With war raging in Europe and knowing it was only a matter of time before America became involved, Jacqueline Cochran, the most famous female pilot next to Amelia Earhart, met with Eleanor Roosevelt and General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, to discuss a program which would employ women pilots, to free the men in the United States for active duty overseas. She was refused.
Miss Cochran, along with twenty-five women pilots, then flew to England, volunteering to help with their ATA’s -Air Transport Auxiliary – being accepted, and having to sign eighteen-month contracts.
August 1943, two forces were unified – WAFS and WFTD – forming Women Airforce Service Pilots otherwise known as the WASPs under Cochran’s supervision.
At the time, the Army did not believe that women could fly, but were forced to offer training at an abandoned school in Houston, Texas. Over 25,000 women pilots volunteered for the flight training to learn to fly “the Army way”, and since the Army did not recognize the WASPs, the women were forced to pay their own way, buy their own makeshift uniforms, food and supplies.
Initially, the Army used civilian men to train the 1,830 women that had been accepted into the program, and the men believed that the women pilots weren’t qualified to fly, even though the women had more flying time than required for men in similar training.
The women were forced through grueling calisthenics and forced to endure ridicule and humiliation by their male supervisors. They learned to take orders and follow the regulations of the Army, without the Army perks.
Relief came when the WASP training center was moved to an actual army barracks at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The facilities in Sweetwater were prepared for them; they even had official uniforms finally, and barracks on the airfield. The male instructors were real Army, and were complete opposites of the men from Houston.
The women worked together helping each other with different tasks and giving each other moral support. When one of them did washout after receiving the allotted seventy demerits, the women shared the grief of their failure.
They made each others beds, bouncing the coin on the tight fitting sheets, when one of them couldn’t quite get that part right. They polished each others shoes using old nylons; they helped with scrubbing floors and latrines. They worked together with the common goal of getting their wings, proving to the men that women could fly the Army way.
The Women Air Force Service Pilots were disbanded on December twentieth, 1944, to make room for the returning men who needed the hours of airtime to qualify for their military benefits. The women were not granted militarization, even though they were bound by the rules and regulations of the Army, with the exception they could resign, a right that very few took advantage of.
Out of thousands of applicants, only 1830 were accepted, 1074 graduated from the training classes and thirty-eight women died while serving their country, without the benefit of military honors. Collections were taken among the WASPs when one of their own died, since no life insurance policies were issued to them as was done with the men.
Congress would acknowledge the WASPs in 1977, admit they were indeed veterans, but official recognition would not occur till 1979. In 1984 each woman would be awarded the Victory Medal, and those who served more than a year would be awarded the American Theater Medal, all by mail.
In 1996, I had the honor of meeting several WASPs at an air show at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. The women were much older, but they still had that special something – the grit and determination required by so many of that generation in serving our country.