In 1939, the great depression was still fresh in American’s minds; rumors of the European war frightened many. The United States was still getting back on her feet and men were finally given opportunity to work again. Then, an attack led to war and women were left behind to hold down the fort. Women took over jobs in industries, secretaries recording profit were many, and nurses were flown to front lines to help the injured soldiers. Women had infiltrated male roles in factories and the success was high; soon it would be time for women to join ranks with the military, too. The 1940’s were a distinctive period in history where yesterdays’ stay-at-home wife had become a part of the work force; World War II changed the way women were perceived and that is how the all female WASPs were born.
In 1939 a war spread through Germany. Adolf Hitler’s troops had taken over Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, and North Africa. Hitler wanted to expand his control into Russia as well; he believed the invasion would only take a few months (Ann Baungartner Carl). The United States still had not joined the allied powers of Great Britain, France, and China. It was not until December 7, 1941 that Americans united in support of joining the fight; they joined because they felt Japanese had dealt a shocking blow to them. The attack on Pearl Harbor crippled the US Pacific Fleet. Americans were stunned to find themselves vulnerable and unprepared for war. The next day President Roosevelt asked congress for an official declaration of war against Japan. Three days later on December 11 the axis powers, Japan, Germany, and Italy declared war against the US. Immediately the US joined the allied powers by declaring war on the axis powers (The History Place). Men were drafted into the military and women were left to replace them in the industrial jobs. During WWII, women made up one third of the war time work force (Emma J. Lapsaraky 677). Women filled a wide variety of military positions, too. Women enlisted in the WAVES, Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the Navy, and enlisted in WAAC, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Nurses were on the front lines overseas with the injured soldiers and back on US soil women were building the bomber planes that were annihilating Germany and Japan. Men’s bomber crews suffered a high twenty percent casualty rate (Emma J. Lapsaraky 670). The pilots on military bases ferrying planes from base to base were needed overseas; pilots were also needed to ferry the planes. Jacqueline Cochran, a female aviator, proposed a solution to this problem, but she was denied. A year after the attack on Pearl Harbor a similar program was proposed by Nancy Love and this new program was accepted.
Jacqueline Cochran began to think about the possibility of women flying military aircraft in 1939, the year war began excluding the US in the allied powers (National WASPs WWII Museum). Cochran had some powerful friends who could help her explore this possibility, one of whom was the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt suggested Love pitch her idea to General “hap” Arnold, the Air Force Chief Of Staff. He rejected the plan and instead offered Love another idea, which involved her organizing a group of experienced women pilots to fly for Britain. A group of twenty-five women were escorted to Britain by Cochran and she stayed to help ferry Britain’s planes. While she was in Britain another woman aviator, Nancy Love, approached government officials about her plan. Love wanted to recruit experienced female pilots to ferry planes for the military acting as volunteering civilians. Due to a severe shortage of male pilots, this plan was accepted on September 10 1942 (Bruce D. Callander). Nancy Love considered using the same program used by the British ATA, which did not include training the women pilots. Love was content with these women remaining in the civilian status. Love was soon appointed to command of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, otherwise known as WAFS. Cochran was furious and flew to the US immediately. Cochran had a dream of training the women pilots and militarize them for their efforts to help. General “Hap” Arnold appointed Jacqueline in command of Women’s Flying Training Detachment or the WFTD, to train women pilots. The women were still considered civilians, yet were promised that after the war the Air Force would militarize them officially. In August 1943, both groups merged and were renamed Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, known as WASPs (U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission). The WASPs were sent to Avenger Field in Sweetwater Texas to begin their training.
Women pilots had a great opportunity before them and they rushed to Jacqueline Cochran’s door in floods. Women of every background imaginable applied including housewives, silver spooners, and teachers as just a few of those backgrounds. Not every applicant was accepted; they had to meet certain terms and conditions for application alone. An applicant could be no older than thirty-five and no younger than twenty-one; the minimum age was lowered to eighteen after only a few weeks. Female applicants would not be admitted without a high school education and 200 hours of flying time, which was also dropped later to 100 hours and then as low as 35 hours flying time. An army flight surgeon would determine whether or not the applicant was in well being enough to be trained and fly, if an applicant passed they would move on to a one on one interview with Jacqueline Cochran (Bruce D. Callander). After acceptance the women were trained to fly bomber aircraft and learn important air navigational skills. Upon graduation a WASP was assigned to ferry planes or test aircraft, releasing men for combat duties overseas. Sometimes WASPs were used to show men how safe a plane was, when it had been rumored to be dangerous. The B-29 bomber was one of those planes; it was also the plane that dropped the first bomb on Japan. During the first test flights the plane caught fire or an engine burnt out, so men pilots were nervous about flying it. Dora Strather was one of two WASPs to fly the B-29 (npr). Strather took the plane on a tour of bases to show the men that there were no longer any safety issues with the plane. Strather had no problems with the B-29 bomber, and male pilots did not express any more qualms about flying the plane. In the WASPs two year regime, they set amazing records. WASPs flew every plane in the US Army Air Force, including half of all the pursuit planes flown in the war (U.S. Centennial of Flight and Commissions). Flying duties increased in availability as WASPs proved themselves to be capable of handling more and more difficult situations. Some of the new duties were towing targets for gunnery practice, simulating staffing, running check flights for recently repaired planes, and becoming Air Force flight instructors. WASPs were proving that they were worthy of being part of the military.
In the beginning of the program 250,000 women applied to join the WASP program, only 1830 women were accepted and of those only 1074 graduated. During training 11 women were lost during training and active duty took 27 more in fatalities (Bruce D. Callander). These women never gave in through; they flew through their last breath, and repeated their motto to give them an ounce more of strength. There motto as, “We live I the wind and the sand but our eyes are always o the stars.”(Wings across America). On December 20, 1944 the WASP program was deactivated. They were told their jobs were finished, male pilots were returning home from combat duties overseas and women were no longer needed to pilot planes. At its end the program was barely two years old, and the WASPs were sent home. Many women had to pay their own bus fare home, and disappointment ran high because the war was almost over and they still had not been militarized. The WASPs remained in civilian status and the Air Force had gone back on their promise to legally militarize them. Jacqueline Cochran wanted these women to be classified as military so they could be eligible for the G.I. Bill and veteran benefits (Ann Baumgartner Carl). In the end there was no ceremony marking the end and recognizing the women, there was no hope to be fully militarized, and soon these brave women were forgotten and their files in the Air Force were secreted and locked away.
The war ended and life went on, The WASPs went their separate ways and continued their previous lives. Some women returned to the status of housewife, others became teachers, and still others continued flying private planes reminiscing days spent in the line of duty. The WASPs were proud of their pasts and were still hoping to be militarized, but 32 years later the Air Force announced the, assumed, very first women to fly military aircraft had flown ( Gordon Lubold). WASPs were infuriated. Friend found friend who called another until there was an angry swarm of WASPs beating on the Air Forces door. They organized a strategy to get their history in the public eye, some women wrote books and others gave interviews. A year after their planned attack congress passed a bill that gave WASPs honorable discharge and veteran status (Bruce D. Callander). The WASPs were finally eligible for veteran’s benefits and the G.I. Bill; they were ecstatic. The only complaint they voiced was their military files were still hidden from the public eye.
Finally, after 66 years of not being recognized, President Barack Obama opened the locked files to the public. On March 10 2010, surviving WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, for their services during WWII, at a ceremony at Capital Hill in Washington D.C. (Gordon Lubold). Every WASP was included in the ceremony; if a WASP had not survived a family member would be there in her place. Today there are less than 300 surviving WASPs that have finally joined ranks with other WWII heroes (U.S. Air Force Live). Congress recognized the WASPs unselfish and extraordinary service in WWII. Congress was so impressed with their service of the WASPs that they passed a bill in an unheard of three months (the national WASP WWII museum). WASP Byrd Howell Granger, class 43-W-1 wrote, “If the nation ever again needs them, American women will respond. Never again will they have to prove they can do any flying job the military has. Not as an experiment. Not as an experiment. Not to fill in for men. They will fly as commissioned officers in the Air Force of the United States with equal pay, hospitalization, insurance, and veteran benefits. The WASPs have earned it for these women of the future.” Page 476. Truer words could not have been written better.
Women in the WASP program paved the way for future military women. These women went through years of torture to prove themselves worthy to be a part of the military. Army Air Force training Commander General Barton K. Yount was quoted at the last graduation of the WASPs to say, “Let us pay tribute to these women by honoring their memory… Let us treasure their memory as women whose sacrifice has brought honor not only to their country, but also to their organization.” There were 1,074 women who stood up and bravely faced a society, who thought women were fragile and showed them the strength of the WASP.
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April 12, 2010
Carl, Ann Baumgartner. “A WASP among Eagles” April 2. 2010
Hailey, C. Andy. “Women Air force service pilots remembered by those who knew them”
March 25, 2010
Lapsarasky-werner, Emma. United States history, North Carolina. Massachusetts.
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Wood, Linda P. “A Timeline Of WWII”
April 14, 2010
Lubold, Gordon. “Decades later, women pilots from WWII”
14 April 2010
National WASPs WWII Museum. “Jackie Cochran Biography”
April 2, 2010
npr. “Radio diaries, an oral history of the WASPs” April 1, 2010
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April 19, 2010
U.S. Air Force Live. “WASPs the original ‘fly girls’ of ’40s awarded Congressional gold medal”
April 12, 2010
U.S. Centennial of flight commission. “Women in the military in WWII”
April 14, 2010
Wings across America. “Why were the WASPs disbanded?”
April 14, 2010
Wings across America. “Remember the WASP”
1 April 2010