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Women with Wings: The 75-Year-Legacy of the WASP

Posted on Sun, August 5, 2018
  • by: Caroline Johnson, Aeronautics Intern
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  • The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was established during World War II, on August 5, 1943.
  • The WASP flew a total of 60 million miles performing a variety of missions. Although these women flew military aircraft, they were considered civilians, and were not granted military benefits or burials.
  • The WASP were granted retroactive military status in 1977, and were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw that little gold medal. I was walking through the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, glancing through the glass cases. At only two inches in diameter, it’s easily overlooked, dwarfed by the rows of aircraft and other eye-catching memorabilia. One of the highest honors given to civilians, this Congressional Gold Medal presented to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) represents the contributions of female pilots during World War II. Seventy-five years ago, on August 5, 1943, a remarkable group of women stepped into roles that would earn them the Congressional Gold Medal. The story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) is one of courage, and their legacy is crucial to understanding the role of women as aviators within the United States military.

Congressional Gold Medal, Women Airforce Service Pilots, presented to the WASP on March 10, 2010.

The Senate and the House of Representatives recognized and awarded the WASPs this Congressional Gold Medal for their service, record, and "revolutionary reform in the Armed Force" during World War II. This medal was presented to the WASPs on March 10, 2010 and specifically designated to come to the collection of the Smithsonian in Public Law 111-40 on July 1, 2009. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

 In 1942, less than a year into WWII, U.S. Army Air Forces General, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, requested approval of two programs: The Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). The WAFS and WFTD were intended to free male pilots for combat operations overseas by having women pilot domestic operations. The programs were led by two of the most skilled female aviators of the 20th century, Jackie Cochran (WFTD) and Nancy Love (WAFS). On August 5, 1943, with Jackie Cochran as director, these two agencies merged, officially establishing the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Jaqueline Cochran

Cochran was a celebrated woman pilot whose career spanned four decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. In 1937, she won the prestigious long-distance Bendix Trophy Race, flying from Los Angeles to Cleveland in a little more than eight hours. She later founded the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), a group of civilian women who flew military aircraft in non-combat situations during World War II. In 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier.

In order to apply, a woman required a civilian pilot’s license. Access to a pilot’s licenses varied, as women either relied on the assistance of their families or would scrape together every dime they had earned to pay for flight hours and certifications. In addition, women had to pass an Army Air Corps physical and cover their cost of transportation to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas for basic training. After months of military flight training, 1,102 of the original 25,000 applicants took to the skies as the United States’ first women to pilot military aircraft. Though not trained for combat, the WASP flew a total of 60 million miles performing operational flights, towing aerial targets, transporting cargo, smoke laying and a variety of other missions. By December 1944, the WASP had flown every type of military aircraft manufactured for WWII. However, although the WASP proved that women could capably fly all types of military aircraft, their inclusion in military aviation became a matter of waiting for official acceptance which would not be forthcoming for decades.

View of Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Betty Jane Bachman waving from the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

View of Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Betty Jane Bachman waving from the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM-CW-KT-95.

Propelled by a sense of passion and duty, these women were willing to make the same sacrifices as their male counterparts. From 1943 to 1944, 38 WASP died in service to their country. While flying in formation from Long Beach to Love Field in Dallas, the left wing of Cornelia Fort’s BT-13 struck the flight officer’s landing gear. The aircraft spiraled into a dive, and at 24-years-old, Fort became the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty. Recruited in 1942 by Nancy Love to join the WAFs, Fort had been working as a civilian pilot instructor during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and these events inspired her to serve.  

Cornelia Clark Fort

Cornelia Fort (with a PT-19A) was a civilian instructor pilot at an airfield near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Fort was killed on March 21, 1943 while ferrying BT-13 trainers in Texas, making her the first American woman to die on active military duty.

Fort and the 37 additional WASP who gave their lives in service did not have flags draped over their caskets. Although these women flew military aircraft, they were considered civilians, and were not granted military benefits or burials. Despite Gen. Arnold’s efforts to push for full military status, the organization was disbanded on December 20, 1944. It took 30 years for women to fly again in the United States Armed forces, with the Navy and Army accepting their first female pilots in 1974 and the Air Force following suit in 1976.

The WASP flew a total of 60 million miles performing operational flights, towing aerial targets, transporting cargo, smoke laying and a variety of other missions.

The WASP and their stories appear within the Smithsonian collection in great part due to the women’s efforts for recognition. Bernice Haydu, who graduated basic training on March 10, 1944, donated her Santiago Blue uniform coat to the Museum in 1969. Upon being elected as President of the WASP organization in 1975, Haydu introduced a bill to the Senate to grant WASP retroactive veteran status. It initially failed. After two years of lobbying, President Jimmy Carter finally signed the bill into law  in 1977.

WASP Dawn Seymour

Former WASP Dawn Seymour visited the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2011. She is standing next to the display holding the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) on March 10, 2010 for their service, record, and "revolutionary reform in the Armed Force" during World War II.

On March 10, 2010, 66 years after the organization was disbanded, the WASP received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service, record, and “revolutionary reform in the Armed Force” during WWII. Around 200 WASP, many in their eighties and nineties, arrived at the Capitol to accept the honor.

With today being the 75th anniversary of their founding, I encourage all to reflect on their service, and if you ever find yourself at the Udvar-Hazy Center, I urge you to find the WASP Congressional Gold Medal. Though small in size, it encapsulates the magnitude of the valor and courage of a truly unique group of women. In great debt to the WASP, the medal presents an opportunity to inspire future generations, and to have more women with wings in the United States Armed Forces.

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