Womens History Month: Womens Airforce Service Pilots

Adapted and updated from “Memorial Day 2009” which first appeared simultaneously at GeneaBlogie and The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit on May 25, 2009.

If you haven’t been to Arlington, Virginia in the last several years, you may not recognize the two memorials shown above.  The top one is the “Women in Military Service for America” memorial and it stands near the gate of Arlington National Cemetery. The next one is the Air Force Memorial, a short distance away on the grounds of Fort Myer.

The women’s memorial is intended to recall all women who gave their lives in military service.  And the Air Force Memorial is to commemorate “the service and sacrifices of the men and women of the United States Air Force and its predecessor organizations.”  But there’s one group of servicewomen who were nearly forgotten by the Government with respect to recognition.  That group is the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (“WASPs”) of World War II.   These were the first women pilots employed by the United States  military.

The government first used women to fly military airplanes in 1942.  The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was formed in September of that year under the command of Nancy Harkness Love at New Castle Army Air Base, Delaware.  This unit ferried aircraft from factories to airfields, freeing the male pilots for combat duty.

Nancy Love, commander, Womens Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, with squadron member Betty Gilles, 1942. Love and Gilles were the first women to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

In 1943, the Army activated the 319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment at Ellington Army Air  Field,  near Houston, Texas.  The commander was renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran.  Later, the two women’s flying units were combined under the name “Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.”   Cochran was given overall command, and training was moved to Avenger Field near Sweetwater, Texas.

The women pilots flew almost every military aircraft in the U.S. inventory.  In addition to ferrying duty, the WASPs towed targets for live-fire antiaircraft exercises, trained male pilots in some of the advanced aircraft, flew simulated bomb and strafing runs for training combat troops, and performed other flying duties when and where necessary to relieve male pilots.

On March 3, 1943, Margaret Sanford Oldenberg of Contra Costa County, California, became the first WASP to die in the line of duty when her plane crashed five miles from the airfield.  Overall, thirty-eight women were killed in the line of duty.

In 1944, General  Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S.  Army Air Forces, declared the WASP mission to be over.  On December 7, 1944, Arnold appeared at Avenger Field and said the WASPs had helped move the country “toward the final moment of victory” and that the sacrifices of the thirty-eight who died would be “long remember[ed].”  It would be nearly four decades before women flew U.S. military aircraft again.

The Government did not consider the WASPs to be service veterans.  They were therefore entitled to no medals, and no funeral honors.  That began to change in 1977 when Congress passed a law permitting the Secretary of Defense to recognize the WASPs as having performed military duty.  In 1984, the WASPs were indiviudally awarded the World War II Victory Medal and the American Campaign Medal.

Despite these changes for the WASPs, the Army, which operates Arlington National Cemetery, refused to allow WASP members to be buried there until 2002.

Jacqueline Cochran (center), commander, 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment, surrounded by new trainees, 1942.

In 2002, former WASP Irene Kinne Englund died at age 84.  Her family attempted to have her buried at Arlington based on her WASP service.  They were told that she eligible, but only because her husband was a World War II veteran, not because of her own service.   Her daughter, Judith Englund, took up the cause for her mother and all WASPs. Several months later, the Army changed its mind.

One June 15, 2002, WASP Irene Kinne Englund became the first of her sisters of the air to have a full military funeral at Arlington.

By this year (2010), there are fewer than 300 of the more than 1100 WASPs still alive.   Last week, a number of those living aviation icons laid a wreath at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia and then were present in the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal, a final and fitting tribute to America’s female military aviation pioneers.

Carol Brinton Selfridge, 92 and a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots Class 44-5, and her grandaughter, Lt. Col. Christy Kayser-Cook, share a moment during the reception to honor women pilots who flew with the Women Airforce Service Pilots at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial March 9, 2010, at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. (U.S. Air Force Photo)


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