December 20, 1944, and many of you thought I was going to say December 7! Well, we shall discuss both dates this week, beginning with 7 December 1941. It was on that morning that Cornelia Fort was in the skies over Honolulu, Hawaii. "She was giving a flying lesson on the morning of December 7 when a wave of Japanese Zeros swept past her and began the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor. Fort landed in a hail of machine-gun fire."(1) She would go on to be the "second woman to volunteer for the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron". (2) Cornelia Fort unfortunately would die in a plane crash on a ferrying mission in 1943.
This may make you wonder what was the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron? And what was their role in the war?
"In 1942, less than a year into WWII, U.S. Army Air Forces General, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, requested approval of two programs: The Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). The WAFS and WFTD were intended to free male pilots for combat operations overseas by having women pilot domestic operations. The programs were led by two of the most skilled female aviators of the 20th century, Jackie Cochran (WFTD) and Nancy Love (WAFS). On August 5, 1943, with Jackie Cochran as director, these two agencies merged, officially establishing the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)." (3)
The women trained in Sweetwater, Texas at Avenger Field. They trained and flew various of the Army Air Corps' (later the Air Force's) planes. Sometimes the women stepped in to help where the men didn't want to. This is true in the case of the B-29 Superfortress. Many of the male pilots had been complaining about having to fly the B-29 because of its known problem with engine fires. Paul Tibbits (later known for his flight, as pilot in the B-29 Enola Gay, to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan) trained two women to fly the plane. These women, Dora Dougherty [Strother] and Dorothea Moorman, flew the plane training many male service members. After watching these women fly, none of the male pilots complained about not wanting to fly the B-29!
The women transported planes, tested repaired or new planes, and flew targets for army cadets to practice their shooting skills with.
Though their work did not come without expense. Like many others in the service during WWII, the WASPs lost 38 of their own in the line of duty. However, because they were not military and would not get recognition until much later, none of those women received a military burial. Instead the WASPs collected funds to send their own home.
In June 1944, Congress shot down the opportunity for these women to be part of the military. "Cochran and Arnold went back to Congress, where a bill (H.R. 4219) to make WASP a women's service within the U.S. Army Air Force had been ignored since its introduction in September 1941. On June 21, 1944, it was defeated by 19 votes, despite vigorous lobbying efforts." (4) This led to the WASPs being deactivated on 20 December 1944. They were forced to return to civilian life as the male pilots returned home to take the flying jobs.
It would not be until several decades later, when the US military claimed that they finally had the first female pilots, that the WASPs re-doubled their efforts to gain full recognition of their service in the war. After much lobbying by General Arnold's son Brian Arnold along with many of the WASPs, Congress took a second look at giving the women veterans status. Then on 23 November 1977, the women were officially awarded veterans status, a standing which a lot of the other women in military groups during WWII had had. It wouldn't be until 2009 when the women would gain more recognition as they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
As we approach the 79th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I wanted to share a story of some very courageous women, whose story has often been overlooked.
As Cornelia Fort explained:
"As long as our planes fly overhead the skies of America are free and that's what all of us everywhere are fighting for. And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to help keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known.
I, for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge, flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That's all the luck I ever hope to have." (5)
(5) Quoted in For GOD, Country, and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II By Anne Noggle
I highly recommend watching some of these as they give you a chance to hear from the WASPs themselves.
The History Guy - The Women Airforce Service Pilots The history guy tells the stories of both Jacquelin Cochran and Nancy Love and why they created the WASPs, as well as the stories of some of the other women.
And then from across the pond the stories of the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary:
National Air and Space Museum - Women with Wings: The 75-Year-Legacy of the WASP
From Sarah Lawrence College - Cornelia Fort '39 in 1942
The Women Pilots of WWII This website has a roster of all the WASPs in each class that graduated. Some of the names in each roster link to biographies of each of the WASPs.
Women in Aviation and Space History from the Smithsonian Magazine. This website is an index by the Smithsonian of women in Aviation and Space history and have short biographies of each woman.