At the final Women Airforce Service Pilots graduation ceremony in December 1944, General “Hap” Arnold admitted just how skeptical he had been about the program from its outset. He said he hadn’t been sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.” But he added, “Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
In its two years of existence, the program launched to free up male pilots for combat duty notched an impressive record: Just over 1,100 young women volunteered to serve as WASPs, ferrying new aircraft to far-flung fields, testing newly repaired planes and towing targets so gunners could train with live ammunition. They flew more than 60 million miles, delivering 12,650 aircraft.
Unlike male pilots, they were on their own when it came to learning to fly. According to Katherine Sharp Landdeck of Texas Woman’s University, who’s currently writing a book about the group, “you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they had to learn how to fly so they can be a WASP.” Although many anticipated that they would eventually become part of the military, that didn’t happen during WWII. The controversial program was discontinued in 1944 before the war’s end because, with military flight training programs closing down, male instructors started lobbying for the women’s jobs, claiming the WASPs were no longer needed. In fact, the families of 38 women who died serving their country didn’t even get any money to bury them.
WASPs were finally recognized as military veterans in 1977. Then, just a year ago, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the women pilots the Congressional Gold Medal. And on March 10, 2010, many of the roughly 300 surviving WASPs came to Washington, D.C., to receive a tangible award more than 60 years after their service: a bronze medal. WASP veterans like Lillian Yonally— recently interviewed by National Public Radio—lamented that so many former comrades had gone west before they could receive any recognition. Yonally emphasized that she, like the rest, had volunteered as her way of contributing to the war effort. But she also remembers it as a great adventure: “I did it for the fun. I was a young girl and everybody had left and it was wartime. You didn’t want to get stuck in a hole in Iowa; you wanted to see what was going on.”
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.