On 5 July 1943 the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) merged into a single unit for women pilots called the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
The women had to pay their own travel fees to get to basic training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women – from Canada, England, and Brazil as well as the United States – applied to the WASP program; of the 1,830 who were accepted, 1,074 earned their wings.
Women interested in the WASP program had to meet a height requirement of at least 5 feet, 4 inches, and pass an Army physical. The women were also required to have a pilot’s license, be a high school graduate, and be between the ages of 18 and 35.
While in training, the women had to pay for their dress uniforms and their room and board, and for daily wear they were issued men’s coveralls which they called “zoot suits.” Women bunked six to a bay in the barracks, where they shared one toilet, sink, and shower.
Upon graduating, the women had two options, Ferrying Command or Training Command. The Ferrying Command assignment gave women the opportunity to ferry aircraft from factories to air bases and other points of embarkation. The Ferrying Command WASPs delivered more than 12,000 aircraft in the two years that they were operational. The Training Command towed aerial targets for the infantry, flew tracking missions, and tested radio-controlled aircraft. The women also served as flight instructors, test pilots, and utility pilots, and performed all stateside flying duties.
According to the Air Force Historical Support Division, the WASPs ferried more than 50 percent of the combat aircraft within the United States during the war years and flew at 126 bases across the country. Thirty-eight of these women died in their service: 11 in training and 27 during missions.
The last WASP class graduated 7 December 1944, just 13 days before the WASPs were disbanded.
The women were initially paid as civil service employees, with the promise that they might be able to join the Army Air Forces afterward. Army Air Forces Commander Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold planned to commission the women pilots as second lieutenants within the Army Air Forces, but political opposition meant that the plan never came to fruition. As a result, the WASPs were left without the benefits to which veteran’s status would have entitled them, and the families of the girls who had been killed in the performance of their duties were denied the death benefits which they would have received as beneficiaries of military personnel.
For 35 years, the women weren’t allowed to call themselves veterans and their records were classified and sealed. They fought Congress to be recognized as veterans, but it was not until 1967 when the first women entered the service academies and began to fly military aircraft, which the media wrongly reported as being the first time women could fly for the U.S. military. Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu who was president of the WASP veterans’ organization, lobbied and spoke to media until their service was finally recognized by Congress.
President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Title IV, on Nov. 23, 1977, which granted former WASPs veteran status with limited benefits. The Air Force graduated its first female pilots that same year. In 1984, the WASPs received World War II Victory Medals and, for those who had served more than one year, American Theater Ribbon/ American Campaign Medals. On March 10, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, was presented to the WASPs.
For more information on the WASP program and the WASPs, visit http://www.af.mil/mobile/News/tabid/252/Article/685659/wasps-were-pioneers-for-female-pilots-of-today-tomorrow.aspx