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.
Last Major Update: Feb 2008
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Winston Churchill, 1935