all military training situations, the motto was "Cooperate to graduate." The women met as strangers and by graduation life-long friendships were forged with one or more members of a class.
The pressures of military training had their lighter side. As a group, the cadets were given two names, one based on their WFTD unit name - Woofteddies. The other based on their mascot, Fifinella, a good gremlin designed by Walt Disney Studios. Obviously the more popular name was, "Fifinella," after their winged mascot.
Every Friday night there was a talent show which was an opportunity for the Fifinellas to spoof their instructors, training and military life in general. Various classes put on skits which made light of different instructors and regulations. During the Spring of 1943 the skits had an on-going joke centered on hula dancing. There were other instances when spontaneity offered comic relief from the regimen. Each day a uniform pennant was raised in the training area. Zoot suits were worn if the green flag was up, A-2 jackets were the order if the white flag was flying, and the red pennant meant dress for dinner. Members of 43-W-4 took advantage of the situation when no one lowered the green flag prior to dinner one evening. The women kept on their zoot suits, but added all kinds of civilian and military apparel to their uniforms. When W-4 entered formation everyone howled at their appearance. The ruckus was loud enough to bring the Establishment Officers and Army officers from their offices. Red high heels, brown sox, pink straw hat, a blue veil, black dinner purse; all were part of the crazy outfit one cadet wore. The whole episode concluded with a special "Miss Avenger Field Beauty Pageant" after dinner.18 The evening was a welcome change for everyone, students and staff alike, to relieve some of the ever-present tension of military training.
Rituals of flight training also offered relief from the daily pressures of the course. The first cadet to solo in each of the phases of flight school was ceremoniously dunked in the quadrangle Wishing Well. When a Fifinella was called for the Army check ride in Primary, Basic or Advanced training, she first tossed a coin into the fountain. The Red Cross received all the proceeds from the Avenger Field Wishing Well.
While the demands of navigation, meteorology, code work, power plants, physical training and bay responsibilities were constant, so too were activities on the flight line and in the air. Each student was assigned to a specific instructor for each phase of training,. and always a different teacher each of the three phases. The WFTD began operations planning on a three-phase program. However it was decided to experiment with the women's flight training to see if pilot training time could be shortened. Eventually the women received only the primary and advanced phases. Once these changes were made and found satisfactory, without detriment to pilot safety and skills, the abbreviated course was incorporated into the flight training for male pilots as well.19 What formerly took two years was condensed to seven months.
The primary phase was full of fundamental flying skills, The primary trainers, called PTs, demanded awareness and confidence in aircraft instruments. Stabilizers, altimeters and flaps helped insure that all training maneuvers were done precisely as directed. Student pilots had to switch the fuel tanks at regular intervals to maintain balance. In the aircraft of the basic phase, called BTs, radios trim tabs on all control surfaces, and adjustable propeller pitch also made demands of the cadets because they were much heavier than those of the PTs.20 The BTs also had a relief tube, which in the WFTD was a source of jokes and embarrassment for unsuspecting women who asked how they were used. One hapless cadet mistook the tube for a microphone and proceeded to holler into it when her instructor did not hear her radio call.21
Transition training into the BTs required a minimum of 30 hours of Link training work which simulated cockpit conditions and flight patterns as it responded to the student-pilot's maneuvering. Seated inside a dark box, the student watched compasses, a clock, turn indicators, a gyro, artificial horizon and an altimeter. By keeping all the instruments in proper alignment the student could execute any turn or movement correctly.22 Learning to rely on the instruments, rather than one's sense of balance, was a difficult skill to master. But it was vital if the cadet was to be successful i instrument flying procedures in actual aircraft. Work in the Link trainer continued throughout a pilot's career to insure that the women as trainees and later as service pilots, remained proficient on their instrument flight procedures. Throughout the Army Air Corps, each base established its own requirements for ground school and Link training for all rated pilots.
The next step of instrument training was to fly a plane "under the hood" with the flight instructor acting as the Link operator had on the ground. The cadet could not see out of the cockpit while under the hood. The instructor gave commands for a particular move and the cadet performed the movement by following the indication of the cockpit instruments. Cadets easily became disoriented during their initial flights under the hood. As a consequence during those first hooded flights instructors had to pull out of spins, stalls and dives.23
The instructors at WFTD had previously trained men for military flying and they changed none of their techniques simply because their students were now women. When the trainees advanced into aircraft with radios everyone could see and hear how little the men had altered their styles. Cadet Dorothy Kocher, 43-W-4, recounted one episode for her sister:24
. . . every so often an instructor forgets to switch his radio from "Radio" to "Interphone" and everything he says to the student goes out to the
tower and every plane in the air. Usually goes something like this,
"Jesus Christ--what in hell do you think that goddamned rudder is in
the goddamned ship for? Are you frozen to that damned seat?
Wake up back there!" One instructor was ranting at his student about
her spin recovery and he ended up saying in a tired and disgusted
voice, "Take me home before you kill us both."
The cadets each dealt with the attitudes and behavior of their instructors in their own way. Sometimes humor defused blustery teachers, sometimes the women left the field very upset at the way their instructors were treating them. It was clearly a matter of personal likes and dislikes when it came to how the cadets chose to respond or not respond to the idiosyncrasies of their flight instructors.
Weather on the Texas prairies, dust and wind storms especially, could be a problem for flight training. One group of new cadets was caught in the air during a sudden blinding dust storm. The PTs had no radio contact to Avenger Field so the women flew about hoping for a break in the storm. On the ground their instructors anxiously awaited a change in the wind. Some tense minutes passed before all the planes were accounted for. Another storm damaged seventeen new aircraft on the ground. The winds were so violent that an airplane which was tied down flipped over, a total loss.25
Two major cross-country flights tested the cadets' navigation abilities during training. The women, now in the Basic Trainer phase often returned with woeful and humorous tales to share with their baymates. One woman made a forced landing in a farm field and was grateful when a family took her in for the night. She thought she might get some extra hours' sleep away from the base. She was wrong. The farmer set her to doing chores; churning butter, feeding chickens, and washing dishes. The cadet was so disgusted she went back to the plane and waited to be rescued. She gladly returned to barracks life at Avenger Field.26
Some cadets did not return to Avenger Field. Accidents occurred on cross-country flights, during night flying and on routine training missions. A few accidents happened within sight of the flight line; some crash sites were not discovered for several days. Memorial services for women who took their Last Flight at Avenger Field" made the movies look like comedies." one cadet recalled.27
The accident rate for WFTD pilots was constantly scrutinized as an index to prove the ability of women fliers. The statistics on women versus men cadets showed that the accident rate for women compared favorably to that of male cadets. Analysis of the causes of the women's accidents showed that pilot error was often to blame.28
Further investigation suggested that one possible source of the pilot error was the inexperience of flight instructors. According to Captain Nels O. Monesrud, Avenger Field's medical officer, the Army check pilots found that WFTD cadet performance was adversely affected by the poor proficiency of some of the instructors. Cadets even noted the lack of skill of some of the teachers. Some instructors were relieved of duty after failing check rides themselves. Dr. Monesrud believed that the constant repairs and construction on the airfield were also factors in the accident rate for the women trainees. At any given time, the runways at Avenger were at only 75% capacity.29 These out-of-service runways meant that a greater number of cross-wind or crab landings were executed early in flight training. These maneuvers were very difficult for any new aviation cadet.
The ever-present possibility of washing out intensified the rigors of military life and the demanding training schedule. In the latter months of the women's pilot school, as the war in Europe was progressing at a better rate than anticipated, the wash-out rate was intentionally increased. AAF headquarters chose to reduce the number of pilots by rapid attrition from training schools when the casualty rate for combat pilots in Europe did not reach the anticipated 20% loss rate. All through the AAF training system, the number of students in classes was drastically cut as the manpower needs for each specialty dropped in the combat theaters. The administrative reductions ordered in aviation training alone from July, 1943 to July, 1944 dropped the student cadet census from 31,000 to 3,000; and the WFTD cadets were part of the cutback in trainees.30
The official reports discussing the attrition rates of the WFTD cadets failed to mention the administrative cutback ordered by AAF headquarters. The higher attrition rate in the last 11 classes at Avenger Field was attributed only to flying deficiency. The fact that AAF administrative manpower reductions were never mentioned, as it should have been, in discussion of WFTD performances, rendered those official reports for the women pilots' training incomplete and misleading.
All tolled, during the course of the women pilot training 552 women were released for lack of flying proficiency, 152 resigned, 27 were discharged for medical reasons, and 14 were dismissed for disciplinary reasons.31 The disciplinary reasons could be major or as minor an infraction as returned from a party mildly inebriated. One unfortunate cadet had been drinking at a picnic - as the women had done in the past. The next day she was called into the Establishment Officer and dismissed from the program, no explanation, no appeal. Her companions of the night before were sobered by the thought that they could have been dismissed along with or instead of their unlucky friend. 32
The most unusual discharges involved Elsie and Elva Lewis, 44-W-8, twin sisters from Centralia, Washington. Elsie, the more experienced pilot, was recovering from a head cold and had not flown for several days when she found herself called for a check ride. She told Elva that she would surely fail for lack of recent practice. Elva calmed her twin and volunteered to take her place. All went well, and on her return, Elva told Elsie that the flight had been excellent. Both were shocked when the results were posted - "U" for unsatisfactory. This meant that Elsie had washed out. The sisters decided to continue the charade and for two weeks Elva stayed at the Blue Bonnet Hotel in Sweetwater while Elsie continued in the flight training program. Finally the twins decided to tell the Establishment Officer the truth about switching their identities. Elva was charged with being AWOL two weeks, and Elsie was charged with defrauding the government by taking unauthorized training for two weeks. The Lewis sisters were discharged from the WFTD and had to pay $500.00 which the government claimed Elsie owned for the flight training she took under false pretenses.33
Cadets who passed all check rides had also to earn acceptable grades in ground school. Poor grades in classwork was considered grounds for dismissal. The academically poor student was taken for a check ride to determine if she should be allowed to continue or be sent to another instructor. In some instances the cadets were cycled to the class behind them and allowed to complete training.
Those who successfully completed pilot training had special pilots' wings pinned to their uniforms on graduation day. The first seven classes received wings paid for by Director Cochran. They were made out of little "sweetheart wings" which male cadets sent to their girlfriends and wives as souvenirs. The first class to wear the official WASP wings was 43-W-8. Regulation WASP wings were smaller than male pilots wings and had a satin finished silver lozenge which replaced the shield of the male pilot's wings. The hard-earned wings meant that the women were now operational pilots in the Army Air Forces, ready for assignment throughout the continental United States.34
The WFTD graduates were initially assigned to ferrying as were all the pilots in the women's flying programs. Less than eight months after the first women started duty at New Castle, the women were given new flying assignments. By August 1944 the 699 operational WASP (including WAFS pilots) were assigned as follows: instruction, engineering flying, target towing =386; ferrying = 229; liaison = 12; experimental flight testing = 2.35
Domestic ferrying was vital to the war effort. Whole squadrons of aircraft had to be transferred to newly-opened training centers for aviation, navigation and gunnery schools. New planes had to be moved from factories to embarkation points as well. All these movements had to be done in daylight hours with a minimum of waste of pilot personnel. The pilots had to return to their home bases quickly without taxing available flights and commercial airlines. The Air Transport Command also dealt with the responsibility for ferrying aircraft to and within the various theaters of war - women were not allowed to participate in this part of the mission.
Women ferriers took additional training as needed so that they could fly the very newest planes being put into the air arsenal. By the Spring of 1944 every pursuit airplane in combat had been flown at some point by a WASP. Because of their difficult flight characteristics, pursuit planes accounted for 37% of all ferrying accidents. Later the Air Transport Command reported that:36
. . .throughout their career the women ferry pilots, for a variety of reasons concentrated on the types of ferrying essentially more hazardous than done by their male colleagues. So far as is known, there was no tendency among them to complain about this; if anything, at least in the pursuit period, it was a matter of pride.
The reasons why the women flew pursuit aircraft with such a strong commitment were many. Some women loved the speed and exhilaration of flying the most advanced aircraft available. Some had lost their combat pilot husbands or brothers in the war and wanted to chance to take their places. And some women did not care what kinds of planes they flew so long as they could fly in service to their country.
The dangers of flying were particularly apparent in the work of WASPs who had engineer test flying assignments. Engineer testing required a specific series of maneuvers to test all systems of repaired aircraft. Any plane which had been red-lined for maintenance was repaired then flown to be sure all needed repairs were correctly made. The engineer test pilots had to have a second sense about the operation of the plane in flight.
It was hazardous duty which required total concentration.37 At one East coast
base male pilots refused to do engineer flying altogether, so it was all assigned to
Male pilots also refused to fly the B-36 Marauder and the P-39 Aircobra when they were first introduced in the Air Corps. The aerodynamics of the Marauder called for close attention to flight and handling characteristics. The men tended to jockey the plane and take "hot-shot" rides, rather than ease it through maneuvers. As a result the initial fatality rate was so high pilots called it the "Flying Coffin." Likewise, the Aircobra was dubbed the "Widow Maker" because its single engine, located behind the cockpit, was a frightening change in engineering concepts. The men were afraid of being burned to death in any crash. WASPs were assigned to fly the unjustly maligned aircraft to show the men that the planes were indeed safe, if handled properly.38
The B-29 Superfortress was a challenging aircraft because of its dimensions. It was twice as heavy as the B-17 Flying Fortress, longer by 25 feet and its wingspan was 40 feet wider. One unsolved problem with the B-29 was that after approximately 50 hours of engine time the four 2,200 horsepower engines often caught fire. The Superfortress was considered the linch-pin in the battle in the Pacific. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbetts, who would later drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, was assigned to get the men trained in the B-29. Tibbetts took two WASPs--Dora Dougherty and Dorothea Johnson-- and gave them intensive training in the Superfortress flight procedures. The WASPS were capable and soon ready to demonstrate the aircraft to male pilots training at the "very-heavy-bomber" bases. The effect of having two women pilot a plane which males refused to fly was exactly what Tibbetts wanted. The men were no longer so reluctant to fly B-29s. But when word got back to Washington about these unusual training methods, the Chief of Air Staff, Major General Barney B. Giles, ordered the WASP flights stopped, claiming the women were "putting the big football players to shame."39
Target-towing duty was the most dangerous mission regularly assigned to WASPs. Often the target-towing aircraft landed with its body riddled with bullet holes. There were two types of target-towing duty: Ground-to-air, or artillery firing; and air-to-air or gunnery firing. Each towing mission required the towing plane to pull a 30-foot muslin sleeve behind the tail. Student gunners or artillerymen were instructed to aim ahead of the sleeve, but they often aimed ahead of the plane instead.
Two fatal WASP accidents occurred during artillery target-towing in one month at Camp Davis, North Carolina. Gunnery training was tedious work as it required the target to be towed up to twelve hours in a set pattern of coordinates while several shifts of students did practice firing. The commander of the gunnery school at Eagle Pass, Texas, decided to use WASPs exclusively for target-towing because the men too often strayed into Mexican air space.40
WASPs assigned to target-towing in Boise, Idaho flew B-26s through formations of B-17s to simulate actual combat conditions. Though this was particularly dangerous, no WASPs were injured in the Boise exercises. Some pilots who had returned from combat could not tolerate target-towing duty because they suffered from "battle-rattle," as it was called. Understandably they could not stand to be shot at.41
Women pilots had a wide variety of other assignments. WAFS Nancy Love and Betty Gillies started out on 2 September 1943 to ferry a B-17 Flying Fortress to Prestwick, Scotland as part of a morale boost for the Ferry Command's transatlantic ferriers. The flight was put together under top-secret orders by General William Tunner, who was concerned about the fear male pilots had about the Blitz in Britain. The women got as far as Newfoundland before their flight was canceled on the personal orders of General Arnold.
Arnold was in England at the time and heard of the WASPs' flight by chance. He immediately called back to the States and denied the WASPs permission to fly across the Atlantic - even as they sat on the tarmac at Gander, preparing for take off. He simply did not want to see women flying into the European theater if there was any risk of having an American woman shot down by the enemy. Jacqueline Cochran, who had been the only woman to fly a bomber ferry mission to England - back in 1942 - also opposed allowing any other women to ferry to Europe.42 However, WASPs were flying in the war zones of the Caribbean while ferrying aircraft to Cuba and Puerto Rico.43
WASPs ferried top secret material including radar and the Norden bombsight. Seven WASPs were chosen to transport personnel and materiel involved in the Manhattan Project from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Hamilton Field, California, en route to the Pacific.44 One WASP was selected to work in intelligence and several women were given training in personal weapons in order to safeguard their sensitive cargo.45 The WASPs participated in evaluation of new aviation equipment, oxygen masks and high altitude suits as well as pilot stress studies. Ann Baumgartner was the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft while a test pilot at Dayton, Ohio. (Her portrait is displayed in the Jet Propulsion Hall of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC).46
During their time of service the WASPs were unknown to most of the general population. Four WASPs from Ferry Division, grounded by weather in Americus, Georgia, were stopped by the police because "women were not allowed on the street at night in slacks." They were taken to the police station where the sheriff called the air base and reported; "We have a few girls down here impersonating officers." The implication was that the WASPs were prostitutes. The women were jailed until 2 AM when they got permission to make a telephone call. Nancy Love, in Cincinnati. was appalled by the story the WASPs told her. She spoke to the sheriff and gave him a stern lecture, and no doubt a piece of her mind. The women were immediately released. As a result of that incident all WASP ferriers were given emergency telephone numbers for 24-hour use.47
If civilians in the States did not know the WASPs as a household word, combat pilots in Europe knew about the work of the WASPs. Two WASPs were feted with champagne in a San Antonio dinner club one evening. Two combat veterans noticed the WASP Santiago blue uniforms and asked what organization they were in. Told they were WASPs, the men gave them champagne as a gesture of thanks for their first "real live WASPs."48
The attitude toward the women pilots took its cue from the base commander. At Palm Springs, California, the WASPs were accorded every dignity and honor of commissioned officers. There were made to feel they were welcome and needed as ferriers. In contrast, women assigned to Williams, Arizona found the command and operations officers barely tolerated the WASPs' presence. When demobilization day came, the WASPS of Palm Springs were honored at a full dress review; the women at Williams were told they had 24 hours to get off the base.49
The difficulties of serving in the military in wartime, the hazards of flying and
the demands of domestic life all played a part in a WASP's decision to resign. The
women were not required to leave if they married and in fact many got married just
before of even during WFTD training. Over the course of the program some WASPs
chose to leave service when they married; some left when they learned they were
pregnant. Women who did not want to be militarized also submitted their resignations
along with women who, seeing that militarization would not happen, chose to enter
other branches of service. Cochran was bitter about the women who chose to resign
as soon as demobilization was announced. She felt that they ought to stay in the
WASP th the end, rather than leave.50
Few women were dismissed for disciplinary reasons after graduation. but when it happened it was swiftly done. A WASP was recalled to Sweetwater after taking transition training. The Establishment Officer (It is unclear if Jacqueline Cochran herself was present.) interviewed her and gave her the opportunity to resign from the program. The request was based on a report from the Pecos, Texas commander who had reason to believe the WASP was "promiscuous and indiscreet." The allegations were supported by evidence provided by other WASPs at Pecos. The woman was told to submit her resignation before Cochran's departure at 5 PM that day. The woman chose to accept the terms of her dismissal and resigned as requested.51
The pressures of operational flying were very demanding and in one instance a woman was unable to cope. According to the official reports, the WASP suffered a nervous breakdown but recovered after a rest of several days while she was in training at Sweetwater. Help from her baymates and friends got her through the crisis, and she graduated. Assigned to a California base for duty, she experienced a more severe episode and was hospitalized. Her condition was such that she could not tolerate the sight of her WASP friends and was most upset at the sight of a WASP uniform. She was diagnosed as have suffered a "dementia praecox, paranoid type," and was hospitalized on base pending other arrangements.52
Accidents remained part of the risk of the work after graduation. In all, 27 WASPs died in crashes while on operational flight missions. Airports in Nashville, Tennessee; Ord, Nebraska; and Oroville, Washington were later dedicated to military women fliers of World War II.53
Not all deceased WASPs killed in the war were shown such respect. The remains of one WASP killed in the Southwest were left with the undertaker for a week while civilian and military authorities debated who was responsible to transport the body home.54 Later in the war, WASPs were accorded dignified representation and assistance by the military.
When Mary Webster, 44-W-8, was killed in an Oklahoma crash less than two weeks before deactivation, her body was escorted by train to Ellensburg, Washington by WASP Nettie Winfield. Mr. and Mrs. Webster received condolences from Jacqueline Cochran which read in part, "May God give you the strength to find comfort in the fact that when she was called upon to make the supreme sacrifice she was serving her country in the highest capacity permitted to women today."55
As the matter of militarization--whether the women fliers could continue to serve "in the highest capacity permitted" was being debated in the War Department and in Congress, a survey was taken of the feelings of the WASPs regarding the issue. Within Ferry Command 90% of the WASPs wanted to stay if they were militarized. To try to protect the service of these women in Ferry Division, Nancy Love worked to have all women ferriers certified on pursuit aircraft. She was trying to insure that with their high skills and experience the Army would not release the Ferry Division WASPs if demobilization occurred. The idea seemed reasonable because the Ferry Command was severely short-handed. The commander of Ferry Division personally requested that the WASPS in his jurisdiction be retained on duty. General Arnold himself denied the request in December, 1944, stating nothing more was to be discussed about the WASP fate.56
In November, 1944, with deactivation a month away, Director Cochran wrote to the WASPs still on duty asking if they were interested in flying for an (unspecified) allied country for the duration of the war. One WASP's response to the letter expressed strong emotions about deactivation. Dorothy Kocher wrote in part: "I would be happy to fly for any Allied country for any length of time, and under any conditions. . . I would only like to be assured of this: That my services are needed, are wanted and the fact that I am a woman will not be used against me."57
Last Updated 18 May 1998
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