A wasp among Eagles: a woman Military Test Pilot in World War II

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A WASP Among Eagles:
A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II

by Ann Baumgartner Carl

Chapter 5: WASPS

In 1941, like a virulent disease, the war spread throughout Europe. Hitler's armies moved into Denmark and Norway, Yugoslavia and North Africa. U-boat attacks and bombings of England continued, but perhaps because the United States Congress on March 11 finally passed the Lend-Lease Bill, and destroyers and planes began to give support to Britain, Hitler decided to invade Russia. It was said that he believed the war in Russia would only take three months, and then he could concentrate on absorbing England.

Several other theories exist on why Hitler postponed a final attack on England. One, according to William Stephenson (A Man Called Intrepid) is that an astrologer trained by British Intelligence was able to convince Hitler it was not the time to defeat England. Another, according to writer John Toland and others, is that Hitler believed the German and the English were of similar stock and should unite rather than fight, and that Rudolf Hess, flying solo to Scotland, was actually Hitler's emissary for peace. (Long before he wrote his biography of Hitler, I met Toland on the train I was taking to Houston to join the WASPs. He argued that a writer should keep himself free to write the story of the war, not fight in it.)

At any rate, Russia was important to Hitler as it would provide the Lebensraum he sought for Germany. And on June 22, the world saw Hitler's armies -ignoring the treaty with Stalin-start an advance that in only a month reached Smolensk, just 200 miles from Moscow.

We could feel the concern and dread growing in the United States. After the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, the country was at last united behind the war effort. The United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan immediately, and we declared war on Germany and Italy as well, while we patrolled the West Coast against attack by Japan.

Roosevelt and Churchill were in constant communication and had, we learned later, secretly met off Newfoundland, where they signed the Atlantic Charter declaring the principles for world peace after defeat of the Nazis. Later, twenty-six Allied nations signed as the "United Nations," avowing not to make separate treaties.

Conscription into the armed forces began in earnest, as did rationing of sugar and rubber and the freezing of the price of steel. Production of planes and tanks in converted auto factories revved up and union leader Walter Reuther pledged no strikes. As the men went off to war, we of the citizenry learned to manage with our ration books for gasoline and food, and bought U.S. Savings Bonds.

War books like William Shirer's "Berlin Diary", Joseph Davies's "Mission to Moscow", and Winston Churchill's "Blood, Sweat and Tears" appeared, and songs like "White Christmas," "White Cliffs of Dover," "Paper Doll," and "I'll Be Seeing You" were sung.

Though 1942 began with depressing news from all fronts-heavy losses at Guadalcanal and Bataan and setbacks on the Russian front, certain other daring battles lifted the spirits of the Allies and those at home. Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle led his carrier-based B-25 bomber squadron all the way to Tokyo. The U.S. fleet defeated Japan at Midway. The Allies began night bombardment of German cities. And on November 8, the Allies landed an expeditionary force in North Africa to engage and defeat Rommel's German armies there. At last, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, "We are striking back!"

Meanwhile, in Germany, Allied Intelligence made two disturbing discoveries-that millions of Jews had been exterminated in Nazi gas chambers and that Germany was developing the capability to launch the V-1 and V-2 pilotless rockets in a final effort to subdue England.

In the United States "Rosie the Riveter" had become the national heroine. Women were replacing men in every facet of industry and performing excellently. Eleanor Roosevelt saw that this work could be a success only if there were planned daycare facilities for children. Henry Kaiser was first to provide this at his Swan Island Center in Oregon. Women were also enlisting in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the Navy) and WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps).

My mother and other housewives contributed by working at the Red Cross as contacts between soldiers and their families or simply as clerks (they all wore blue uniforms), or they grew and froze vegetables and meat, or saved grease or aluminum or rubber. My father was appointed by Civil Defense as an airplane spotter. Every night he served on the midnight to four watch, "spotting" and reporting any aircraft in the vicinity, and I went with him.

Our spotting post was in a tower of a large country house. After parking the car behind the big stone building, we entered a designated door. After passing through silent halls with closed doors, we climbed four stories to the dark tower. We relieved the former watch, signed in, and settled down to watch and listen. Our only light was a flashlight, when necessary. We had a telephone, a pad and pencil, and a pair of binoculars. Every once in a while, we heard the drone of a plane and reported its direction, probable altitude and speed, and guessed its type. It could be an enemy plane.

Otherwise, we spent the long cold hours looking out at the stars. My amateur-astronomer father introduced me to various constellations, to special stars like Sirius, brightest in the heavens, and to the North star, which over the ages has been different stars. Being a friend of Dr. Edwin Hubble, he knew the latest theories of the early universe and what its end might be. All this made celestial navigation, learned much later for the ocean-sailing my husband and I were to do, much more meaningful, and it was an introduction to the mysteries of space.

My particular project, now that I had my private pilot's license, was to build up the 200 hours of flying time required for a commercial license the ticket to a job in aviation. I still had my eye on an assignment to an air ambulance. I bought half an airplane with another aspiring private pilot, Jasper Wright, and we alternated in the use of our tired old Piper Cub (underpowered, no brakes, tears in the fabric) and flew, flew, flew.

It was certainly not an unpleasant task to have to go out and fly with a purpose in view, and even in one's own plane, though the plane was somewhat of a wreck. That added to the challenge. The last figures in its official number on the wing ended in "48," and it was known around the airport as "good old 48." Its engine popped and banged on the glide to land just like a P-51 fighter.

Some days I would simply go up and sightsee, enjoy the farmland below, and reach up to the scattered clouds above. Other times, I practiced flying maneuvers like lazy eights, wingovers, spins. I visited airports in the area. I flew in good weather and bad.

I did more serious flying for the national Civil Air Patrol. We not only practiced rescue missions and patrols but, as the war progressed, actually performed them. I introduced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to the joy of flying. I took my brother and my mother for rides, but my father never flew with me. He thought I would be nervous.

As I closed in on the magic number 200 in the summer of 1942, all private flying on the Eastern seaboard was prohibited because submarines had been seen offshore. Airplanes had to be dismantled, wings off, so they could not be flown at all.

Then I saw a news story explaining how the Air Force planned to use experienced women pilots for domestic military flying in order to release men for active duty overseas. Eleanor Roosevelt, in her "My Day" newspaper column on September 1, 1942, said that "women pilots are a weapon waiting to be used."

Back in July 1941, Jacqueline Cochran, already famous for her speed records and Harmon trophies, and, in fact, the leading woman pilot of the nation, had presented to Secretary of War for Air Robert Lovett (at the suggestion of President Roosevelt) a plan for using woman pilots to ferry new trainer-type aircraft to air bases, thus freeing men for more active roles. Lovett passed it on to Gen. H. H. "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Air Force.

"How many experienced women pilots are there?" General Arnold asked.

Cochran and her staff laboriously checked through Civil Aeronautical Administration files and found that of 2,733 licensed women, 150 had over 200 hours flying time and between 72 and 100 had 300 hours and over. She sent questionnaires to these pilots asking whether they would be interested in serving with the Air Corps (the Air Corps became the Air Force after Pearl Harbor). "Yes," 130 answered enthusiastically. On July 30, Cochran presented a finished proposal to Col. Robert Olds, head of the Ferry Command of the Air Transport Command, for an "Organization of a Women Pilots' Division of the Army Air Corps Ferry Command." After all, she pointed out, women were successfully ferrying aircraft for the Royal Air Force in Britain, and in Russia women pilots were even flying combat missions (albeit with high losses) in tiny, old biplanes.

'An experimental group of experienced women pilots in the United States might begin immediately flying small trainers from factories to bases," she wrote.

General Arnold told Jackie (as she was known) that the Air Corps was not ready for or needful of women pilots, but suggested that she fulfill the request of the British Air Transport Auxiliary that she recruit American women pilots for them. She was able to deliver twenty-five women pilots with 300 hours or more flying time, all of whom would sign a contract for 18 months' duty in England. By August 1942 they were processed in Canada and went to England by ship.

While Cochran was in England another well-known woman aviator (who had been flying since 1936), Nancy Harkness Love, took a different tack. She recruited forty-nine women commercial pilots with at least 500 hours in many different airplanes (they were called ships then) who would gladly serve in the Ferry Command, and right away, and presented it to Colonel Olds.

This plan, too, ran into difficulties, not the least of which was a change in Air Force personnel. Colonel (now General) Olds moved up as head of the Second Air Force. Brig. Gen. Harold George replaced him, and under him, as head of the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command, was Col. William Tunner. At the same time the needs of the Air Force changed. In 1942, they found themselves short of ferry pilots, and new planes were accumulating at the factories. Love was asked to submit a new proposal for hiring women ferry pilots , including their qualifications and how they would be used.

"But how would they be paid, and would they be hired on the same basis as civilian men pilots?" Tunner wanted to know.

Unfortunately they could not be an arm of the WAAC, as the WAAC had no provision for flying personnel. The men were hired from civilian flying jobs for a 90-day trial, after which they were commissioned into the Air Force. It was decided that the women would simply be hired as provisional Civil Service employees, but they were promised that the Air Force would "go to bat for them later" in Congress to make them part of the Air Force. While the men were to be paid $380 per month, the women would be paid $250. The men needed only 200 flying hours to be hired, the women 500. The men did not even need a high school diploma.

General George was satisfied with the proposal as worked out with Colonel Tunner. The Women's Auxiliary Ferry Troop (later Squadron, or WAFS) was born, so to speak, with Nancy Love at its head. Final approval would, of course, have to come from General Arnold. But Love confidently sent telegrams on September 10, 1942, to her cadre of experienced women pilots to report to the New Castle (Delaware) Army Air Base. Twenty-eight of her highly qualified young women arrived.

Cochran arrived home from England, furious. She demanded of General Arnold to know what was going on.

General Arnold had changed his mind about women pilots. He had approved Love's plan for the WAFS and, after listening patiently to Cochran's arguments, also backed the training plan she outlined. He saw that the war was expanding and there would be a need for more ferry pilots to augment the WAFS. As she had planned, Cochran would be chief of her training group. It would be called the 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment and would be stationed at the Municipal Airport in Houston, Texas.

At that point there were two women pilot organizations operating in the United States, plus the English contingent. But by July 5, 1943, after Cochran's training program proved itself, and women graduates began to enter other flying duties besides ferrying, all women pilots in the Army Air Forces-those in training and those flying for Air Transport Commandwere under the sole jurisdiction of the director of women pilots, Jacqueline Cochran. Nancy Love would direct the women of ATC. The consolidation was called Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, and all would wear the blue uniforms designed by Cochran.

Still, Cochran's hope for militarization of her pilots -- and the rights that went with it -- was not realized, nor would it be until the 1970s, long after the war. Eleanor Roosevelt, worrying that men serving their country in World War II had lost years in which they could prepare for careers and families, had urged the president to pass the G.I. Bill of Rights. The bill provided that the government would underwrite education and training for returning veterans. The WASPs, as Civil Service, would not be eligible.

Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran were very different, and had different conceptions of what an Air Force woman pilot should be and what she should do.

Nancy Love grew up in the affluent Harkness family in Boston and married Robert Love, of similar background and interests. They were cruising and racing sailors in New England waters, while they ran Intercity Airlines in Boston, for which Nancy was a pilot. She had flown with other women pilots for the Bureau of Air Commerce to airmark rooftops with names of towns and arrows pointing in their direction as aids to navigation to cross-country flyers. She had always had a plane of her own to fly, and most of the commercial pilots she had recruited were her personal friends.

As Sally Van Wagenen Keil in "Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines" describes her, Love was content to get her group into the Ferry Command and to keep her WAFS as an elite group. She took good care of them, in the early days supplying them with grey-green uniforms and hats, and continuously seeing to it that they flew better and better aircraft. She even tried to get them-and herself-on transatlantic flights, but General Arnold rejected that request, then and for the duration of the war (despite the general but erroneous belief that WAFS or WASPs "flew bombers to England").

Jackie Cochran, on the other hand, started out life as an orphan (it is alleged that she never knew who her parents were) and lived in foster homes in the lumbermill towns of Florida. Early on she learned to fight for what she wanted. After working as a beautician, she formed and ran her own Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetic Company. When she learned to fly, her forte was breaking speed and altitude records and she entered and won transcontinental and speed races formerly entered only by men. She was encouraged all along the way by her husband, businessman Floyd Odlum.

"Elite" was not a word that interested Cochran. Her group would be businesslike, well organized, fair, and proficient. Their training would be, in fact, the same training Air Force cadets got-same airplanes, same hours, same ground school. And all women would have the same training, before graduation, regardless of former experience. They would, in fact, be professionals, the first such women flyers. So not only did they benefit the war effort, but they received training for a new profession. Every WASP would, in fact, have gladly served as a WASP without pay.

In spite of their differences, Cochran and Love respected one another and worked together for the duration.

Although I had never met Nancy Love in the war years, much later, in 1947 or so, I rowed over from our sailboat to hers in a quiet harbor in Maine, and asked her how she felt about her years in the Ferry Command. Disappointingly, she said she "was simply glad to have a rest now," but that she had admired all her recruits, who, she said, did so much better than Cochran's trainees. I could have reminded her that official reports had shown just the opposite, but I rowed back instead.

And in the summer of 1948, Mary Margaret McBride asked me to join Jackie Cochran on her radio program. I can remember the year well as I was 8.99 months pregnant with our second child, and looked it. Mary Margaret was much more interested in this fact than any aspect of the flying, and in fact hoped for a birth on her show. (Jackie was not particularly interested in that, however.)

Overall, 25,000 young women jumped at the chance to fly planes as a WASP to help in the war effort. Very few of them fulfilled the basic requirements: to be an American citizen, be between 21 and 35 years old, have approximately 200 flying hours (later it would be less), be able to pass a stiff Air Force physical exam, and, most important, satisfy in an interview Cochran's pattern of what a future WASP should be. Only 1,800 were selected, and, of them, 1,070 would graduate.

The accepted applicants came from every conceivable background. Actresses, golf champions, journalists, a blackjack dealer, teachers, secretaries, relatives of men already in service, nurses, biologists, a bartender, all applied.

But what was the common denominator?

According to Deborah Douglas, author of the National Air and Space Museum-Smithsonian Institution report "U.S. Women in Aviation, 1940-1985," "Cochran's interview was used to assess the candidate's personality, her stability, and various aspects of her background that might be an indication of her future performance under stress."

It was a cold winter day, late in 1942, when I reported to Jackie Cochran's Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. With me was Susan Ford, a sometime riding companion who had many hundreds more flying hours than 1. As the elevator opened on Jackies floor, we saw probably thirty young hopefuls milling around, many examining the Harmon trophies on display. A friendly woman (we later learned her name Ethel Sheehy) gave us questionnaires to fill out. Then we would be interviewed, first, by Sheehy or Laoti Deaton and then, presumably if approved, by Cochran. Of course our flight logs would be checked, too. Susan wasn't as worried about the outcome as I, as she already knew Jackie and needed no interview. Surprisingly, Jackie's interview was short, friendly, but very businesslike-just a few questions and the admonition that there would be risks we'd have to face. Examining this famous, handsome, blonde flyer and achiever, I asked myself, 'Could I ever resemble her?'

Sue was simply sent home to pack, as she would go to the Air Transport Auxiliary in England. It was shortly before Christmas that I received my orders to report to Houston in January 1943 to be in the Class of 43-W-3.

What a Christmas present!

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