Spotted an interesting story over at NPR last night about the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, whose primary role was to ferry freshly minted warbirds from the factories where they were made to the airbases where they would be dispatched overseas. The idea was to free up male pilots from mundane flying duties so they were available for combat missions.
My Loyal Readers know that I’m fascinated by the aviation exploits of that era, so naturally I’ve heard of the WASPs, but I confess I really didn’t know much about them until today. They have a pretty awesome story, and I advise all of you to click that link and “read more about it,” as the old TV PSAs used to say. I’ve been reading more about it all day during my odd moments of free time, and I’m frankly amazed no one has made a big feature film about these ladies yet. Incredible anecdotes abound. But perhaps the most striking detail I’ve gleaned from various articles about them is the casual sexism these women confronted nearly every step of the way.
We take women in the military more or less for granted these days. There have been female support pilots flying cargo and tanker planes as long as I can remember, and women fighter pilots for least a decade now (in the U.S. services, anyway — other nations had women flying combat long before we did). But in 1942, there was a debate over whether women could even physically handle a warplane. (To be fair, this concern wasn’t without warrant. The big bombers, in particular, demanded a lot of upper-body strength to operate; I’ve read that the joke used to be that you could always tell a B-24 captain because of his overdeveloped left arm, acquired through wrestling with his controls during 12-hour — or longer — missions.) The military didn’t want to expend any extra resources training women pilots from scratch, so basic piloting licenses had to be earned on the ladies’ own dime, before they signed up. (By contrast, male recruits could come into the AAF without ever having touched an airplane.) Their parachutes weren’t even properly fitted to their bodies, because they were designed for male pilots. And for the 38 WASPs who died in service to their country, there were no funds to ship their bodies back to their families and no flags for their coffins, because they were technically civilian volunteers. The WASPs would be classified as such until the mid-1970s, ineligible for veteran benefits and unrecognized by history until that time.
But in spite of all this crap — or maybe because of it, because they had something to prove — the WASPs prevailed. They mastered every type of U.S. aircraft used during the war, from light trainers to high-speed fighters to the lumbering bombers I love. When male test pilots complained that the new B-29 Superfortress was a deathtrap because of various developmental problems, a pair of WASPs demonstrated that it could be flown safely, and repeatedly. (It was likely male egos, as much as anything, that led to the disbanding of the WASPs in 1944… the menfolk figured the war would be ending soon, and they didn’t want the competition for aviation jobs.)
Do you get the idea that I admire the hell out of these women? Well, you’re right. I am inspired by stories of people who are constantly told they can’t do something, for whatever reason, and who then proceed to excel at it, usually to the utter consternation of those who put them down. And my antennae always go up when I get wind of some chapter of history that’s been largely neglected.
This morning, these awesome ladies finally got their due, as they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor our government can bestow. Of the 1,100 women who served as WASPs, only about 300 are still alive, and roughly two-thirds of them were present at the award ceremony, along with family members of all the others. living and dead, who couldn’t make it.
It’s about damn time.
Incidentally, if you like that picture up there at the top — one of the most famous WASP-related images, I believe — check out a related NPR article for some gorgeous and rare color photos, all shot by one of the WASPs named Lillian Yonally. This one of a PT-19 at sunrise is breathtaking…