Out of the Home and Into the Skies: America’s Women Pilots in World War II

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Out of the Home and Into the Skies: America’s Women Pilots in World War II

The story of the women of the W.A.S.P. program and others like it during the second world war who so valiantly answered the call for services in America is one that has only recently begun to emerge out of the darkness of history brought back into the mainstream by modern historians. Before the war, these women were teachers, secretaries, in colleges across the nation, or working their parents’ farm. These brave women were shot at while pulling targets behind their planes, repaired planes, trained male pilots, and in some instances passed away in the line of duty because of males who did not approve of women amongst their ranks as occurred in Sweetwater, Texas. Overcoming all odds, the women of the W.A.S.P. program are remarkable examples of the American ideology that anything can be accomplished through grit and determination. With the United States entrenched in World War II, women began to have access to jobs that were left vacated for men who had either volunteered or had been drafted into the war effort; while many women began to find employment in factories or work with the Red Cross, however, a few women went above, quite literally, and became a member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilot program which had partnered with the Army Airforce to provide piloting services stateside to free up male pilots to fight the war.

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In early 1942 before the United States was deeply involved in World War II, many women were trained from a young age that their whole goal in life was to marry, bear children, and keep a house tidy; leaving no real career available to married women however this changed once the American War Machine was in full swing. Many of the women who Joined the W.A.S.P. program were farmers daughters who had grown up on the farm learning to fly in family-owned crop-dusters, while others were young brave adventure seekers. Whatever their background the first 28 women who graduated at Newcastle Army Air Base in Delaware threw off the restraints of the societal private sphere they were expected to live in and bust out into the public sphere as a member of the W.A.S.P. program ready to perform whatever duty was asked of them[1]. This first-class also created a new avenue for women to work and serve in the field of aviation as pilots during World War Two, and later on in the 1990s, the United States began to see women fighter pilots because of the success of the W.A.S.P.s and the legacy these women left behind.

General Arnold’s W.A.S.P. program with the assistance of Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran showed the nation that against all the odds women of the United States could perform just as well as male pilots given the same training and equipment, however the women of the W.A.S.P. program also had to overcome the adverse reactions of the male members of the Army Airforce, who overwhelmingly did not want the W.A.S.P. amongst their ranks. The women of the W.A.S.P. program underwent unnecessary segregation and ridicule for being women whose desire was to do more for their country than just work in a factory making planes and weapons, working as a nurse in field hospitals half the world away, or staying at home planting gardens and buying war bonds; no, these women went above and beyond the call of duty and put their life on the line for their nation in the air.

Prior to the bombing of pearl harbor on December 7th, 1941 the United States had not yet mobilized its economy into a war production economy, however after the Japanese attack on the United States Naval Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii American sentiment switched from a position of isolationism to wanting those responsible for the American bloodshed to pay the consequences. With America joining the war on the side of the Allied Forces and began to modernize and prepare its armed forces for the conflict it was about to dive into in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. To address the shortages of service members, there were millions of U.S. citizens who contributed to the victory effort such as the men in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and, not to be forgotten, the women. There are many untold stories of women who supported the men who fought across the ocean, stories which are just recently becoming retold in American academia. Accounts, which were as crucial to the war effort of the marines on Iwo Jima or the men piloting the B-17’s over Europe, such as women who were test pilots, women who rejected staying at home and planting Victory gardens. In fact, after the war showed that between 60 and 85 percent of women who took on a job during the war did not want to give up their jobs to go back to the life they had left upon volunteering for their military service[2]. This was a sign of change in the societal roles that women of the United States were willing to accept, and their actions were voicing their opinion that they welcomed the change by getting out into the workforce.

The origins of the WASP program evolved out of another civilian aircraft ferrying program known as the Air Corps Ferrying Command (A.A.F.), which also had female pilots involved in its operations. The program existed as the A.A.F. for a year beginning with the implementation of the Lend-Lease program, supplying allied nations with military equipment in exchange for loans to be paid later, in 1942 the A.A.F. became the Air Transport Command, focusing on supplying American and allied bases around the world; the A.T.C. flew a total of 9,224,000 miles in transport missions[3]. Given 9,224,000 miles flown by the A.T.C. was mostly from the United States to Great Britain or the United States to Australia, the circumference of the earth is about 24,901 miles, the A.T.C could have flown around the globe three hundred seventy times in its existence before the W.A.S.P. program took over ferrying operations in the United States.

Also, the W.A.S.P. program may have never come to fruition without the combined effort of Jacquelin Cochran, Nancy Love, and General H. H. Arnold and the ability to recruit women who if they were male would have been highly overqualified to be pilots in the Army Airforce. Jacqueline Cochran had penned a letter to General “Hap” Arnold suggesting the usage of women to pilot aircraft and supplies within the United States to free up male pilots for combat missions overseas. Combined with Nancy Love’s, Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (W.A.F.S.) which also pushed for the training of female pilots the pressure was on for General “Hap” Arnold to act[4]. In July of 1942, General “Hap” Arnold approved the request that Cochran submitted and created a women-training program for the newly recruited female pilots in Sweetwater, Texas. Avenger Field in Sweetwater eventually became the W.A.S.P. home base until the end of the program. While at avenger field in august of 1942 the women of the W.A.S.P. program trained with 820 Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) cadets through April of 1943[5] In the training program, the W.A.S.P.s learned to fly every plane in the Army Air Force arsenal [6]. The aircraft these women trained on varied greatly from 200 horsepower trainers to the mighty 1,600 horsepower B-17 Flying Fortresses bombers, and each aircraft had different controls with few models having similar instrument clusters. The main objectives of the W.A.S.P. pilots were well defined from the begging of the program: ferrying aircraft to and from military installations across the United States, tow target sleeves behind their planes so ground crews could learn to lead a moving target, test pilot newly developed aircraft and work with engineers to make the planes as safe and straightforward as possible, and finally train new airmen on the ground in addition to in the air[7]. Each one of these tasks seem harmless but they are far from harmless for the W.A.S.P. each task came with its own set of obstacles to overcome, in a few instances taking off and landing at Avenger Field proved to be a life and death situation given the air traffic in the area there were mid-air collisions during training exercises[8]. Ferrying often meant flying across the country to either California or the east coast from Texas and returning to the Sweetwater that same night only to fly out early the next morning on a different plane with less than an hour to familiarize herself with the controls, or those women who pulled the target sleeves which had their planes shot multiple times because the men on the ground crews had never shot at a moving aircraft before.

Indeed, most, if not all, of the women who joined the W.A.S.P. program had a desire to do so which varied from wanting to contribute whatever they could to help the war effort; however some women who wanted to avenge the death of her husband who had been shot down in while flying missions over occupied Europe. Even the two women who were responsible for the program’s inception, Cochran and Love, wanted to provide a service to their nation so that male pilots would be free to fly overseas[9].  For whatever reason the W.A.S.P. members chose enlistment one thing is for sure, the upswing of nationalism that swept the nation following the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the spirit of adventure in going to Europe to liberate its citizens from the stranglehold that Nazi Germany held on western Europe is the same energy which drove these women to enlist as W.A.S.P. and place their lives on the line for their country and the men overseas. Some women such as Lillian Morally, joined for the fun of it, to get out in the world and see what was going on in the war[10]. The war in conjunction with the W.A.S.P program allowed for women who may have never left their hometown before gain access to the United States firsthand, and not to mention allowed some of the pilots to meet their future husbands. The members of the W.A.S.P. program was able to build off of the accomplishments of Amelia Earhart, and founder Jacquelin Cochran and Love was able to take a group of female pilots to Great Brittan to participate in the Air Transport Auxiliary while the negotiations for the W.A.S.P. program were underway[11]. Once the W.A.S.P. had the approval of the Army Airforce, the women began their service to the United States.

Also, there were many examples of women of the W.A.S.P. program acting bravely in the face of adversity; an excellent example of this type of story involves Twila Edwards, Gini Dulaney, and Doris Elkington, three friends who grew up together and moved to three different cities in California. Ultimately all three of the women mentioned above were responsible for test-flying trainer planes which had just been released from being repaired and had to ensure that the planes functioned how it was intended to function[12].  While this job may not seem dangerous compared to a male pilot flying in the skies over Europe or the Pacific, however, a woman who had attended the same training program and graduated in the same class of these three friends had recently died testing a plane that was repaired inappropriately. Gini Dulaney was assigned to an on-base assignment in the city of Merced, and when she reported for duty at the base, she was told they did not ask for her, they did not want her, and she just needs to stay out of their way[13]. This reception was almost universal amongst the women of the W.A.S.P. program; not only did the men on the bases feel like these women were a joke, additionally they believed that women had no business flying planes. 

Moreover, it should also be noted that the United States was not the only allied nation utilizing women in air operations; the Soviets also had female pilots in service during World War II. What is unique about these Soviet women were that they were assigned to all women bomber battalion groups, the 46th Night Guards Bomber Aviation, and the 125th Guard Bomber Aviation. Between the two all-female battalions over 25,000 bomber missions were completed; in addition to over 980,000 tons of ordnance dropped on Nazi-occupied Europe during the war years[14]. These women are a prime example that if given the opportunity to participate in the combat portion of World War II women were just as capable as their male counterparts in completing their missions and serving their nation honorably. Also, it should be noted that the Soviet women still faced the same harsh criticism and harassment from their male counterparts that the members of the W.A.S.P. program faced stateside.

Ironically the war the women were fighting at home on airbases in the United States was just as dangerous as the War that the men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, the only real difference is that the men of the armed forces knew who their enemy was, and the women of the W.A.S.P. program had no idea when a threat would present itself. The women of the W.A.S.P. program, whose only intention was to help their men fighting overseas, were being wrongfully targeted by men on the base who were mad that women were replacing male pilots. These women faced sabotage from the male mechanics who, supposedly, were fixing the aircraft that the women were testing. On multiple occasions, there were incidents where the women piloting the aircraft would discover mid-flight that their controls had been crossed, working opposite of how they were designed to, or having no adequate controls at all except for the throttle control. Even with these severe incidents happening and W.A.S.P.’s lives being lost for no reason, the military never investigated these occurrences and directly ruled the accidents “pilot error” [15].  Also, it was not an uncommon occurrence to have W.A.S.P. pilots find things wrong with their planes before takeoff. However, as in war, not every threat was detectable. Such an instance occurred in  South Carolina where a plane piloted by a W.A.S.P. pilot crashed because someone on base had placed sand in the carburetor[16]. Additionally, this was another incident where the investigation returned “pilot error” with no mechanic being held responsible for the outcome of the sabotage. To think that these events went unpunished is horrendous considering that Japanese Americans were being relocated to internment camps even though they had not committed a crime, while Americans who were sabotaging military property walked away from a free man because the pilot was a woman and therefore must have been unqualified and unable to pilot that aircraft.

Since the study of these women has started many historical authors, have written about the courageous women of the W.A.S.P. program, and both Olga Gruhzit-Hoyt and Jean Hascall Cole present evidence that suggests the women who volunteered to serve the United States on the home front stepped into a role where they were not welcomed or appreciated. These brave women who volunteered to join the W.A.S.P. program had no idea of the reality which faced them. A reality where they would become targets of the enlisted men whom they were hoping to assist in relieving duties and providing a service to the American military hoping to contribute in any way they could towards an allied victory. Each author’s research contains certain events, which reflect the fact that these women were fighting a war on the home front with their military, and the men enlisted in the military as well. These women consistently worried about whether or not their plane was going to function correctly or if the plane they were about to pilot would be their last flight. After it came out of the repair hanger, whether or not an aircraft they deemed as safe would be safe once a male cadet with little to no flying experience flew it; in addition, hoped he did not crash because of a flaw the W.A.S.P. should have noticed. These were constant pressures of the job, and these women were willing to step up to the challenge of taking on tasks that women had not been employed in before the outbreak of the war.  These women personified what it meant to be a W.A.S.P. in that they took dangerous jobs, roles that women had never before dreamed of making, and they owned those jobs. The W.A.S.P.s were successful at piloting and maintaining aircraft that many thought would be too complicated for women to fly. Moreover, they piloted these planes and delivered them even though they were not always up to par, as far as being safe for long-term flights for deliveries across the country.

These pioneers opened up the field of aviation to future women pilots and astronauts alike. Jennie Cobb, for example, is a female astronaut who participated in twenty-eight space missions; Terry Rinehart became the first female commercial airline pilot, and Kelly Hamilton was a woman combat pilot in Operation Desert Storm. All three of these remarkable women owe their careers to the women of the 1940s and the W.A.S.P.s who took the first steps in allowing them to be accepted in their respective fields[17]. The W.A.S.P. women and their qualities such as bravery, ability, and sheer determination, inspired generations of women pilots to follow in their footsteps in pursuing their dreams of flying in a man’s world. They were able to break the chains of domestic servitude for women of the future and pave a path for them that lead to new career opportunities that women had never dreamed of before the Second World War. The Women of the W.A.S.P. program greatly exceeded the expectations of the military and its officials, as General Arnold put it:

“So that when a similar program is launched in the future…the new women’s program can start as a significant, dependable, successful, and accepted part of the army air force[18].”

These women made their mark in the armed forces during the war by stepping up into the voids left by the men who had been called to duty and surpassed the expectations of the officers who oversaw the program. These remarkable women proved to the naysayers that women could be just as capable pilots as the men they replaced. They accomplished feats that were thought to be too complicated for a woman to do such as fly the newly developed B-29 Super Fortress, a bomber so massive that women pilots learned to fly it before the male pilots to convince the men it was so easy a woman could do it. These women overcame the odds and established themselves as competent pilots who could function under the pressures of military service. W.A.S.P. Katherine Steele personified the image and mentality of the program when she stated “we were all proud of what we did, but I was proud of it in 1945, the only trouble was no one was proud of me than[19].” This statement reflects the issues that faced these brave women in the 1940s. They were seen as women who were merely filling in for men; they were not seen as women who had significantly contributed to the war effort by sacrificing their lives, by putting off starting families and getting married to perform a duty for their country.

 These women were even involved in one of the single most important developments to come out of the Second World War, the Manhattan Project. As many as eighty-five women were employed as either a scientist or an engineer during work on the project, and these women were working side by side with the male scientists attempting to design and perfect the techniques required to create a nuclear reaction[20]. In addition to working on the Manhattan Project itself, women were also responsible for the transport of the materials necessary to produce and test the bombs and were even trusted to be issued military .45mm pistols to protect their cargo[21]. These women were trusted enough to transport top-secret military projects and issued military weapons; however, they were not recognized as military personnel – officially, they were civilians. The Government did not accept the women of the W.A.S.P. program formally as military personnel until 1977. These women were entrusted with matters of national security. The technology that would eventually win the war for the allies, but they were not recognized as members of the armed forces just because they were women.

 The W.A.S.P. program was very successful in accomplishing the missions it was created to fulfill. They successfully transported planes and goods around the nation at a time where it was imperative to have reliable airmen to supply the nation’s bases with aircraft and personnel alike. Ironically, the reliable airmen were not men but women who were from all walks of life. Women, who had only flown old crop dusters and had never seen the control panel of a military grade-aircraft before, were able to complete the training necessary to operate every plane the Army Air Force had developed from the mighty B-29 Super Fortress bombers to the powerful P-51 Mustang escort fighters. They were selected for special missions, which varied from transporting materials to make the newly developed atomic weapons, to carrying high-ranking officers around the nation to different bases. These women stepped up to the challenges they were faced with and conquered them, establishing the women as reliable and trustworthy pilots. Even though they were faced with adversity by their male counterparts and male mechanics, W.A.S.P.s bravely fought through that adversity to establish themselves, and fought for the recognition that they deserved[22]. For the two years that the W.A.S.P. program was active, women established that they were just as competent as the male pilots when it came to flying, delivering, and repairing the military aircraft they were assigned to operate. If it had not been for the W.A.S.P., program women’s aviation would not be the same as it is today; as these women laid the groundwork that allowed for women to become commercial pilots, military fighter pilots, and even astronauts. 

 These women fought and clawed for everything they accomplished in the two years of the W.A.S.P. initiative, gaining the respect of military officials and fulfilling the missions assigned to them by the chain of command. The women in this program overcame their dependency and subordination of national standards and in turn created a new standard for women in the United States[23]. The accomplishments that women achieved during the war in the fields of science, mathematics, and aviation proved to be pivotal to the war effort, in addition to solidifying the notion that women were just as capable as, if not more than, men in these fields. Women currently in these fields, along with many other areas, owe their predecessors a great deal of respect and praise that they are so deserving of but did not receive during the 1940s because the nation as a majority was not ready to accept the feats that these women had accomplished.

The W.A.S.P. program started as the dream of two women and evolved into the dream occupation of thousands of women across the United States.  The women who joined this program did so know that it was not just going to be a walk in the park. These pioneering women gritted their teeth and overcame obstacles ranging from a lack of facilities, being shot at in the air by U.S. servicemen, and sabotage by male mechanics on the ground.  These valiant women overcame the gender barrier and accomplished great things in their wartime efforts, as Wirart wrote “this war more than any other was a woman’s war,” and fought their way into history as conquerors of a field that men had dominated since the inception of aviation by the Wright Brothers in the  early twentieth century[24]. The women of the W.A.S.P. detachment fought for acceptance and recognition by accepting jobs that were dangerous without being shot at such as ferrying planes cross-country not knowing whether or not the aircraft would make it, testing new aircraft to ensure the safety of the male pilots who would later fly them, and pulling targets in the air only to be shot at instead because the cadets had no idea whether to shoot the target being drawn by the plane or the plane itself because of a lack of instructions. The conditions were subpar, but these women banded together and fought the war against discrimination and established, themselves as suitable pilots in the process, vindicating women pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Bibliography

  • Cole, Jean Hascall. Women Pilots of World War II. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1992.
  • Cornelsen, Kathleen.  Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II: Exploring Military Aviation, Encountering Discrimination, and Exchanging Traditional Roles in Service to America. Vol.17 of Issue 4 of Journal of Women’s History (2005), 111.
  • Dear, I.C.B., Ed. The Oxford Companion to World War II. New York, NY: Oxford University Press,                            1995.
  • Ganson, Barbara Anne. Texas Takes Wing: A Century of Flight in the Lone Star State. Vol. First              edition. Bridwell Texas History Series. Austin: University of Texas Press. . 2014
  • LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 2001.
  • Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998.
  • O’Malley, Mimi. A W.A.S.P. Story. Vol.17 Issue 5 of World War II (Weilder History Group, 2003), 18.
  • Pennington, Regina. Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Air Women in World War II Combat. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 2001.
  • Rickman, Sarah Byrn. 2008. Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II. Denton:              University of North Texas Press. Accessed August 13, 2019. ProQuest E-book Central.
  • Sage, Jenny. Ladies of Lockbourne: Woman Airforce Service Pilots and the Mighty B-17 Flying Fortress. Ohio History 124, no.2 (2017), 5-27.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. The Fantasy of Feminist History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Segal, Nan. W.A.S.P.s Receive Congressional Gold Medals. Vol.20 of Aviation History (2010), 15.
  • Tanner, Doris Brinker. “We Also Served.”                                                 http://www.wingsacrossamerica.us/records_all/wasp_articles/Wealsoserved.pdf
  • Williams, Kathleen Broome. Improbable Warriors: Women Scientist and the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

[1] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 12.

[2] Marlene LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society (New York: Routledge Publishing, 2001), 331.

[3] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 10.

[4] Sarah Byrn Rickman, Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II (Denton: University of North Texas Press 2008), 11.

[5] Barbara Anne Ganson, Texas Takes Wing: A Century of Flight in the Lone Star State. Vol. First edition. Bridwell Texas History Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

[6] Sarah Byrn Rickman, Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II (Denton: University of North Texas Press 2008), 11.

[7] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 6.

[8] Doris Brinker Tanner, “We Also Served.”

[9] Mimi O’Malley. A W.A.S.P. Story. World War II 17, no. 5 (2003), 18.

[10] Nan Segal, W.A.S.P.s Receive Congressional Gold Medals, Aviation History 20 (2010), 15.

[11] Jenny Sage. Ladies of Lockbourne: Women Airforce Service Pilots and the Mighty B-17 Flying Fortress. Ohio History 124, no.2 (2017), 11.

[12] Jean Hascall Cole, Women pilots of World War II (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 108.   

[13] Jean Hascall Cole, Women pilots of World War II (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 108.   

[14] Regina Pennington, Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Air Women in World War II Combat (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas 2001), 72.

[15] Jean Hascall Cole, Women pilots of World War II (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 112.

[16] Ibid, 115.

[17] Kathleen Comelsen, “Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II: Exploring military Aviation, Encountering Discrimination, and Exchanging Traditional Roles in Service to America,” Journal of Women’s History 17, no. 4 (2005): 43.

[18] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 27.

[19] Ibid, 182.

[20] Kathleen Broome Williams, Improbable Warriors: Women Scientist and the U.S. Navy in World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 10.

[21] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 24.

[22] Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the W.A.S.P. of World War II (New York: University Press, 1998), 183.

[23] Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 77.

[24] I.C.B. Dear, Ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1275.

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