With black and white photography, Anne Noggle (1922–2005) confronts themes of gender equality and aging through portraits of World War II women pilots in the United States and the Soviet Union. Women pilots, and especially those who volunteered to fly for the military, were considered cultural anomalies. They defied gender norms and took to the skies when society and sometimes their own families placed a woman’s value in the home and kitchen. Noggle’s photographs of aging World War II pilots convey their grit, defiance, femininity, and love of flying. Above all, they capture a spirit that bonds this rare group of aviation heroines together. As a photographer, Noggle was specifically equipped for this project with an insider’s perspective—because she was one of them.
Flying Comes First
After seeing Amelia Earhart perform at a local airport, Noggle requested permission from her mother to take flying lessons. In writing, her mother provided support, which inadvertently led to her grandmother’s provoked comment, “you just signed her death certificate!” Noggle learned to fly in high school and soloed at the age of 17 years old. In her own memoirs, she admits to being a “wild ass” with a proclivity for fun thrills like “buzzing cows” in farm pastures.
In the summer of 1943, the adventurous flyer volunteered as a Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) and reported to the 318th Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The goal of the program was for women pilots to relieve the duties of male military pilots, so the men could fly in combat. Although they were civilians, Noggle and her fellow women pilots lived and trained the military way. According to WASP director Jacqueline Cochran’s “Final Report,” approximately 25,000 women applied for flight training, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 graduated with wings. Noggle graduated with the class of 44‾I and became part of this elite and historic group of women flyers. They towed target banners for air-to-air gunnery practice, ferried cargo planes, and served as flight instructors to the males. After the WASPs deactivated in 1944, Noggle flew as a crop duster, a stunt pilot in an aerial circus, and served as a Captain for the Air Force during the Korean War. Health issues grounded Noggle from flying airplanes, but a silver lining opened doors to her next career.
Under the GI Bill, Noggle pursued a college education in her late forties and earned an MFA degree in photography at the University of New Mexico. Looking through a camera lens offered new perspectives as an artist and as a maturing woman. The photographer sat in front of and behind the camera and pointed it at those around her. It was only natural to aim the camera at her sisters of the sky and document the traits that bonded them together through flight.
For God, Country, and the Thrill of It
At a WASP reunion in 1986, Anne Noggle showed up with an intent to photograph her fellow pilots. Before the gathering, she shared a letter detailing the photography project:
For a long time I thought about making a photographic document of all of us as we look today… I thought about how few women have had the opportunity not only to fly for our Air Force, but to be thrown together willy-nilly in training and to know the bonding that usually is associated with groups who live and work in close proximately. This sense of belonging is all the more intense when the duties involve danger and risk. That makes it so rare with women. Add to that the kind of independent women we are and you have a portrait of a Women Airforce Service Pilot…. I decided that I would take, not a group picture, but individual images….
Through her photographs, Noggle captured the uniqueness and similarities of each woman. A pose, a uniform that may or may not still fit properly, facial expressions, hand gestures, and even wonderful wrinkles defined the traits of the women. To emphasize their special attachment to a group, the captions of the photographs include their graduating class. 44¯6 Mary Retick Wells is dressed in full uniform and wears pearl earrings. The elder pilot leaps into the air with elbows bent and arms outstretched—and resembles a whooping crane bird about to take off. Eye make-up and lipstick, a soft smile, pinched fingertips, and a sense of poise by 44‾9 Janet Wayne Tuch exudes femininity. Dressed in shorts and white tennis sneakers, 44‾9 Barbara Hershey Tucker shows bandages on her bare legs. Her stance and squared shoulders, along with a tough stare, speaks to the “grit” required of the WASP’s jobs. The images reflect a sentence in Noggle’s letter to the pilots: “We may not be young any longer but we are very much alive.”
The WASP served their country with patriotism and pride, but noticeably missing from their uniforms are medals or awards of honor. It wasn’t until November 23, 1977, that they were officially recognized by the U.S. military and given veteran status. However, the status was limited, and it would take more than another three decades for the WASP to receive the honors and most of the benefits enjoyed by their male counterparts in the same jobs. Thus, the detail of medal-less uniforms speaks to their inequality.
A Dance with Death
During World War II in Russia, the Soviet Airwomen achieved what the American woman pilots could only dream of—to fly in combat. The women Air Regiments were given the same responsibilities as the men, and by the close of the war, women made up 12% of the aviation assets. One of the better known and historically promoted groups was the 588th Air Regiment with the nickname “Night Witches,” associated with harrowing stealth bombing runs made in open cockpit biplanes after dark. The pilots would cut their engines off to reduce noise and glide over the targets for a surprise attack. Aside from the exposed cockpit in treacherous winter weather, the greatest danger was to fly in and out of enemy territory before being shot down. Over 32,000 combat sorties were flown by three regiments comprised of women pilots and the title Hero of the Soviet Union was bestowed on 92 of the women pilots.
In her seventies, Noggle made six trips to Russia with an assistant and interpreter to photograph the remaining Soviet Airwomen pilots and record their stories for her book A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. In the photographs of Zoya Malkova and Larisa Litvinova-Rozanova, they both gesture a salute. Perhaps it conjures their time spent in the military or a nod to their American comrade behind the camera. Yevgeniya Gurulyeva-Smirnova holds a flower stem like a cherished memory, possibly for the fellow pilots who perished during the war. The delicate lace collar of Yekaterina Chujkova is a sharp contrast to the weighted military medals. Noticeably different from the Americans is the abundance of military medals attached to those in uniform. As combat pilots, the Soviet Airwomen’s experiences were markedly different from the WASP, yet they shared the same passion for flight, a lifelong comradery, and a noticeable detail in the photographs—a practicality for comfortable shoes.
The Big Picture
The photographs of WWII women pilots speak beyond the individuals or represented groups. They tie into Noggle’s other projects with an overarching theme of aging women. Noggle’s oeuvre comprises portraits of herself both clothed and unclothed, women family members over extended time periods, and elderly close women friends in humorous and serious dispositions. Martha Strawn, the President of the Board of the Anne Noggle Foundation, shared her perspective with me on Anne Noggle’s photography career as an artist and says, “Anne was very aware of how culture saw women, and [how] they objectified young women and didn’t value them and didn’t value their minds. . . . So I think her desire in doing this work was to show the change over a period of time of how an individual matures and develops physically in the world, in light of how culture sees them.” Indeed, Anne Noggle’s photographs offer a positive perspective on longevity and the enduring contributions made by women throughout the history of flight.
The National Air and Space Museum actively pursues new artwork for the art collection and recently acquired over 100 Anne Noggle photographs from the Anne Noggle Foundation. The photographs have been widely exhibited and appear in Noggle’s published books, For God, Country, and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II and A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. Copyrights for all Anne Noggle photographs belong to the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Carolyn Russo is a museum specialist and the Museum’s curator of the art collection.
Noggle, Anne. A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.
Noggle, Anne. For God, Country, and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990.
Strawn, Martha. Interview with Carolyn Russo. Taped interview over telephone. February, 26, 2021.
Strawn, Martha. Flight of Spirit: The Photographs of Anne Noggle. Sant Fe: Museum oof New Mexico Press, 2019.