Author's Note on The WASP

In 1942, with so many young men needed at war, the United States began training women to fly military aircraft so that male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas. These were the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, wasn’t convinced that “a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather,” but over 25,000 women applied. The 1,074 women who were accepted—ages eighteen to thirty-five—came from the farm, the mountains, the city, and the coast to Houston, Texas, and later to Sweetwater, Texas, to train to be pilots. They were secretaries, students, wives, mothers, but the one thing they had in common was that they loved to fly.

As WASP, they flew almost every type of military aircraft—fighter planes and bombers, including the mythical B-17 and the giant B-29 that terrified so many male pilots. They ferried new planes long distances from military base to military base. And they towed targets while ground and air gunners honed their shooting skills by firing on them with live ammunition. Through it all, they faced military ingratitude, sexism, harassment, and sabotage. In all, thirty-eight WASP lost their lives flying for their country. But they were considered a civilian program and not part of the military.

The head of the WASP was Jacqueline Cochran, then the most famous and well-respected female pilot in the world, who, on May 18, 1953, became the first woman to break the sound barrier. She campaigned doggedly to earn the WASP the military status she knew they deserved. But in December 1944, stating that the changing war situation rendered the WASP unnecessary, General Arnold deactivated the program.

Thirty-three years later, the WASP were granted military status. Then, in July 2010, sixty-five years after their service, they received the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress when President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.

On December 7, 1944, General Arnold addressed the last graduating class of WASP, saying: “You, and more than nine hundred of your sisters, have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was in doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASP have dispelled that doubt. Certainly we haven’t been able to build an airplane you can’t handle. So, on this last graduation day, I salute you and all WASP. We will never forget our debt to you.”