A sparkling June sun flooded through the windows of the antique-filled home overlooking the Narrows of Puget Sound. The hospitality was warm and talk was of aviation in World War II. The pilot said life was "tamer" then because flying seemed to come naturally. A P-38 Lightning could be flown with eyes closed, but the P-51 Mustang with full fuel tanks was much more demanding. The aviator showed the guest scrapbooks full of pictures, letters, and post cards and shared an album of cadet training days. "All that was left was a shoe," the flier commented while turning a page with the picture of a burned and charred fuselage of a trainer aircraft. The war years and service to the country were recalled with a special sense of pride. The aviator was a woman, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II.1
As the United States entered the war with Japan and Germany after 7 December 1941, women were asked to contribute to the war effort in new ways. The military realized the need to free more men for combat and strategic missions: thus 300,000 women were accepted into voluntary service in the armed forces for the duration of the war.2 The women, in all branches of the service, performed administrative, clerical, communications and other non-combat duties. The WASP program was developed on the same premise. The WASP fliers assumed domestic, utility and service flight assignments, allowing more male pilots to be released to fly combat missions in Europe and the Pacific.
Women pilots served with the United States Army Air Corps from 12 September 1942 until 20 December 1944. They flew 60 million miles through the continental United States, Canada and the Caribbean on ferrying and utility flight missions. Originally 31 women entered the Air Corp Ferry Command at New Castle Air Field, Wilmington, Delaware, between 10 and 15 September 1942. During the six weeks of military orientation only three women were dismissed; 28 women were accepted as ferry pilots by the Ferry command. These women were directed by Nancy Harkness Love and were called the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The WAFS was composed of women holding commercial pilots' licenses and who had logged over 500 hours flight time. As a group, the WAFS were the most highly qualified women aviators in the nation.3
Shortly after the WAFS began their program at New Castle, another organization of women fliers was formed to help meet the military's growing need for pilots. The group was called the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and it was administered by Jacqueline Cochran. The flight training school was initially located at Houston, Texas Municipal Airport, then moved to Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas. Over 25,000 women applied for the WFTD school. A total of 1,830 entered training, and 1,074 cadets completed the course and became Army pilots.4 The WFTD schools graduated 18 classes between November, 1942 and December, 1944 (See Appendix A).
In August, 1943, the WAFS and WFTD pilots, both cadets and graduates, were combined into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) under AAF Director of Women Pilots, Jacqueline Cochran, with Nancy Love as WASP executive for the Ferry Command. 5 The women were all paid as Civil Service employees, but were subject to military discipline and were under military orders. Though 39 WASPs were killed on active duty (See Appendix B), and three women were killed on termination leave in December, 1944, their families received no survivors' benefits.6
The Army Air Forces found the work of these women pilots satisfactory and the Commanding General, H.H. "Hap" Arnold moved to support legislation for militarization of the WASP. He felt that militarization would provide the necessary control which the Army required over the Civil Service pilots, and give the women fliers the miliary benefits and recognition they deserved.7
The Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, endorsed legislation in January, 1944, sponsored by Congressman John Costello of California, to provide for the commissioning of the WASP. The bill was defeated six months later after one of the largest lobbying efforts in Congressional history to that date. Members of the War Service Training Pilots led opposition to the WASP bill. These male pilots objected to the WASP on the premise that the women pilots would take flight assignments away from the men, relegating the men to the infantry. After the bill was defeated the Army had little recourse but to disband the women pilots' program. Demobilization took place on 20 December 1944.8
These women pilots from World War II were not recognized for their war work until 21 May 1979 when the Air Force granted the first honorable discharge from the Army Air Corps to a WASP, Lillian Connor Roberts.9 The effort to gain veteran's status for the women pilots had begun in earnest in 1972.
The story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots;10 how the military perceived the WASP mission and operations; what the women pilots actually did; and how the WASP were acknowledged in the public and political sectors are examined here.
Last Updated 18 May 1998
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