With World War II breaking out across the globe, women aviators in America who were eager to serve their country proposed a radical idea – that women could fly modern American combat aircraft in support of the war effort. Military leaders suggested that women lacked the strength and agility to fly such aircraft. However, these women sought to overcome these perceptions and prove they could assist their country in a time of great national need. They courageously fought for the right to serve their country.
Talented and charismatic female pilots Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love both petitioned the U.S. Army Air Corps to establish female flying units, and both were turned down. Even the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt could not change the opinion of the military. But the attacks on Pearl Harbor and our country’s official entry into World War II created a desperate need for pilots overseas. Facing a dire shortage of pilots on the home front, the army reluctantly decided to allow women an opportunity to prove that they were capable pilots.
A new female workforce was created to produce airplanes that in turn, could not be transported to the frontlines because the available male pilots had been ordered to combat overseas. This great need opened the door for women and the formation of the first two military women’s flying units – The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). These units were later combined to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.
More than 25,000 women applied; just 1,074 women earned the coveted silver wings, becoming official members of the WASP program. The WASP training classes lasted 4 months. The women were required to pay for some of their own expenses and to make their own uniforms. For the early classes there wasn’t even a fire truck on field in case of an accident. Despite these conditions, 1,074 women would earn their silver wings, becoming full-fledged WASP.
In order to relieve as many male pilots as possible, the WASP were scattered around the United States to perform many essential tasks and flying more than 80 types of aircraft. They towed targets in live fire exercises, ferried more than 12,650 aircraft for more than sixty million miles, and even tested rocket and jet powered aircraft, as well as drones.
From the WASP unit of 1,074 women, 38 lost their lives in accidents while performing a service to their country. As a final testament to the era’s absurd attitudes towards women, the families of these 38 women received a bill for the transport of the bodies of the deceased. The WASP casualties could not be buried with military honors, nor with an American flag upon their casket.
Even though these women had proven themselves extremely capable, the program was shut down in 1944 amid a hail of controversy about the cost of training women pilots. With the conclusion of the War, the program was classified, and its records sealed. Having been left out of many history books and World War II remembrances, it would be 35 years before the remarkable stories of the WASP could be told.
The Commemorative Air Force RISE ABOVE: WASP is committed to honoring their service by inspiring people of all ages to rise above their own obstacles, based on the heroic and brave example of the WASP.