Women Airforce Service Pilots

Conflict: World War II

Women Airforce Service Pilots Frances Green, Margaret R. Kirchner, Ann Currier, and Blanche V. Osborn walking away from their aircraft, “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

Before 1941, two famous female pilots named Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love had individually proposed plans to the U.S. Army Air Forces. The proposals asked that women be allowed to fly planes in non-combat missions, such as ferrying aircraft or towing drones and aerial targets, in order to free male pilots for combat. Though both proposals were initially turned down, minds began to change after the U.S. became more directly involved in the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor and it became clear that more pilots were needed.

In September 1942, while Jackie Cochran was in Britain flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) program—which had been using female pilots since 1920—General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, approved a plan for a Womens Auxilliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under the Direction of Nancy Love. Cochran returned to the U.S., insisting that women could do more for the USAAF than just ferrying. So another program was instituted—the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran herself. In the Summer of 1943, the WAFS and WFTD were combined into one single women pilot group, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

Elizabeth L. Gardner of Rockford, Illinois, WASP

More than 25,000 women applied for the WASP program, but fewer than 1,900 were accepted. After four months of military flight training, 1,074 of them became the first women to fly American military aircraft. Though not trained in combat, the women were given much the same instruction as aviation cadets, learning how to recover from any position. They flew newly manufactured planes to military bases, towed targets, and transported cargo. By December 1944, the WASP had delivered 12,650 aircraft to their destinations.

Since the WASP program was considered a civil service, the WASPs were not given military benefits. The 38 women who perished in accidents during training and on active duty were sent home at the family’s expense and weren’t allowed to have an American flag over their coffin. In September 1943, the first bill for militarization of the WASP was introduced in the House of Representatives. Cochran and Arnold both wanted a seperate corps headed by a female colonel. But the bill was defeated, as were the subsequent attempts to give the WASPs military status. In the end, Cochran essentially asked that the question be resolved by either granting military status or by disbanding the program. So it was announced that the program was to be disbanded by December 20, 1944.

In 1977, the previously classified, sealed documents explaining the WASPs services to the country were unsealed, following the incorrect statement that the Air Force was then training the first women pilots ever to fly American military aircraft. With the support of Senator Barry Goldwater, the WASPs lobbied again for recognition, which was granted to them in legislation signed by President Jimmy Carter in the form of a World War II Victory Medal for each WASP. An American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medal was also granted to those WASPs who had served for more than one year. Then on May 10, 2010, President Barack Obama and the United States Congress granted the WASP program the Congressional Medal of Honor for its service to the nation, and the 300 surviving WASPs came to the U.S. Capitol to receive the medal.

For more on how the WASP was started, their wartime efforts, and a list of members, check out this Wikipedia page. You can also check out this page on Fold3 for facts and photos of Elizabeth M Magid, a WASP. And there is more to see on Fold3 regarding the WASPs; you can use this search to find more photos and stories. This page on pbs.org is also a great resource for first-hand accounts of the WASP.