Eleven Hundred U.S. women served as pilots for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
In 1939, on the day after Germany’s tanks rolled into Warsaw Poland, pilot Jacqueline Cochran sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging the use of women pilots in the armed forces. In May 1940, another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love wrote a letter to the Ferrying Division of the Armed Air Forces with a similar idea, but the Army was not ready to put women in the cockpit of its planes.
By September 1942, however, all of that had changed.
The demand for male combat pilots and warplanes left the Air Transport Command (ATC) with a shortage of experienced pilots to ferry planes from factories to points of embarkation. The leaders of the ATC remembered Nancy Harkness Love’s proposal and hired her to recruit twenty-five of the most qualified women pilots in the country to ferry military aircraft. These outstanding women pilots were called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS.
By September 14, 1942, General “Hap” Arnold, the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, also approved a program that would train a large group of women to serve as ferry pilots. This program was placed under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran, and named the Women’s Flying Training Detachment or WFTD.
On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were merged and re-designated the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP. Cochran was appointed the Director and Love was named WASP Executive with the ATC Ferrying Division.
Nancy Harkness Love and the WAFS first gathered as a squadron at the New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Although these women pilots were required to have 500 hours of flying time, those that arrived often averaged more than 1,000 hours. The pilots trained for just a few weeks before they were assigned to their posts.
While the WAFS began their ferrying duties, Jacqueline Cochran was organizing and recruiting classes of women pilots. The training involved six months of ground school and flight training at the Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.
The First few groups of graduates were assigned to the ATC and ferried planes from factories to points of embarkation. Eventually, the ATC complained that it could not take all of the pilots graduating from Avenger Field.
In response, Cochran announced to all air base command that she would accept any job the WASP could do and thereby relieve additional men for combat duty. The WASP flew every type of plane in the Army’s arsenal and served as flight instructors, tow-target pilots for gunnery training, engineering flight test pilots, and flying radio-controlled planes.
Unfortunately, for the sake of expediency, the WASP were hired under Civil Service. Cochran, Love, and Arnold intended the women pilots to be made part of the military, but the need for pilots was so great and militarization was slow, requiring an act of Congress. They began the program with the idea of militarizing the WASP later.
In 1944, just as the bill to militarize the WASP went before Congress, the need for pilots decreased. The decision was made to deactivate the WASP, and the program formally ended on December 20, 1944. General Arnold would record that “…in any future total effort, the nation can count on thousands of its young women to fly any of its aircraft.”
This amazing experiment using women pilots during wartime seemed destined to be forgotten. Then, in the mid-1970s, the Navy announced to the media that, for the first time in history, women would be permitted to fly military planes. The announcement reverberated among the WASP, and like nothing else, mobilized them to seek recognition. With the help of Bruce Arnold, General Hap Arnold’s son, and political help from Senator Barry Goldwater, a World War II veteran who had commanded WASP in his squadron, the WASP finally gained their belated militarization from Congress in 1977.
In 2010, the WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress. Over 250 surviving WASP were on hand in our nation’s Capital to receive the honor.
From the winner of the 2013 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, comes a story about friendship and the complex, though essential, role of women in wartime. Virginia Hascall has left her home and fiancee to become a WASP. As the war rages on, it is through triumph and tragedy the she and her sisters in flight suits learn the strength of sisterhood and awaken to a deeper sense of purpose as they discover exactly why it is that they fly. With a cast of nine vibrant female characters, Decision Height offers a look into an underrecognized subset of American Heroines.
Please join us at the Players’ Ring May 6th – 22nd for Decision Height by Meredith Dayna Levy.
(The information above is from the Texas Woman’s University Library)