Flight Of The Wasp


But with the number of male pilots dwindling further every month, Arnold reversed his position. At roughly the same time, the head of the Army Air Transport Command, Col. William H. Turner, approved the plan of an accomplished flyer, Nancy Harkness Love, to assemble a group of highly experienced women pilots to ferry planes. Cochran, in contrast, sought full military training for her women pilots. She began recruiting women who could compare favorably with the average cadet both in intellect and, as she put it, “coordination.” For consideration, applicants could be no shorter than 5 feet 2½ inches tall, no younger than 18 and a half years, and must have flown no fewer than 200 hours. Cochran looked for “clean-cut, stable appearing girls.” Conservative in many respects, Cochran wedded her views on female abilities with the conventional views of the period. “A woman, to accomplish all she can, must present herself at an absolute peak of attractiveness, just as she must keep herself in good health and her brain growing and alert,” she told Ladies Home Journal in 1941. “Her beauty is not a frivolous irrelevancy but a touchstone to a full life.” She looked askance at black WASP candidates—there was at least one—because, she argued, they would attract far too much prejudice for them to succeed.

Even in the chaotic atmosphere of wartime America, the recruitment process struck prospective WASP candidates as surprisingly informal. Cochran threw cocktail parties and receptions, sometimes making verbal offers after only short conversations. “How many of you would be willing to fly for your country?” she asked a gathering of women in Washington, D.C. A month after that meeting, Jane Straughan was startled to receive a wire that instructed her to report immediately for duty. While more than qualified, she had not even filled out an application form.

Determined applicants found ways around the physical requirements. At 98 pounds, Caro Bayley was simply too small, but she pinned her father’s fishing weights under her clothes to add weight. Her examiner passed her. Called “Little Gear” by her classmates, Bayley had trouble reaching the pedals but nonetheless became one of the best acrobatic pilots in the program with the aid of a small stack of pillows. Some challenged the height requirement by hanging upside down by their heels to stretch themselves out, while others simply begged the examiners to pass them anyway.

The program got under way slowly at Howard Hughes Field in Houston in November of 1942. It was a haphazard start. The 319th Army Air Force Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) lacked classrooms, a cafeteria, and even the military planes to train in, instead relying on ordinary civilian carriers painted olive drab. To eat or use the restrooms, the trainees had to walk to the Houston Municipal Airport a half mile away. Without set uniforms, they dressed in whatever they wanted—cowboy boots, loafers, and saddle shoes. One pilot, Marion Florsheim, wore bedroom slippers with pompoms. The only WFTD-issued item was a hairnet required for flying, because the Washington brass worried that long hair would hinder flight training.

In April the training operation shifted to Avenger Field. By then Sweetwater’s residents weren’t the only ones who found the fliers unusual. Many of the women pilots themselves felt transformed, noting in diaries and letters that their friends and family might not recognize them because they had grown so rough-and-tumble. Living together in barracks and following a rigorous regimen—beginning with reveille at 6 a.m., followed by Morse code, Link (flight simulation) training, and flight training—did not allow time for primping. Gallows humor became a coping mechanism as well as a form of bonding between the pilots, who sometimes had to withstand slights from bullying instructors. Winifred Wood described how her class grew more confident of its military bearing but felt deflated after performing as the honor guard for visiting generals Barton K. Yount and Barney Giles. After the inspection, Giles had turned to his wife and said, “Aren’t they cute!”

The oddity of women in the military made good copy for the American press. In late April 1943 the Houston Post ran an Associated Press report on the WASP’s move to Sweetwater, dubbing them the “Lipstick Squadron.” Reporter Hugh Williamson described the pilots as “sun-bronzed, trim as the streamlined planes,” but also quoted Cochran as saying that the program was hard work with little glamour. Field supervisor Maj. L. E. McConnell told Williamson that “gentler treatment” was the only change required for the instruction of women students. As for fighting in actual combat, McConnell said they could learn gunnery and “take their place in the front if called upon to do it.” Cochran shared her worries with Williamson that combat would harden and brutalize the women, who still needed to be wives and mothers after the war. Nonetheless, if events called for it, women could fly combat missions. “When aroused, women make the nastiest fighters,” she said.

The WASP pilots that graduated from Avenger fanned out to air bases throughout the United States, where they flew cargo, transported new airplanes from factories, and assumed other aviation roles. One elite group, formed from Cochran’s best flyers, received an assignment to tow aerial targets at Camp Davis in South Carolina. Cochran hoped the assignment would serve as a stepping stone to bigger responsibilities, perhaps even overseas. “[Cochran] told us the wonderful news that 25 of us were to be used as an experiment and trained on bigger equipment to see just what women can do,” WASP Dora Jean Dougherty wrote in her diary. “Will fly almost everything including B-26s and sounds wonderful. She couldn’t tell us everything. . . . None of us could sleep for [we] were too excited.”