Flying For Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II
by Amy Goodpaster Strebe, Potomac Books, Dulles, Va., 2009, $15.95.
Historian and journalist Amy Strebe, who has researched America’s Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) training program as well as its counterpart in the Soviet Union, concludes that “by their courage, professionalism and determination, the first female military pilots in history, who spread their wings in World War II, succeeded at setting a precedent for subsequent generations of women in aviation.”
Strebe explains how more than 1,000 women completed a grueling six-month training program at Avenger Field in Sweet – water, Texas, earning their wings “the Army way.” After graduation, WASPs checked out and flew every type of aircraft from the smallest trainers to the fastest fighters and heaviest bombers. They ferried planes from factories to bases throughout the country, tested them after modifications or repairs were made and also towed sleeve targets for aerial gunnery.
The American program was terminated in December 1944. Although its graduates had logged an estimated 60 million miles and flown 80 percent of all ferrying missions, they were denied life insurance and medical coverage during their service. They were also deprived of any veterans benefits under the GI Bill. The 38 WASPs who had given their lives were not even allowed burial expenses.
On the other side of the world, the Soviet Union’s WASP counterparts also numbered just over 1,000. Marina Raskova, who had made a name for herself as a record-setting pilot in the 1930s, persuaded Josef Stalin to permit the organization of three women combat aviation regiments after the war started. One of those regiments remained exclusively female during the conflict, flying 24,000 combat missions; the other two units eventually included some men.
Soviet women flew a combined total of more than 30,000 com bat sorties during WWII, with two female pilots becoming fighter aces. More than 50 women fliers were reported killed in action.
Strebe provides a running comparison between the U.S. and Soviet programs, including training routines. She also compares the educational background of participants and explores how problems associated with gender discrimination were handled during the war years.
Demobilization of the Soviet women pilots and the disbandment of the WASPs came as a disappointment to female fliers of both nations. However, Strebe concludes that after the war much more progress was made in the West than the East in the latter half of the 20th century. Women today fly military aircraft and train for combat on a regular basis in the United States. Strebe acknowledges that there are now a small (though unspecified) number of Russian female military fliers, but she points out, “Women pilots in Russia today must overcome tremendous obstacles to be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.