Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

They changed the face of military history.

These women could fly. These women served proudly. These women are amazing. 

Signing Up and Stepping Up

Women in the 1940s had fairly defined roles in American society. Their primary responsibilities were keeping house and raising children. Piloting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and towing targets for live ammunition artillery practice were not standard issue duties for the 1940s American woman. So why did this particular group of women sign up to fly for the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) in World War II?

Not So Sweet in Sweetwater

In 1942, a women’s flying training detachment program was created and approved. By 1943, all training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran was named Director of Women Pilots. 

Life wasn’t always sweet at Sweetwater. The training Women Airforce Service Pilots received was as rigorous as that of the male cadets. Although the women were already licensed pilots, they had to learn to fly America's military aircraft. If an instructor felt a trainee was not meeting the requirements during any phase of flying training, that trainee was sent on a check ride with an Army check pilot. If the trainee failed the check ride, she went before the commanding offier and a board who determined whether or not she would stay in the program. If expelled, action was swift. A woman could be in camp one day, and her locked cleaned out the next. Ground school was no picnic either. Hydraulics, meteorology, Morse code, aerodynamics, physics, and airplane maintenance were just some of the required courses. 

Add to that, their male-sizes-only “zoot suit” uniforms didn’t fit, the weather was hot and dusty or cold and snowy, the bays (barracks) were crowded, the latrines were spartan, and sometimes meat loaf, grits, and squash just wasn’t a dream dinner. All in all, becoming a WASP took guts, skill, and stamina.

July 8, 1943
Dearest Sis,
Kindly note change of address. I am so happy to be here and can hardly realize that I am actually a part of this marvelous new program. It was a real thrill when I first saw these tremendous air fields, the huge hangars, and the beautiful planes in the air; my heart simply started to pound.
Love, Spook Adaline Alma Blank, WASP Class 43-8, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX

A Complicated Commitment

The Women Airforce Service Pilots faced some unexpected challenges and resistance when they signed up. Friends and family wondered, Why on earth is she leaving …her family…her freedom…a good job…a teaching career…the Rockettes…college…? Male instructors at Avenger Field wondered publicly if the women could really fly these military planes, and male pilots worried privately that they could. 

Was it possible that a woman could actually fly a plane as well as a man? And if she did – and he was released from stateside duties as a result – did he really want to be sent on combat missions overseas? Success for the Women Airforce Service Pilots was a complicated issue. Jacqueline Cochran herself noted that the female pilots were always reminded to "leave the glamour and the glory" for their brother pilots who were over on the front lines.

But perhaps the most difficult challenge was one the Women Airforce Service Pilots discovered they most cared about when they arrived at Avenger Field. Above all else, they didn’t want to fail.

July 15, 1943
Dearest Sis,
We have been flying for a week. That PT is so different from those cubs I flew at Spartan that I feel as if I had never been in a plane before. Already my big worry is that I might "wash out." It's going to be plenty tough to come up to Army standards. Several from W-7 "washed" today. Everyone gets depressed when they go; tonight the Recreation Room was like a morgue--you just can't help wondering "Will I be next?"
Love, Spook Adaline Alma Blank, WASP Class 43-8, Avenger Field Sweetwater, TX

Falling in Love a Little

But there was at least one thing that made up for all that doubt and discouragement at Avenger Field in Sweetwater. Flying.

Women Airforce Service Pilots flew 70 hours each of primary and advanced training. They practiced take-offs and landings, snap rolls, parachute bail-outs, night flying, cross country flying, and aerobatics. Primary instructors even flew trainees upside down to demonstrate the importance of safety belts. 

Even though the women were learning to fly new planes, they were all experienced pilots. And like most pilots, they savored the freedom of the skies.

Some of them even fell in love a little with their planes.

November 2, 1943
Dearest Sis,
I am enclosing a picture of our AT6. This is real FLYING. We call it our pin-up ship. 620 horsepower and a beauty. The difference between the BT and this AT6 is about the same as that between an Oklahoma work horse and a Blue Grass bred racer. This is a streamline baby. Handles like a dream. Jacqueline Cochran was here this week. She told us that our class has been assigned to the Army Training Command. We have seventeen girls in training now at a four engine Flying Fortress school in Ohio; our class will go to Army Navigation, Bombardier, and Gunnery Schools; we will train to fly the cadets on their routine mission flights. Doesn't that sound exciting? The future of this experiment depends wholly on us. What a responsibility. Oh, there is never a dull day at Avenger.
Love, Spook Adaline Alma Blank, WASP Class 43-8, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX

Flying on Silver Wings

After all the hours of flying, studying, working, worrying, and dreaming, 1074 female pilots graduated from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to become Women Airforce Service Pilots.

The WASP took wing and flew into history.

Along with their diplomas, Women Airforce Service Pilots were handed orders to report to one of 120 Army air bases or air fields across the U.S. Their missions included towing targets, ferrying planes, training bombardiers, tracking radar, providing instrument training to cadets, flying pursuits, testing engineering repairs, and multiple other assignments. In total, Women Airforce Service Pilots flew more than 60 million miles in service to their country.

Although they were stationed at U.S. military bases and flew U.S. Army Air Force planes, Women Airforce Service Pilots were classified as civilians. That seeming contradiction had long been an irritant for WASP. By 1943, the issue had also become a concern for the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who, like the rest of the nation, had become convinced of the value of the program to the war efforts. In 1944, Representative John Costello of California sponsored House Bill 4219 to commission the Women Airforce Service Pilots as full-fledged military personnel. It failed.

Mission Completed

In October 1944, Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, ordered Jacqueline Cochran to deactivate the Women Airforce Service Pilots program.

Director Cochran’s final speech on December 7, 1944 at Avenger Field included these words:

"The emotions of happiness and sorrow are pretty close together today, and I am experiencing them both at the same time, as well as the third emotion of pride. Happiness also swells within me from the knowledge that the WASP have successfully completed their twofold mission. By twofold, I mean we have flown scores of millions of miles in relieving the pilot shortage and we have proved that women can be trained as pilots easily and used in many ways in the air effectively. What the WASP have done is without precedent in the history of the world."

 

Honored, At Last

In the years following the war, the WASP story was rarely told. After the program was disbanded at the end of 1944, WASP records were sealed, classified, and stored in the government archives for 33 years. In 1976, the United States Air Force announced that women would be permitted to fly military aircraft, labeling it a "first" in U.S. history. As women who had flown for the nation over 30 years earlier, WASP united in an effort to set the record straight. In 1977, with the help of Senator Barry Goldwater (Arizona), Representatives Lindy Boggs (Louisiana) and Margaret Heckler (Massachusetts), and Hap Arnold's son, Bruce Arnold, the WASP were finally granted veteran status. Seven years later, in 1984, their service medals came in the mail.

On March 10, 2010, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their pioneering military service, exemplary record, and revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. 

 

Women Airforce Service Pilots quotes source: http://www.wingsacrossamerica.org/

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) on the Bullock Terrazzo

Launch Master Timeline

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Timeline

September 3, 1939
1939The World at War, Again

The Allied Powers of Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland on September 1st. Despite World War I being named "the war to end all wars," World War II was about to begin.

September 28, 1939
1939Women's Auxiliary Air Corps Proposed

Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran, famed American aviator, wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to suggest the formation of an all-female auxiliary pilot corps to fly non-combat stateside missions for the military. Cochran explained that women pilots could fly "...ambulance planes, courier planes, commercial and transport planes, thereby releasing male pilots for combat duty."

September 16, 1940
1940Your Number's Up

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 became the first peacetime conscription law in U.S. history. The act required all men between the ages of 21 and 35 (later extended to age 37) to register with a local draft board. Each man was assigned a draft number that was entered into a lottery. Lottery number drawings determined who would be "called up" to military service for twelve months.

June 17, 1941
1941First Woman to Fly Across the Pond

Jackie Cochran became the first woman to fly a military plane across the Atlantic Ocean. She traveled to England to meet with the women pilots of the British transport command to determine if American female flyers were needed to help the war effort in a besieged Britain.

October 28, 1941
1941Cochran and Arnold Meet

Army Air Forces (AAF) Commander General Henry "Hap" Arnold met with Cochran and asked her to recruit and train American women pilots to fly with the British transport command. He also asked her to develop a proposal outlining the duties that women pilots might perform for the Army Air Forces.

December 7, 1941
1941A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Just before 8 a.m., hundreds of Japanese war planes bombed the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet ships stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The strike was a well-planned and surprise retaliation against the U.S. efforts to halt Japan's war with China. In less than two hours, eight battleships, 20 additional ships and almost 200 airplanes were destroyed. Over 2,000 American sailors and soldiers died in this attack.

December 8, 1941
1941FDR Declares War on Japan

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and America officially entered World War II.

December 11, 1941
1941FDR Declares War on Germany and Italy

In his address to Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "On the morning of 11 December, the Government of Germany, pursuing its course of world conquest, declared war against the United States. The long-known and the long-expected has thus taken place. The forces endeavoring to enslave the entire world now are moving toward this hemisphere. Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty, and civilization."

1942
1942We're In the Army Now!

This classic recruitment film was made to encourage women to sign up to serve in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC), commanded by former First Lady of Texas, Oveta Culp Hobby.

1942
1942Citizens of the Nation

"Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women. This was a people's war and everyone was in it."

Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby
WAAC/WAC Director 1942-1945

May 14, 1942
1942Colonel Hobby Leads the WAACs

Oveta Culp Hobby, a native Texan and wife of former governor William P. Hobby, became the first director of the Army-based Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later known as the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Under her command, 150,000 women served in Army jobs both stateside and abroad. In 1945, Colonel Hobby received the Distinguished Service Medal for her outstanding contributions to the war effort.

September 1, 1942
1942A Weapon Waiting
To Be Used

In her newspaper column, My Day, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: "I believe in this case, if the war goes on long enough, and women are patient, opportunity will come knocking at their doors. However, there is just a chance that this is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used."

November 3, 1942
1942It's a Go!

AAF Commander General Hap Arnold sent a message to General Barton Yount, AAF Commander General of the Flying Training Command saying: "The Air Forces' objective is to provide at the earliest possible date a sufficient number of women pilots to replace men in every non-combatant flying duty in which it is feasible to employ women."

1943
1943We Were WASP

Yvonne Pateman, WASP Class 43-5, recalls life and training as a WASP at Avenger Field.

1943
1943WASP Words

"The director of flying said, "I need you. The hurricane is coming. All of the men want to stay home. When you hear the alarm, we'll sound the siren, and report immediately. We've got to take these planes out." Just before we got to be #1 for take-off in the B-26, this captain had just come back from overseas and he said, "Do you have an instrument rating?" I said, "Yes, sir. Do you?""

Rose Alice Palmer, Class 44-6
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

February 7, 1943
1943Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas

As more women entered flight training, it became clear that the facilities at the Houston Municipal Airport were no longer adequate. A second training facility was approved at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The base was already home to Canadian male trainee pilots. Half of the women pilots of Class 43-4 reported to Avenger Field to begin training on February 14th.

February 23, 1943
1943Cochran's Convent

Cochran closed the Avenger Field airbase to all activities except female flight training and air emergencies. The Canadian male pilots were transferred to other bases. Populated by women only, Avenger Field became known as "Cochran's Convent."

June 20, 1943
1943Cochran Named Director

Jacqueline Cochran was officially appointed Air Force Director of Women Pilots and joined the Commander General's offices at the Pentagon.

July 25, 1943
1943WASP Take Wing

With her appointment as director, all civilian female flying corps were under Cochran's command. AAF Commander General Hap Arnold and Cochran agreed that this consolidated corps needed a new name. Arnold suggested "Women Airforce Service Pilots." Not all the women pilots liked the name or the acronym, however, which prompted General Arnold to issue this statement: "Acronym for all AAF women pilots will be WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots. Period."

September 13, 1943
1943Secret Mission

Combat pilot losses continued to rise, which increased the already severe shortage of male pilots. Military leaders realized that many of the losses were due to American pilots' inability to avoid enemy radar detection. A new radar evasion program was developed but there were no test pilots. Cochran volunteered the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

October 1, 1943
1943Training Ratchets Up

Women Airforce Service Pilots continued to take on more military pilot duties including target and glider towing, radar calibration, bombing range runs, and instrument instruction. Training hours at Avenger Field were increased to 210 flight hours and 560 ground school hours.

October 3, 1943
1943Supporting the Boys, Quietly

Some male combat pilots refused to fly the B-26 Martin Marauder, a fast twin engine bomber also known as "the widow maker" and "the flying torpedo." AAF Commander General Arnold notified Cochran: "Select some WASP to train at Dodge City to fly B-26 as morale booster for male pilots." Cochran sent 25 Women Airforce Service Pilots with twin engine flying experience for B-26 bomber training.

1944
1944Too Hot to Handle?
B-26 Training Film

1944 official War Department training film for the infamous B-26 Bomber.

1944
1944We Were WASP

Yvonne Pateman, WASP Class 43-5, narrates this video about the Women Airforce Service Pilots and Avenger Field.

1944
1944WASP Words

"As I landed, taxied to the ramp, and shut down the engine, the finality of it all struck me with a deep and profound feeling of sweet sadness. It was over. I was profoundly sad but also sincerely grateful. To serve my country as a military pilot in wartime had truly been an opportunity of a lifetime."

Marie Mountain Clark, Class 44-1
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

1944
1944WASP Words

"I hitched a ride on an Army plane and got as far as New York, or somewhere on the East Coast. Then I wrote fifty letters to every aviation company and airline that you could think of, trying to get a flying job. I didn't know there were that many ways to say no."

Betty Haas Pfister, Class 43-5
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

February 11, 1944
1944Santiago Blues and Silver Wings

WASP Class 44-1 became the first class to graduate wearing the official Santiago blue WASP uniform that was designed by Bergdorf Goodman of New York and made by the Neiman Marcus company in Dallas. Jackie Cochran pinned the coveted silver Women Airforce Service Pilots wings above the left pocket of the graduates' jackets.

March 22, 1944
1944HR 4219 Introduced

"We must have legislation to make the WASP a part of the Army. At the present time, they are not entitled to benefits which should go to them in accordance with the duties they are performing."

AAF Commander General Hap Arnold
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

May 23, 1944
1944Carrying On

There was public resistance to granting Women Airforce Service Pilots military status, and although under attack as an organization because of HR 4219, WASP continued to perform valiant military service. In one of their non-flying assignments, several Women Airforce Service Pilots participated in high altitude testing to determine how oxygen affected women pilots.

June 6, 1944
1944D-Day

At 6:30 a.m., British and Canadian troops landed on the shores of Normandy beaches. U.S. troops deployed at Utah and Omaha Beaches. By the end of the day, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had invaded, with more than 4,000 losses.

June 21, 1944
1944HR 4219 Defeated

After less than an hour of debate, HR 4219 was defeated by a vote of 188 to 169. The House also recommended the deactivation of the entire Women Airforce Service Pilots program. Those WASP already in training were allowed to complete their service, but no additional WASP were accepted to the program. All Women Airforce Service Pilots who were in service at the time of this decision had to pay their own way home.

December 20, 1944
1944Grounded, For Now

The Women Airforce Service Pilots program ceased to exist. All WASP military records were sealed, classified, and sent to storage archives for 30 years.

May 8, 1945
1945VE Day

The Allies declared Victory in Europe (VE) Day after Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7th.

May 21, 1945
1945Distinguished Service Medal

AAF Commander General Hap Arnold presented Jacqueline Cochran with the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions to the war effort.

August 6, 1945
1945Hiroshima

Japanese Emperor Hirohito refused to accept the terms of unconditional surrender determined by the Potsdam Conference. In an effort to end the war, President Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Japan rather than risk American lives in an invasion of the mainland. At 8:16 a.m., the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. Over 80,000 Japanese were killed as a direct result of the blast and 90% of the city was destroyed.

August 9, 1945
1945Nagasaki

Despite the devastation at Hiroshima, the Japanese War Council continued to refuse the terms of unconditional surrender. At 11:02 a.m., a B-29 bomber dropped "Fat Boy" on Nagasaki. 60 to 80,000 people were killed immediately from the bomb's force-- the equivalent of 22,000 tons of dynamite. Determining that continuing the war would "only result in the annihilation of the Japanese people," Emperor Hirohito finally agreed to the terms of unconditional surrender.

August 15, 1945
1945Japan Surrenders

Emperor Hirohito delivered a radio broadcast telling the country that Japan had accepted the surrender terms of the Potsdam Conference. Witnessed by General Douglas MacArthur and other Allied leaders, Hirohito signed the official Instrument of Surrender on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri. World War II began to draw to a close.

April 21, 1948
1948Armed Services Reserve Bill

Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Reserve Bill which allowed women to serve in the military reserves. During the next two years, over 300 Women Airforce Service Pilots were commissioned into the reserves as 2nd Lieutenants. They received only non-flying assignments.

November 3, 1977
1977Veteran Status
at Last

By a slim margin, Congress passed Public Law 95-20. The law, which became effective in 1979, granted Women Airforce Service Pilots official military status, but with limited benefits.

May 28, 2005
2005WASP Museum at Avenger Field

The National WASP World War II Museum opened at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Twenty-nine Women Airforce Service Pilots attended the opening ceremonies and left their hand prints in cement.

March 17, 2009
2009WASP Gold Medal Bill in Senate

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced Senate Bill S.614 to award the Women Airforce Service Pilots the highest civilian honor- the Congressional Gold Medal. Senator Hutchinson and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski signed on every single female senator as a co-sponsor. The bill passed unanimously.

April 21, 2009
2009WASP Gold Medal Bill in House

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Susan Davis of California introduced bill H.R. 2014 to award the Women Airforce Service Pilots the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill passed unanimously.

July 1, 2009
2009Public Law 111-40 Signed

President Obama authorized the WASP Congressional Gold Medal. The law states in part: " ... the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII... faced overwhelming cultural and gender bias against women in nontraditional roles and overcame multiple injustices and inequities in order to serve their country; ... the WASP eventually were the catalyst for revolutionary reform in the integration of women pilots into the Armed Services."

2010
2010WASP Words

"Glamour, hell, it was hard work!"

Shutsy Reynolds, Class 44-5
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

March 10, 2010
2010Gold Medal Ceremony

Over 200 Women Airforce Service Pilots attended the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Members of all military branches escorted the WASP, many of whom wore their World War II uniforms. Deanie Parrish, WASP Class 44-4, accepted the medal on behalf of all the Women Airforce Service Pilots and each WASP received a replica of the commemorative medal.

2014
2014The Life of Jacqueline Cochran

The military career and later life of legendary aviator Jacqueline Cochran.

2014
2014We Were WASP

Marjorie Sanford Thompson and Sylvia Schwartz Granader remember their days as Women Airforce Service Pilots, Class 43-5.

2014
2014WASP Words

"How do I feel about being a WASP? Out of nothing, it made me something, because it gave me the courage to try anything!"

Charlyne Creger, Class 44-10
from WASP: In their Own Words by Nancy Parrish

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