In a White House Oval Office ceremony on July 1, 2009, then-President Barack Obama signed bill S.614, which awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. The event was attended by surviving WASP aviators Elaine Danforth Harmon and Lorraine H. Rodgers, while it also honored the more than one thousand women of the “Greatest Generation” who played a crucial role in the war effort, flying 60 million miles to transport every type of military aircraft across the world.
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Established during the Second World War, the WASPs also aided in live anti-aircraft gun practice and simulated strafing missions.
From September 1942 until December 1944, this special branch of the United States federal civil service proved vital, yet, the pilots had no official military standing. Yet, from August 5, 1943, its members were attached to the United States Army Air Forces to fly military aircraft and free up male pilots for military combat or other duties.
Sadly, 38 pilots were killed in the line of duty and one was lost and presumed killed while on a ferry mission during the war. Despite their contributions, it was only in 1977 for their wartime service that the members were finally granted veteran status.
Origins of the WASPs
Today, women pilots regularly fly combat missions around the world, but in the 1930s, the chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps actually described a War Department proposal to use women pilots to aid in non-combat roles as “utterly unfeasible,” and further argued that women were too “high strung.”
No doubt such aviation pioneers as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran would have disagreed.
They had already proved that women could in fact actually “fly high!” Cochran even wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 to suggest that female pilots could be used in a national emergency in a number of non-combat roles. Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to agree, and she then arranged for Cochran to meet with General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, and General Robert Olds, the then-soon-to-be head of the Air Transport Command (ATC).
Arnold listened to the proposal and then asked Cochran to ferry a bomber to Great Britain in order to generate publicity for the idea of women piloting military aircraft in non-combat roles. When the Second World War broke out in Europe later that year, Cochran volunteered to fly planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), and even recruited other American female pilots to join her. In total 25 women flew for ATA and these were the first American women to fly combat aircraft – albeit still in a non-combat role.
In the summer of 1941, another female aviation pioneer, test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love, proposed a similar plan to the Air Corps’ Ferry Command – but nothing was done until the United States entered the war at the end of 1941. Love’s husband Robert was an Army Air Corps Reserve officer, who worked until the unit’s commander, Colonel William H. Tunner. Love and Tunner went on to devise a plan for an aviation ferry program that utilized female pilots. Originally Tunner suggested the pilots would serve as part of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), but instead a new civilian unit was created as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).
That particular unit never actually numbered more than 28 pilots, in part because it required that women volunteers would have at least 500 hours of flying time and a 200-horsepower engine rating. Yet, those women who joined WAFS actually averaged about 1,000 hours of flying experience.
The original mission was to ferry USAAF trainers and light aircraft from the factories to bases in the United States, but soon the pilots were delivering fighters, bombers, and transports. In addition, those pilots were employed to tow drones and other aerial targets for combat pilot training.
Cochran had actually observed the Royal Air Force (RAF) in combat while in the UK and returned to the United States the day before the announcement of the WAFS. Caught a bit off guard, she was angry that Love’s proposal had been accepted while her own was rejected. Cochran renewed her efforts, made her case again, and then was soon designated as the director of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).
The 23-week training program began in Houston before moving to Sweetwater, Texas, where it was soon increased to 30 weeks with 210 hours of flying. Trainees were originally between 21 and 35 years old, but that was later dropped to just 18 years of age to help attract more volunteers. Initially, all of the trainees still had to have had at least 200 hours of flight time, only for that to be reduced to just 35 hours.
The female pilots were then taught to fly military aircraft according to the USAAF instructions, and it emphasized cross-country flying with less focus on acrobatics and with no gunnery or close formation flight training. It has been suggested these pilots were taught to fly “the Army Way.”
Yet, as the unit wasn’t seen as actually military in nature, WFTD pilots were issued with large khaki coveralls – nicknamed “zoot suits” – rather than a military uniform. In addition, the women pilots were ordered to wear the most appropriate shoes, as well as a hairnet!
Meanwhile, the WAFS had a more “military look” as its uniforms – designed by Love – consisted of a gray gabardine jacket with brass buttons and square shoulders. In addition, all WAFS aviators were issued khaki flight coveralls, goggles, a flying scarf, and a leather flying jacket sporting the ATC patch.
The WAFS and WFTD initially complemented each other, but it became apparent that it wasn’t the best use of resources in wartime. As a result, the two units were merged into a single group, becoming the WASPs in August 1943, with Cochran as the USAAF director for women pilots, while Love was named as the WASP executive on the Air Transport Command’s Ferrying Division Staff. The WASPs were also outfitted with more military-looking uniforms, even if they were still essentially civilian contractors.
Over the next year and a half, more than 25,000 women applied for pilot training under the WASP program, and a total of 1,830 were accepted while 1,074 graduated, with 900 remaining in service at the program’s end.
Critical Non-Combat Role
Not unexpectedly, the WASPs encountered resentment from male pilots and commanders, who expressed anger that the women had gained a presence in a traditional male setting of the military. Moreover, while those women did the same job as the male civilian ferry pilots, the WASP pilots were paid at two-thirds the rate of their male counterparts.
However, many of the WASPs did earn some respect.
One WASP was in a P-47 class that included 36 male pilots and was considered to be an “intruder” until she became the fourth in the group to solo in the fighter aircraft. Other WASPs soon were ferrying the planes from the factory, while the unit’s members were among the first pilots in the B-26 Marauder and B-29 Superfortress – challenging male egos by showing that those aircraft weren’t as complex, or as difficult to fly, as some male pilots complained!
The WASPs often maintained some of the privileges of Army Air Corps officers, yet, never were formally adopted into the USAAF. Instead, they remained “civil service employees” and that meant they had no injury or death benefits. The military didn’t even cover the funeral costs for those who lost their lives during training or ferrying missions.
In 1944, there were bills in Congress to militarize the WASPs but that was met by opposition from a few key individuals including famed columnist Drew Pearson. Other major news outlets of the day – including Time magazine and The Washington Post – ran opinion pieces that called for women to step down and hand their jobs back to men.
Even before the war drew to a close the WASPs were disbanded, due in part to political pressures but also to the increasing availability of male pilots. A House Committee on the Civil Service had found the WASP program to be unnecessary, and unjustifiably expensive, and it recommended the training of inexperienced women pilots be halted entirely. Cochran had also sought to get greater recognition for the pilots, and delivered an ultimatum to either commission the women or disband the program.
The military opted for the latter.
When the unit was officially disbanded effective on December 20, 1944, those women pilots who had played such a crucial role in the war effort received no benefits, while the role the WASPs played were largely ignored by the U.S. military and federal government for more than 30 years.
It was only in November 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that granted World War II veterans’ status to former WASPs. The first WASPs received discharge certificates in 1979, while in 1984 the pilots received the World War II Victory Medals, while those who had served one year were also awarded the American Theater Campaign medal.
However, the greatest tribute did come during the war when on December 7, 1944, General Arnold spoke before the last WASP graduating class noting: “You… have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt that women could become skilled pilots, the WASPs dispelled that doubt. I want to stress how valuable I believe the whole WASP program has been for the country.”