A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done, according to the late Canadian author Jean Little. Little’s passing last month coincides with the remembrance of World War II’s Women Airforce Service Pilots, the WASPs. These women with the silver wings played a critical role on the home front to help bring the United States to victory during WWII.
The WASPs were a group of highly-skilled airmen who were organized in September, 1942, as a way to free up their male counterparts for combat service abroad. More than 25,000 women applied for the positions, but only 1,102 were accepted into the program, stationed at 126 bases across the country and overseas. Many worked as stunt pilots before entering the program.
“The women came along to take their jobs and the men were sent to combat duty on the front lines, which they didn’t want,” Fort Fisher [NC] [ State Historic Site educator Joseph Moseley said. “There was hostility, mainly because they became better at the jobs than the men had been.”
Jackie Cochran, a close friend of Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, led the WASPs. To her credit, she is the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, as well as the first woman to break the sound barrier.
The female airmen trained for 27 weeks at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas before arriving at their duty stations. The ladybugs tested and ferried aircraft, as well as trained other pilots. The missions were dangerous and resulted in the deaths of 38 pilots; one pilot and her plane mysteriously disappeared off the coast of California.
Failure to recognize the WASPs as part of the military led to the group’s demise. Throughout its tenure, the WASPs were classified as civilians.
“It’s sad because these women proved they could do this job,” Moseley said. “They proved they could fly under any conditions and with the best of the men.”
In 1977, women who served as civilian pilots during WWII were given veteran status, and in 2009, the group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest of U.S. military honors.