For this Memorial Day weekend post, I’m sharing the Fly Girls, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and their home in the only all-woman air base ever, Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Theirs is, to me, an amazing story.
As a celebration, I’m giving away a set of the e-books for my Texas Time Travel trilogy to one commenter, which includes TEXAS STORM, in which a WASP is sent forward from 1943 to today.
Back to the WASPs and their story.
After a great deal of political positioning, backstabbing, and juggling which I’m sure you don’t want to hear, the new women’s ferrying group was assigned to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Sweetwater is the home of many very nice people as well as rattlesnakes, tarantulas, black widows, and scorpions with dusty winds, a huge cotton compress, and high temperatures in summer and low temperatures in winter. I grew up in West Texas, so I take those things for granted.
I wonder what the women arriving from more temperate and picturesque locales thought when they first saw their new home. For instance, since the mid twentieth century, Sweetwater has been home to the world’s largest annual Rattlesnake Roundup. (Yes, I shuddered when I wrote this.) Although the roundup didn’t become official until later, those rattlers were around when the WASP were.
Even though each WASP had a pilot’s license, she was trained to fly "the Army way" by the U.S. Army Air Forces. More than 25,000 women applied for the WASP and 1,830 were accepted into the program. You can see that being accepted into the program was quite an honor.
|Start of the WASP Program|
The women pilots were required to pay their own way there and the return fare if they washed out; they also had to pay for their room and board. The WASPs were treated as much as possible like male cadets. They marched wherever they went and lived in barracks.
|Elizabeth L. Gardiner at|
controls of a B-26 Marauder
The WASP program began on a civilian basis because it was an experiment. While the women fliers functioned in the military, they lived under civilian law. They did not receive government insurance, and hospitalization for sickness or illness was difficult to work out.
The women were assigned six to a room divided by a bathroom and a room with six bunks on the other side. Twelve women sharing one bathroom may sound like a nightmare. Remember, this was at a time in history when most homes had only one bathroom and many still had only an outhouse. The bathrooms did have two toilets and four sinks as well as an open shower space (no privacy). In addition to their bunk, they had a small locker-like closet, a library-table desk, and a chair.
They received approximately 210 hours of flying time, about equally divided between PT-17s, BT-13s and AT-6s. Approximately 285 hours were devoted to ground school instruction. The training period lasted seven months.
|Wearing her "zoot" suit coveralls over|
her uniform and with her parachute
strapped to her, helmet on head, a
manikin poses for museum visitors.
Graduates of Avenger Field went on to flying assignments throughout the United States. They ferried 12,650 planes of seventy-seven different types, including B-17s. Fifty percent of the fighter planes manufactured were ferried by WASPs. After proving themselves as ferry pilots, they towed targets, flew tracking, smoke-laying, searchlight, strafing, and simulated bombing missions, gave instrument instruction, and tested damaged airplanes, a dangerous task.
Following training, the WASP were stationed at 122 air bases across the U.S. assuming numerous flight-related missions, and relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew 60,000,000 miles—yes that’s sixty million miles—of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases. They also towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo.
Women in these roles flew almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II. In addition, a few exceptionally qualified women were allowed to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets.
Many had been pilots before the war and loved flying (as the heroine in my book). Her first and last names are after two of the thirty-eight women WASP who died in the program. Eleven died during training and twenty-seven on active duty missions. Although these women loved flying and were patriotic, this was not a game.
|Frances Green, Margaret "Peg" Kirchner,|
Ann Waldner, and Blanche Osborn
Because they were not considered part of the military, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense. If her family could not afford the expense, other WASP chipped in to send their fallen comrade home. Traditional military honors or notes of heroism, such as allowing the U. S. flag to be displayed on the coffin or a service flag in a window were not allowed.
After completing their months of military flight training, 1,074 of them earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. While the WASP were not trained for combat, their course of instruction was essentially the same as male aviation cadets. The WASP thus received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and aerobatics but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. The percentage of trainees eliminated compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.
When the B-29 Flying Fortress was being tested and crashed several times due to an engine fire, it spooked most pilots from flying in the plane. In fact, many refused, something I didn't realize was possible without severe punishment. Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets was assigned to get this plane flying. To show the men the plane was safe and reliable, Tibbets recruited two of the WASP to fly the four engine B-29, Dorothea “DiDi” Moorman and Dora Dougherty. Instead of the regular six months training plus two years toward an Aeronautical Engineer degree, DiDi and Dora had three days to get ready for their demonstration. Of course, the two women had already qualified as WASP and had ferried numerous types of planes.
Tibbets did not inform the women about the engine’s fire problem. On one of the training flights, the engine caught fire and filled the cockpit with smoke. Dora didn’t hesitate for a second and instructed her male flight engineer to feather #3 and pull the fire extinguisher. Handling the emergency by the book, she got the fire out and, with the remaining three engines turning, landed the plane safely.
Tibbets' plan was a resounding success. The WASP convinced their male counterparts that the B-29 was safe and reliable provided it was managed properly. The men stopped complaining. For those of you who don’t know, it was Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets who piloted the Enola Gay (named after his mother) to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
|The B-29 known as the Flying Fortress,|
The Enola Gay
In 1944, WASP members at Maxwell Air Field founded the Order of Fifinella organization. Earlier, Fifinella had been designed by Disney and gifted to women pilots. The organization's initial goals were to help the former WASP members find employment and maintain contact between themselves. Through the years, the Order of Fifinella issued newsletters, helped influence legislation and organized reunions. The group held its final meeting in 2008 and was disbanded in 2009.
The records of the WASP program were classified and sealed for 35 years, making their contributions to the war effort little known and inaccessible to historians. In 1975. under the leadership of Col. Bruce Arnold along with the surviving WASP members organized as a group again and began what they called the "Battle of Congress". Their goal was to gain public support and have the WASP officially recognized as veterans of World War II.
|Statue of Fifinella|
at Avenger Field Museum
In 1977 the records were unsealed after an Air Force press release erroneously stated the Air Force was training the first women to fly military aircraft for the U.S. The documents were compiled that showed during their service WASP members were subject to military discipline, assigned top secret missions, and many members were awarded service ribbons after their units were disbanded.
It was also shown that WASP member Helen Porter had been issued an Honorable Discharge certificate by her commanding officer following her service. This time, the WASP lobbied Congress with the important support of Senator Barry Goldwater, who himself had been a World War II ferry pilot in the 27th Ferrying Squadron. During hearings on the legislation, opposition to the WASP members being given military recognition was voiced by the Veterans Administration, the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I don't know why these groups disapproved but can only guess it's because the WASP did not go into battle.
|President Barack Obama signing the bill for |
the Congressional Gold Medal paperwork
On July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama and the United States Congress awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. Three of the roughly 300 surviving WASPs were on hand to witness the event. During the ceremony President Obama said, "The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."
|Madge Moore, WASP|
On May 10, 2010, the 300 surviving WASPs came to the US Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders. On New Year's Day in 2014 the Rose Parade featured a float with eight WASP members riding on it.
Ladies, thank you for your service. Thank you to all who served your country!
http://waspmuseum.org/ Sarah Byrn Rickman
Fly Girls, by P. O’Connell Pearson, Simon and Schuster
WASP of the Ferry Command, by Sarah Byrn Rickman, UNT Press
Now, about my book in which a WASP, Jeannie Luttrell, is forced to parachute from her plane in a storm in 1943 and lands in 2018: TEXAS STORM, book 3 of the Texas Time Travel trilogy is now available from Amazon. The trilogy starts with TEXAS LIGHTNING, in which Penelope Jane "Penny" Terry comes forward from 1896. In the second book, TEXAS RAINBOW, Eleanore "Ellie" St. Eaves comes forward from 1921. The three books involve men from the Knight family, handsome and wealthy brothers Jake and Bart and their cousin Caleb. Click on each title above to be taken to the purchase link. These books have received great response from readers.