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WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds, by Sarah Byrn Rickman, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2016, $29.95

On Thanksgiving Day 1944 Hazel Ying Lee was piloting a Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter into Great Falls, Mont., as part of a U.S. Lend-Lease shipment to the Soviet Union during World War II. From Montana male pilots would fly Lee’s plane and others on to Alaska, where Russian pilots waited to pick them up. As Lee came in for a landing, another fighter loomed over her—but the radio in that plane wasn’t working.

Air traffic controllers were aware one of the arriving P-63s had a dead radio but had lost track of just which one. Thus when the tower warned the pilot of the plane above Lee to pull up, only Lee heard the command. Following instructions, she pulled up and crashed directly into the belly of the descending plane. Both P-63s fell to the ground, and rescuers pulled Lee from the wreckage. Badly burned, she survived for two days.

Lee was among the more than 1,100 members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), a cadre of civilian female aviators who flew planes from factories to training fields and docks for shipment abroad, thus freeing male pilots for combat duty. She was among the 38 WASPs who died in the service of their country. Hers is one of many such accounts included in WASP of the Ferry Command, a thorough, well-researched record of the derring-do and grit of these women in trying wartime conditions. Though somewhat academic in her approach, Rickman relates several gripping stories and gives the reader an appreciation for how hard women had to fight—and still do—to be taken seriously in the military. Rickman, a former newspaper reporter, has written two other books about the World War II female pilots, and her abiding admiration for these courageous women is infectious.

Though the women performed wingtip to wingtip with the men, Rickman writes, and were under the command of U.S. Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Congress—which pretty much gave him anything he wanted—refused his request to make the civilian corps an official part of the U.S. armed forces. Thus WASPs were ineligible for service medals, military funerals and other benefits, unlike their contemporaries in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs), who were granted such privileges.

Perhaps inevitably, some male pilots complained to their superiors that women were taking jobs meant for them, though by then WASPs had proven themselves behind the controls. For example, in December 1942 six female pilots flew open-cockpit biplanes from Montana to Tennessee in the dead of winter. The thermometer read 9 degrees the day they left. Snow was falling. It was so cold ground crews had to heat oil so the engines would start. The training planes had no radios. The pilots had to climb 10,000 feet to get over Raton Pass, on the border between Colorado and New Mexico. Wind tore the maps from their hands. Owing to numerous stops and weather delays, it took the WASPs 19 days to make the trip. A group of 27 male pilots, charged with the same task, took off the same day from Great Falls. Despite colds, flu, near pneumonia and several mishaps, all of the women got to Jackson, Tenn., first.

—Lorraine Dusky