A History: The WASP of World War II

In 1942, as America struggled to arm itself for war, the leaders of the Army Air Forces knew that airpower would be crucial to winning. However, we had but a fraction of the number of trained pilots we needed to fight this war. Those we had already were assigned to combat or combat-related duty.

By spring of 1942, the Army also happened to be desperate for pilots to deliver the newly built trainer aircraft that were rolling off the factory assembly lines. Those airplanes had to be delivered to the flight schools in the South where new pilots were in training.

When finding men to fill these jobs proved difficult, 28 experienced civilian women pilots volunteered to take on those ferrying jobs. Recruited by Nancy Harkness Love, they formed the country’s first female squadron in September 1942. They were known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS. They flew for the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command.

Between November 1942 and December 1944, through the efforts of Jacqueline Cochran, 1,074 more women were trained to fly “the Army way” — first in Houston, then in Sweetwater, TX. The women from the early classes were sent to Nancy Love’s WAFS squadrons upon graduation. The graduates of the later classes relieved male pilots of what some termed “the dishwashing jobs” of flying — the jobs the men didn’t want to do. The women wanted them. They simply wanted to fly!

The efforts of Love and Cochran released an equal number of male pilots to be sent to combat. Women pilots served at more than 120 bases around the country.

In August 1943, the WAFS and the women in training in Texas all became known as the WASP — Women Airforce Service Pilots — under Cochran’s command. Nancy Love continued to lead the WASP of the Ferrying Division. Over their two-plus years of service, the WASP, collectively, flew every aircraft in the Army’s World War II arsenal. In addition to ferrying, they towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and nonflying personnel, flight-tested aircraft that had been repaired — before the men were allowed to fly them again — plus many other jobs.

By late 1943, trainer aircraft no longer were needed. The factories now turned out high-performance fighter aircraft, known as pursuits, which could protect our four-engine bombers on long-range bombing runs over Germany. The more experienced of the WASP ferry pilots went back to school to learn to fly those pursuits. Delivering single cockpit pursuits to the docks for shipment abroad became the women ferry pilots’ top priority job.

The man who championed Love and the WAFS was Ferrying Division commander General William H. Tunner. Army Air Forces Commanding General “Hap” Arnold supported and approved Cochran’s idea to train women pilots for many flying-related jobs.

Arnold was revered by the U.S. Congress, which was known to give him everything he asked for to fight the war. But in June 1944, when he sought to officially designate his WASP as members of the United States military, Congress said “no.” Disgruntled male pilots had complained loudly that women were taking their jobs. The press took up that issue and ran with it. The women remained civilians.

Like the men, WASP flew whatever they were asked to fly. Like the men, they dealt with balky aircraft, malfunctioning equipment and occasionally deadly crashes. Thirty-eight died flying for their country. But the military took no responsibility for them. Classmates or squadron mates chipped in to ship their bodies’ home.

Throughout the program, the WASP received no medical care and no insurance benefits. No Gold Star in the family’s window if their daughter died flying for her country. No burial subsidy. No flag on the coffin. Militarization would have remedied those inequities, but it didn’t happen.

The WASP were disbanded on December 20, 1944, and sent home with no recognition. Victory was in sight, and the female pilots were expendable.

These 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots flew wingtip to wingtip with their male counterparts and were equally vital to the war effort.

 

Sarah Byrn Rickman, WASP author and historian