Spirit of the WASP
by Nancy ParrishEarly in October, 2012, a World War II air-to-air B-26 tow-target pilot cut a symbolic ribbon at Wings Over the Rockies Aviation and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. Just beyond the ribbon, high above the polished floor, overlooking the beautiful planes stretched wingtip to wingtip across the pristine hangar, is a visually stunning, factual, inspiring exhibit--a tribute to an unsung group of heroes: the Women Airforce Service Pilots -- for many years considered ‘the best kept secret of World War II.‘ On that special day, when WASP Deanie Parrish cut the ribbon for the “FLYGIRLS OF WWII EXHIBIT,” WASP’ history was no longer a secret at Wings Over the Rockies!
A tribute to the WASP -- in honor of Women's History Month and the THIRD ANNIVERSARY of the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII.
Volunteers and WASP Deanie Parrish at the FlyGirls WWII ribbon cutting:
Wings Over the Rockies Museum, Denver Colorado
The trailblazing WASP were the first women in history to fly America’s military aircraft. That is amazing, indeed! Yet their unselfish contribution to the Allied victory in World War II is not just a story about women who flew American military aircraft. The WASP history is a tapestry of extraordinary testaments of courage and honor, of patriotism, persistence, and faith, and it is a story of service, commitment, and sacrifice.
The story began in 1939, when a visionary, spirited lady pilot named Jacqueline Cochran met with President and Mrs. Roosevelt and proposed the unconventional idea of training women pilots to fly military aircraft, should they ever be needed. They agreed. Jackie had the audacity to believe that airplanes didn’t know the difference between male and female pilots! She then submitted her idea to Gen. Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Corps.
He dismissed the idea immediately. Who could blame him? Consider, for just a moment, what the expectations were for women across America on December 6, 1941. Up until then, American women weren’t expected to do anything significant or courageous. They were expected to be teachers, librarians and secretaries; or wives and mothers who would raise their sons to do significant, courageous things. That all changed on December 7, 1941.
During the early months of 1942, after severe losses of combat pilots over North Africa, Gen. Arnold became desperate for more pilots. Jackie Cochran was passionate, persistent and well prepared. She convinced the General to make the bold, historic decision to give qualified licensed women pilots a chance to serve their country. That one decision eventually gave America the untapped resource so badly needed: courageous, patriotic, young women pilots, willing to go where no women had ever gone before: the cockpits of America’s military aircraft.
“When the telegram came saying, “Your services are needed in the Army Air Corps. If interested, report at the Palmer House in Chicago,” I was amazed. I could serve my country and fly. WOW!” WASP Margaret Ray Ringenberg
“After my husband was taken prisoner at Bataan, I had gone into the Women’s Defense Corps. I did the fire fighting, the life saving, the pistol shooting, and Air Raid Warden. Working in the daytime at the Adjutant General’s Office, I went out to Doc Hale’s Air School and learned to fly.” WASP Kay McBride D’Arezzo
“I quit my job and moved to the airport. I pumped gas, made sandwiches, and worked on planes. My room was an old Army cot in an old shack. I got my meals and one hour of flying time a day.” WASP Penny Hall Halberg
“When I heard about Pearl Harbor, I was horrified. I tried to donate blood. They said I wasn’t old enough. Then my father told me about the WASP. I thought, that’s perfect. That’s why I learned to fly. I had several boyfriends who were airline Captains. I had excellent instruction!” WASP Dori Marland Martin
With the Army Air Force's promise of militarization, the first class of 29 licensed women pilots raised their right hands, took the military oath, and began Army Air Force flight training at the Municipal Airport in Houston, Texas, Nov. 16, 1942.
“Jackie (Cochran) called me to her apartment. She showed me a copy of a letter from the War Department to the Commanding Officer in Houston. It said, “We know we have to give these women a chance to fly. We do not think they will ever be able to fly military airplanes. Get rid of them as soon as possible.” So, twenty-five of us went to Houston and beat the odds. We became Class 43-W-1.” WASP Geri Elder Lamphere Nyman
From the first day of training to the day the WASP hung up their Army parachutes for the last time, everything they did was scrutinized, measured, and recorded. Their health, weight, strength, skill, stamina, patience, and perseverance were tested. Every time a WASP stepped into an aircraft or flew a mission, it was an experiment on behalf of all women pilots. Every WASP knew if one WASP failed, the whole program would be at risk.
“On our first day, the chief pilot told us: “It is up to you whether this entire Women’s Flying Training Program succeeds and opens the way for hundreds of pilots like you to fly military planes. Or you can fail, by acting like spoiled brats, by giving up because you don't like the food, or your flight instructor, or ground school. It’s up to you. You are the Guinea Pigs.” WASP Byrd Howell Granger
Three months later the program was moved to Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas. In just over two years, 25,000 women applied for AAF flight training, a total of 1,830 were accepted, but only 1074 completed seven months of training and graduated. In Aug. of ’43, the graduates, together with 28 civilian women pilots who had been hired by the Air Transport Command to ferry aircraft, were officially named WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots, by Commanding General Hap Arnold.
The program was not only an unprecedented success; it exceeded all expectations. In two years, at 120 air bases across America, WASP flew over 60 million miles in every type aircraft and on every type mission any male AAF pilot flew, except combat. WASP attended Pursuit School and Officer Candidate School. They flew strafing, night tracking, and smoke laying missions. They towed targets for air-to-air and ground-to-air gunnery practice, with gunnery recruits firing live ammunition. They ferried planes and transported cargo, personnel and parts of the atomic bomb. They instructed, flew weather missions and test flew repaired aircraft. WASP even flew aircraft, including the B-26 "Widow Maker" and the B-29 "Super Fortress," as experimental ‘morale boosters’ for male pilots.
“When we landed at Dodge City, the Sergeant drove us by what he called, 'the bone yard'—four B-26s had 'cracked up' within the previous month, killing the entire crews. He said, 'If you girls have any sense, you'll turn right around and go back where you came from, because that thing is a killer.' The CO said, 'If you stay, and if you pass, you will be the first women in the history of the Army Air Force to fly a bomber.' So, he left the room for us to talk it over and, of course, we all wanted to fly it.” WASP Sandy Thompson
The WASP flew with an unwavering urgency and a passion for their mission: to free male pilots for combat.
“The P-63 was quite an airplane. I just loved it. I flew as many as I could, as far as I could, as fast as I could. There was one route where you’d have to take the lane West all the time, and the barn was on the left. And if your barn was any place except on the left, you were off course. We always just had to fly by sight, for about, maybe a year. Nothing, just go. No radio. No nothing.” WASP Betty Archibald Fernandes
The pioneering service of the WASP was not without sacrifice. Thirty-eight WASP were killed flying for their country, their bodies sent home in cheap pine boxes, their burial at the expense of their family or classmates. Still considered civilians, these heroic pilots were denied any military benefits or honors, no gold star allowed in their parents' window, no American flag to cover their coffins.
Three weeks before 44-W-4 trainee Mary Howson was to graduate, her mother received an official telegram from the War Department. It simply said: "Your daughter was killed this morning. Where do you want us to ship the body?" AAF Telegram, 1944
The WASP did everything their country asked them to do and more. When handed orders to fly a military aircraft, no matter what kind it was, what the mission was, what the weather was, or what the destination was, they never flinched.
“You either had a chance of doing it, or go home. Those who wanted transfers went home. We did what we were assigned to do...with no regrets.” WASP Ruth Florey
“P-39 I had never flown with a tricycle landing gear. The Instructor stood on the wing, showed me where the instruments were. So I get in and I buckle up and he jumps down. I said, "Well, where are you going to sit?" And he said, "Lady, it is a one seater, you’re on your own!" And he looked like he didn’t think he’d ever see me again.” WASP Rosa Lea Fullwood
“Two of the WASP are just as good as I am at this particular job, and hell, I think I’m the best in the Army!” AAF male pilot, Camp Stewart, Georgia
WASP paid their own way to serve their country and, after 60 million extraordinary miles of flying, they were disbanded. Though disappointed, they simply hung up their parachutes and paid their own way back home.
In 1977, 33 years after the WASP were disbanded; they were finally granted the Veteran’s status they had been promised. The bill gave them the right to be buried with an American flag on their casket.
In 2010, the WASP were given an honor of extraordinary proportions by our nation, when Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award Congress can bestow, to the WASP of WWII.
“Over 65 years ago, we each served our country without any expectations of recognition or glory, and we did it without compromising the values we were taught as we grew up, honor integrity, patriotism, service, faith, and commitment. We did it because our country needed us… All we ever asked for is that our overlooked history no longer be a missing chapter in the history of World War II, the history of aviation and the history of our country.” WASP Deanie Bishop Parrish
As she spoke those words to the largest crowd ever assembled inside the capitol, I watched my mom, the WASP, and then the faces of the WASP in the audience. Their eyes were sparkling, some moist with tears, but all shining bright with a contagious patriotic pride in a job well done.
Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, March 10, 2010
click photo to enlarge
No doubt the WASP blazed the trail for women serving as military pilots today, but for me, discovering these remarkable women and their stories has always been about so much more than flying. It is about living a life beyond what is expected, about being willing to risk stretching the boundaries and busting through the barriers. It is about doing what you feel is right, even when no one is looking and ‘flying higher’ in everything you do. That is not just history. It is inspirational history.
Today, more than ever before, we need that ‘can do’ spirit of the WASP to inspire us all! Learning about the WASP inspires young boys just as much as it inspires young girls, because, ‘if a girl can do it, so can they!’ So, respectfully, from the walls of the Flygirls Exhibit in Denver and beyond, I pray you hear the WASP, whispering their encouragement to you all, and that you pass it on:
“You fly the airplane, don’t let the airplane fly you. I think that’s the whole secret of life. Take command of your life. Get out there and do it." WASP Joan Michaels Lemley
“Life is a challenge! Live it! Don’t let turbulence slow you down or keep you from your goals.”
WASP Ann R. Holaday
“Don’t let people tell you you can’t. Don’t let people tell you you aren’t good enough. Be good enough!”
WASP Gayle Snell
“Put God first, family next and then whatever you want to do... CAVU. Pilot talk: ceiling and visibility unlimited.” WASP Marion Stegeman Hodgson
“Don’t ever put limits on your dreams. Dream farther and higher than you can imagine. I would never have flown if I hadn’t looked to the sky and beyond.”
WASP Scotty Bradley Gough
"You want to be the next 'Greatest Generation?' Then return to the values that we lived by in 1942, 1944: sexual relations are for marriage, marriage is for life, there's a right and a wrong, you are responsible for your own actions...and a strong faith in God." WASP Ruth Dailey Helm
And those final words still ringing true from mom:
“With God’s help, nothing is impossible.” WASP Deanie Bishop Parrish
Nancy and Deanie Parrish, March 10 , 2010
In honor of Women's History Month and the volunteer work Wings Across America continues to do showcasing the inspirational history of the WASP, please consider supporting this unique cutting-edge, 501c-3 digital history project at Baylor University through a gift in honor or memory of one of these incredible pioneers. We are determined to continue our mission, but WE NEED YOUR HELP!
Nancy Parrish is the Creator/Designer of the “Fly Girls Traveling WASP Exhibit,” volunteer Director of Wings Across America at Baylor University, Author of “WASP IN THEIR OWN WORDS, An Illustrated History of the WASP” and Creator of WASP on the WEB.
CSPAN'S VIDEO COVERAGE OF THE CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL CEREMONY
WINGS ACROSS AMERICA'S Congressional Gold Medal Photo Album
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