Women’s Airforce Service Pilots
By: Captain Nancy Aldrich
The WASP were an amazing group of young women, and will be my heroes forever. When I meet one and tell her how much I honor and respect her, the reply is always, “We were young and just doing what we wanted to do, we were having fun!” But, they did a lot more than just have fun. They paved the way for women, proving that women could do anything they choose, and be successful in any field. Thirty eight lost their lives in service to a country that refused to recognize them for more than 40 years. I cannot do them justice in a short article, but will introduce them to you here.
If you have not read my articles on Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran, please stop and go back and read them. This article picks up at the end of those two articles.
In 1940, the U.S. began building its military and air power presence in anticipation of world events. After Pearl Harbor it became clear there simple were not enough male pilots to fill the needs of combat training and moving airplanes from factory to bases, or from one base to another. They needed more pilots.
General “Hap” Arnold was not willing to use female pilots, even with President and Mrs. Roosevelt trying to persuade him. Both Nancy and Jackie had given him proposals which he had adamantly turned down. However, by mid-summer of 1942, as it became more and more apparent that more pilots were needed than he could get trained, he began to look at their proposals more seriously.
About the time that General Harold L. George forwarded Nancy’s proposal to General Arnold, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote a newspaper article supporting the idea of women flying military airplanes. It was quite evident that they were flying successfully in England, and if they could fly there, surely they could fly here and take some of the pressure off the men.
Finally, in 1942, General Arnold authorized Nancy Love to form the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), which began operations on September 10. She took 29 highly experienced young women pilots and began training them at New Castle Army Air Field, Wilmington, Delaware, under the Air Transport Command’s 2nd Ferrying Group. It was not long before the women were flying planes from factories to military airfields.
At that time Jackie Cochran was in England, flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary, under the Royal Air Force. General Arnold had promised Jackie that he would make no decision about women flying without consulting with her. When she heard about Nancy’s WAFS, she immediately returned to the States and lobbied General Arnold. When she confronted him, he claimed ignorance and blamed the Air Transport Command staff. With all the publicity the WAFS had received, he could not disband them, so he authorized her to form the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), to train women to handle basic military flight support. Her group started operations on September 15, 1942, in Houston, just 5 days after Nancy’s group.
Now there were two groups of women pilots doing basically the same thing. The rivals had little to do with each other and operated independently. Jackie wanted them merged, with her at the head of the operation. Col. Tunner, who had been working with Nancy, objected, saying the two had different qualification standards, and that he wanted the control of the WAFS to remain under the ATC. However, Jackie had Arnold’s ear and she prevailed. In July 1943, the two programs were merged, with Cochran as director, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was born.
The qualifications for the WAFS was a minimum of 500 flight hours, a commercial license, and a 250 horsepower rating, and between the ages of 21 and 35. Most of the women were well qualified with over 1,000 flight hours. The qualifications for the WFTD was a minimum of 200 flight hours and a commercial license. All the women had to pass rigorous physical examinations and complete ground school training, consisting of navigation, meteorology, radio procedures, Morse Code, military firearms training, military courtesy, discipline, and law, and instrument flight training.
The WASP trained 19 groups of women. Those who started with Nancy were called, “The Originals.” In the mid-80s, I met one of those women. When I told her how proud I was to meet a WASP, she had me to understand, in no uncertain terms, that she was one of “The Originals,” and not part of “that Houston group!” Her pride was evident!
Jackie’s 1st group of 18 women were called, “The Guinea Pigs.” All the women were required to complete the same primary, basic, and advanced coursed as male Army Air Corps pilots. The women were given a 30 day course in military procedures and paperwork. After they moved to Sweetwater in 1943, they lived in barracks and wore military style uniforms, which they had to purchase. They were military in every respect, but never recognized by the military until 1977.
During the months the WASP existed, more than 25,000 women applied. 1,879 were accepted for training, and of these only 1,074 successfully completed the grueling training program at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. That, however, was better than the men in the Air Corps, whose “wash out” rate was 50%.
Of the women in the WASP, two were Chinese-American, Hazel Ying Lee, who was killed in a runway collision, and Maggie Gee, who survived the war. One woman, Ola Mildred Rexroat was an Ogala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. She survived the war and later joined the Air Force. All the rest of the women were Caucasian. No African Americans were allowed to join the WASP.
While the training was tough, resources were limited. The “Guinea Pigs” being trained in Houston did not have uniforms and had to provide their own lodging. There was no medical care, no life insurance, and no crash or fire truck. They were loaned an Ambulance from Ellington Army Airfield. They had 23 different types of airplanes for their training, and minimal administrative staff. Byrd Granger described them, in “On Final Approach,” as “a raggle-taggle crowd in a rainbow of clothing as they gathered for morning and evening colors.”
Throughout the winter months in Houston, the weather was dismal, the ground was a mess of wet, sticky clay soil, and training was delayed time and time again. Morale was low, which created even more problems. About this time the “Fifinella Gazette” was stated. The gremlin “Fifinella” was drawn by Walt Disney, and it became their official mascot and they proudly wore it on their shoulder patches.
The first class of twenty three graduated in Houston on April 24, 1943, at Ellington Army Air Field. The second class started in December 1942, but finished their training in Sweetwater, and were the first class to graduate there, on May 28, 1943.
The first fatality was Margaret Oldenburg, who with her instructor crashed about seven miles south of Houston, and both were killed on impact.
The WASP were stationed at 120 military air bases across the U.S. They flew 60 million miles of operational flights from factories to bases, they ferried airplanes, towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo. They flew searchlight tracking missions, instructed male cadets, tested planes and delivered them for repair. They performed check flights and put time on new engines. They flew almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during the war, They delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Thirty eight were killed, all in accidents, eleven in training and twenty seven in active duty. Because they were not considered military, they were not allowed traditional military honors. The Army would not even allow a flag to be placed on the coffin. The family and other WASP members would pay for the transportation of their bodies. They were considered civil servants, and did not receive any military benefits.
On December 20, 1944, the WASP were disbanded. In General Arnold’s letter of notification, he stated: “When we needed you, you came through and have served most commendable under very difficult circumstances, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteer services are no longer needed. The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know the WASP wouldn’t want that. I want you to know that I appreciate your war service and the AAF will miss you . . .” With that, the program ended.
The women fought hard for recognition, which came in 1977.
In my next article I will write about Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran’s adventures after the war, and the recognition that finally came to the brave women who were the first to fly military aircraft, and contributed so much to the successful outcome of World War II.
With profound respect, I here list the names of those women who were killed in service to our country:
Jane Champlin, 3 June ’43
Susan Clarke, 4 July ’44
Margie Davis, 16 October ’44
Katherine Dussaq 26 November ’44
Marjorie Edwards, 13 June ’44
Elizabeth Erickson, 16 April ’44
Cornelia Fort, 21 March ’43
Frances Grimes 27 March ’44
Mary Hartson, 14 August ’44
Mary Howson, 16 April ’44
Edith Keene, 25 April ’44
Kathryn Lawrence, 2 August ’43
Hazel Ying Lee, 23 November ’44
Paula Loop, 7 July ’44
Alice Lovejoy, 13 September ’44
Lea O. Mc Donald, 21 June ’44
Peggy Martin, 3 October ’44
Virginia Moffat, 5 October ’43
Beverly Moses, 16 July ’44
Dorothy Nichols, 11 June ’44
Jeanne Norbeck, 16 October ’44
Margaret Oldenburg, 7 March ’43
Mabel Rawlison, 23 August ’43
Gleanna Roberts, 20 June ’44
Marie Robinson, 2 October ’44
Bettie Mae Scott, 6 July ’44
Margaret Solp, 30 August ’43
Helen Severson, 30 August ’43
Ethel Marie Sharon, 10 April ’44
Evelyn Sharp, 3 April ’44
Gertrude Topkins, 16 Oct ’44
Betty Stine 25 February ’44
Marlon Toevs, 18 February ’44
Mary Trebing, 5 October ’43
Mary Webster, 9 December ’44
Bonnie Jean Wolz, 19 June ’44
Betty Taylor Wood, 9 September 43
May they forever rest in peace!
“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword, the other is by debt.” John Adams, 1826