During our history lessons, we usually learn that during WWII men took to the sky to fight and showcased their skills at 20,000ft. However, behind the scenes, a group of trailblazing women, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), played a crucial and often overlooked role in the war effort. These fearless women defied societal norms, shattered glass ceilings, and soared through the clouds, leaving an indelible mark on aviation history.
The Birth of WASP:
In September 1942, facing a shortage of male pilots, the U.S. Army Air Forces initiated the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) programs, an audacious experiment that would forever change the perception of women in aviation. Over 1,000 women, selected from a pool of skilled female pilots, would undergo rigorous training, master a variety of aircraft to serve in non-combat roles, and free up their male counterparts for active duty. On August 5, 1943, the WFTD and WAFS merged to create the WASP organization.
WASP was a civilian women pilots’ organization whose members were in US federal civil service employees, but the WASP program faced adversity from the outset. Enduring skepticism and prejudice, these women displayed unwavering determination. From ferrying aircraft to testing newly repaired planes, their responsibilities were diverse and demanding. Despite facing skepticism and gender bias, these women excelled, proving that courage and skill know no gender.
The first pilot, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran wrote to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1939 to suggest the idea of using women pilots in non-combat missions. Cochran was introduced by Roosevelt to General Henry H Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force who asked her to ferry a bomber to Great Britain. In England, she volunteered for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and recruited American women pilots to help fly planes in Europe. 25 women volunteered for ATA with Cochran. In the summer of 1941, Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love independently submitted proposals to the U.S. Army Air Forces to allow women pilots in non-combat missions after the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
The operational debut of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was made public on September 10, 1942. Following this announcement, the Air Transport Command initiated the use of women pilots for the transportation of planes from factories to airfields. Initially consisting of 28 women pilots, the ranks of the WAFS expanded significantly throughout the war, resulting in the formation of multiple squadrons. Eligibility criteria for recruits mandated that they be within the age range of 21 to 35, possess a high school diploma, hold a commercial flying license, carry a 200-horsepower engine rating, accumulate 500 hours (about 3 weeks) of flight time, and demonstrate experience in cross-country flying.
Designed by Love, the WAFS uniforms featured a gray gabardine jacket with brass buttons and square shoulders. This uniform could be paired with gored skirts or gabardine slacks. Due to the self-funded nature of the uniforms, only 40 women ever wore the WAFS uniform. Flight gear issued to all WAFS included khaki flight coveralls, a parachute, goggles, a flying scarf, and a leather flying jacket displaying the ATC patch.
The headquarters for WAFS were established at the newly constructed New Castle Army Air Base in May 1943, which was formerly the Wilmington Airport. General Tunner ensured that suitable living quarters were provided for the women at the base. Operating under a 90-day, renewable contract, WAFS received a monthly salary of $250. Additionally, they were responsible for arranging and covering the costs of their own accommodation and meals.
They arrayed of planes, from single-engine fighters to heavy bombers, these women demonstrated their versatility and proficiency, logging thousands of flight hours. Moreover, they also played a role in testing and evaluating newly repaired aircraft. Their input was invaluable in refining the performance and safety of various planes, contributing significantly to the overall effectiveness of the U.S. air fleet.
Requirements for WASP
WASP adopted most of the requirements from WAFS but introduced an additional criterion. Prospective recruits still needed to be between 21 and 35 years old, maintain good health, possess a pilot’s license, and have accrued at least 35 hours of flight time. In addition to these prerequisites, women were now mandated to be a minimum of five feet and two inches tall.
With aspirations to join the WASP, over 25,000 women submitted applications; however, only 1,830 were accepted, and merely 1,074 successfully completed the training. All applicants held prior experience and airman certificates, with some having undergone training in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). A significant number of these women hailed from affluent backgrounds, which had facilitated pilot training earlier in their lives, or they had spouses who assisted in financing their costly training.
Although the majority of WASP pilots were white, they were not exclusively so. Two Chinese Americans, Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee, two women of Hispanic descent, Verneda Rodriguez and Frances Dias, and one known Native American woman, Ola Mildred Rexroat completed the training.
End of the program
The WASP and the US Army Air Forces collaboration concluded on December 20, 1944. Throughout its operational tenure, each member’s service had the crucial impact of releasing a male pilot for active military combat or other essential duties. Collectively, they covered a staggering distance of over 60 million miles, undertaking diverse tasks such as transporting every type of military aircraft, towing targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice, simulating strafing missions, and facilitating cargo transport. Tragically, thirty-eight WASP members lost their lives during these duties, and one member, Gertrude Tompkins, vanished while on a ferry mission, her fate remaining unknown. In recognition of their World War II service, the members were officially granted veteran status in 1977, and in 2009, they were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.
On the other part of Europe, the Soviets had their own program, that was initiated by Major Marina Raskova in 1941. The group was the 588th Night Bomber Regimen. The regiment was formed out of female volunteers in their late teens and early twenties.
When the regiment was deployed on the front line in June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment became part of the 4th Air Army of the Southern Front. In February 1943, the regiment was honored with the Guards designation and reorganized as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in the 325th Night Bomber Aviation Division, 4th Air Army, 2nd Belorussian Front. In October 1943, it became the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, ”Taman” referring to the unit’s involvement in the Novorossiysk-Taman operations on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.
They specialized in harassment and precision bombing and flew over 23000 missions. The regiment dropped over 3000 tons of bombs and incendiary shells from 1942 to 1945. Collectively it accumulated 28.676 flight hours. The regiment flew in wood-and-canvas Polikarpov U-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop dusting, but the plane was very maneuverable, and it had a maximum speed below the stalling speed of both Bf 109 and Fw 190. Moreover, they also performed 155 supply drops of food and ammunition to the troops. In total, 261 people served in the regiment, of whom 32 died of various causes during the war including plane crashes, combat deaths, and tuberculosis.
There also were 2 other regiments formed entirely by women the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which used Yak-1 fighters, and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which used twin-engine Pe-2 dive bombers
As we commemorate the heroes of World War II, let us not forget the Women Airforce Service Pilots whose courage, skill, and dedication were instrumental in the war effort. Their story is a reminder that the skies are boundless, and the spirit of adventure knows no gender. The WASP, once unsung heroes, now stands as a symbol of courage and determination that inspires generations of aviators.