the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, young American patriots rushed to recruiting
stations all over the country looking to enlist in the armed forces
and do whatever they could to defend their country.
It was easy for men - all they had to do was pick out the military
branch of their choice and sign up. It wasn't so easy for the women
- their choices were narrowed down to becoming a nurse or working
in a factory. However, many young women were inclined to seek adventure;
do the things that some men did - fly an aircraft.
When war came to America, the military wasn't seeking female pilots.
In fact, that idea had never occurred to the powers that be in Washington.
But the notion of women fliers was already on the minds of many in
the civilian sector that these pilots could be a valuable asset and
help to free up more men to serve in the air war.
In the summer of 1941, several civilian female pilots made proposals
to the U.S. Army Air Forces to consider allowing qualified women fliers
to take on missions such as flying aircraft from factories to military
bases. The idea was that because the military was rapidly working
to build up its airpower, more men were needed for combat duty.
Due to the drain on their pilot resources, the military thought that
maybe it was a good idea, after all, to bring in the women. As a result,
the Women Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) became a reality. We should
note that there had been several organizations before WASP, but they
all eventually merged into the group.
WASP recruits had to be between 21 and 35 years old. They had to be
in good health and were required to be a minimum of five feet, two
inches tall. Out of the 25,000 women who made an application to join,
only 1,830 were accepted - just 1,074 actually completed the training.
Many of the WASP applicants came from wealthy backgrounds that afforded
them the ability to take lessons and gain their pilot's license. Some
had husbands who were able to finance their wife's desire to fly.
Others didn't have the monetary means, but they had an overwhelming
desire to serve their country and do it as a pilot.
Although each WASP held a pilot's license, they were retrained the
Army way at Avenger
Field in Sweetwater,
Texas. After completing four months of military flight training,
over 1,000 of them earned their wings and became the first women to
fly military aircraft. Although they weren't trained for combat, they
received the same basic instruction as the male cadets.
After their training, the female pilots were stationed at 122 bases
across the country. Old records indicate that WASP freed up over 900
male fliers for combat duty. When a mission came in that required
ferrying planes, WASP members would go to the factory and test fly
the plane - they would then deliver the plane to its destination.
Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered over
12,000 planes of 78 different types. They also towed targets for gunners
on the ground resulting in some pilots being wounded by friendly fire.
Being a member of WASP was a dangerous job - 38 pilots lost their
lives in accidents. Eleven died during training and 27 were killed
on active duty missions. Because they were not considered part of
the military, when one was killed, her body was sent home at family
WASP members didn't receive any military benefits. They had to pay
for transportation costs to military bases, as well as for room and
board and uniforms. They were only paid two-thirds as much as the
male ferry pilots that they replaced. Quite unfair when you consider
that women flew every plane in the air force inventory with a lower
accident rate than male pilots.
The WASPs were disbanded in December of 1944 and it was not until
1977 that Congress passed a bill, introduced by Sen. Barry Goldwater,
that gave the WASPs honorable discharges and declared them veterans.
It took over 30 years for the female pilots to receive the credit
Finally, the gallant female pilots of World
War II received a long-awaited honor when on July 9, 2009, President
Barack Obama signed a bill into law to award a Congressional Gold
Medal to the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS).
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's
call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who
have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation
since," said President Obama.
Sources for this article include:
National Public Radio, The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum,
National Archives, and obamawhitehouse.archives.gov