By Frederick Gomez
Almost 70 years after they distinguished themselves as true American heroes
during World War II, an elite group of civilian women pilots -- whose efforts
were all but ignored and unsung --were finally given their due, almost a year
ago today, at the nation's Capitol. Sadly, many never lived to see the day -- their overdue moment in America's
spotlight. Less than 300 WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) are alive today so it was a bittersweet moment when
survivors were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, before one of the largest
crowds every assembled inside the nation's Capitol. One can only imagine what went through the collective hearts and minds of these
unheralded patriot survivors, knowing that many of their sisters-in-arms were
not there to share this prestigious honor. Many WASP had not lived long enough, but then again, the near-70 year wait was
too long in the first place. (Please note: WASP is the correct term, never WASPs, as WASP is, in itself, a plural form.)
According to the Washington Bureau (Tom McIlroy, 3/10/10) only about 170 women
WASP survivors were able to make it to the steps of the Capitol building, all
of them now in their 80s and 90s. Some in wheelchairs.
Not many are left out of the original 1,830 WASP program. WASP survivor Betty Berkstresser was there -- after seven decades of historical
neglect -- and she was in full uniform. Berkstresser was once a young girl in that WASP uniform; a pioneer aviator with stardust in
her eyes, and a spring in her step. She is now 90 years old, walks slower, and may not look much like a war hero. But she is, rightfully so, then and now. She finally held her Congressional Gold Medal, signed into legislation by President Barack Obama, and bestowed to her (each WASP was given
a replica) by both houses of the United States Congress. Berkstresser, once again, must have had stardust in
her eyes, as she once did as a young girl in WASP uniform, when she flew the
skies -- free from all the male discrimination she had to endure, during those
early years. It was a long time coming, and she must have cradled the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest possible civilian award given by Congress -- close to her, as if it
were a long lost child. Because, in many ways, it was.
Over the loudspeaker, a voice bellowed: "I believe this is the day when the people of America no longer hesitate in
answering, ‘Do you know who the WASP are?'" The words fell upon a crowd of oldtimers and youngsters, alike. A crowd so large that it was unable to fit into the Emancipation Hall. WASP kinfolk, and families of those who had since died, or were physically
unable to travel,
were assembled. Emotions ran deep and tears were seen in many an eye. The words from the loudspeaker were from none other than Deanie Parrish, a
surviving WASP who at 21 joined up to become a woman flier, in 1943. She, too, was no longer young, but, somehow, her words belied her age, as they
rang clear and strong, and as green as she once was at 21. She is now almost 90. "It was both a privilege and an honor to serve our country during some of the
darkest days of World War II." Parrish's words could, with justification, been filled with bitterness for all
the years she and her co-patriots endured mistreatment -- even to this day --as
unimportant, second-hand participants in the war effort. All but forgotten. Instead, Parrish used her uniform, and forum, to proclaim America's greatness and, by so doing, buoyed herself and the country
she served, in the most noble of ways.
It is most ironic that the WASP engaged their biggest enemy -- prejudice -- at
the very home front which they chose to defend. They had suffered extreme, overt prejudice from their male military counterparts
– and the U.S. government as a whole -- all of whom mistreated, ignored, or
downplayed their heroic efforts. The WASP were, begrudgingly, allowed to participate as military fliers only as a
last resort; because there was a desperate need for them. Former WASP, Kaddy Steele, remembers the harsh stereotyping:
“Women weren't (supposed to be) doctors, lawyers, or engineers. I could be a nurse, a librarian or a teacher. Those were my choices. And if it wasn’t for the war and the fact that they were so short of pilots that . . . they
condescended to let us enter the sanctum sanctorum. And they let us know that. They let us in because they needed us. They needed pilots.”
It became one of the most unique, and inspiring, chapters in American military
annals. These dedicated, fiercely patriotic women took their place in history. But, not without a hefty emotional, psychological, and physical price. Thirty-eight women would be killed in the line of duty, serving as legendary
WASP. Yet for all their devotion, sacrifice, and love of country, they were cruelly,
and shamefully, brushed aside and relegated to abject neglect. They obtained no official military status, and former WASP, Louise Bowen Brown,
tells of a heart-wrenching episode that would prove, typical. Brown recalls a train ride that she will long remember. Brown was escorting her beloved roommate’s casket from Texas to New York. Upon arrival, Brown had to inform her roommate’s parents that their young daughter (a WASP) was killed. The young WASP never
received any military honors. No flag was given by the military to drape over her coffin, and no official
commemoration from the country she had just died or acknowledged her. It is a most tragic tale with no happy ending. But the WASP never forsook their fallen sister. Out of necessity, these women were forced to take up a collection of their own
for the fallen heroine.
The military did not even give Brown the money to transport the body for the
young girl's burial. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. It happened with every WASP death.
Nevertheless, these women volunteers proved to be pioneers during an era where
many women did not even have a driver's license.
1940 was a milestone year in avionics, particularly for women. Prior to America's involvement in World War II, women pilots were chomping at
the bit to involve themselves in the war overseas -- as pilots! American pilots, such as Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran volunteered for England's Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Far more liberal than their American counterparts would prove to be, the ATA was
using female pilots since January, 1940. The American women who flew for the ATA became the first American female pilots
to ever fly military aircraft. And
into the record books they flew, unbridled. History's first women military pilots flew frontline aircraft such as the
Spitfires, Typhoons, Hudsons, Mitchells, Blenheims, Oxfords, Walruses and Sea
Otters. And though it is true that they flew in non-combat roles, they did fly in
combat-like conditions, setting the stage for others to follow.
By contrast, the United States was far more reluctant (than England) to include
women fliers in military aircraft, even in non-combat roles. However, as World War II raged on, it was soon discovered that women fliers
could very well prove to be America's secret weapon! In 1942, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt declared, "This is not a time when women should be patient. 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." The record books had shone clear Eleanor Roosevelt's words. Even before the onset of World War II women pilots had distinguished themselves.
The likes of Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, Bessie
Coleman, and Harriet Quimby were just a few examples of women record-holders in
aviation. It was a supreme shame not to tap into America's 'secret weapon.' Eleanor Roosevelt's cry to arms on behalf of America's women pilots was a
gauntlet thrown at America's feet. It was now time for America to rise to new levels. It was time for history to turn a new page, and for women fliers to first write
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was first created in August of 1943,
after the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron) under the command of Nancy Harkness Love, and the
WFTD (319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment) commanded by Jacqueline Cochran, both combined
into one, single entity: the WASP. Jacqueline Cochran had pushed for such a consolidation, and having better
military connections, was kept on as WASP commander. The Army’s intention was to have women fill all the
‘flying jobs’ here in the United States, thereby relieving their male counterparts to travel
and contribute to the front lines as military fliers. And it worked seamlessly. Women pilots were cultivated and trained to fly non-combat assignments: they flew newly-manufactured airplanes to various military bases and
participated in test-piloting new aircraft, as well. They even conducted test flights on the B-29, proving to male pilots that the
B-29 was, indeed, easier and safer to fly than they (the male pilots) thought
possible! The B-29 was thought to be a dangerous plane when engine fires flared up during early
runs, and a top male pilot was killed testing it. The Army purposely used the WASP to test fly B-29s to help ease the fear that
male pilots harbored. Colonel Paul Tibbets handpicked Dora Dougherty Strother and Dorethea Johnson
Moorman to 'fly market' the B-29 at various military bases. Such exercises by women fliers kept proving to male pilots that if the
controversial four-engine bomber was safe enough for women, it would prove safe enough for the reluctant male pilots. Col. Tibbets well remembers that historic moment: “They (the seasoned male combat pilots) were dumbfounded that two women could fly
an airplane that way, when they said it wouldn’t fly! It had an amazing effect!” (“Fly Girls,” American Experience video, A Silverlining Prod. 2006). However, hate, jealousy, and prejudice against WASP fliers ran deep within the
male military ranks. Col.Tibbets recalls one such incident: “One of the men on that airplane (flown by WASP Strother
and Moorman) went into the Operations Office and pulled off his ‘wings’ and threw them down on the desk of the Operations Office and said, ‘I’m finished – that’s the end of it!!’” He was told,“Lieutenant, pick up your ‘wings’ – you’re not finished until we tell you, you are finished!!”
Such test flights were crucial in winning the war. Later, in 1945, it was this same Colonel Paul Tibbets who ended up piloting the
American B-29 Superfortress (known as Enola Gay) that dropped the world’s first atomic bomb (code-named “Little Boy”) over Hiroshima, Japan, which put into motion the beginning of the end of World
Despite their heroic contributions, the WASP were not always welcomed at the
various air bases where they were sent. At Camp Davis, North Carolina, it was made clear they were not wanted. Many planes returning from overseas combat were in dire need of repair and were
supposed to be fully repaired from any defects before being re-assigned. The planes that were re-assigned to WASP fliers were suspected of being
neglected, on purpose. Women pilots experienced repeated engine failure. The WASP expressed concern that their planes were not being properly maintained.
Former WASP, Ann Baumgartner Carl remembers:
“Airplane pilots flying the plane – if they see something wrong, they write it down. And it’s supposed to be taken off the flightline until it’s fixed. What they would do was, not ground the plane; they’d just write where the problem was -- and off it would go (unfixed).” (“Fly Girls” video, 2006. Ibid)
After two WASP had died and another one was seriously injured within one month,
serious allegations of foul play by male discriminators was strongly suspected.
WASP commander, Jacqueline Cochran arrived at Camp Davis to conduct an
investigation. It was clear to the
aviatrix that the WASP plane crashes were caused by deliberate sabotage. Cochran would later admit that she found sugar in the gas tanks of one of the
crashed WASP planes. But she was concerned that scandalous publicity might abolish her WASP program,
so she did not publicize it at the time (“Fly Girls” video, 2006. Ibid.)
WASP flier, Mabel Rawlinson, was among those whose death at Camp Davis lingered
on in the minds of her WASP sisters. Former WASP, Dora Dougherty Strother, remembers the day, “I don’t know what it could have been attributed to, but the fire was intense . . .
they could not get Mabel out and she burned.” The episode devastated the WASP.
In a span of almost three years (beginning with the WAFS), from 1942 to 1944
(when the WASP program was disbanded), over one thousand women pilots flew test
planes, instructed male pilots, and towed targets for anti-aircraft artillery
practice. Some were young girls still in their teen years, like WASP Marguerite “Ty” Hughes Killen, who passed her flight tests and got her commercial and flight
instructor rating at the tender age of 18. (It was in August of 1943 that WASP training program lowered its age limit from 21 to 18 ½.)
The WASP were never drafted and forced into service (as many of their male
counterparts were). Quite simply, they all could have just stayed at home. Perhaps some would have married, raised children, or worked in war factories to
support the war effort, like Rosie the Riveter. Yet, they chose to come forward, out of their safe havens, into the shadow of
war, to serve their country. And they did. And many died. WASP applicants covered the spectrum of Americana: housewives, secretaries, waitresses, students, factory workers, nurses, and
teachers. One was even a Ziegfeld chorus girl. Two were Chinese-Americans: Hazel Ying Lee, and Maggie Gee. Lee gave her life as a WASP when she died in a runway accident. Gee survived the war. There was one Native American WASP, Ola Mildred Rexroat, a young Oglala Sioux
from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The young female patriot survived the war and later joined the U.S.
Air Force where she continued to serve her country.
More than 25,000 women applied to the WASP program. Only 1,830 were accepted. And only 1,074 passed. Pilot training was harsh and unforgiving. Only 50 percent of the WASP trainees made it to graduation. Unlike other military branches, WASP trainees had to pay out-of-pocket expenses
for their travel to training camp, their food at the mess hall, and their
barrack lodgings. On top of it all, they experienced rejection and were regarded by many ruthless
male counterparts as useless, and unworthy to fly, simply because they were women. Those WASP who went on, distinguished themselves beyond expectations, and
eventually served as role models for others to follow in their footsteps. The WASP had every reason to be proud of their ranks: they had comparable flying records as their male counterparts. Some said their flying records were even superior to male pilots. Famed WWII pilot, Chuck Yeager (Charles Elwood
“Chuck” Yeager), retired major general, USAF, and the first man to travel faster than
the speed of sound (1947) said of the WASP fliers, “They could’ve been sent to the war had the law allowed it and they would probably had done
as good as the men had they had equal experience.” (“Fly Girls,”
video, 2006 Ibid).
The accomplishments of the WASP are monumental. Even breathtaking. They were stationed at 120 air bases across the United States. They flew over 60-million miles of operational flight, in 78 different types of
aircraft, to 108 air bases. They delivered 12,650 military airplanes and were crucial in helping win the
war. Some of them were so exceptional in their skills that they qualified and were
given the right to test rocket-propelled planes, and to pilot jet-propelled
aircraft. And though they flew for the military, took the military oath, and died in the
service of their country – they had no minimal medical care; no life insurance; and in some cases, they
had no fire truck for possible crashes, and they sometimes were given a
‘loaned’ ambulance. Thirty-eight died; eleven in training and 27 on active duty. Through all this, they faced brutal discrimination, and even death.
By 1944, air superiority had been achieved overseas and U.S. airmen began to
come home. Pilot training programs halted in the U.S. and all pilots (those
returning from war as well as male flight instructors at home) now faced the
draft – as foot soldiers. However, if the men could take over the jobs held by WASP fliers, they would be
spared the draft. A campaign was soon launched against the women fliers. Airmen, powerful columnists in newspapers, and even Congress attacked and called
for the dismantlement of the WASP program. Even the tide of public opinion began to turn against the women fliers. It was only six months earlier that the general populace thought it noble and
patriotic to be a WASP. America was now yearning to return to pre-war customs. Women, they said, were to be in their homes, not flying airplanes. And with the
unemployment rate after the war rising dramatically from three million to 12
million, the timing looked atrocious for the WASP program. It was now considered, by many, to be unpatriotic to be a WASP. Congress held hearings, focusing heavily on the
‘alleged’ high costs of training women pilots. The anti-WASP campaign was in full swing.
The national sentiment seemed to be that if women pilots wished to be in the
military, they should join the WAC (Women’s Army Corps).
WASP architect and commander, Jacqueline Cochran, saw things differently. She wanted the Army to militarize the WASP program and keep it airborne. Her close friend and contact, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, of the USAAF, suggested to Cochran that she militarize the WASP under
the WAC program. But Cochran was certain that if that happened, the WASP would
be kept permanently on the ground. There were nearly one hundred thousand WAC serving in the army and none of them
were fliers. If Cochran were designated head of the WAC program, her WASP fliers would stay
in the air. Her hopes to accomplish this were dashed when another immensely talented woman,
Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, was designated director of the WAC. It was no secret that Cochran was furious. Her ultimatum to Gen. Arnold was simple: militarize the WASP program – or shut it down. Cochran refused to be subordinate to Col. Oveta Hobby. As Cochran confided to a friend,
“I will not serve under a woman who doesn’t know her a— from a propeller.”
The once mighty WASP were officially dismantled on December 20, 1944. The end had finally come.
The official records of WASP achievements were sealed for decades after they
were disbanded, further shrouding their true contributions. Their service records were marked and sealed as "Classified" or "Secret." For all their mistreatment, and being disallowed veteran status in the service
of their country, many went to the grave with an unfulfilled heart. But a grateful nation slowly began to change all of that. In 1977 the United States did an official 'about face.' America finally embraced these fly girls as true veterans under the G.I. Bill
Improvement Act. Then, in 1979, they were issued official Honorable Discharges. In 1984, each WASP was awarded the World War II Victory Medal. And a year ago today, they were given the highest civilian award by the U.S.
Congress: the Congressional Gold Medal. (Note: The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award given by the
president.) For the record, there are fewer Congressional Gold Medals awarded than The
Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was a golden moment before the eyes of the world. A shining achievement, by an elite corps of pioneering women, was finally
officially acknowledged by a grateful country.
It was a long time coming. Most of the WASP never made it to the steps of the nation’s Capitol. But, who is to say that these pioneers of the sky did not already receive their
greatest reward before they passed on? Former WASP, Marcella Tucker, never made it to those Capitol steps, a year ago
today. The 90-year-old former WASP from San Jose, California, was too weakened by pneumonia to make the long journey. Something she could easily have done as a trail-blazing, heroic WASP. When she was exploring the Wild Blue Yonder, in her greener years.
But, no matter. The Congressional Gold Medal did, finally come to her in the mail, three weeks
later. She loved it, but it was the flying that set her free. “When I was in the sky, I had the whole sky before me. There were no limits to where I could go,” she said. No truer words. No truer reward. Tucker passed away shortly after receiving her Congressional Gold Medal.
Once more, she has been set free.