WASPs the Original Fly Girls

  Jeneal McKinleyJul 4, 2016  

World War II was a time when everyone pulled together. It was a time of Rosie the Riveter and scrap metal drives. War bonds and war rations.

My grandmother was part of the Land Army, women who worked the land, drove tractors and plowed fields and in doing so, freed up men to go to war as well as kept America’s bread basket alive.

Rosie the Riveter was the name given to any female that worked a man’s job so he could go to war, any woman except the WASPs.

In 1939, on the day after Germany’s tanks rolled into Warsaw, Poland, pilot Jacqueline Cochran sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging the use of women pilots in the armed forces. In May 1940, another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love wrote the Ferrying Division of the Armed Air Forces with a similar idea but the Army was not ready to put women in the cockpit of its planes.

Who were these ladies that were ahead of their time?

Jaqueline Cochran had several jobs before she settled into cosmetics. In 1932 she met Floyd Odlum who would later become her husband. She told him of her desire to cover large areas in her quest to become a successful cosmetic sales woman. He told her to get her pilots license. He paid the $495.00 and three weeks later she had her license. That day a cosmetic saleswoman died and an aviator was born.

Cochran set out on her first solo flight to Canada, learning compass navigation from a fellow aviator. That was followed by a commercial license and she boasted that “There were few pilots who flew Gee Bees and then lived to talk about it. One was Jimmy Doolittle and she was the other.”

Nancy Harkness Love was the daughter of a wealthy physician, and developed an intense interest in aviation. At 16 she took her first flight, a month later she had her license.

In 1936 she married Robert M. Love, an Air Corp reserve major. Together the built their own Boston based aviation company, Inter City Aviation, for which she was a pilot.

In 1937 and 1938 she worked as a test pilot for the Gwinn Air Car Company. In one test she served as a test pilot on the new tricycle landing gear which became standard on most aircraft.

In 1942 Robert Love was called to active duty as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Ferrying Command. His office was near Col. William H. Turner who commanded the Domestic Division of the Air Transportation Command. (ATC). During a conversation between Love and Turner the question of women being used to ferry the planes back and forth came up. Love suggested the Col. Should talk to his wife directly. He asked her to write a proposal for a women’s ferrying division. Within a month the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was created.

Nancy Harkness Love and the WAFS first gathered as a squadron at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Although the WAFS were required to have 500 hours of flying time, those that arrived averaged more than 1,000 hours. The pilots checked out and trained for just a few weeks before they were assigned to their posts.

While the WAFS began their ferrying duties, Jacqueline Cochran was organizing the WFTD and recruiting classes of women pilots. The training involved six months of ground school and flight training. The first three classes trained in Houston, Texas, at the Municipal Airport. Bad weather and crowded skies prompted Cochran to move the program to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

On August 5th of 1943 the WAFS and WFTD merged to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.

In all 25,000 women applied for WASP training, 1,830 were accepted, 1,074 graduated from the program and were assigned to operational duties, 38 died. They earned $150 per month while in training and $250 per month after graduation. They paid for their own uniforms, lodging, and personal travel to and from home.

These young women, all civilian volunteers, flew every type of plane in the Army’s arsenal and served as light instructors as well as every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers — as part of the WASP program. They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition.

Margaret Phelan Taylor grew up on a farm in Iowa. She was 19, had just completed two years of college and was ready for adventure in 1943 when a Life magazine cover story on the female pilots caught her eye. Her brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her? She asked her father to lend her money for a pilot’s license — $500, a huge amount then.

“I told him I had to do it,” Taylor says. “And so he let me have the money. I don’t think I ever did pay it back to him either.”

But there was a problem. She was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2-inch requirement.

“I just stood on my tiptoes,” she says. When she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASP were trained, “Well, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.” Short, tall, slim, wide, they all came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the female civilian volunteers.

Once when Taylor was ferrying an aircraft cross-country, somewhere between Arizona and California, she saw smoke in the cockpit. Taylor was trained to bail out if anything went wrong. “But the parachutes were way too big. They weren’t fitted to us,” she says. “The force of that air and that speed and everything, why that just rips stuff off you. You’d slip right out.”

Her plane was smoking and Taylor faced a defining moment.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going until I see flame. When I see actual fire, why, then I’ll jump.’ ”
Was she scared? “No. I was never scared. My husband used to say, ‘It’s pretty hard to scare you.’ ”
The plane’s problem turned out to be a burned-out instrument.

But 38 female pilots did lose their lives serving their country. One was 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Rawlinson was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina. She was coming back from a night training exercise with her male instructor when the plane crashed. Marion Hanrahan, also a WASP at Camp Davis, wrote an eyewitness account:
“I knew Mabel very well. We were both scheduled to check out on night flight in the A-24. My time preceded hers, but she offered to go first because I hadn’t had dinner yet. We were in the dining room and heard the siren that indicated a crash. We ran out onto the field. We saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire, and we could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare.”

It’s believed that Rawlinson’s hatch malfunctioned, and she couldn’t get out. The other pilot was thrown from the plane and suffered serious injuries. Because Rawlinson was a civilian, the military was not required to pay for her funeral or pay for her remains to be sent home. So — and this is a common story — her fellow pilots pitched in. Because Rawlinson wasn’t considered military, the American flag could not be draped over her coffin. Her family did it anyway.

Unfortunately, for the sake of expediency, the WASPs were hired under Civil Service. Cochran, Love, and Arnold intended the women pilots to be made part of the military, but the need for pilots was so great and militarization was slow, requiring an act of Congress. They began the program with the idea of militarizing the WASP later.

The fact that the WASP were forgotten by their own Air Force united the women. In the mid 70’s, the Navy announced to the media that, for the first time in history, women would be permitted to fly military planes. The announcement reverberated among the WASPs. You might say it kicked up a wasps nest. They lobbied Congress to be militarized. And they persuaded Sen. Barry Goldwater to help. He ferried planes during the war, just as the WASP did. And then, in 1977, the WASP were finally granted military status by President Carter.

As for the Rosie the Riveters, they gained no benefits except a job well done. Oh, that and the American Rosie the Riveter Association where any female direct descendant can join and become a “Rosebud”.