The wartime experiences of the WASPs were not well publicized. Aside from infrequent articles in Time, Newsweek, or the New York Times, the public heard and knew little about the WASP program while it was active. The work of women aviators was recognized in the popular culture in the years prior to World War II, therefore initial reaction to the women fliers in the AAF was accepting, if not positive.
As early as 1910 the Goldsmith Publishing Company of Chicago issued girl flier serials in what were called hardbound paperbacks. In 1932 and 1933 Goldsmith issued two different series of adventure stories about girl aviators. The tales centered on the perils of treachery by others, with the female fliers saving the day. Along the way the girls had dangerous challenges and sinister villains to outwit and defeat. Dorothy Dixon flew to adventures in one series and the Mapes twins, Prim and Terry, helping their father run an airfield were, "The Girl Flyers."1 Newspaper comics also offered characters and stories centered on women aviators. "The Phantom's" nemesis was the leader of the Sky Band Air Pirates, the beautiful and vengeful Sala; spunky Peggy Mills of "Skyroads" indignantly informed her male colleagues, "GIRL, I'm no girl. I'm an AVIATRIX!"; Smilin' Jack Martin was smitten with the talented flier Gale. The comic strip "Flying Jenny" told the adventures of pilot Jenny Dare, "blonde, beautiful, cute and cool," from 1939 until 1949.2 Movie patrons in 1934 saw Katharine Hepburn as a pilot in Spitfire.3
These stories romanticized the skill and work of aviation while the exploits of Amelia Earhart, Teddy Kenyon, and Jacqueline Cochran captured the imagination of the American public and added to the myths of women in aviation. The common image of aviation seldom focused on the dirt and grime of mechanical repairs; the boredom of waiting out weather; the dangers of flying through storms with primitive navigational aids. But these problems associated with flying were matters of great concern to the War Department Public Relations Policy Board when it set out to tell the WASP story.
The Public Relations Board devised a policy which severely restricted the presentation of the WASP. It was considered poor press judgment to allow any mention of bad weather, maintenance requirements, or accidents in stories about the WASP. News releases were not to try to defend the women fliers or imply that there service needed defending.4 Attention was given to make sure that articles did not use a glamour angle in reporting about the women or their work.
The War Department was not only concerned about the WASPs as women, but also about their civilian status as an experimental group within the military. Every major article about the WASP, whether written by a member of the WASP or by a professional journalist, mentioned the civilian status and experimental nature of the group. It was clear to military public relations personnel that the women pilots in the AAF would require conscientious guidance and direction with regard to their image in the press and the public eye.
As soon as the War Department announced the formation of the WAFS on 12 September 1942, Hazel Clark Taylor, a researcher/writer in the Publications Branch of the Bureau of Public Relations, was appointed to monitor and coordinate WAFS publicity. She took the job full-time as the women's pilots programs grew. When Jacqueline Cochran was named AAF Director of Women Pilots eleven months later, in August, 1943, Taylor was named, "Director of Women's Interests, AAF, WASP Public Relations."5
Taylor received minimal technical assistance from the AAF in dealing with the public relations needs of the women pilots - WAFS, WFTD or WASP. She deftly handled letters from school children wanting information as well as inquiries from Madison Avenue executives hoping to use WASPs in patriotic cosmetics advertisements. The latter requests were appreciated, but always denied. The women pilots were not military personnel, it was not appropriate to use them in any commercial campaign, she replied.6
Memoranda and letters through various command channels and to private individuals showed Mrs. Hazel Clark Taylor was a sensitive person, mature and well-versed in the fine art of dealing with the military hierarchy and the public. She had a refreshing talent for frankness and candor when she found things not to her liking in dealing with associates, notably Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love.7 Her reports to her supervisor, Colonel Westlake, were straightforward and showed a grasp of problems and solutions. More than that, the documents Taylor prepared indicate clearly that she really enjoyed the challenge of her job.
One of Taylor's responsibilities was to coordinate public appearances for Cochran and Love. In some instances Taylor wrote the speeches, in other cases she only edited remarks. Her editing of Cochran's remarks on the controversial topic of women's postwar role showed that Taylor was skilled at walking a fine line when presenting the women pilots to the public.
Cochran wrote in an article drafted for Saturday Evening Post:8
The girls know what they want when the war is over. They want husbands and homes and babies. I've told them, and they know it to be true, that there'll be no place for them in military or commercial aviation when the world's at peace again. After victory, they'll be wives first and aviation fans second - the sort of women who've done a lot to make America what it is today.
Taylor told Cochran that such a statement would appear to "seal the doom of women with wings.9
Cochran, explaining the training needs of women and men pilots, prepared an explanation which read in part:
It is unfortunate for the women pilots that so few women will be needed. For very woman that is trained there must be justification for her training. Women pilots should not be trained at the expense of training men pilots. We can never train too many men pilots; we can train too many women.
Taylor noted that the quote was rather negative and suggested some changes to Cochran. She wrote:10
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the WASP service cannot admit all women who would like to join. Although the AAF can not have too many men pilots, it can have too many women pilots if their training in done at the expense of that training needed for men pilots, or if their service supplants that
of qualified men.
Public relations for Cochran and Love depended in part on the women's attitudes about press coverage. Love seemed disinterested in developing press relations so long as the WAFS demanded much of her time and attention. Only when an appearance furthered acceptance of women pilots did she consent to participate. Love had little tolerance for press visits to her squadron in New Castle Army Air Field, Delaware.
Cochran, the experienced aviator, familiar to the press for eight years, was sophisticated in her dealing with press demands about WFTD. Initially she refused all releases or stories on the women pilots' training. She wanted to wait until about 100 pilots had graduated before allowing major publicity.12 Her feelings were very strict on this and cadets in Texas were told to put "confidential" on their letters home because there was to be "no publicity of any kind."13 If news leaked out to a hometown paper the responsible cadet was subject to dismissal from the program.14 Cochran imposed this policy personally and she seems to have lifted it after the program had proved itself. Until that time, Cochran controlled press tightly and refused to cooperate with any press relations efforts suggested by Hazel Clark Taylor or the War Department. She even rejected a proposal for a news conference to dispel any notion that Cochran was subordinate to Love in the hierarchy of AAF women pilots.15 Once Cochran did allow press coverage she used it as her tool - and she used it effectively. However, articles which highlighted her work rather than that of the women pilots were not appreciated in the War Department. A memorandum was sent informally through the Public Relations Bureau advising that less should be written about Cochran and more about the lives of the WASPs.16
As the WAFS and WFTD merged into the WASP, Cochran and Love got some
interesting publicity. According to reports in Newsweek, Cochran forced Love out of
leadership of the women pilots. One AAF official was quoted as referring to Cochran
as the "highest authority" over all women fliers. He further pointed out that "if the Air
Transport Command is not already aware of this, they will be have to be made aware
of it."17 This was one of the few times any difference between Cochran and Love were
publicly aired, and even then the comments were not made by or attributed to either
Cochran was an astute celebrity who knew how to use public relations to benefit her cause. She did not encourage or promote stories about any real or imagined differences between Love and herself. Cochran, with her rage-to-riches Cinderella life and her pioneering accomplishments in aviation was a natural subject for reporters. She seemed able to sense when to focus attention on her flying and when to focus on her business interests or her marriage.
The first publicity about the WFTD highlighted the graduation of the first class at Ellington Field, Houston, Texas on 28 April 1943. The cadets had trained at Howard Hughes Municipal Airport but the ceremonies were conducted at the military installation. After the first commencement the press was allowed to cover subsequent graduations.
A wave of publicity on the women pilots came during the month of July, 1943. The 19 July 1943 issue of Life carried a cover story on the training of WFTD cadets which contained extensive photographs depicting the daily life of these Air Force aviation cadets.18 Women's Home Companion posthumously published "At Twilight's Last Gleaming," which WAFS Cornelia Fort had written.19 Finally, Flying magazine published "The Fifinellas," which told of the training, background and assignments of members of the 43-W-1 WFTD class.20
Flying continued to report the war work of women pilots in August, 1943, with a story on the British Air Transport Auxiliary, "The ATA Girls," written by ATA Commander Pauline Gower. The readers of Flying magazine were introduced to the work of America's women pilots in the AAF in January, 1944 when the story, "The WASP," told of the new tow-target missions which the women were doing.21
In March, 1944, Ladies Home Journal published Marjorie Kumler's account of her experiences as a member of 43-W-1. "They've Done It Again!' told of the early apprehension and secrecy surrounding training of the women cadets in Houston, and of their success in convincing their instructors and military supervisors of their flying skill.22
The article in the July, 1943 Women's Home Companion, which told of WAFS Cornelia Fort's experience flying over Honolulu on 7 December 1941, was published posthumously. WAFS Fort, 24, was killed in a bomber crash in Texas in March, 1943. She was the first woman pilot to die while in active service for her country. Fort told her readers that the events in Pearl Harbor were all the incentive she needed to seek out an opportunity like the WAFs which allowed her to fly for her country. "I can't say exactly why I fly but I know why as I've never known anything in my life. . . I know it otherwise than in beauty. I know it in dignity and self-sufficiency and in the pride of skill. I know it in the satisfaction of usefulness." In the long run "delivering a trainer to Texas may be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa," though Fort and her colleagues had "no hopes of replacing men pilots." Fort was proud that the WAFS were "beginning to prove that women can be trusted to deliver airplanes safely and in the doing serve the country which is our country too." Fort acknowledged that because of the experimental nature of the WAFS, "we had to deliver the goods or else. . . there wouldn't ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service."23
In general, coverage of the women pilots was positive and encouraging of the work of the WASPs. It was in January, 1944 that political events began to change ideas about the work of and need for a women pilots program in the Army Air Forces.
Representative John Costello, of California, introduced a bill to commission the members of the WASPs in September, 1943. H.R. 4219 was never brought to the floor of the House. In January, 1944, the War Department made two conflicting announcements. The first announced that 36,000 male fliers and aviation cadets, including flight instructors in the War Service Training Program (WST), would not be needed as pilots and were being made available for infantry duty in the military. The second statement gave the endorsement of the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, for legislation to commission women pilots as members of the Army Air Forces. The women were needed to perform domestic flying assignments for the Air Training Command and the Ferry Command.24
The first announcement, the cutback in WST pilots and cadets, was prompted
by the success of the war in Europe and the lower-than-expected casualty rate for combat pilots. The male fliers and cadets who now found themselves selected for duty in the ground forces were most upset. It was bad enough to be reassigned from aviation to infantry; but they saw no reason for women pilots to be used in any capacity by the Army Air Forces so long as able male fliers were available.
In April, 1944, Contact, a prominent general aviation magazine, gave support to the men pilots in an editorial, "Wanted Female Impersonators," which denounced the proposed legislation and "Jackie Cochran's glamour girls." The article complained "WHY THIS DISCRIMINATION? WHO IS THROWING THEIR WEIGHT AROUND WASHINGTON? IS SOMEBODY MAKING A PLAY FOR THE 1944 FEMALE VOTE?" It suggested that the WASPs might be better suited to fill another shortage which was not so glamorous as flying, that of nursing. But that work, chided the editorial, "would be down-right rub and scrub work --no glamour there--and we do mean glamour--we sort of remember the 'Airport Annies" who buzzed around our pre-war airports."25
As the issue of commissioning was presented in aviation circles, it was also gaining opposition in Congress. Representative James Morison of Louisiana, seeking a campaign issue for reelection, considered the WASP a waste. He had the Contact editorial read into the Congressional Record. Initially opponents of the WASP militarization bill thought it unnecessary for women to be doing such work. But as debate proceeded, opposition to the bill increased on several fronts.26
Some Congressmen were incensed that at no time during the existence of WAFS, the WFTD or the WASP, did the Department of the Army make an appropriation request for them through Congress. The women's programs were set up and funded under the broad authorities given the Army to train civilian pilots. No Army budget submitted from 1942 through 1944 ever mentioned the WASP or its predecessor organizations.27
Another issue was the cost of training and equipping the women pilots. Though the House Military Affairs Committee had favorably reported the bill to the full House in March, 1944, the House Committee on Civil Service examined the cost of the program and was not impressed. The Civil Service Committee, headed by Representative Robert Ramspeck of Georgia, concluded that "The proposal to expand the WASP had not been justified. Therefore, it is recommended that the recruiting of inexperienced personnel and their training for the WASPs be immediately terminated." The Ramspeck Report further recommended that the "service of experienced air personnel (men) be immediately utilized." The women pilots lost their case before the Ramspeck Committee in favor male pilots.28
Representative Joseph R. O'Hara of Minnesota objected to H.R. 4219 as being a "piece of social legislation, and that is all it is." He was concerned that the fighting men who could not be well treated in combat deserved better than to have such a organization for women pilots recognized beyond their due.29 Congressman Hobbs offered an amendment to H.R. 4219 to reduce the rank of the senior WASP to that of captain.30 Representative Overton Brooks sponsored legislation to grant commissions to all CAA-WTS pilots and that was added as a rider to the militarization bill. The essence of the Brooks amendment was to allow all former War Training Service pilots commissions - regardless of their fitness for military service. Representative Robert Sikes of Florida was angered that the women could resign from the WASP if they chose and could not be required to stay on duty like enlisted military personnel.31 These and other opponents of the WASP militarization were particularly furious that some 300 WASPs had received military orientation training for commissioned officers at a four week course at the AAF School of Applied Tactics in Orlando, Florida without the prior knowledge, recommendation or approval of any Congressional body.32
As the political fury mounted, the AAF, the War Department, and WASP Director Cochran backed off quickly from any public statements which might fuel the controversy. Cochran was present when General Arnold gave testimony in favor of the WASP before Congressional committees but she personally chose not to speak before the committees reviewing the fate of the AAF women pilots. The War Department and the AAF Public Relations Policy Board restricted WASP publicity, directing that efforts be made to "evade public statements by WASP personnel," and to deny release or "clearance of data . . .while legislation is pending." This policy was sent to all "AAF commands employing WASP personnel."33
On 21 June 1944 House debate on H.R. 4219 concluded with a vote to strike the
enacting clause of the bill. The motion passed, 188 to 169 with 73 not voting. Thus
the effort to militarize the Women Airforce Service Pilots was defeated.34
The War Department knew it could not submit a budget including the WASP. There was certain to be a fight if funds to continue the WASP under their civilian status or otherwise were included in the 1945 budget. The War Department chose to avoid any further adverse relations with Congress on the matter by ordering the deactivation of the women pilots program. The decision to disband Th WASP was reached on 28 June 1944 with the stipulation that all women cadets currently in training should be allowed to graduate from their courses. Several women arrived in Sweetwater scheduled to start training in class 45-W-1. Since they were not notified of the demobilization in time, the Army paid their transportation home.35
Jacqueline Cochran was party to the decision to end the WASP. She felt very strongly that if the WASP was not militarized, its service ought to end entirely. The War Department and AAF made the formal announcement of the demobilization of the WASP on 4 October 1944. Up to the day of deactivation hope was nonetheless held out that members of the WASP could continue to fly in the AAF in some capacity. The attempt of Nancy Love to retain WASP in the Ferry Division did not succeed and the women pilots were released from service on 20 December 1944, in order that they might be home for Christmas.
Press releases about the deactivation were short and limited to the facts. No interviews with General Arnold, Cochran or Love were offered. One article published in December, 1944, in Flying Magazine, "Requiem for the WASP," gave one ex-WAFS's feelings on the demise of the WASP. The author, Barbara Poole, left the WASP with no personal love for the organization, "but she wished to give tribute to the fine job it had done since its inception." She questioned the notion that men pilots should get the WASP jobs, by asking if war production factories would tolerate such demands. She asked if employers would heed the plea of men who said, "We're skilled welders, drill press operators, mechanics. Throw out the women, and give us jobs so we won't be drafted."36
Poole stated the problem outright. "The entire issue, clouded by a barrage of innuendoes and blurred facts, boils down to an egotistic 'battle of the sexes.'" She pointed out that many WASPs were flying to support their families and reminded the reader that one of the "tragic penalties of war is the great number of women who are left permanently with the financial responsibility for a home." She argued that the interests of GIs to make more money in flight pay was not a proper consideration for the Army to include in its decision to end the WASP's service.37
The women expressed sorrow that the WASP were no longer to serve, but they had to find other work. Some went into the Red Cross and served in the Pacific through the rest of the war. Others found work ferrying rickety planes for private firms in the States. Transcontinental and Western Air Incorporated (later Trans World Airlines, TWA) offered employment to the former WASPs, and even established a WASP Procurement Office. The list of positions open to the former fliers included only one cockpit-related job, Link trainer operator. The women who had flown for the AAF were barred from commercial cockpits.38
Only one member of the WASP remained on duty within the AAF after deactivation - Jacqueline Cochran. As the Director of Women Pilots it was her job to submit a final report and assist in preparing historical documents. Many of the WASP questioned how Cochran could stay on duty when they had been shoved aside. What they did not know or appreciate was that Cochran was fighting to protect the WASP in the final official reports of their achievements.39
The history of the women pilots of World War II, as presented by AAF historical section, was rather negative and left many questions unresolved. Cochran read the report and was concerned about the image which the report gave of the WASPs. She was not pleased and responded strongly to specific statements and charges in the report. She went a step further to add balance to the "uncomplimentary tone of he Air Transport Command's WASP history."40
She took a copy of the Air Transport Command report to the Training Command
and pointed out some particular passages. The led the Training Command to prepare
a report of its own about the work of the women pilots who had served within it
jurisdiction. This was an extraordinary document, in part a refutation of the official
report of another agency of the AAF. In this second report the achievements of the
WASPs were placed in a more positive light. This would not have happened without
the effort of Cochran who steadfastly protected the image of the WASPs for the public
The service of the women pilots of World War II was short, but through their sorrow, bitterness or confused reactions, they could echo the remarks of WAFS Cornelia Fort, who died for her country. "I, for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge, flying, happened to be of use to my country when it was needed. That's all the luck I ever hope to have."42
In the end, the pride and dedication of the WASPs of World War II could not satisfactorily negate the most basic argument raised against their service. Representative Edward Rees of Kansas stated the essence of the political response to the WASP and their continued service: "I just do not believe we ought to continue to recruit women for pilot service until we have utilized the service of men who are qualified to do the work."43
Last Updated 18 May 1998
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