~ Betty Huyler Gillies, WAF, 1976
In May of 1940, twenty-six year old Nancy Harkness Love wrote Gen. Bob Olds, organizer of the Air Transport Command (ATC), with a plan to use women pilots to ferry planes for the ATC. At first the idea of using women pilots was dismissed but by 1942, as the shortage of male pilots became acute, Gen. Olds decided the time was right to put Love’s plan into action. Most of his colleagues including Maj. William Tunner, commander of the Ferrying Division, were skeptical or flatly believed that women were incapable of flying military aircraft.
In September of 1942, Nancy Love was appointed as the director of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under Maj. Tunner and given a chance to prove her skeptics wrong. Nancy initially sent telegrams out to 83 of America’s best women pilots recruiting them as civilian pilots to serve in the Ferry Command. The women had to be between 21 and 35 years of age, logged at least 500 hours in the air, hold a commercial license, a 200-horsepower engine rating, and have recent cross-country flying experience. Twenty-eight women met these rigorous standards and answered the call to serve their country during wartime in the Air Transport Command.
Stationed at New Castle Army Air Base, these twenty-eight highly qualified, elite civilian women pilots, “The Originals” as they would come to call themselves, began ferrying light aircraft and primary trainers such as Stearmans and PT-19 Fairchilds. They quickly went on to ferry larger aircraft including pursuit planes like the P-38 and P-51.
On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran, were merged into one organization called the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Jacqueline was named Director of Women Pilots. Nancy Love was named WASP Executive of the Ferrying Division of ATC. Collectively, these women surpassed all expectations and proved that women could fly military aircraft with as much skill and competency as their male counterparts. The WASP program was deactivated on December 20, 1944.
History of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)
In September 1939, a day after German tanks rolled into Poland, Jacqueline Cochran, a brassy no-nonsense business woman and record-setting pilot, sent a letter to First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, outlining the valuable contributions she felt women pilots could make in case the United States entered the war. Jackie envisioned a women’s air corps that would handle almost any noncombat flying job, thereby releasing men for duty overseas. Intrigued with Jackie’s idea, the First Lady told the nation about it in her regular newspaper column, “My Day.” The First Lady stated, “We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
During 1940 and 1941, Cochran continued to advocate for a separate women’s air corps, with a woman commander at the helm. While Jackie was generating public interest for a woman’s air corps, no one in the military establishment was ready to listen to such a revolutionary concept.
During that same time, Nancy Harkness Love, the youngest woman in the US to earn her private pilot’s license and qualify for a commercial license, wrote to the Army Air Forces suggesting that qualified women serve in some form. Nancy wrote, “I’ve been able to find 49 women pilots I can rate as excellent material … and there are probably at least 15 more that are up to handling pretty complicated stuff.” While few agreed with Nancy, others in the Army Air Forces thought she was on to something, but the idea of women in the cockpit of military aircraft was too radical a concept for serious consideration.
While Jackie and Nancy were proposing basically the same ideas about women flying for the military, women across the country were gearing up to earn flight hours. After all, this was the age of aviation discovery and women were proving themselves in the skies. Amelia Earhart had opened the doors for women as young female fliers were following her feats in the skies. Earhart had demonstrated that women could fly and that there was more than enough room in the skies for both male and female pilots. At the same time, experienced women flyers like Teresa James were barnstorming across the country and Cornelia Fort was teaching others how to fly.
In 1941, a letter from a young wife living in Queens appeared in the New York Herald Tribune: “Isn’t there anything a girl of 23 can do in the event our country goes to war, except sit at home and become gray with worry? I learned to fly an airplane from a former World War ace. If only I were a man there would be a place for me.”
By 1942 everything was changing. Women were becoming vital to the war effort, and newspapers, magazines, radio addresses, and movies were neither letting women nor America forget. During the Depression women had been encouraged to stay at home. But wartime propaganda was pervasive encouraging women go to work “for the duration.” They were urged to join the struggle for freedom and democracy and “to make the world secure for their children.”
Overnight all sorts of barriers dropped. Women went into the factories, shipyards, and offices. Rosie the Riveter on the assembly line, decked out in overalls and a turban, received the publicity, but all women had new career opportunities as musicians, college professors, scientists, athletes, and even pilots.
Women were replacing men in nearly every area and assuming the full responsibilities of citizenship for the first time. Nearly 400,000 women would serve in the various branches of the military during World War II. For two years prior to the war there had been discussions about using women in routine jobs, but military officials weren’t sure how to deal with females in what had traditionally been an exclusively male domain. By the spring of 1942, a growing manpower shortage, particularly in jobs women were already doing in civilian life like clerks, typists, and switchboard operators forced a change in thinking. Male enlistments were starting to drop. Every community in the nation turned to draft boards to secure young men for the armed services.
The United States was building its air power and military presence in anticipation of direct involvement in the war and began to expand its enlistment of male cadets. This period had led to a dramatic increase in activity for the US Army Air Forces, and revealed obvious gaps in manpower that could be filled by women. However, it was not until after the attack on Pearl Harbor that it became evident that there were not enough male pilots. Something would have to change.
WAFS and Nancy Harkness Love:
By the fall of 1942, Nancy Love was recruiting highly qualified, civilian women pilots with a commercial license and over 500 flying hours to serve in the Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. The WAFS, as they were commonly referred to, were activated at New Castle Army Air Base near Wilmington, Delaware, where they trained for just a few weeks before being assigned to their posts. Thirty days later, Love had received responses from 23 women interested in the program including barnstormer Teresa James and Cornelia Fort. Of the first 13 accepted, most had a commercial license, were under the age of 35, and averaged more than 1000 hours of flight time. Ultimately, their numbers grew to 28 of the best, most qualified, and experienced female pilots the country had to offer.
Women’s Flying Training Detachment:
Jackie Cochran requested she be allowed to establish a training program to recruit and train women for flying duties. On September 14th, 1942, General Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, approved the Women’s Flying Training Detachment that would recruit and train 500 licensed pilots to ferry planes. The 23-week training program, placed under the direction of Cochran, was based out of Houston. Jackie’s goal was to prove that any healthy, stable young American woman could learn to fly just as well as her male counterparts.
The first batch of applications was sent to 150 women, 130 of whom responded immediately. Each was personally interviewed by Cochran. Thirty were selected for the first class and notified by telegram to report to Houston at their own expense.
From the beginning, the two programs, the WAFS and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, operated independently and without much interaction between their two rival leaders, Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love, until the summer of 1943, when Jackie pushed aggressively for a single unit to control the activity of all women pilots. On August 5th, 1943, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment were merged and were re-designated the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots or WASP. Cochran was appointed the Director and Love named WASP executive with the Air Transport Command Ferrying Division.
Rigorous training included learning to fly the military way with emphasis placed on cross country flying. Applicants were required to be between the ages of 21 and 35. Many of them had more flight hours than male pilots in the Army Air Corps.
They followed a strict military regimen; barracks were six to a room and one bathroom for 12 girls. They marched everywhere, did calisthenics, and ended their day with taps. They were ladies with a purpose, and took part in parades, infantry drills, barracks inspection, and oaths of allegiance just like the male cadets.
For the WASP who graduated, they were assigned to air bases across the country to ferry planes from points of embarkation. They towed targets, served as flight instructors, and flew radio-controlled planes. In the end, they flew over 60 million miles in every military aircraft that was part of the Army Air Corps arsenal. During the program 38 women would be killed serving their country.
They were never formally militarized although every WASP thought they would be before the program was deactivated December 20, 1944. Because the act of militarization required an act of Congress, it was a slow process – one that would not come until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter signed into law legislation awarding the WASP veterans status. Spurred by the 1970s announcement from the Defense Department that for the first time in our nation’s history women would be permitted to fly military planes, the WASP mobilized in order to gain the recognition long overdue acknowledging their service and place in history. With the help of Bruce Arnold, General Hap Arnold’s son, and political help from Senator Barry Goldwater, a WWII veteran who had commanded the WASP in his squadron, the WASP finally gained recognition and were officially militarized.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation awarding the WASP the highest civilian honor – the Congressional Gold Medal. In March 2010, over 250 surviving WASP were on hand in our nation’s Capital for the ceremony recognizing their contributions to our country during its greatest hour of need.