Editor’s note: Bruce Kauffmann died on July 18 after a short battle with cancer. The Telegraph Herald will continue to publish his remaining columns through August.
This week (Aug. 5) in 1943, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots was created when 1,074 female pilots were accepted out of more than 25,000 applicants to fly non-combat military missions during World War II, thereby freeing up their male counterparts for combat missions.
Although not trained for combat, these women pilots undertook the same basic flight training as the male pilots. Most trained for four months at the U.S. Air Force’s Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, learning not only to fly but also learning airplane maintenance and Morse Code. They also had to perform to the same high standards as their male counterparts.
Once training was complete, they flew more than 60 million miles in almost every plane the U.S. Air Force produced during World War II. Chief among their missions was to fly military aircraft from one base to another, and from 1942 to December 1944, they delivered to air force bases around the country 12,650 aircraft of 75 types. They also carried cargo, towed targets for anti-aircraft practice and engaged in simulated strafing missions.
They were, of course, burdened by the sexist prejudices of the day, even being told not to outperform their male counterparts or risk being dropped from the program. Additionally, although 38 WASP fliers were killed while serving during the war — 11 in training exercises, 27 on active duty — they were not considered members of the military, and therefore, their families bore the expense of their return home and funerals.
The U.S. Army even forbade the American flag being draped on their coffins, and the entire WASP program was kept under such wraps — all records of the WASP program were classified and sealed for 35 years — that when the U.S. Airforce announced in 1976 that women would be allowed to fly military aircraft, most people thought this was a pioneering occurrence.
After chafing at the double standards applied to them throughout the war, the fact that no one knew they had existed so angered the remaining WASP members that they organized and began lobbying Congress to recognize their contribution to the war effort.
Finally, their records were unsealed, and in 1977, a law was enacted, acknowledging their WASP service as “active duty,” at least in terms of receiving benefits from the Veterans Administration.
Then, in 2010, the 300 surviving WASP members came to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their service.
Four years later, waving to the admiring crowds, eight of them rode on a float during the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day.