Modern day women who aspire to fly military aircraft can thank some hardy ladies of another era for putting a large dent in the barrier. They were members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASPS. During the darkest days of WWII, they proved in no uncertain terms that women could fly!
In May 1993, about 200 veterans of that organization gathered at the airport in Sweetwater, Tex., where they had trained, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the WASPS.
From Feb. 1943 to Dec. 1944, some 25,000 women applied for the training, 1830 were accepted and 1074 won their wings. Approximately 65% of those graduates are still alive today.
Recruited to relieve men needed for combat service early in the war, WASPS graduates flew more than 60 million miles hauling cargo, delivering personnel, ferrying aircraft, and towing targets for aerial gunnery. Although they never saw combat themselves, they flew every type of combat planes in frequently dangerous missions. Thirty-eight of them died in that service.
There was no legal way to commission women pilots at that time, but they were promised that would change. Unfortunately, when enough male pilots were available to do these jobs, the Army Air Force canceled the WASPS program and sent the women home, with little fanfare and none of the benefits received by their military counterparts. Eventually — some 35 years later — they became eligible for veteran's benefits and also received the Victory medal and American Theater medal.
Today, most of the remaining WASPs bristle when they read or hear about women finally being able to fly combat aircraft. They say, “We were the first. We flew combat planes and just about everything else they had back then. And we'd have become military pilots if they'd have let us!”
So, to all of you latter day female military pilots: The next time you raise your glass, give a toast to the WASPS.
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