when pigs fly … expect the unbelievable

Archive for May 13th, 2009

WASPs

Posted on: May 13, 2009

In the 70s, WASP meant white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant.  Sort of like white bread.

But a mere 25 years earlier, WASP meant something much more dramatic, much less like white bread.  More like pumpernickel, rye, or cinnamon rolls!

In the early 1940s, in the midst of World War II, WASP meant Women Airforce Service Pilot.  WASPs were approximately 1,000 American women flyers that served the Army as an auxiliary during wartime.  While short-lived (Americans were not ready for women in the military — even in such an emergency situation as WWII), the WASPS ferried B-17s, B-29s, B-26s and other airplanes where they needed to go in order to facilitate troop training, movement and deployment.  One contemporary Pentagon official said that it was “an experiment[al program] to test women’s abilities to withstand duress and handle the physical demands of the military.”  Untrue.  Because the women were successful beyond belief, but they convinced no one of the ability of women to be effective in military service.

The WASPs began in November of 1942 as the 319th Army Air Force Women’s Flying Training detachment.  The only piece of equipment required was a hairnet — Washington brass felt sure that long hair would hinder flight training!  The women dressed anyway they wished — they had no uniforms.  They wore civies, cowboy boots, loafers, saddle shoes, even bedroom slippers.  (Marion Florsheim was known for her pink bedroom slippers with big pom-poms on the toes!)  But train they did:  Mores code, flight simulation, flight training and a good deal of bullying from instructors.

At Sweetwater Texas’ Avenger Field, where they trained, they were known as the “Lipstick Squadron” and the WASPs were described by  an AP reporter as “sunbronzed and trim as their streamlined planes” but he also noted that the program was “seriously hard work and little glamour”.

Upon graduation from the WFTD, the WASPs were assigned to bases all over the country.  They flew cargo, transported planes from factories, and learned other specific skills, such as towing aerial targets. 

But by 1944, we were winning the war and there was no need for WASPs.  Civilian pilots (men) were concerned that women would steal their jobs.  In February of that year, Representative John Costello of California introduced a bill that would confer Army Air Force commissions on all WASPs.  It failed a house vote on June 19.  While Congress did approve appropriations for the WASPs to continue for another year, the program was shut down because support (other than financial) was not forthcoming from Congress or the public.

Hap Arnold, a favorite of my Dad’s and the Chief of the Army Air Forces in which my Dad served in WWII, said of the WASPs:  “Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fly the controls of a B-17 in the heavy weather hey would naturally encounter in operational flying….Now, in 1944, more than two years since the WASP first started flying with the Air Forces we can come to only one conclusion:  It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

There is a moral to the story:  women can do most everything as well as men — so long as openminded folks are watching.

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