WASP: Women in the WW2 US Army Air Force

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

As American pilots, some female, went overseas to fight, directly or indirectly, in WW2 in Britain and China, many began to see that should the United States enter the war, the demand for pilots would increase dramatically. Independently, female pilots Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love submitted proposals to the USAAF, arguing that placing female pilots in non-combat roles would free up their male counterparts for combat missions. In 1941, with the support of Colonel Robert Olds and Eleanor Roosevelt, Cochran's proposal broke through to General "Hap" Arnold despite Arnold's initial resistance. Arnold asked Cochran to take a group of qualified female pilots to Britain to learn more from the Air Transport Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force, which had already begun employing female pilots.

When WW2 began, it was finally apparent that demands for aviators exceeded the supply. Colonel William H. Tunner of the USAAF Air Transport Command and Love drew up a proposal for female pilots to deliver military aircraft from factory to military air bases; on 5 Sep 1942, Love was named the commander of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, "WAFS", which was based at Newcastle Army Air Base, Delaware, United States. The typical WAFS pilot had 1,400 hours of flight time and had 30 hours of Army training (mostly administrative details). Requirements of the WAFS pilots were American citizenship, between 21 and 35 years of age, minimum of high school education, Commercial Pilot's Certificate, 500 hours of flight time with 50 hours within the past year, 200 horsepower rating, and two letters of recommendation. The average pay for WAFS pilots was about US$250 per month with US$6 per diem while on duty. They began ferrying USAAF aircraft very soon after the start of the program.

Arnold, seeing the promise of Tunner's WAFS program and also noting the experience Cochran had acquired in Britain, finally completely set aside his prior prejudice and on 16 Nov 1942 established the 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment, "WFTD", at Municipal Airport, Houston, Texas, United States under Cochran's command. The WFTD had fewer resources than their WAFS counterparts, which meant that they had no uniforms, no life insurance, no crash truck, and no fire truck. Morale became an issue that was never truly resolved with WFTD, especially after the 7 Mar 1943 incident where pilot trainee Margaret Oldenburg and instructor Norris G. Morgan were killed in a crash south of Houston.

In Jul 1943, to streamline command and to better distribute resources, the two programs merged together to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots, "WASP"; the disbanding of WAFS and WFTD programs took place officially on 5 Aug 1943. Although administered by the US Army, WASP was designated a civil service branch. The repercussion of this would be felt by the families of the 38 WASP aviators who lost their lives while performing their duties during WW2, who were deprived of military honors and even the public funding to transport their remains home for burial. On 21 Jun 1944, the United States House of Representatives attempted to improve the situation by granting WASP military status, but the bill was narrowly defeated.

On 1 Jul 1944, uniforms were finally ordered for WASP pilots from the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot. The uniform consisted of a blue blouse with three buttons, a matching skirt, and a white shirt with black necktie. Many of the women also wore A-2 or B-3 leather flight jackets over their uniforms when performing ferrying missions.

WASP training was centralized at Sweetwater, Texas, United States, and trained pilots were deployed to 120 various air bases within the United States. By the end of the WASP program in Dec 1944, over 1,000 pilots were trained (including the predecessor programs WAFS and WFTD), who flew more than 60,000,000 miles of operational flights, which included the ferrying of aircraft from aircraft factories to ports and air bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Speaking specifically of the ferrying missions, pilots of WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft during the war, which made up of over 50% of combat aircraft built in the United States during that time period.

On 20 Dec 1944, Arnold disbanded WASP. Originally prejudiced against the potentials of female pilots, by now the female pilots had won him over. In fact, one of the reasons for him to disband WASP was due to the unsuccessful attempt of the Congress to make WASP personnel members of the military. On 7 Dec 1944, during a speech he delivered at Sweetwater, he said that the "WASP have completed their mission. Their job has been successful.... The Air Forces will long remember their service and their final sacrifice."

In 1975, Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General "Hap" Arnold, began lobbying for WASP pilots to be recognized as veterans. They were eventually successful. In 1977, with support of Senator and former ferry pilot Barry Goldwater, President Jimmy Carter signed the G. I. Bill Improvement Act which granted WASP pilots full military status.

Sources: The US Home Front, Wikipedia.

Photographs

Hazel Lee posing with a biplane, circa 1930sCelia Hunter in the cockpit of a fighter, date unknownCornelia Fort posing with a PT-19 aircraft, date unknownPortrait of Mildred Axton, date unknown
See all 21 photographs of WASP: Women in the WW2 US Army Air Force


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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Anonymous says:
    16 Jan 2008 06:23:43 PM

    when was the article last modified? i need the information for a project. thank you.
  2. Party Animal says:
    25 Mar 2008 06:15:25 PM

    This information is great!
    This was my favorite website for learning about the WASPs!
    Thank you!
  3. RHSlovvver:] says:
    8 May 2008 02:42:45 PM

    this really isnt helping :[
  4. Victoryshell says:
    22 Sep 2008 09:42:37 AM

    I am portraying a WASP as a reenactor and need information on what they wore. From my research and emailing actual women who were WASP they tell me they did not wear a hat, tie until the last five months of the WASP when the uniform was issued. I was told by one WASP that she wore Officer's pink trouser and matching shirt. I've seen photos of Khaki pants that they bought at the local PX and matching shirt. I do have an A2 Flight Jacket and wish to be correct in my portrayal - no rank was worn either as I understand - In my research I have read much about what they did - but I need to know how they were dressed - any comments welcomed. Thank you.
  5. Anonymous says:
    13 Apr 2009 10:49:56 AM

    There was no rank worn, of course, since there was no rank. These women were civilian "volunteers" - at the time, part of the Civil Service - and had no military status whatsoever until decades later. Though flying was (and is) an inherently dangerous game, the WASPS had no insurance and no right even to a military funeral for those 38 women who died in the cockpit. The WASP A2 jacket normally carried a USAAF patch on the left sleeve, and Fifinella on the front left of the jacket.
    When a WASP refers to "pink" trousers, she's talking about the shade of khaki worn during WWII. Almost a beige, it had a slight pink sheen to it. The same shade was worn by men as it was the standard khaki back then.
    If you asked the earliest WASPs what they were issued, however, I'm sure you'll hear horror stories of surplus mechanics' overalls in size 44 and up! That must have been quite the sight - a petite 5'2" woman trying to look dignified in work overalls twice here size!
  6. Anonymous says:
    12 May 2009 12:27:21 PM

    Did any of the WASP pilots ferry Air Force planes to England during WW2 ?
  7. Ian Rickell says:
    20 Aug 2009 11:43:36 PM

    Yes they did near Preston, Lancs.They also wore allsorts of different combinations of dress while they were doing this,they really wore what they wanted or could get their hands on. Thanks Rick.
  8. Nancy Parrish, Director, Wings Across Americ says:
    27 Oct 2009 09:12:45 AM

    NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT--WASP DID NOT LEAVE THE CONTINENTAL US. THEY NEVER FERRIED PLANES TO ENGLAND. NEVER.

    THERE WERE FEMALE PILOTS FERRYING IN ENGLAND-- FOR THE RAF-- THEY WERE ATA.
    please see our website for more information:
    http://www.wasp-wwii.org
  9. Anonymous says:
    7 Jan 2010 09:18:13 AM

    this site is okay very informative where do you find the organization title?
  10. kimberley says:
    12 Jan 2010 10:50:28 AM

    HELP these people are my history prject and i need to know almost everything about these peeps!!
  11. Anonymous says:
    15 Mar 2010 09:32:23 AM

    I am very pleased that the WASPS finally received the recognition they fully deserved
    decades ago. As a now-retired male pilot, I am ashamed that apparently male pilot resistance may have played a significant role
    in Congress's unsuccessful effort to do the right thing by the WASPS!!

    Bob Lyons
  12. Bettie says:
    15 Mar 2010 06:24:42 PM

    Were there any African American WASP. I am writing a research paper
  13. Anonymous says:
    25 Mar 2010 02:11:15 PM

    This sight works great, but if u need more info go to the WASP official website. www.wingsacrossamerica.us
  14. Anonymous says:
    28 Mar 2010 10:26:00 AM

    What route was taken in ferrying planes from north America to Europe during WW-2 ?.

    Thanks
  15. Anonymous says:
    29 Apr 2010 11:47:51 PM

    I'm researching the Ferrying Squadron emblems of WW-2 thier designs/colors and thw where/what Groups they were with, please contact me if you can help with photos,information, this is a little known part of WW-2 military aviation and very interesting to me, thanks !
    Johnny
    WeBeEmblems@aol.com
  16. P Schwann says:
    16 Oct 2010 04:08:50 PM

    Let us remember these heroic ladies and all non-coms of WW2. They should be recognized at veterans, just as all non coms should be. The combat veterans relied heavily on non coms such as transport pilots, ambulance drivers, their instructors and even General of the Army Marshall himself.
  17. Tony S says:
    23 Feb 2011 10:56:06 AM

    There has been so virtually no recognition, an honor these courageous women so richly have earned and deserve. At the time they were treated as "second class citizens" or "also-rans", no rank, no benefits, and very little respect. Recent times have changed that, none too soon as there are few of these WASPS still living.
  18. Anonymous says:
    13 Jan 2012 05:59:49 PM

    this info is great with very good pics. thank you :)
  19. I Like Pie!! says:
    28 Feb 2012 12:01:45 PM

    RIVETING!
  20. Anonymous says:
    12 Sep 2012 06:38:07 AM

    PLease message me the article and the local and foreign .. i need to my project .. Thank you .
  21. mike says:
    25 Nov 2012 08:08:49 AM

    I have just pick up A2 42"
    for the WASPS would any one like to buy it?
  22. Anonymousyahseph says:
    25 May 2013 11:53:59 PM

    30 years or so ago, I saw a movie about the WASPS and I can't remember it nor can I find info on it.
    anyone have any info on this?
  23. Anonymous says:
    13 Nov 2013 06:21:45 PM

    this was an ok site but they did not fight overseas and well honestly im a little confused by all of this.

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Hazel Lee posing with a biplane, circa 1930s
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