Sunday, January 1, 2012

Women Pilots in World War II—WASP

 In 2006, while researching the 1940s for a mystery, I came across an article on the Women Airforce Service Pilots. I had never heard of the female pilots and was fascinated by their story. So much so that I dropped the current work in progress and began The Woman in the Wing, a novel involving women pilots and Rosie the Riveters in the Second World War. New to writing, but determined to promote their story, I decided to present it as a mystery, the genre I knew best. 

The story takes place in 1944 at the Douglas Aircraft factory outside of Chicago, one of the plants producing C-54 transport planes. Today the site is O’Hare Airport and although the Douglas plant was there, the WASP training camp depicted in the book was not. The only actual training base was Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The fictional adventure offers a glimpse into the lives of US women who served at home during World War II—and there were many. Two hundred thousand women enlisted in the military, and twelve million, many who had never worked outside their homes, took jobs in factories, shipyards, offices, and as civilian workers on military bases. They preformed jobs that no one, often including the women, expected they could do. Many took on familiar roles, such as sewing flags, uniforms, and parachutes, but others were mechanics, cryptographers, welders, and the most famous, Rosie the Riveter, who became a symbol for all women workers.

In September 1942, Nancy Harkness Love, a 28-year-old pilot, convinced Air Transport Command to let her collect and train already licensed women to fly as civilian ferrying pilots, moving planes from factories to air bases around the country. These 27 recruits, the first women to fly US military planes, belonged to the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the WAFS. In 1943, Airforce General Hap Arnold merged this group with the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, WFTD, led by Jackie Cochran. They became the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a non-military organization that Congress maintained throughout its existence, was an experiment. The WASP program was not an experiment to the twenty-five thousand who women applied, or to the almost two thousand who qualified and trained. It certainly was not an experiment to the over 1,000 successful graduates who earned their wings and tested and ferried nearly 12,650 military aircraft, flew over 60 million miles, and completed other piloting jobs to free up men for active service.

After graduating and receiving their silver wings, the WASP lived and worked at one hundred and twenty bases around the country. They wore uniforms that followed strict military code and took orders as if they served in the armed forces. They did not. As civilians, they had no life or accident insurance, no death benefits and could not be buried in a military cemetery or receive a burial with flags and honors. They paid their own way to the base, and if discharged, their own way home. When the program ended, the women had to find and pay for their transportation home. WASP could achieve no rank of significance outside their organization, nor could they give orders to men. Federal law prohibited women from flying military planes into combat or outside the boundaries of the United States. They transported every make of airplane in the American armament, including training, pursuit, and transport planes, along with fighters, and bombers. Thirty-eight WASP died serving their country.

As the Allies gained control in Europe, Americans returned home and the experiment ended. Women were expected to relinquish their jobs whether as pipe fitters or pilots to the returning men. It was nearly impossible for the women to find employment in aviation after the war. Some opted to join the military, some found work teaching aviation, but most returned to their previous lives. Search the internet for their individual stories. Even those who never returned to the sky remember their time in the WASP as some of the best days of their lives. Each of their stories are fascinating and inspiring.
The two women largely responsible for the WASP continued in aviation. After the establishment of the United States Air Force in 1948, Nancy Love was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves. In May, 1953,  Jackie Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet at an average speed of 652 mph and became the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier. In the 1960s, Cochran became involved with the Mercury 13 program to promote training for women astronauts. Although a number of women passed or exceeded the achievements of male astronauts, NASA canceled the program. Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter spoke to Congress against admitting women.

Women's roles rated little more than a footnote in the volumes of history books written about World War II. That was even truer for the WASP. After deactivation, the Pentagon ordered the files sealed and the information classified. For over thirty years, no one talked, wrote, or learned about the women pilots. Just before the program ended, WASP stationed at Maxwell Field in Alabama formed a group called the Order of Fifinella. They didn't know at the time that the organization would play a big part in coordinating efforts to help the pilots gain Veteran status. Drawing: Fifinella, the female gremlin designed by Walt Disney for a proposed film from Roahl Dahl's book, "The Gremlins". During WWII, the WASP asked for permission to use her as the official mascot and Disney agreed.

In the 1950s a few of the women made claims to the Veterans' Administration for injuries incurred while in the WASP. One pilot who requested assistance because of deafness caused by flying pursuit planes was not only denied, but scolded for making the request since she wasn't a veteran. An announcement by the Air Force in 1977 that ten female graduates would be the first women to fly U.S. military planes stirred up a number of retired WASP. Members of the Order of Fifinella and other pilots gathered signatures for support of a bill to give WASP veteran status. Assistance came from such diverse supporters as William Randolph Hearst and Good Housekeeping magazine, and in November of 1977, the House and Senate passed the WASP veterans status bill and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law. In 1979, the WASP received an official honorary discharge, and on July 1, 2009, President Obama signed S.614 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, to the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The bill comes 65 years after women first piloted military planes. About 175 WASP and more than 2,000 representatives of deceased pilots were at the ceremony.

Learn more about heroines of WWII:
Wings Across America where you can find out more about the WASP.
Andy's WASP Web Pages
Women During WWII fighting on the home front and overseas is a great site for all women including WASP and Rosies
Texas Woman's University
PBS Documentary Flygirls

The Kindle version of The Woman in the Wing is available at Learn about the brave women who served on the home front in WWII and enjoy a mystery!

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