Just prior to deactivation in December, 1944, WASPs stationed at Maxwell Field, Alabama formed a group called the Order of Fifinella. This organization of ex-WASPs served as a source of contact for the women fliers. Originally the Order of Fifinella was a social group, but it provided the nucleus for political activities of the WASPs in the 1970's to gain veterans' recognition for themselves.
Some WASPs made claims requests to the Veterans' Administration in the 1950's for injuries incurred while in the WASPs. Dorothy Kocher Olsen requested assistance with a hearing aid purchase because she had lost much of her hearing due to nerve deafness while ferrying pursuit planes in the war. Her request was not only denied, but she was castigated as well by the Veteran's Administration for even filing such a claim, because she was not a veteran.1
Parents and friends of WASPs were told that they could not display gold stars or put flags on the WASPs' graves because the WASPS were not veterans. Even in the 1970's when friends remembered the fallen WASPS on Veterans Day or Memorial Day with flags, these flags were removed by persons unknown.
The thirtieth anniversary reunion of the Order of Fifinella was held in Sweetwater, Texas in 1972 and was a huge success. It was the biggest reunion to that time. The city of Sweetwater opened its heart and was delighted to have the women pilots back with them - if only for a few days of remembering. The newspaper printed a retrospective of the days when Avenger Field was the home of the WASPs, and told what the women were doing now.2 The celebration included a parade of WASPs through the main streets of the town and several WASPS wore their dress uniforms from World War II. In this same year, 1972, the first bill to recognize the WASPs' wartime service was introduced in Congress.
The bill died because it was sent to the Armed Services Committees of the Congress. Once the committee requested comments from the Pentagon, the bill was on a merry-go-round. The Army said the bill was not in its jurisdiction but the Air Force's; the Air Force claimed that the WASPs, as Army Air Force pilots, should be the responsibility of the Army, and so on.3 At their reunion in 1976 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Fifinellas declared 1977 as the year to push for their veterans' recognition.
The women's lobbying effort was coordinated by Air Force retired Colonel W. Bruce Arnold, son of General "Hap" Arnold who had so strongly supported the WASP during the war. Colonel Arnold had served in the Air Force Legislative Liaison Office and was well acquainted with the machinations of Congress. He now put his experience and knowledge to work on behalf of the WASPs, orchestrating a dynamic grassroots effort for support of the bill. Publicity was important to this effort and was monitored by WASP Betty Jane Williams who had served as a public relations officer in the Air Force Reserves while working as producer of training films for Lockheed Aircraft. WASPs contacted their local papers to tell the story of their flying in the Second Word War. Such human interest stories appeared in newspaper across the nation, usually in the Sunday lifestyle sections.4
The members of the Order of Fifinella started petition drives for support of their bill. WASP Dorothy Davis, 44-W-10, got 1,700 signatures by wearing her WASP uniform to a theater showing Star Wars. She set up a table with blow-ups of WASPs in action in the war. A poster reading, "Please sign petition for Veteran Status for Women Airforce Service Pilots," helped generate interest. WASP Davis gained considerable publicity in the San Francisco area. One person who heard her story was publisher William Randolph Hearst, who wrote a strong editorial in support of the WASPs in September, 1977, which was published in all Hearst papers.5
In November, 1977, as a result of an interview in the New York Times, Bernice Falk Haydu, 44-W-7, president of the Order of Fifinella, appeared as the mystery guest on To Tell the Truth. In January, 1978 Good Housekeeping magazine gave its support to the WASP cause following a visit by WASP Kay Menges Brick, 43-W-3. WASP Byrd Howell Granger, 43-W-1, who had been WASP squadron commander at Palm Springs and went on to be Professor of Literature and Folklore at the University of Arizona, compiled a document of proof of WASP service. The document was offered in evidence at the Senate hearings on the bill.6 The WASP effort for recognition was basically individuals contributing their talents and skills where they were needed.
The 95th Congress witnessed an historic first on 15 March 1977 when H.R. 5087 was introduced in the House. It was the first time that the women representatives in Congress joined together to sponsor a bill. Congresswomen Lindy Boggs and Margaret Heckler led the fight in the House and Senator Barry Goldwater sponsored legislation in the Senate. Colonel Arnold kept aware of the bill's progress on Capitol Hill.
The new strategy was to take the bill through the Veterans Affairs Committees, instead of Armed Services. Unknown to Arnold and the WASPs was the fact that some of the strongest opponents of recognition of the WASPS were the chairmen of these two committees - Senator Alan Cranston and Representative Ray Roberts. They objected to the bill because they believed it would open a Pandora's box; that other organizations would seek similar benefits. They also maintained that the WASP had never been told they would be militarized; that they were not subject to military orders or discipline; and that they could leave the WASP whenever they wished. For these reasons Cranston and Roberts felt that the WASPs' service had not been military and therefore they did not deserve veterans recognition.7
Aside from Congressman Roberts, Colonel Arnold knew he needed to convince Representative Olin "Tiger" Teague of Texas, if the WASP bill was to have a chance in the House. Arnold and his lobbying WASPs prepared a pamphlet which provided documents refuting the major arguments of Cranston and Roberts and gave "Tiger" Teague a copy. Included in the pamphlet was a set of orders for two WASPs to fly in the combat zones of the Caribbean and evidence that the women were told they would be militarized as WASPs. Another document was the honorable discharge paper of Helen B. Porter, 43-W-5, identical to that given to soldiers. It was the Porter discharge paper which provided Teague with the proof he needed. Old "Tiger" was the sort of man who carried his honorable discharge in his back pocket. He was even called "Mr. Veteran." On the floor of the House the day before the WASP bill was to come up for consideration, Congresswoman Heckler showed Teague the pamphlet with the discharge paper. From the gallery Arnold and the other WASP supporters could see Teague's response. The congressman puzzled over the discharge form, then reached in his pocket and pulled out his own discharge papers., He looked from one to the other in amazement and sought out his colleagues. He reconsidered his opposition when he saw that paper, "I am now persuaded that their cause is fair," her told Heckler. He then urged a unanimous vote for the WASP bill.8
Public opposition to the WASPs' veterans recognition bill surfaced quickly. As part of the grassroots campaign, Colonel Arnold placed a public information advertisement spot in magazines under the auspices of Mobil Oil Company. It was just a small, one-column blurb about the WASPs in the war and their current efforts for recognition. To Arnold's surprise he received a telephone call which condemned that "awful ad" for the "damn females who didn't do a thing." He was amazed that such a reaction still existed 32 years after the WASPs deactivated. But it gave him warning that there would be opposition to the WASP bill from some groups. The national American Legion spoke against the WASP; but the Colorado State Legion backed the WASP thanks to individual WASPs' efforts. The Veterans Administration opposed the bill as a bad precedent for other groups who served in the war. The VA made a point of sending a woman to Congress to testify against the WASP bill. Though on the national level all veterans' groups opposed the WASP bill, the nation veterans' newspaper, Stars and Stripes--The National Tribune, supported the WASP by offering a free column for WASP Patricia Collins Hughes, 44-W-6. Hughes wrote a series of articles about the WASP work in the war and brought their story up to date by explaining the current efforts for recognition.9
The White House expressed opposition to WASP recognition and even Mrs.
Carter made negative comments about the bill. Still WASP supporters would not be
discouraged. They made the WASP legislation a rider to a veterans' education bill to
insure it would not be vetoed. On November 3 and 4, 1977 the House and Senate
passed the WASP legislation and on 23 November 1977 President Jimmy Carter
signed it into law.10
The fight for recognition was not over, however. The new law gave the Air Force final say as to whether or not the WASPS had indeed rendered military service. Congress directed the Air Force to make such a determination and on that basis, to provide individual discharges if the women met the established criteria. The Air Force reached its decision sixteen months later, in March 1979. In May 1979 the first WASP discharge was granted. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Installations, Antonia Handler Chayes, worked hard to get the Air Force to act on the WASP bill and she was proud to present the decision to the president of the Order of Fifinella, Lillian Connor Roberts, 43-W-3, on 8 March 1979.11
Roberts and her predecessor, Bernice Falk Haydu, had spent weeks at a time in Washington, DC lobbying for the bill. Colonel Arnold continued to offer assistance and moral support after the Congressional victory. At one point Roberts wondered aloud if the Air Force might let all the WASPs die before acting on the bill. The discharge presentation seemed anti-climactic for the women who had struggled for their recognition. Roberts pointed out in her remarks at the ceremony that the women's movement had helped change ideas about women, and surely aided the WASP cause for recognition. She noted, on the other hand, that the WASPs "were always available. . . as a horrible example," of the treatment of women, "since all the unpleasant things that happened to us, unfortunately (happened) just because we were women."12
Last Updated 18 May 1998
Back to WASPs.