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WomenOf the Month 11-09: Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs)
by Julie Norwell

Over 60 years ago when the U.S. faced a severe shortage of combat pilots to serve in World War II, a group of incredible women stepped up to help. These “fly girls” flew light trainers, heavy four-engine bombers, transport aircraft and fighters – virtually every type of Air Force aircraft there was – on missions all around the United States to free up male pilots needed in the war overseas. They were the first women in history to fly American military aircraft and broke ground for female pilots who would later join the ranks of the U.S. Air Force. The Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program was one of the best kept secrets of World War II. WASPs are still unknown to most Americans today, but this summer they gained some hard-earned recognition when President Barack Obama signed into a law a bill that awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. In observance of Veterans Day this month, WomenOf.com honors Women Air Force Service Pilots as our November Women of the Month.

Getting the WASP program itself off the ground was a hard-won accomplishment against gender bias. It took more than a decade due to initial resistance from people in the military. In 1930 the War Department considered the idea, but chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps had called the idea of women pilots "utterly unfeasible," because women were too "high strung." As America moved towards war, however, this view softened. In 1939 America’s most famous female pilot, Jacqueline Cochran, wrote to then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to propose a women’s corps of pilots. By 1942 a women’s aviator program was finally launched.

As many as 25,000 women volunteered for spots but recruiting requirements were even more stringent than they were for men – women had to already have earned a pilot’s license. Ultimately, only 1,830 volunteers were accepted into the program, of which 1,074 graduated. Recruits made their way from around the country, paying their own way, to a municipal airport in Houston, Texas and later to Avenger Field near Sweetwater where they underwent the same rigorous training as their male counterparts.

After graduation the women pilots fanned out to military bases around the country. Their duties included ferrying personnel and supplies, delivering aircraft from one base to another, flight instruction, test flying all types of planes, and towing targets for air-to-air and anti-aircraft gunnery practice – with live ammunition. In some cases women flew aircraft that some men wouldn’t fly, like the B-26 Marauder and the B-29 Superfortress, to demonstrate that these planes weren’t as difficult to fly as believed. Overall, they logged 60 million miles in flight.

Although they never saw combat, 38 WASPs made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives in service to their country. Mary Elizabeth Trebing (shown in photo) of Louisville, Colorado was one of those killed when she encountered engine failure on a PT-19 training flight over northern Oklahoma only 18 months into the program. Gertrude Tompkins is the only WASP who has never been accounted for. She was last seen piloting a P-51D Mustang fighter from Los Angeles and is presumed lost at sea. The search for her plane is still ongoing.

The WASP program grew for two years after its launch until it was suddenly and unceremoniously terminated in December 1944 due to increasing political opposition and a greater availability of male pilots. It did so against the strong opposition of five-star General H. H. “Hapapostrophe Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces and one of the initiators of the program, who believed the WASPs were a vital element in the war effort. At the last WASP graduating class, just days before the program’s demise, General Arnold honored the women with the following comments:

"You ... have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was doubt in anyoneapostrophes mind that women could become skilled pilots, the WASPs dispelled that doubt. I want to stress how valuable the whole WASP program has been for the country."

In the end, America’s first women pilots made their way home the way they had come, paying their own way. Even the 38 dead required a collection from colleagues and family alike before their bodies could be shipped home. Although WASPs had enjoyed the privileges of officers, Congress’ refusal to militarize a women’s program meant the aviatrices remained civil servants in the eyes of the military. They received neither veteran benefits nor recognition from the government for their service to the country. And because the pilots who died were killed in military aircraft the record of their service was sealed up as Top Secret.

For more than 30 years WASPs were the forgotten heroines of World War II. Then in 1976, when the Air Force announced it was training the “first women to fly for the military," surviving WASPs and their supporters came forward to fight for their rightful place in history. In November 1977, 32 years ago this month, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting veterans status to former WASPs. This summer President Barack Obama took the gesture even further by signing the bill awarding WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Congress commissions these medals as its “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions."

After 65 long years, the service of this dedicated group of women is finally making headlines. WASPS played a special role in many Veterans Day celebrations around the country last week and Americans are finally beginning to learn of their country’s wartime debt to America’s very first fly-girls. Sadly, with former WASPs now reaching into their 80s and 90s, only a fraction of them survive today to accept this long-deserved accolade. But at least their service is now forever recognized, honored and immortalized.

WomenOf.com owes a special thanks to Gordon and Tracey Page for their assistance with this article. Tracey contributed the above photos of her great aunt, Mary Elizabeth Trebing, whowas killedduring her service as a WASP.BothTracey and Gordon, director of theSpirit of Flight Center in Erie, CO (http://www.spiritofflight.com/), which has an exhibit on WASPs,were very helpful in the research of this article.