The Female Pilots of World War II: Forgotten and Betrayed

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941 and the United States suddenly found itself at war, male pilots were in short supply. Sarah Byrn Rickman writes that initially, twenty-eight experienced civilian female pilots stepped in to become the first members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) “who flew wingtip to wingtip with their male counterparts and were just as vital in the war effort” as they flew everything from small aircraft to fighter planes. While they did not fly combat missions overseas, these WASPs flew almost every aircraft in the army’s arsenal for transport, training, testing, and other purposes. Rickman notes that “eventually 1,074 more women were trained to fly and relieve male pilots who were sent to combat.” Rickman states that by the end of the war, thirty-eight WASPs had died flying for their country. The military never officially recognized the WASPs’ service during the war and took no responsibility for the transport of their bodies or funeral costs when the WASPs lost their lives while flying. As soon as the war was over, when their champion, Army Air Force Commanding General Henry Arnold, sought to have the WASPs designated as members of the United States military, Congress refused because of complaints from disgruntled male pilots who feared that women would take their jobs. The WASPs were disbanded at the end of 1944 with no recognition. The impact of this shameful decision was that these women did not receive the following:

  • medical care or benefits
  • insurance benefits
  • symbols of recognition for the families of WASPs who died while serving their country
  • burial subsidies
  • flags on their coffins
  • access to burial in the national military cemeteries
The struggle for recognition continues:
  • In 1977, WASPs finally earned military status.
  • In 2002, the Army granted WASPs military funeral honors.
  • In March 2015, the military rescinded the right to military funeral honors, including the right to be buried in our national cemeteries.
Shame on the army and the US Congress for not recognizing the service and sacrifices of these brave women.   The image used in this post is in the public domain and can be found at Pilots_and_B-17_Flying_Fortress.jpg.  ]]>

3 thoughts on “The Female Pilots of World War II: Forgotten and Betrayed”

  1. Wow. I *did* know about the WASPS (and WAVES, right?) but did not know the rest of this story.
    It is an interesting parallel to the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots who were allowed to train and fly because of the need for pilots in WWII. Not allowed to fly fighter planes, but could accompany and guard them in their “redtail” planes.
    I am astonished that the right to military funeral honors was rescinded! 2015 – so much seems to be going backwards when it comes to women, and People of Color.

  2. p.s.
    “Of those accepted, the majority were white; aside from white women, the WASP had two Mexican American women, two Chinese American women (Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee), and one Native American woman (Ola Mildred Rexroat).[4] Due to the existing climate of racial discrimination, the only African American applicant was asked to withdraw her application.[5]”

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Jeannette, and for these facinating statistics on the women of color involved as WASP’s. This is valuable information, as well as the information about the only African American applicant being asked to withdraw. It’s all very sad.


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