Totally Unprepared, We Were at War
In early 1942, as America struggled to arm itself for World War II, the leaders of the Army Air Forces knew that air power — superiority in the air — was crucial to winning. Unfortunately, we didn’t have nearly enough planes with which to fight — nor enough pilots to fly them when we had them.
Aircraft in which to train new pilots were on the way. Men were signing up to learn to fly them. But when those new training aircraft rolled off the factory assembly lines, there was a problem. No qualified pilots remained available to deliver them to the training fields. Every qualified U.S. pilot was by then engaged in some phase of combat-related flying or preparation.
All the Male Pilots Had Gone to War
Finding men to “ferry” [fly] these trainers to the flight schools proved difficult.
Twenty-eight experienced civilian women pilots volunteered to do the job. They ferried the trainers to the training fields. Recruited by well-known and respected woman pilot Nancy Love [right], they formed the country’s first female squadron in September 1942. 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 [left], another well-known woman pilot of the day, 1,074 more women were trained to fly “the Army way” — first in Houston, then in Sweetwater, TX.
The women from the earliest classes went to Nancy Love’s WAFS squadrons upon graduation. There, they ferried increasingly bigger, more powerful aircraft. Graduates of the later classes relieved male pilots of all sorts of flying jobs so they could be assigned elsewhere. Some called them “dishwashing jobs.” Why? They were the jobs the men didn’t want. The men wanted the glamorous jobs — flying fighters and bombers! Women just wanted to fly, period!
WASP Stationed at 120 Bases
As women pilots took on these assignments, the efforts of Love and Cochran released an equal number of male pilots to be sent to combat-related assignments. Women pilots eventually 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. Gunnery recruits firing at them used live ammunition. The WASP transported equipment and nonflying personnel. They flight-tested aircraft that had been repaired — before the men were allowed to fly them again. Some became instrument flight instructors. Many flew copilot in twin-engine aircraft, freeing a male co-pilot to be used elsewhere.
By late 1943, trainer aircraft no longer were needed. The factories now turned out high-performance fighter aircraft, known as pursuits. Versatile aircraft, they 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-engine, one-pilot cockpit pursuits to the docks for shipment abroad became the women ferry pilots’ top priority job.
Generals Tunner, George and Arnold Supported WASP
The men who championed Love and the WAFS were Ferrying Division commander General William H. Tunner and his boss, General Harold George, Air Transport Command. 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 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 tried to smear the women pilots. 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 occasional 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.
When a WASP Died, Mom’s Window Held No Gold Star
Throughout the program, the WASP received no medical care and no insurance benefits. No Gold Star graced 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 women pilots were expendable.
Unheralded and unappreciated, 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots flew wingtip to wingtip with their male counterparts, contributing significantly to the overall effort to win World War II.
I hope you have enjoyed my mini-history of the WASP. All my books can be found on Amazon. Links to three of them are shown here. SBR