(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.
Betty Shunn had read about the British women pilots, and the women in Russia who were flying their fighters. "They intrigued me. If they could do it, I could do it." Betty had begun flying in 1939 when she was still a Los Angeles high school student because it was "the newest thing." She remembered people thinking she was an "oddball" because there weren't many other women taking flying lessons before the War. "In those days you could fly over Los Angeles for five dollars on weekends at the old Glendale Airport." Betty was working at Bendix when she joined the WASP. She made "Gibson Girls," emergency transmitters for downed aircraft. Her husband Bill had enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942. "I wanted to go too. There was a need, and there was a war, and everyone wanted to get into the act." Her male supervisor at the defense plant thought it was terrible that a woman was becoming a pilot. He red tagged her papers so she could never again be hired by Bendix.
Earlene Flory Hayes, who raised her family in Westlake Village, California, had grown up outside of Detroit, Michigan. "I remember listening to Hitler on the radio, and my mother and father saying that we were going to be getting into a war. I think people knew we were, but they were hoping it might go away. Things got worse and worse. And then as you'd hear more threats about Hitler taking over this country, people would get a little angry--and then afraid. They were beginning to think if he got that powerful in Europe, then across the ocean wasn't too far anymore. When we got the news about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor it was such a shock to everyone."
Earlene began taking flying lessons while working in a defense plant that built B-24 bombers. In July 1943, she read about the women pilots program in Life Magazine and wanted to join immediately. "I wanted to do something different than all my friends were doing. Before the war you were born in a town, you got married in that town--right out of high school, and you stayed in that town. You never moved around like our society does today. I guess I was a rebel for my time. I always said I wanted to see the world before I got married. And I just about did."
Janet Hargrave, who made Malibu Canyon her home for more than 50 years, was born in San Gabriel, California. She was a freshman at UCLA when the war broke out in Europe in 1939. "There were many students at UCLA who were opposed to our entering the war. Once they had a big bonfire and they burned a lot of radios. They were yelling "the Yanks aren't coming!'" Janet had friends in Italy who wrote her about the atrocities of Hitler, and what was really unfolding in Europe. She was living at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next year she decided to become a pilot after a sorority sister suggested it. "It was a popular war. Women were becoming WACS (Women's Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the Navy) and everyone was cheering. We wanted to win. It was definitely a time when we did things on impulse. One of my friends was on her way to pilot training when she met a lieutenant on the train--and married him! "
Betty Shunn remembered arriving for training at Avenger Field and thinking, "Maybe I wouldn't be able to make it after seeing all the women I had to compete with. And the men were quite strict and precision-minded, and they would start washing the women out before they had soloed. You arrived scared and stayed scared."
The women were under complete military jurisdiction, subject to the same rules and regulations as the male cadets. From the beginning they were promised commissions in the Army Air Forces. After graduation, the WASPs were transferred to highly restricted AAF bases where they flew more hours than male pilots at considerably less pay, and unlike the men, were charged room and board. From late 1942 through 1943 several magazines published positive and entertaining articles about the women pilots, but the American public at that time never knew the full story of the WASP because their work was classified. The women received mail at APO boxes and their outgoing mail was censured. The Army Air Forces wanted to keep the experimental program a secret.
Earlene Flory Hayes recalled, "You'd land at an airfield, get out of a military fighter or bomber, and the men would yell in total amazement, "Hey, it's a girl." In one small southern town several WASP found themselves in jail because no one was willing to believe that the AAF had women pilots.