Flight Of The Wasp

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Curiosity, patriotism, and even a hint of scandal lured the residents of Sweetwater, Texas, to the outskirts of town one April morning in 1943. The townspeople made a day of it, setting out picnic lunches near the military training base at Avenger Field and searching the sky for incoming aircraft. “Cars lined old Highway 80 for two miles in each direction from the Main Gate,” recalled 17-year-old Hershel Whittington.

The first sightings came in mid-afternoon, and then dozens of planes, open cockpit and single propeller, began passing over the rolling plains of tumbleweed and cactus beyond town on the way to the base. “Here comes one,” someone shouted. “And here’s another!”

The planes belonged to members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a band of roughly 1,000 women flyers that served as a homefront Army auxiliary during World War II. But their program might have come too soon for an Army establishment—and a country—that was still wary about women in the military. From the moment of its creation to its abrupt end two years later, the WASP program met with skepticism despite a stellar record of ferrying B-17s, B-29s, B-26s, and other airplanes. One Pentagon official described the program as “an experiment” to test women’s abilities to withstand duress and handle the physical demands of the military.

The curious residents of Sweetwater may have had more in common with their high-profile visitors than either group realized. America’s entry into war had brought sweeping cultural changes: women took on roles vacated by the men joining the military, leaving their kitchens to work on assembly lines and factory floors. Sweetwater experienced an influx of wartime newcomers, including the high-spirited women pilots, while the women found themselves pushing against the boundaries of society’s frontiers.

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The newly arrived trainees, outfitted in ill-fitting khaki jumpsuits they called zoot suits, seemed unusual indeed to the people of Sweetwater. “They were aloof, self-contained, self-assured, and self sufficient; at least so it seemed to me then,” remembered Helen Kelly, a young girl when the WASP flyers came to town. She watched them in the women’s dressing room at the town pool, where “they stripped and walked around naked, unashamed. We had never seen anyone do that. Every Sweetwater female changed in and out of her bathing suit barricaded behind the firmly locked door of a dressing booth.” Even their speech seemed different. “They used words we didn’t,” Kelly recalled; “some long and fancy words, some short and pungent words. They even cursed openly, something which no proper lady in Sweetwater would do.”

Blue Bonnet Hotel’s Charles Roberson recalled how they poured in on the weekends to have their shoes shined. Most customers would give a small tip, or perhaps nothing at all; these women arrived with pocketfuls of change. Digging into their pant pockets—they did not carry handbags—they paid him with whatever they pulled out, often a fistful of coins. He remembers looking forward to their weekend visits, not for their extravagance of spending but for the extravagance of their spirit.

That kind of spirit was something they shared with Jacqueline Cochran, the program’s guiding light, and a household name in her own right. An accomplished racing pilot, she had earned a victory in 1938’s cross-country Bendix flying competition. A striking blonde, Cochran also ran her own cosmetics firm and created such popular products as Wonda-matic mascara. Born Bessie Lee Pittman in the Florida Panhandle, she had escaped poverty by moving to New York City, changing her name, and working in a Fifth Avenue hair salon. Through her well-heeled clients she met and later married Floyd Odlum, a man of great wealth and quiet influence. Odlum bought Cochran her first plane and encouraged her aspirations as a flyer and businesswoman.

Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 about an idea she had for a corps of women Army reserve pilots. “Should there be a call to arms it is not my thought that women pilots will go and engage in combat, for I’m sure they won’t,” she wrote. “But every trained male pilot will be needed in active service. The ‘lady birds’ could do all sorts of helpful back of the lines work. Every woman pilot who can step into the cockpit of an ambulance plane or courier plane or a commercial or transport plane can release a male pilot for more important duty.”

The U.S. War Department had already broached the idea of using women pilots as early as 1930. The Pentagon’s reply: “utterly unfeasible.” Women, as a memo explained, were “too high strung for wartime flying.” In 1936 a member of the 99s, a prominent women’s aviation organization, suggested women should join the military as pilots, but was promptly rebuffed. In the summer of 1941, Cochran, armed with a letter that the First Lady had helped her extract from President Franklin Roosevelt, made the rounds of the Pentagon. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, turned down her plan, stating that the Army had an adequate number of pilots. He also questioned whether Cochran could assemble enough qualified fliers. And, he asked, what about finding proper facilities for training women? “The use of women pilots presents a difficult situation as to the housing and messing of personnel at Air Corps Stations,” he wrote to her.