Last year, 1st. Lt. Catherine Stark became the first female U.S. Marine Corps pilot selected to fly the F-35C. Twenty-six years earlier, then Col. Jeannie Marie Leavitt, of the United States Air Force, became the first female American fighter pilot and later the first woman to command a USAF combat fighter wing.
The notable accomplishments of Stark and Leavitt can be traced back to a group of largely forgotten American female pilots who went and beyond during the Second World War.
From September 1942 until December 1944, a special branch of the United States federal civil service played a crucial role in the American war effort. This unit had no official military standing, however, yet it flew more than sixty million miles while its pilots transported every type of military aircraft and even took part in live anti-aircraft gun practice and simulated strafing missions. Sadly, thirty-eight pilots were killed in the line of duty and one was lost and presumed killed while on a ferry mission during the Second World War.
All of these pilots were women, and from August 5, 1943, were members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), which was attached to the United States Army Air Forces to fly military aircraft and free up male pilots for military combat or other duties. Despite their contributions, it was only in 1977 for their service that the members were finally granted veteran status and in 2009 members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
While today women pilots regularly fly combat missions around the world, in the 1930s the chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps called the War Department idea to use women pilots “utterly unfeasible,” and argued that women were too “high strung.” However, aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran proved that women could in fact actually “fly high!”
Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 to suggest that female pilots could be used in a national emergency in non-combat roles. Cochran was introduced by Mrs. Roosevelt to General Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, and to General Robert Olds, soon to be head of the Air Transport Command. When World War II broke out in Europe Cochran volunteered to fly planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), and even recruited other American female pilots. In total, twenty-five women flew for ATA, and these were the first American women to fly combat aircraft.
Meanwhile, another female aviation pioneer, test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love, proposed a similar plan to the Air Corps’ Ferry Command—but nothing was done until the United States entered the war at the end of 1941. Love also happened to be married to an Army Air Corps Reserve officer who worked for the unit’s commander, Colonel William H. Tunner. Love and Tunner devised a plan for an aviation ferry program that utilized female pilots. Originally Tunner suggested the pilots would serve as part of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, but instead a new civilian unit was created as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).
The unit never numbered more than twenty-eight pilots, but it required that women pilots would have at least five hundred hours of flying time and a two-hundred-horsepower engine rating. In fact, women who joined WAFS actually averaged about one thousand hours of flying experience. The original mission was to ferry USAAF trainers and light aircraft from the factories to bases in the United States, but soon the pilots were delivering fighters, bombers and transports.
Cochran, who had observed RAF in combat while in the UK, returned to the United States the day before the announcement of the WAFS and was angry that Love’s proposal had been accepted while her own was rejected. Cochran however made her case, and she was soon designated as the director of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).
The twenty-three-week training program began in Houston before moving to Sweetwater, Texas, where the program was increased to thirty weeks with 210 hours of flying. Trainees were originally between twenty-one and thirty-five years old, but that was later dropped to just eighteen years of age. All the trainees also had to have had at least two hundred hours of flight time, but that was also reduced to just thirty-five hours. The female pilots were taught to fly military aircraft according to the USAAF instructions, and it emphasized cross country flying with less emphasis on acrobatics and with no gunnery or close formation flight training. WFTD pilots were issued with large khaki coveralls—nicknamed “zoot suits”—rather than a military uniform, and the pilots were ordered to wear the most appropriate shoes as well as a hairnet.
The WAFS and WFTD complemented each other, but this also wasn’t the best use of resources in wartime. As a result, the two units were merged into a single group, WASP in August 1943, with Cochran as the USAAF director for women pilots, while Love was named as the WASP executive on the Air Transport Command’s Ferrying Division Staff.
More than 25,000 women applied for pilot training under the WASP program, and 1,830 were accepted while 1,074 graduated, and 900 remained in service at the program’s end.
Critical Non-Combat Role
The WASPs encountered resentment from male pilots and commanders, who expressed anger that the women had a presence in a traditional male setting of the military. Moreover, while the women did the same job as the male civilian ferry pilots, the WASP were paid at two-thirds the rate of their male counterparts. However, many of the WASPs did earn some respect.
One WASP was in a P-47 class that included thirty-six male pilots and was considered to be an “intruder” until she became the fourth in the group to solo in the fighter aircraft. WASPs soon were ferrying the planes from the factory, and WASPs were among the first pilots in the B-26 Marauder and B-29 Superfortress—challenging male egos by showing that the aircraft wasn't as complex or difficult to fly as some male pilots complained!
The WASPs often had the privileges of Army Air Corps officers but never were formally adopted into the USAAF. Instead, they remained civil service employees without injury or death benefits. In 1944, there were bills in Congress to militarize the WASPs but were met by opposition from a few key individuals including famed columnist Drew Pearson.
Even before the war drew to a close the WASPs were disbanded, due in part to political pressures but also from the increasing availability of male pilots. When the unit was disbanded effective on December 20, 1944, the pilots received no benefits and the role the WASPs played were largely ignored by the U.S. military and federal government for more than thirty years.
Only in November 1977 did President Jimmy Carter sign a bill that granted World War II veterans’ status for former WASPs. However, the greatest tribute did come during the war when on December 7, 1944, General Arnold spoke before the last WASPs graduating class noting:
“You… have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women could become skilled pilots, the WASPs dispelled that doubt. I want to stress how valuable I believe the whole WASP program has been for the country.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: Wikimedia Commons