In 1942, the United States was faced with a severe shortage of pilots, and military leaders gambled on an experimental program to help fill the void. The new program was created to train women to fly military aircraft so male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.
The group of female pilots was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots — or WASP for short. In 1944, during the graduation ceremony for the last WASP training class, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, said that when the program started, he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”
Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.
A few more than 1,100 young women, all civilian volunteers, flew almost 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 across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. They even towed targets to give ground and air gunners something to practice shooting at — with live ammunition. The WASP expected to become part of the military during their service. Instead, the program was canceled after just two years.
Thirty-eight female pilots were killed during their World War II service. Because the WASP were not military, the American flag could not be draped over their coffins. And because the female pilots were long considered civilians, they were not entitled to the pay and benefits given to men. They were afforded veteran status in 1977 after a long fight.
The women pilots weren’t granted military status until the 1970s. 65 years after their service, they finally received the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress. In 2010, President Obama awarded the WASP pilots the Congressional Gold Medal.