(Article changed on March 19, 2014 at 05:15)
When the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, our men went off to fight in Europe and the South Pacific. Meanwhile, women from every walk of life mobilized to take over jobs that before Pearl Harbor had been reserved for men only. World War II was everybody's war. Women worked in factories and defense plants, for the Red Cross, the USO--anything to contribute to the war effort. Many of these women would have gone into combat, but in 1941 a woman's place was in the home, or at least on the home front.
As the war accelerated we began to lose many of our men overseas. The flying schools couldn't train enough pilots. As our best pilots headed for Europe, there was a severe need for someone to do the flying at home. In late 1942, with the support of President Roosevelt, the Army Air Forces started a women pilots program under the authority of Commanding General Henry "Hap" Arnold. More than 25,000 women, ages 18 to 34, applied to become pilots. All across the country thousands of small town girls were ready to do what was unthinkable before World War II--say "no" to the marriage proposals of high school sweethearts, and instead choose the romance of the wild blue yonder. The war gave them a chance to change the world. 1,830 were accepted for training and 1,074 actually earned their wings.
The pilots came from diverse backgrounds. They were from big cities and small towns. Some were rich, some were poor. Some were beautiful, and some were plain. Most were single, but several were married, and a few had children at home.
The first women in the program were 25 highly experienced pilots who became known as the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron--the WAFS. They served with the Air Transport Command. Soon a training program was established for women with less flying experience--The Women's Flying Training Detachment--and the famous aviatrix, Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, was installed as director.
In 1943 the program was moved to Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, a base that had been used by the British the previous summer to train Royal Air Force Cadets. The arrival of these civilian female trainees made Avenger Field the only coed military flying field in United States' history. During the first week at Sweetwater more than 100 male pilots made unnecessary forced landings just to have a look at the young women. Soon the base was barred to all outsiders and became known as "Cochran's Convent."
On August 5, 1943 the two women pilot programs were merged into one and given the name WASP, an acronym for Women Airforce Service Pilots. Seventeen classes graduated between April 24, 1943 and the last graduating class on December 7, 1944.
Betty Shunn, Earlene Flory Hayes, and Janet Hargrave were in WASP training class 44-5. They began training on December 7, 1943, the second anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and graduated on June 27, 1944.
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