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Flight Of The Wasp

July 2024
10min read

The Women Airforce Service Pilots seemed strange and exotic to World War II America. In fact, not even the military could quite fiqure out what to do with them.

Curiosity, patriotism, and even a hint of scandal lured the residents of Sweetwater, Texas, to the outskirts of town one April morning in 1943. The townspeople made a day of it, setting out picnic lunches near the military training base at Avenger Field and searching the sky for incoming aircraft. “Cars lined old Highway 80 for two miles in each direction from the Main Gate,” recalled 17-year-old Hershel Whittington.

The first sightings came in mid-afternoon, and then dozens of planes, open cockpit and single propeller, began passing over the rolling plains of tumbleweed and cactus beyond town on the way to the base. “Here comes one,” someone shouted. “And here’s another!”

The planes belonged to members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a band of roughly 1,000 women flyers that served as a homefront Army auxiliary during World War II. But their program might have come too soon for an Army establishment—and a country—that was still wary about women in the military. From the moment of its creation to its abrupt end two years later, the WASP program met with skepticism despite a stellar record of ferrying B-17s, B-29s, B-26s, and other airplanes. One Pentagon official described the program as “an experiment” to test women’s abilities to withstand duress and handle the physical demands of the military.

The curious residents of Sweetwater may have had more in common with their high-profile visitors than either group realized. America’s entry into war had brought sweeping cultural changes: women took on roles vacated by the men joining the military, leaving their kitchens to work on assembly lines and factory floors. Sweetwater experienced an influx of wartime newcomers, including the high-spirited women pilots, while the women found themselves pushing against the boundaries of society’s frontiers.

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The newly arrived trainees, outfitted in ill-fitting khaki jumpsuits they called zoot suits, seemed unusual indeed to the people of Sweetwater. “They were aloof, self-contained, self-assured, and self sufficient; at least so it seemed to me then,” remembered Helen Kelly, a young girl when the WASP flyers came to town. She watched them in the women’s dressing room at the town pool, where “they stripped and walked around naked, unashamed. We had never seen anyone do that. Every Sweetwater female changed in and out of her bathing suit barricaded behind the firmly locked door of a dressing booth.” Even their speech seemed different. “They used words we didn’t,” Kelly recalled; “some long and fancy words, some short and pungent words. They even cursed openly, something which no proper lady in Sweetwater would do.”

Blue Bonnet Hotel’s Charles Roberson recalled how they poured in on the weekends to have their shoes shined. Most customers would give a small tip, or perhaps nothing at all; these women arrived with pocketfuls of change. Digging into their pant pockets—they did not carry handbags—they paid him with whatever they pulled out, often a fistful of coins. He remembers looking forward to their weekend visits, not for their extravagance of spending but for the extravagance of their spirit.

That kind of spirit was something they shared with Jacqueline Cochran, the program’s guiding light, and a household name in her own right. An accomplished racing pilot, she had earned a victory in 1938’s cross-country Bendix flying competition. A striking blonde, Cochran also ran her own cosmetics firm and created such popular products as Wonda-matic mascara. Born Bessie Lee Pittman in the Florida Panhandle, she had escaped poverty by moving to New York City, changing her name, and working in a Fifth Avenue hair salon. Through her well-heeled clients she met and later married Floyd Odlum, a man of great wealth and quiet influence. Odlum bought Cochran her first plane and encouraged her aspirations as a flyer and businesswoman.

Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 about an idea she had for a corps of women Army reserve pilots. “Should there be a call to arms it is not my thought that women pilots will go and engage in combat, for I’m sure they won’t,” she wrote. “But every trained male pilot will be needed in active service. The ‘lady birds’ could do all sorts of helpful back of the lines work. Every woman pilot who can step into the cockpit of an ambulance plane or courier plane or a commercial or transport plane can release a male pilot for more important duty.”

The U.S. War Department had already broached the idea of using women pilots as early as 1930. The Pentagon’s reply: “utterly unfeasible.” Women, as a memo explained, were “too high strung for wartime flying.” In 1936 a member of the 99s, a prominent women’s aviation organization, suggested women should join the military as pilots, but was promptly rebuffed. In the summer of 1941, Cochran, armed with a letter that the First Lady had helped her extract from President Franklin Roosevelt, made the rounds of the Pentagon. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, turned down her plan, stating that the Army had an adequate number of pilots. He also questioned whether Cochran could assemble enough qualified fliers. And, he asked, what about finding proper facilities for training women? “The use of women pilots presents a difficult situation as to the housing and messing of personnel at Air Corps Stations,” he wrote to her.

But with the number of male pilots dwindling further every month, Arnold reversed his position. At roughly the same time, the head of the Army Air Transport Command, Col. William H. Turner, approved the plan of an accomplished flyer, Nancy Harkness Love, to assemble a group of highly experienced women pilots to ferry planes. Cochran, in contrast, sought full military training for her women pilots. She began recruiting women who could compare favorably with the average cadet both in intellect and, as she put it, “coordination.” For consideration, applicants could be no shorter than 5 feet 2½ inches tall, no younger than 18 and a half years, and must have flown no fewer than 200 hours. Cochran looked for “clean-cut, stable appearing girls.” Conservative in many respects, Cochran wedded her views on female abilities with the conventional views of the period. “A woman, to accomplish all she can, must present herself at an absolute peak of attractiveness, just as she must keep herself in good health and her brain growing and alert,” she told Ladies Home Journal in 1941. “Her beauty is not a frivolous irrelevancy but a touchstone to a full life.” She looked askance at black WASP candidates—there was at least one—because, she argued, they would attract far too much prejudice for them to succeed.

Even in the chaotic atmosphere of wartime America, the recruitment process struck prospective WASP candidates as surprisingly informal. Cochran threw cocktail parties and receptions, sometimes making verbal offers after only short conversations. “How many of you would be willing to fly for your country?” she asked a gathering of women in Washington, D.C. A month after that meeting, Jane Straughan was startled to receive a wire that instructed her to report immediately for duty. While more than qualified, she had not even filled out an application form.

Determined applicants found ways around the physical requirements. At 98 pounds, Caro Bayley was simply too small, but she pinned her father’s fishing weights under her clothes to add weight. Her examiner passed her. Called “Little Gear” by her classmates, Bayley had trouble reaching the pedals but nonetheless became one of the best acrobatic pilots in the program with the aid of a small stack of pillows. Some challenged the height requirement by hanging upside down by their heels to stretch themselves out, while others simply begged the examiners to pass them anyway.

The program got under way slowly at Howard Hughes Field in Houston in November of 1942. It was a haphazard start. The 319th Army Air Force Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) lacked classrooms, a cafeteria, and even the military planes to train in, instead relying on ordinary civilian carriers painted olive drab. To eat or use the restrooms, the trainees had to walk to the Houston Municipal Airport a half mile away. Without set uniforms, they dressed in whatever they wanted—cowboy boots, loafers, and saddle shoes. One pilot, Marion Florsheim, wore bedroom slippers with pompoms. The only WFTD-issued item was a hairnet required for flying, because the Washington brass worried that long hair would hinder flight training.

In April the training operation shifted to Avenger Field. By then Sweetwater’s residents weren’t the only ones who found the fliers unusual. Many of the women pilots themselves felt transformed, noting in diaries and letters that their friends and family might not recognize them because they had grown so rough-and-tumble. Living together in barracks and following a rigorous regimen—beginning with reveille at 6 a.m., followed by Morse code, Link (flight simulation) training, and flight training—did not allow time for primping. Gallows humor became a coping mechanism as well as a form of bonding between the pilots, who sometimes had to withstand slights from bullying instructors. Winifred Wood described how her class grew more confident of its military bearing but felt deflated after performing as the honor guard for visiting generals Barton K. Yount and Barney Giles. After the inspection, Giles had turned to his wife and said, “Aren’t they cute!”

The oddity of women in the military made good copy for the American press. In late April 1943 the Houston Post ran an Associated Press report on the WASP’s move to Sweetwater, dubbing them the “Lipstick Squadron.” Reporter Hugh Williamson described the pilots as “sun-bronzed, trim as the streamlined planes,” but also quoted Cochran as saying that the program was hard work with little glamour. Field supervisor Maj. L. E. McConnell told Williamson that “gentler treatment” was the only change required for the instruction of women students. As for fighting in actual combat, McConnell said they could learn gunnery and “take their place in the front if called upon to do it.” Cochran shared her worries with Williamson that combat would harden and brutalize the women, who still needed to be wives and mothers after the war. Nonetheless, if events called for it, women could fly combat missions. “When aroused, women make the nastiest fighters,” she said.

The WASP pilots that graduated from Avenger fanned out to air bases throughout the United States, where they flew cargo, transported new airplanes from factories, and assumed other aviation roles. One elite group, formed from Cochran’s best flyers, received an assignment to tow aerial targets at Camp Davis in South Carolina. Cochran hoped the assignment would serve as a stepping stone to bigger responsibilities, perhaps even overseas. “[Cochran] told us the wonderful news that 25 of us were to be used as an experiment and trained on bigger equipment to see just what women can do,” WASP Dora Jean Dougherty wrote in her diary. “Will fly almost everything including B-26s and sounds wonderful. She couldn’t tell us everything. . . . None of us could sleep for [we] were too excited.”

But at Camp Davis, it almost seemed as though the WASP themselves were the targets. The commanding officer of the 3rd Tow Target Squadron, Lovick Stephenson, made it clear that he did not support women in the military. Male pilots already assigned to tow-target duty felt threatened by the new arrivals. Some enlisted men even requested transfers. Although correspondence plainly stated that the 25 women “would be given every opportunity to demonstrate their ability to replace a proportion of, or all, men tow target pilots,’’ Stephenson instead gave them busy work—administrative paperwork or tracking flights in light planes such as the L-5 Stinson liaison planes and Cubs. It was a big comedown.

In time, the women would fly the big planes they came to fly and win the respect they deserved, but ill will was palpable, as one story in Flying Magazine made clear. “Isabel Fenton of West Springfield, Mass. was flying a Vega Ventura about 6,000 feet over the dunes off Camp Davis the other day, hauling an airplane target for a battery to shoot at. In 20 rounds the 90’s got the target and the target fell blazing into the sea. There were cries of Ah and Oh and Good Shooting from the gallery of press and radio representatives and officers. But as the Ventura wiggled its wings and swung off for its base, a grizzled colonel mumbled into his moustache, ‘Hell, they missed the girl.’”

Cochran did not let the summer’s challenges slow her down. She offered the WASP another groundbreaking assignment—a chance to fly the B-26 Marauder “Widowmaker,” a twin-engine bomber so named for its proclivity for crashing during takeoff. Soon afterward they began flying the country’s newest, biggest bomber—the B-29 Superfortress, another plane with a reputation for being hard to handle. Cochran told General Arnold that her pilots had shown that the concerns about those planes were overstated. “The obvious conclusion was that if a woman could do it so could a man,” Cochran said, with understated irony.

But things were changing for the WASP and for the world at large. By 1944 the war had turned in the Allies’ favor. New, long-range fighters could now destroy German Luftwaffe planes on the ground, making the skies even safer for the Allies. The United States required fewer combat pilots in the European theater, so the Army Air Force began shutting down both its War Training Service and its civilian flight training program. The civilian pilots reacted by charging women pilots with stealing their jobs. Columnist Drew Pearson launched a virulent campaign against the WASP program, writing that “Jackie’s glamour girls” were benefiting from “a racket.” Sen. Harry Truman, the head of a committee investigating war waste, asserted that the cost of training a WASP flyer was a hefty $22,000. It was a wildly inflated figure; a truer estimate for both female and male cadets was $12,000.

In February 1944 Rep. John Costello of California submitted a bill to confer Army Air Force commissions on all on-duty women pilots. It failed a House vote on June 19, with 188 voting against, 169 for, and 73 abstaining. It marked the beginning of the end for the WASP. Congress did approve the necessary appropriation for another year, but Cochran decided to close down the program because full military status—which had been given to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and other branches of the military—was not forthcoming.

At Avenger Field, the final WASP class learned that its training would be abbreviated. Trainee Peggy Daiger was dispirited by the resulting collapse of general field operations. “Those employed at Avenger Field were draft exempt; they hurried away in droves to find other draft-exempt jobs before the December deadline.” The changes became evident immediately. “Maintenance was sloppy; instructors became harried; food declined to the almost inedible. I remember one chill day’s evening chow that consisted solely of warmed-over boiled potatoes, gummy macaroni, and milk that had been kept next to something less tasty in the refrigerator. One graduate WASP, on the field for only a day’s business, carefully loaded her tray with this mess and then slammed the whole thing against the wall. We applauded mentally but nobody smiled.”

More than 100 pilots stationed at bases across the country returned for the final graduation on December 4, 1944, a powerful sign of support for a class of graduates with no base assignments awaiting them, who would receive wings they could not wear in military flight. Cochran predicted that the women would return to more conventional paths: “Their careers will be marriage.” And overnight, with the abrupt end of the WASP, that assessment seemed accurate.

At the official ceremony, Cochran stuck to a colorless script, thanking the generals and expressing pride in the program’s accomplishments. But then Arnold gave the WASP a meaningful sendoff, saying, “Frankly I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fly the controls of a B-17 in the heavy weather they would naturally encounter in operational flying.” The unusually expansive general concluded, “Well, now in 1944, more than two years since the WASP first started flying with the Air Forces we can come to only one conclusion: It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

Arnold’s summation was soon forgotten. The WASP pilots themselves were in a sense responsible, soft pedaling their experience and declining to speak about it when husbands and brothers recalled their supposedly more important wartime experiences. But the women kept in touch, and they eventually launched a campaign for full military recognition. In 1976 the U.S. Air Force announced that it would begin accepting women cadets into their corps, a decision hastened by the end of the draft. Once again women had been invited into the military to counterbalance a shortage of men—but as the WASP alumnae knew, despite media reports, this would not mark the first time women had flown for the U.S. military. Motivated by the new developments, they began a campaign to receive the military status that they had been denied 30 years earlier. Congress finally passed such a bill in 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed into law. But the law did not make many of the military benefits retroactive. Two years later the secretary of the Air Force announced a further step toward recognition. The members of the WASP program—the women who had served in a service that wasn’t ready to accept them—were now considered to be veterans.


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