Badass Ladies of History: WWII WASPs

This post introduces a new, periodic series on the awesome women who walked the world before we did.  Today’s Badass Ladies of History are the brave women who were trained to fly transport, testing, training and cargo missions during the last years of World War II.

From September 1942 until December 20, 1944, 1078 women participated in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, including 38 who gave their lives in service to their country.  The WASPs were not given official military recognition until President Jimmy Carter signed a house bill in 1977 and they were given official veteran status by Public Law 95-202 in 1979.   The WASPs were formed to free male service pilots for combat missions, and in their short time in the air, WASPs clocked over 60 million miles.  Estimates predict as many as 60% of all non-combat flight was completed by WASPs during their time of service.

WASPs received the same training as male cadets, and flew the same planes, including bombers like the B17 “Flying Fortress”, the B-24 Liberator and the Martin B-26G Marauder; utility planes like the Cessna UC-78B  “Bobcat”; and trainers like the Fairchild PT-19A “Cornell”.

1943 cartoon about WASPs "I think we're being followed..."

Since WASPs weren’t recognized as military during their brief service, the women who died in training or on missions did not receive any military benefits, they weren’t entitled to military funerals and their families had to pay for transportation home and funeral costs.

The WASPs were poised to receive military recognition in December of 1944, but the need for pilots had decreased and Congress ruled to disband the WASP program before the women could attain military status and benefits.  When the US Navy announced that women would be allowed to fly in non-combat missions in the late 1970’s the former WASPs went into action, bringing about the 1977 house bill and 1979 Public Law signed by President Carter.  The WASPs were granted the Congressional Gold Medal in March 2010.

President Obama signs bill giving WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, March 10, 2010
President Obama signs bill giving WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, March 10, 2010

In a 2003 interview, former WASP Mildred Darlene “Mickey” Axton described her training:

Well, our training was exactly like the men. We started out in a primary training — trainer, and it was a PT-19A, open cockpit. In the Air Force we always had a parachute. Here’s another thing, all the parachutes were packed by the women of the city — they were trained — of Sweetwater, and you came by and you picked up your parachute and you knew it was okay because we knew those women were conscientious and packed it properly.

And we didn’t keep a parachute of our own anytime, we always just picked up a parachute. And in the primary trainer, we learned all the evasive acrobatic maneuvers that the men would come to learn in fighter training, loops and rolls and spins and snap rolls and lots of spins and everything had to be done correctly and when they said, “Do five spins and come out headed north,”, you had to do that. You had to go practice. One thing I did to help secure my safety, when I had to go up and practice all the loops and rolls and spins and everything, if they said, “Go to 10,000,” I always went to 12,000. If they said to go to 8,000, I always went to 10,000, they always gave us the field.

Before her death on February 6 of this year, Mickey was the first woman to fly a B29 bomber, she served as a test pilot for Boeing and as a colonel in the Commemorative Air Force and in  “1998, the Jayhawk Wing of the Commemorative Air Force named its restored World War II Fairchild PT-23 ‘Miss Micky’ in her honor.”

WASP cadets learning about airplane engines.
WASP cadets learning about airplane engines.

To learn more, check out the following links or visit your local library!

WASP on the Web

The National WASP Word War II Museum

Texas Woman’s University Online WASP Resources

PBS American Experience Fly Girls Official Website

NPR’s WASP: Women with Wings in World War II Website

Image Credits: Thumbnail, Congressional Gold Medal bill signing, learning about engines, cartoon

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

3 replies on “Badass Ladies of History: WWII WASPs”

Love all the ladies standing around President Obama with huge grins on their faces. Too bad it took them so many decades to receive proper recognition! And what a chilling thought, that they knew they could trust the parachutes to open because they knew which women had packed them. Thanks for this feature!

Thank you for my history lesson of the day. I was not aware of these brave dames. WACS are celebrated–maybe because they’re perceived as sexier and less threatening? December, 1944–so close!

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