Before there could be a first female Thunderbird pilot or women flying combat missions into Iraq and Afghanistan, there were the pioneers: the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.
In September 1942, nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold stood up the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, or WFTD.
According to the Air Force Historical Support Division, On July 5, 1943, the WAFS and WFTD merged into a single unit for all women pilots who were rapidly extending their qualifications to every type of aircraft in service. The new unified group called itself the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, with its pilots known as WASPs.
The women paid their own way to travel to basic training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied, even some from Canada, England and Brazil, said Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, a WASP pilot from Montclair, New Jersey, but only 1,830 U.S. women were accepted into the program. Of those, 1,074 earned their wings.
To qualify, applicants had to be at least 5 feet, 4 inches tall, pass Army physicals and have a pilot’s license, Haydu said. Women also had to have at least a high school diploma and be age 18 to 35.
“Most of the women were college graduates, but the toughest part of the training was you started out in a basic aircraft and then you’d go to a medium and then an advanced,” Haydu said.
When she joined the WASP program in 1944, Haydu said training was being accelerated.
“They wanted to experiment with the women to see if they could eliminate one of the phases of training, so we went from the Stearman, which is an open cockpit biplane, in primary (training), and after about 60 to 70 hours of that, we went directly into the advanced, which was the AT-6 (Texan) — that’s 650 horsepower comparted to 220 horsepower,” she said. “It was successful. Most of the washouts were in primary training. The men adapted the same training.”
During training, the women had to pay for their dress uniforms and their room and board, but were issued men’s coveralls, which they nicknamed “zoot suits,” Haydu said. There were six women per bay in the barracks, with one latrine, one sink, one shower and one toilet. If the winds kicked up, the women would lie on the bottom wings of the airplanes to help keep them down, she said, “because they needed more weight to keep the airplanes on the ground.”
After graduating, the women would go to either Ferrying Command or Training Command. Lucile Doll Wise was a pilot at Ferrying Command, and she said she ferried aircraft from factories to air bases and points of embarkation.
“There was an alarming shortage of pilots at the beginning of the war,” Wise said, “and we delivered more than 12,000 aircraft in the two years we operated. We also performed many other domestic flying duties.”
“I loved every minute of it,” she added, “but it was not easy. It was hard work, and I came back from trips pretty tired.”
Haydu served as an engineering test pilot and a utility pilot in the Training Command, where the women’s missions ranged from towing aerial targets for the infantry, flying tracking missions, smoke-laying, searchlight strafing and simulated bombing, and testing radio-controlled aircraft. The women were also flight instructors, engineering test pilots and utility pilots and performed all stateside flying duties.
“If an engine needed to be flown a certain manner for a certain number hours before it went into regular service, I would do that,” she said. “I also would fly personnel to wherever they had to go.”
Haydu said she was disappointed when the WASPs were disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, just 11 days before she was to begin training to fly the B-25 Mitchell bomber. The last class graduated Dec. 7, 1944.
Arnold told the last crop of pilots, “We of the (Army Air Forces) are proud of you; we will never forget our debt to you.”
According to the Air Force Historical Support Division, the WASPs ferried more than 50 percent of the combat aircraft within the United States during the war years and flew at 126 bases across the country. Thirty-eight of these women died in their service: 11 in training and 27 during missions.
‘Everything the men did’
“We flew every aircraft manufactured for World War II, and one of the WASPs was sent to Dayton, Ohio, where they did testing and actually flew a prototype jet, so we just did everything the men did,” Haydu said.
For example, Betty Tackaberry Blake, who flew tourists in Hawaii in an open cockpit biplane before World War II, was in the first class of the WFTD. Later, while in the service of the WASPs, she flew all of the fighter aircraft in the U.S. inventory and also the B-25 Mitchell, B-26 Marauder and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft, as well as all of the trainers. She also flew four-engine aircraft. After the WASPs were disbanded, she became a Link trainer instructor, where she taught instrument flying on the ground.
The first WASP to be killed in action was Cornelia Fort, 24, of Nashville, Tennessee, who died in a mid-air collision in Texas. In an interview before her death, she said she became a WASP because of her commitment to serving her country and because she was in the attack on Pearl Harbor as a civilian pilot. Her Interstate Cadet was riddled with bullets, though the Japanese invaders missed the gas tank. She said she lost friends that day.
“Delivering a trainer to Texas may be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa if you take the long view,” Fort said. “We are beginning to prove that women can be trusted to deliver airplanes safely and in the doing, serve our country, which is our country too.”
She said she realized the importance of their mission because of an event at her graduation.
“While we were standing at attention, a bomber took off, followed by four fighters. We knew that bomber was headed across the ocean and that the fighters were going to escort it partway. As they circled over us, I could hardly see them for the tears in my eyes,” Fort said.
“It was striking symbolism, and I think all of us felt it. As long as our planes fly overhead, the skies of America are free and that’s what all of us everywhere are fighting for,” she continued. “And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to help keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known. I’m profoundly grateful that my one talent, flying, happens to be of use to my country.”
Fight for recognition
The women were initially paid as civil service employees, with the promise that they may be able to join the Army Air Service afterward.
Arnold told the WASPs, “We have not been able to build an airplane that you can’t handle. It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
He planned to commission the women pilots as second lieutenants within the Army Air Force, but political opposition meant the plan never came to fruition. As a result, the WASPs were left without the benefits to which veteran’s status would have entitled them, and the families of the girls who had been killed in the performance of their duties were denied the gratuities which they would have received as beneficiaries of military personnel.
For 35 years, the women weren’t allowed to call themselves veterans, and their records were classified and sealed from the public. They fought Congress and pushed for publicity. Haydu said they didn’t care as much about the benefits as much as for the chance to serve and to be recognized as veterans.
When the first women began to enter the service academies in 1976 and to fly military aircraft, contemporary media reports indicated that it was the first time women could fly for the U.S. military.
Haydu was president of the WASP veterans’ organization at the time, and members lobbied and spoke to the media until their service was finally recognized by Congress.
The legislation “became the only piece of legislation in history to be co-sponsored by every woman member in Congress,” she said. “One of the long overdue items included in the WASP bill was for the women telephone operators of World War I to be recognized as war veterans. They had never been given this status, in spite of the fact they were stationed in the front line trenches side-by-side with the fighting soldiers.”
Victory at last
What sealed the deal, Haydu said, was the WASPs in their Santiago blue uniforms descending on Washington after sending letters and telegrams, making telephone calls and pushing publicity in their home towns.
President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Title IV, on Nov. 23, 1977, which granted former WASPs veteran status with limited benefits. The Air Force graduated its first female pilots that same year. In 1984, the WASPs received World War II Victory Medals and, for those who had served more than one year, American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medals.
On March 10, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, was presented to the WASPs. Haydu said she was tremendously proud and happy the WASPs finally received their recognition.
Haydu said she enjoys sharing her stories with Air Force service members and at Boys and Girls Clubs, and said that during her speeches, her goal is to stress equality.
“It’s not what sex you are,” she said. It’s what you can do, and if you can be successful at something that should be all that should matter. You should pursue whatever it is you want, and you should not allow people to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ Just do the best you can and I hope you can make it.”
Both Wise and Haydu said they are impressed by the female airmen of today.
“I’m so impressed by what women pilots are doing today, flying combat missions,” Wise said. “The military is not for everyone but it offers a great opportunity to young women.”
“I admire the women who fly today,” Haydu said. “The navigation has changed so much. There have been huge improvements. All-women crews are just fantastic. They do every job, from the loadmaster to the navigator to the pilot, to every job that there is to be done in the aircraft. It just proves that an airplane knows no sex. It doesn’t know whether a man or a woman is flying it.