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In the mid 1970s the Air Force announced it would begin training its "first women military pilots."1 Thousands of WASPs knew better. Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, ruled American skies from 1942 to 1944 during World War II. 1,074 WASPs, after extensive training, replaced stateside male pilots, freeing the men to go overseas.2 The WASPs were among the many women who broke tradition by doing "a mans job," and doing it well. Former WASP Florence G. Shutsy Reynolds never thought about the impression the WASPs would have on women in the workplace. "I wanted to fly and if it meant bucking the system, so be it I had no idea we would have such an impact but Im glad we did."3
Explanations of how the Women Airforce Service Pilots began are somewhat conflicting. One popular idea about the origins of the WASPs is that American air racer Jacqueline Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939, giving her the idea of starting a division in the Air Force for women.4 Expanding on that idea is the story that Cochran met with then President Franklin D. Roosevelt after one of her more famous flights. The story goes that Roosevelt was so impressed by Cochrans ideas about women in flight that he arranged for her to meet the right people to put her plan into action.5 Another theory claims that aviatrix Nancy Harkness Love presented the idea of a squadron of female pilots to Colonel William Tunner, commander of the Army Air Corps Air Ferrying Command.6
In actuality both of the above theories are true. Cochrans ideas relayed to the Roosevelts became the Womens Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) in 1942. Nancy Harkness Love became director of the Womens Air Ferrying Service (WAFS) that same year.7 These two programs were later consolidated into one program and renamed Women Airforce Service Pilots, a program with tough standards for its candidates.
Doris Brinker Tanner, a WASP from class number 44-W-4, explained the stringent qualifications she faced.
Requirements stipulated that successful applicants must be American citizens between twenty-one (later reduced to eighteen and one half) and thirty-five years of age, stand at least sixty (later raised to sixty-four) inches tall, and pass the high standards of the Form Sixty-Four physical examination by a flight surgeon.8
Those women who met the above criteria worked long and hard. Each student was required to take 400 hours of ground school which included: aircraft design and theory of flight, engines and propellers, mathematics, physics, navigation, instruments and instrument flying, weather code, calisthenics and close-order drill.9 One WASP trainee had this to say about ground school: "We are off to workpounds and kinetic energy in physics now. I have about a 90% average which I cant understand since I feel constantly confused in class."10
Each WASP trainee was also required to take 210 hours of flight instruction, and that was what most women wrote about in their letters home. "Oh, Mother, you havent lived until you get way up thereall alone, just you, and that big, beautiful plane humming under your control " wrote trainee Marion Stegeman in April 1943.11
After graduation, approximately half of all WASPs went to work on jobs ranging from pulling targets for gunnery trainees, to testing repaired planes.12 WASPs took over these positions, once held by male pilots, to enable the men to go overseas. The women were proud to do these jobs, and considered themselves to be contributing to the war effort, just as much as female factory workers did.
Target pulling for gunnery trainees was arduous and somewhat hazardous for the pilots. "We would make a pass at the formation so the gunners could shoot at us to see how good their aim was," Fran Smith, a former WASP, explained to author Jean Hascall Cole.
None of us ever worried about it. We never realized there was any danger until we heard one of the pilots had his foot shot off because they didnt see the target [he was pulling] and shot at the airplane [instead].13
WASPs did not just tow targets. Several women towed gliders, piloted by male trainees just learning to fly, pulling the trainees over and through Texas ravines at dangerously low altitudes. Author Doris Weatherford explained the danger involved in one sentence. "WASPs were told not to fly above the height of a windmill."14
Ferrying new planes was another WASP job, one that originated with Nancy Harkness Loves Women Air Ferrying Service (WAFS).15 The job of the ferry pilot was no less difficult than any other of the WASPs jobs. WASPs picked up new planes from factories and flew them to air bases. In between deliveries, the WASPs found their own way home. The women flew everything from B-26 bombers to small aircraft with no radio or enclosed cockpit. A total of seventy-seven different types of aircraft were ferried by the WASPs during the war.16
Another difficult job for the WASPs was that of maintenance test pilot. Hundreds of planes had to be periodically tested for safety in the event they were suddenly needed for training or to go overseas.17 "Every airplane they climbed into had something wrong with it, from a broken propeller to an exploded engine," author Sally Van Wagenen Keil said. "Maintenance units were overworked at busy training fields, and they depended on the keen observation of test pilots to safeguard against oversight."18
The WASPs not assigned flying jobs were allotted positions at the American Air Forces Training Command as teachers, instructing male trainees in bombing, strafing and smoke screening.19
The WASPs worked these difficult, dangerous tasks with an incredibly high success rate. Out of 1,074 WASPs, only thirty-eight died in the line of duty.20 Of those thirty-eight deaths, an unknown number were sabotage related.
One victim of such sabotage was Betty Taylor, a WASP from California. In September 1943, Taylor was ferrying a camp chaplain their plane flipped during landing. Taylor and the chaplain were crushed when the weight of the A-24 they were in smashed the canopy.21
This accident was one of the few that was actually investigated, though the results were not released for many years. Mechanics looking over the wreck found traces of sugar in the gas tanks. Author Sally Van Wagenen Keil explained the danger in sugar. "Sugar in sufficient quantities could stop an engine in seconds; even a teaspoon could cause a rough response."22 Reasons for the damage were speculated, but the saboteur was never caught.
The death totals for the WASPs are actually quite low considering the dangerous jobs they worked. By June 1944, twenty-three women had died in crashes. "Most died because of mechanical failures of their aircraft. One was hit midair by another plane another WASP died when acting as a copilot, a male pilot at the controls. Several more died at Sweetwater [training center]."23
By the time the WASPs were disbanded in December of 1944, 25,000 women had applied, 1,830 had been accepted and 1,074 had graduated from training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater Texas.24 One WASP wrote to her mother of the disbandment, "General Arnold [Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the United States Air Force] says openly that the Army Air Forces has more than enough pilots."25 The WASPs were taking up jobs that could be returned to service pilots not needed overseas. The male pilots were being transferred to infantry divisions and were not pleased about being retrained for more dangerous jobs on the ground.26
At the final WASP graduation in 1944, General Arnold thanked and congratulated the WASPs for their contribution to women in American flight. "You and more than 900 of your sisters have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was any doubt in anyones mind that women can be skillful pilots, the WASP have dispelled that doubt "27
The WASPs never received military status for their work, but in 1977 they finally received the recognition they so well deserved. Congress declared that "the WASPs were indeed veterans of World War II." Official military acceptance finally came from the Air Force in 1979, and in 1984, each WASP was awarded the Victory Medal. Those women who served for more than one year were also awarded the American Theater medal.28
Sadly, WASP cofounder Nancy Harkness Love died on October 26, 1976, one year before she received that recognition.29
Beyond the belated official recognition the WASPs received, their contributions to women in the workplace and women in general have lived on in the lives they touched. On May 23, 1993 U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Women Airforce Service Pilots about her ties to the WASPs. Her aunt was a WASP, and Reno grew up hearing stories from that aunt and other fellow WASPs about these womens glory days.
"These ladies taught me ever so much How many people do you think would pay their own way to go serve their country and fight for freedom? The WASP[s] did it. And they serve as an example for all of us. They taught me that women can do anything they really want to do if its the right thing to do and you put your mind to it they have been a remarkable inspiration for so many of us."30
The Women Airforce Service Pilots were a select and special group that helped break through the barrier against women in the workplace. While some were conscious of breaking with tradition and furthering the cause of women, most flew for the most basic of reasonsthey simply loved to fly. WASP Commanding General Henry H. Hap Arnold understood the impact the Women Airforce Service Pilots had made on the world in 1944, at the last WASP graduation at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas.
"We know that you can handle our latest fliers, our heaviest bombers; we know that
you are capable of ferrying, target towing, flying training, test flying, and the
countless other activities which you have proved you can do. So, on this last graduation
day, I salute you and all WASP. We of the Army Air Force are proud of you, we will never
forget our debt to you."31
1. American Airpower Heritage Museum Midland, Texas. AAHM Gallery Tour-Women Airforce Service Pilots Gallery. Internet Site www.avdigest.com/aahm/trwspgal.html, as of 21 March 1997, 3.
2. Ann Darr, "The Women Who Flewbut Kept Silent," The New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1995, 70.
3. Florence G. Shutsy Reynolds, An e-mail from Reynolds to Susana J. Kelly, March 5, 1998.
4. John Bollow, "Remembering the WASPs," The Saturday Evening Post, May 1995, 58.
5. Doris Brinker Tanner, "We Also Served," American History Illustrated, November 1985, 13.
6. Carey L Draeger, "Michigan Profiles: Nancy Harkness Love," Michigan History Magazine, January/February 1996, 54.
7. Draeger, "Love," 55.
8. Tanner, "Served," 14.
9. Tanner, "Served," 15.
10. Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, Were in This War Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform (New York: Oxford, 1994,) 55.
11. Litoff and Smith, Were in this War, 119.
12. Doris Weatherford, The History of Women in America: American Women and World War II (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1990,) 69.
13. Jean Hascall Cole, Women Pilots of World War II, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1992,) 83.
14. Weatherford, World at War, 69.
15. Weatherford, World at War, 68.
16. Weatherford, World at War, 68.
17. Sally Van Wagenen Keil, Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines (New York: Four Directions, 1979, 1990,) 272.
18. Keil, Machines, 273.
19. Weatherford, World at War, 70.
20. Litoff and Smith, Were in this War, 118.
21. Keil, Machines, 230.
22. Kiel, Machines, 280.
23. Keil, Machines, 280.
24. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War IIa Tribute,WASP on the Web, Internet Site http://www.showbiz101.com/wings/waspopen.htm, 1. (now at http://www.wasp-wwii.org/wasp/home.htm
25. Litoff and Smith, Were in this War, 120.
26. Litoff and Smith, Were in this War, 120.
27. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War IIa Tribute, Quotes about the WASP, Internet Site http://www.showbiz101.com/wings/quotes.htm, as of February 16, 1998, 2. (now at http://www.wasp-wwii.org/wasp/quotes.htm
28. AAHM, Gallery Tour-Women, 3.
29. Draeger, "Love." 55.
30. a Tribute, Quotes, 2.
31. a Tribute, Quotes, 2.
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