Flight Of The Wasp

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But at Camp Davis, it almost seemed as though the WASP themselves were the targets. The commanding officer of the 3rd Tow Target Squadron, Lovick Stephenson, made it clear that he did not support women in the military. Male pilots already assigned to tow-target duty felt threatened by the new arrivals. Some enlisted men even requested transfers. Although correspondence plainly stated that the 25 women “would be given every opportunity to demonstrate their ability to replace a proportion of, or all, men tow target pilots,’’ Stephenson instead gave them busy work—administrative paperwork or tracking flights in light planes such as the L-5 Stinson liaison planes and Cubs. It was a big comedown.

In time, the women would fly the big planes they came to fly and win the respect they deserved, but ill will was palpable, as one story in Flying Magazine made clear. “Isabel Fenton of West Springfield, Mass. was flying a Vega Ventura about 6,000 feet over the dunes off Camp Davis the other day, hauling an airplane target for a battery to shoot at. In 20 rounds the 90’s got the target and the target fell blazing into the sea. There were cries of Ah and Oh and Good Shooting from the gallery of press and radio representatives and officers. But as the Ventura wiggled its wings and swung off for its base, a grizzled colonel mumbled into his moustache, ‘Hell, they missed the girl.’”

Cochran did not let the summer’s challenges slow her down. She offered the WASP another groundbreaking assignment—a chance to fly the B-26 Marauder “Widowmaker,” a twin-engine bomber so named for its proclivity for crashing during takeoff. Soon afterward they began flying the country’s newest, biggest bomber—the B-29 Superfortress, another plane with a reputation for being hard to handle. Cochran told General Arnold that her pilots had shown that the concerns about those planes were overstated. “The obvious conclusion was that if a woman could do it so could a man,” Cochran said, with understated irony.

But things were changing for the WASP and for the world at large. By 1944 the war had turned in the Allies’ favor. New, long-range fighters could now destroy German Luftwaffe planes on the ground, making the skies even safer for the Allies. The United States required fewer combat pilots in the European theater, so the Army Air Force began shutting down both its War Training Service and its civilian flight training program. The civilian pilots reacted by charging women pilots with stealing their jobs. Columnist Drew Pearson launched a virulent campaign against the WASP program, writing that “Jackie’s glamour girls” were benefiting from “a racket.” Sen. Harry Truman, the head of a committee investigating war waste, asserted that the cost of training a WASP flyer was a hefty $22,000. It was a wildly inflated figure; a truer estimate for both female and male cadets was $12,000.

In February 1944 Rep. John Costello of California submitted a bill to confer Army Air Force commissions on all on-duty women pilots. It failed a House vote on June 19, with 188 voting against, 169 for, and 73 abstaining. It marked the beginning of the end for the WASP. Congress did approve the necessary appropriation for another year, but Cochran decided to close down the program because full military status—which had been given to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and other branches of the military—was not forthcoming.

At Avenger Field, the final WASP class learned that its training would be abbreviated. Trainee Peggy Daiger was dispirited by the resulting collapse of general field operations. “Those employed at Avenger Field were draft exempt; they hurried away in droves to find other draft-exempt jobs before the December deadline.” The changes became evident immediately. “Maintenance was sloppy; instructors became harried; food declined to the almost inedible. I remember one chill day’s evening chow that consisted solely of warmed-over boiled potatoes, gummy macaroni, and milk that had been kept next to something less tasty in the refrigerator. One graduate WASP, on the field for only a day’s business, carefully loaded her tray with this mess and then slammed the whole thing against the wall. We applauded mentally but nobody smiled.”

More than 100 pilots stationed at bases across the country returned for the final graduation on December 4, 1944, a powerful sign of support for a class of graduates with no base assignments awaiting them, who would receive wings they could not wear in military flight. Cochran predicted that the women would return to more conventional paths: “Their careers will be marriage.” And overnight, with the abrupt end of the WASP, that assessment seemed accurate.

At the official ceremony, Cochran stuck to a colorless script, thanking the generals and expressing pride in the program’s accomplishments. But then Arnold gave the WASP a meaningful sendoff, saying, “Frankly I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fly the controls of a B-17 in the heavy weather they would naturally encounter in operational flying.” The unusually expansive general concluded, “Well, now in 1944, more than two years since the WASP first started flying with the Air Forces we can come to only one conclusion: It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”