Remembering America's
Women Pilots of World War II

By Diane Bryan 

Based on the book:  Almost Equal: Women Pilots of World War II
by Thomas H. Bryan and Diane Bryan

When the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, our men went off to fight in Europe and the South Pacific.  Meanwhile, women from every walk of life mobilized to take over jobs that before Pearl Harbor had been reserved for men only.  World War II was everybody’s war.  Women worked in factories and defense plants, for the Red Cross, the USO—anything to contribute to the war effort.  Many of these women would have gone into combat, but in 1941 a woman’s place was in the home, or at least on the home front.

As the war accelerated we began to lose many of our men overseas.  The flying schools couldn’t train enough pilots.  As our best pilots headed for Europe, there was a severe need for someone to do the flying at home.  In late 1942, with the support of President Roosevelt, the Army Air Forces started a women pilots program under the authority of Commanding General Henry “Hap” Arnold.   More than 25,000 women, ages 18 to 34, applied to become pilots.  All across the country thousands of small town girls were ready to do what was unthinkable before World War II--say “no” to the marriage proposals of high school sweethearts, and instead choose the romance of the wild blue yonder.  The war gave them a chance to change the world.  1,830 were accepted for training and 1,074 actually earned their wings.
The pilots came from diverse backgrounds.  They were from big cities and small towns.  Some were rich, some were poor.  Some were beautiful, and some were plain.  Most were single, but several were married, and a few had children at home.

The first women in the program were 25 highly experienced pilots who became known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron—the WAFS.  They served with the Air Transport Command.  Soon a training program was established for women with less flying experience—The Women’s Flying Training Detachment—and the famous aviatrix, Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, was installed as director.

In 1943 the program was moved to Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, a base that had been used by the British the previous summer to train Royal Air Force Cadets.  The arrival of these civilian female trainees made Avenger Field the only coed military flying field in United States’ history.  During the first week at Sweetwater more than 100 male pilots made unnecessary forced landings just to have a look at the young women.  Soon the base was barred to all outsiders and became known as “Cochran’s Convent.”

On August 5, 1943 the two women pilot programs were merged into one and given the name WASP, an acronym for Women Airforce Service Pilots.  Seventeen classes graduated between April 24, 1943 and the last graduating class on December 7, 1944.

Betty Shunn, Earlene Flory Hayes, and Janet Hargrave were in WASP training class 44-5.  They began training on December 7, 1943, the second anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and graduated on June 27, 1944.

Betty Shunn had read about the British women pilots, and the women in Russia who were flying their fighters. “They intrigued me.  If they could do it, I could do it.”  Betty had begun flying in 1939 when she was still a Los Angeles high school student because it was “the newest thing.”  She remembered people thinking she was an “oddball” because there weren’t many other women taking flying lessons before the War.  “In those days you could fly over Los Angeles for five dollars on weekends at the old Glendale Airport.”  Betty was working at Bendix when she joined the WASP.  She made “Gibson Girls,” emergency transmitters for downed aircraft.  Her husband Bill had enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942.  “I wanted to go too.  There was a need, and there was a war, and everyone wanted to get into the act.”  Her male supervisor at the defense plant thought it was terrible that a woman was becoming a pilot.  He red tagged her papers so she could never again be hired by Bendix.

Earlene Flory Hayes, who raised her family in Westlake Village, California, had grown up outside of Detroit, Michigan.  “I remember listening to Hitler on the radio, and my mother and father saying that we were going to be getting into a war.  I think people knew we were, but they were hoping it might go away.  Things got worse and worse. And then as you’d hear more threats about Hitler taking over this country, people would get a little angry--and then afraid.  They were beginning to think if he got that powerful in Europe, then across the ocean wasn’t too far anymore.  When we got the news about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor it was such a shock to everyone.”

Earlene began taking flying lessons while working in a defense plant that built B-24 bombers.  In July 1943, she read about the women pilots program in Life Magazine and wanted to join immediately.  “I wanted to do something different than all my friends were doing.  Before the war you were born in a town, you got married in that town--right out of high school, and you stayed in that town.  You never moved around like our society does today.  I guess I was a rebel for my time.  I always said I wanted to see the world before I got married.  And I just about did.”

Janet Hargrave, who made Malibu Canyon her home for more than 50 years, was born in San Gabriel, California.  She was a freshman at UCLA when the war broke out in Europe in 1939. “There were many students at UCLA who were opposed to our entering the war. Once they had a big bonfire and they burned a lot of radios.  They were yelling ‘the Yanks aren’t coming!’“  Janet had friends in Italy who wrote her about the atrocities of Hitler, and what was really unfolding in Europe.  She was living at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  The next year she decided to become a pilot after a sorority sister suggested it.  “It was a popular war.  Women were becoming WACS (Women’s Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the Navy) and everyone was cheering.  We wanted to win.  It was definitely a time when we did things on impulse. One of my friends was on her way to pilot training when she met a lieutenant on the train--and married him! ”

Betty Shunn remembered arriving for training at Avenger Field and thinking, “Maybe I wouldn’t be able to make it after seeing all the women I had to compete with.  And the men were quite strict and precision-minded, and they would start washing the women out before they had soloed. You arrived scared and stayed scared.”

The women were under complete military jurisdiction, subject to the same rules and regulations as the male cadets.  From the beginning they were promised commissions in the Army Air Forces.  After graduation, the WASP were transferred to highly restricted AAF bases where they flew more hours than male pilots at considerably less pay, and unlike the men, were charged room and board.  From late 1942 through 1943 several magazines published positive and entertaining articles about the women pilots, but the American public at that time never knew the full story of the WASP because their work was classified.  The women received mail at APO boxes and their outgoing mail was censured.  The Army Air Forces wanted to keep the experimental program a secret.

Earlene Flory Hayes recalled, “You’d land at an airfield, get out of a military fighter or bomber, and the men would yell in total amazement, “Hey, it’s a girl.”  In one small southern town several WASP found themselves in jail because no one was willing to believe that the AAF had women pilots.

The Air Inspector’s report of November 22, 1943 concluded that women pilots were discriminated against by the men who checked their flying and that several check pilots wanted the program canceled.  Other documents show that the women encountered constant hostility from male pilots and male commanding officers.

According to Earlene Flory Hayes, “There were many men at the bases who didn’t like the idea of women pilots. We’d get the ‘rugged’ treatment from male pilots about how we girls were taking away their jobs.  And after I’d go out in a plane with an officer who had come to check my flying, I’d occasionally get some guff from the enlisted personnel.  I’d hear, ‘If the taxpayers knew you were flying around in the air with a boyfriend they wouldn’t appreciate it.’  Some of these men thought all we were doing was flying around having a lot of fun.”

The WASP performed every kind of flying possible within the United States and Canada.  Those in the ferrying division ferried thousands of new fighter planes from factory to points of embarkation for the battle front.  They ferried planes to training schools and they also flew combat weary planes to maintenance and repair stations.   Records from the Statistical Control Division of the Training Command show that in July 1943 the average number of ferrying hours for each WASP was 53, compared to the male pilot average of 35.

WASP in the training command also towed targets behind their planes so fighter pilots and anti-aircraft batteries could improve their aim.  One girl was killed when her plane took a 50 caliber round in the engine.

WASP instructed male pilots on instrument and flight training for combat.  They flew radio controlled aircraft, a secret project at the time, and they flew simulated bombing assignments, smoke layering, and other chemical missions, as well as simulated strafing assignments, firing machine guns from their low flying airplanes.  Other duties included testing new aircraft, transporting officials, and flying searchlight and tracking missions, many of them classified top secret.  One group of WASP in December 1944 received urgent orders to fly several thousand bomb cases from Philadelphia to White Sands, New Mexico.  They were to proceed without regard for pilot fatigue during a severe winter blizzard.  The mission was for the atom bomb project.

The women flew 78 different types of aircraft from the AAF inventory.  WASP were checked out and flew domestic missions in twin engine bombers like the B-25.  When the safety of the four-engine B-29 was challenged by male pilots, two women took the bomber on a tour of military bases with their all male crew, demonstrating that it was not a plane for the men to fear.   According to Lt. Gen. W. H. Tunner, the women pilots “paid attention in class and they read the characteristics and specifications of the plane they were to fly before they flew it.”  When male ferrying pilots had a high accident rate in the P-39 hot pursuit fighter and started calling it the “flying coffin,” Tunner, aware that the men were not flying the plane according to specifications, had it checked out by several women pilots.  The women had no trouble flying the P-39, and the aircraft was found to be safe.  The first jetfighter planes were flown by WASP, and they almost became the first women to fly in combat for the United States.  The names of several WASP were on confidential orders directing a flight of B-17 bombers on an emergency combat mission for December 6, 1944.

Thirty-eight WASP died in the line of duty.  While male pilots got military honors and their families received veteran’s benefits, there were no purple hearts for deceased WASP, and no veteran’s benefits for their surviving dependents.  Since they had no casualty insurance, their families had to pay to have their bodies sent home and buried.  Often the WASP would raise money for the burial of a fellow pilot.  Family and friends were warned by the Army Air Forces that they could not put flags or gold stars on the graves of WASP who had lost their lives while serving their country.  These women were not veterans.

The consensus of station commanders was that WASP were more capable and efficient than male service pilots doing the same job.  They were better than the men when it came to towing targets for gunnery practice.  Cases of flying fatigue among female pilots were a great deal fewer than for males, their accident rate was lower, and they could make the transition into all types of aircraft better than their male counterparts.  Despite the success of the program, the Army Air Forces would soon move to end it.

By January 1944 AAF losses in Europe were less than what had been expected.  The pilot shortage had been critical since the beginning of the war, but suddenly America had enough combat pilots to last the duration, so many flyers could be sent home.  These men would need jobs.  In the meantime, Congress had begun debate on a bill to militarize the WASP and increase the size of the organization.  Returning combat pilots opposed the bill.  They wanted the women’s jobs.  And civilian male service pilots worried that the women, if militarized, would replace them, and since there was a shortage of foot soldiers, they’d be forced into the Army.  These men lobbied hard against the bill that would have militarized the women pilots.  Former WASP, Janet Hargrave, believed that Drew Pearson, the syndicated newspaper columnist, was instrumental in having the WASP disbanded.   From March through June 1944, Pearson, who was fiercely against the idea of women flying airplanes, especially for the military, devoted several of his newspaper columns to his demand for the deactivation of the WASP.  Pearson received enormous support from the public and from military officers.  “He thought the program was just terrible--that a woman’s place was in the home,” Janet Hargrave remembered. “I wasn’t aware of the social things that were happening around me the way women are today.  I didn’t know about sexual discrimination and that sort of thing.”

Many newspapers and magazines across the United States also joined the anti-WASP campaign, going as far as to personally attack the program’s director, Jacqueline Cochran.  The media had suddenly turned on the women pilots.  The May 29, 1944 issue of Time Magazine contained an article about deactivating the WASP program entitled “WOMEN: Unnecessary and Undesirable?”   On June 21, 1944 the bill to militarize the WASP was defeated by 19 votes.

The Army Air Forces believed that they would not be able to count on Congressional support for the women pilots in the future, and without new personnel coming into the program, it would die anyway of normal attrition.  So, on December 20, 1944, the WASP program was ended.  On December 7, 1944, after disbandment had been announced, General “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, made a speech before the last graduating class: “We of the Army Air Forces are proud of you.  We will never forget our debt to you.  You and more than 900 of your sisters have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers.  If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASP have dispelled that doubt.”

The WASP offered to continue to fly at a salary of one dollar a year, but the Army Air Forces was not interested.  Soon the government began spending millions of dollars to train combat weary male pilots to take over the jobs that 1,000 WASP had performed so capably.  The women were naturally upset about being disbanded, but they left quietly, their work done, now that the combat pilots were returning, now that the heroes were back from the war and would be taking over their jobs.  “I was outraged and hurt,” Janet Hargrave said, “but we all thought, of course, now that they have men.  The men are back.  Goodbye.”

So after more than 60 million miles of flying, and with the war still going strong in Europe and the South Pacific, the WASP were sent home.  They had paid their own way to the WASP training program, and now were forced to pay for their return transportation too.  Because they were not given the militarization they had been promised when they joined the WASP, some who had taken military leave from their jobs soon found they had no jobs waiting for them because they had never been officially recognized by the military.  Unlike their sisters the WACS and the WAVES, the WASP left the service with no veteran’s status and no G.I. Bill benefits.  Records about the WASP were immediately sealed and marked “classified” by the Army Air Forces, as if the women pilots program had never existed.  As historians documented the events of World War II for future generations, the contributions of these women went buried, and were kept from becoming part of United States history.

In 1973, many WASP were furious when the Air Force chose to remain silent after the Navy’s announcement that they would be the first service in U.S. history to train women as military pilots.  In 1976, WASP outrage was even greater when the Air Force released a statement that they would soon be training their first women pilots.  The former women pilots mobilized all across America, refusing to allow the Air Force to ignore their existence and their contribution to the war effort for another moment.

They received strong support from Senator Barry Goldwater and from Colonel Bruce Arnold, the son of General “Hap” Arnold.  Senator Goldwater had been a pilot during World War II and he had firsthand knowledge of the courage, dedication, and hard work of the women pilots.   Senator Goldwater sponsored WASP legislation in the Senate, and Congresswomen Margaret Heckler and Lindy Boggs led the fight in the House of Representatives, but the former women pilots faced powerful opposition.  One of the largest arguments against granting them belated militarization and veteran’s benefits was that other civilian groups that had supported the war effort would also be entitled. The Civil Air Patrol was given as an example.  Col. Bruce Arnold argued before the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs that the WASP had never been a civilian organization.  He went into detail about their training and the top secret missions they had flown.   Colonel Arnold also told a House committee that it had always been his late father’s intention as Commanding General of the Army Air Forces to militarize the WASP.

On November 3, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that granted military status and veteran’s benefits to the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.   The WASP had courageously and selflessly served their country at a time when women were not considered to be equal to men, and after thirty-three years they finally were receiving the recognition they had long deserved.  But surprisingly, no one on Capitol Hill thought it necessary to invite any representatives of the WASP organization to the bill signing.  Because of this, for many of the WASP, it was a bittersweet occasion.    

It would take almost another 33 years before the WASP would truly be honored for their achievements during World War II.  On March 10, 2010, Congress awarded the Women Airforce Service Pilots the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the United States' highest civilian honors.   Less than 300 of the 1,074 women pilots are still alive, and an estimated 175 to 200 of them went to Washington DC, along with friends and family. With Congressional leaders joining the ceremony, and guest speakers, including writer and former NBC news anchor, Tom Brokaw, it was one of the largest groups ever to fill the Capitol--more than 2,000 attended.  Finally, after 65 years, the United States showed its appreciation to the Women Airforce Service Pilots.  

Copyright 2008 and 2010 by Diane Bryan

A condensed version was publish March 26, 2008 in the Ventura County Star