Women Air Force Service Pilots
By: Hella Goode
Although the term usually brings to mind images of pointy-headed individuals, WASP does not always refer to a White Anglo Saxon Protestant, but in this case, something way more exciting. WASP refers to the Women Air force Service Pilots who bravely served their country during World War II. When Rosie the Riveter was queen and women were taking the place of men displaced at war in factories, stores and offices, when supplies of men were drying up the government began looking for domestically licensed women to fill pilot’s seats.
Officially begun in September 1942, the program only lasted about two years. When the men began to return from war, they wanted their jobs back, the ladies were sent packing as if it had never happened. Even the dead were sent off without military monetary compensation for their funerals. Thirty-eight lost their lives in training or piloting orders. Those who survived were forever changed. They had collectively flown 78 different aircrafts and over 60,000,000 miles of flight time.
During their service the WASPs were given menial housework tasks when not occupied flying. They were usually not sent on major missions, but ferried planes back and forth, sometimes tested other planes, and were even used to prove to the men that the B-29 was safe to fly. One would think that men, thinking themselves so brave and strong, would be the ones wanting to prove this to the women, not the women proving it to the men.
Over 1,000 women graduated from the vigorous training of an Air Force Pilot during those two years. Trained in the sizzling heat of Sweetwater, Texas, they were made to be as tough if not tougher than the men.
It was an experience that united women who were from very different ‘walks of life’ who otherwise might not have associated with one another nor had a common springboard to bond. Most of the candidates were single, young women, however there were married women and a few mothers who were selected to apply for the task at hand. Although it would seem obvious that their families would worry, the ladies felt the same sense of duty that their male counterparts did when addressing whether or not they would go to war. To many at that time, each individual had an obligation to serve whether it be in the military, at the workplace, or in the home. Interestingly, although the gender divide was as large as the Grand Canyon in the military, the economic status divide narrowed for prospective WASPs. WASPs included rich heiresses as well as less well-to-do farm girls. Ironically, no matter how much money the heiresses brought forth, they could not have bought the chance to become a WASP. WASPs were recruited from a list of privately licensed female pilots who had a certain amount of flight hours. For once, economic status would not interfere and allow for a truly equal opportunity where all women, at least, were created equal.
They found and lived freely only to be forced to return to the forced roles of standard life in the 1940’s and 1950’s where despite all they had achieved, they were once again limited to the options of housewifery and motherhood. These of course, are not bad choices, but really were not much of a choice as there were no alternatives. They yearned for other opportunities. Some applied to become commercial pilots, but were instead offered positions as stewardesses. It was not their safety records, or lack of flight hours that kept them grounded with the airlines but the simple fact that they were women. What would other pilots or passengers think? Others taught new pilots or became crop dusters in order to be able to keep flying. Still others found their prior roles just as fulfilling in offices and at home. Most of these brave lady soldiers never got the chance to pilot again. It wouldn’t be until the year 1977 when women would get another chance to be invited to fly military aircraft and finally be recognized for it. This, however, was when the WASPs fought back and became known as the first true female military pilots.
Today, when only 316 of the original 1, 074 lady wonders remain, the WASPs and women in general still have many hurdles to overcome. It’s ironic that despite feeling as close to equal as many of us do in this day and age, that it wasn’t until our lifetime that these women were finally recognized by the military for their service. To date, despite even dogs who fought in Vietnam having a memorial monument before the WASP pilots do. Keep in mind these dogs served in a war that dated later than the one fought by the brave women of the WASP unit. One would think that if choosing between the contributions of these heroic women and the also heroic canine units, that women would win the respect of men first. The problem with that statement is that it involves thinking and what reasonably good excuse could there have been to prevent women from doing what the WASP did both before and after World War II? Inequality and discrimination are beyond reason and logic. Thankfully, there have always been those ready to challenge such biased beliefs and try to instill change. What I’m sure women would like is not to take the place of the dog as ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ but instead to become to be seen as his equally brilliant and beautiful counterpart.
What the WASPs do currently have in their honor are two smaller pieces of recognition. In the Arlington National Cemetery, there is a memorial display for the Women in Military Service for America, which features one section about the WASPs. In 1996, the Postal Service created a stamp for the WASPs with the image of one of their founding mothers, Jacqueline Cochran, also known as a Pioneer Pilot. She later became the first female pilot to break the sound barrier. Before 1996, wasn’t that still something worth commemorating?
To learn more about the WASP experience, visit the site of their training in Sweetwater, Texas, home of the WASP Museum, or read up on some of their more personal stories in such books as Flying For Her Country by Amy Goodpaster-Strebe, and Winning My Wings by Marion Stegeman Hodgson. For those who wish to help make a permanent memorial for the WASP, they can make donations to the Memorial Campaign at http://waspmuseum.org/donation-sub-nav-page/.