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For God, Country, And The Thrill Of It

April 2024
1min read

by Anne Noggle; Texas A&M University Press; 161 pages.

Anne Noggle has produced a handsome tribute to fellow members of the World War II civilian unit that was the first group of women to ever fly U.S. military aircraft. As early as 1939 women pilots had approached the Defense Department to establish a military flight program for females. Citing women’s alleged emotional instability and dubious mechanical aptitude, the Pentagon rejected the proposal.

Frustrated, the pilots took matters into their own hands. In the summer of 1942 Jacqueline Cochran recruited twenty-five American women to ferry airplanes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, which by then was desperate for trained pilots. Cochran’s crew performed with heroic efficiency.

Meanwhile, with the Pacific war taking a staggering toll on U.S. flier reserves, the Army Air Forces agreed, in September of 1942, to allow female pilots to ferry planes from factories to domestic bases. The experimental unit was open to commercial pilots who had logged five hundred flight hours. Women who qualified were hired as civilian employees at $250 per month ($50 less than their civilian male counterparts earned). At about the same time, Cochran’s plan to establish a more general flight program was officially adopted.

Both units flourished. On August 5, 1943, they were united under the auspices of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and all training was moved to Avenger Field near Sweetwater, Texas. Of the 25,000 women who applied for positions, fewer than 2,000 were accepted, and 1,074 won their wings.

The training was rigorous. The WASP curriculum paralleled but did not duplicate that of the male cadets. (The emphasis was on cross-country journeys; gunnery and formation flying were omitted.) Besides ferrying, the graduates towed targets for antiaircraft weapons and tested new planes.

The WASPs put in full sixteen-hour days. In the process the women formed lasting friendships and earned the respect of the enlisted men. At a ceremony for the last graduating class, in December of 1944, Gen. Hap Arnold said: “Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17. … now in 1944 … we can come to only one conclusion— the entire operation has been a success. It is on record that women can fly as well as men.”

During the WASPs two-and-a-half-year existence, it was generally assumed that the program would eventually be incorporated into the U.S. military. But as the war drew to a close, returning male pilots lobbied for the WASPs’ noncombatant flight assignments. On December 20, 1944, the unit was deactivated. Women were not formally trained for military flight again until 1976.

In the forty-five years since their disbandment, the WASP pilots have held regular reunions in Sweetwater. At a recent meeting, Noggle, now a photographer, made a formal black-and-white portrait of each WASP present. Those photographs are included in this book, where, combined with vintage snapshots and brief, personal accounts, they tell a compelling story.

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