Did you know that American female pilots flew, and died, for their country in WWII?
For a brief period from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. trained and employed 1,102 female pilots (WASPs) to help with the war effort. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they performed other duties that consequently freed up male pilots to head overseas. Those duties included variously low-prestige and/or high-risk activities such as:
- flying planes from where they were assembled to the port from which they’d be flown to the war fronts
- towing a canvas target for ground troops to shoot anti-aircraft guns at (really!)
- testing newly repaired planes to certify them to be sent back out to the front
They also learned to fly large bombers that, in some cases, no other pilots were willing to fly. These planes (such as the B-29) were often prone to engine fires or other issues. Yet after a few women pilots were trained to fly them, and started providing instruction in the strategies they developed to avoid or deal with those problems, male pilots became willing to take over the controls. The B-29 was later used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.
Despite their excellent track record in terms of safety and efficiency (e.g., in delivering planes across the country), the WASP program was canceled in late 1944, and women were not allowed to fly military planes again until 1977 (!).
WASPs were, in fact, never an official part of the Army (the Air Force had not yet been created) because Congress had not included “pilot” in its list of wartime duties women were allowed to perform. WASPs therefore did not receive military insurance, and those who died while performing their duties (38 women) received no government recognition. This changed in 1977 when President Carter signed a bill that recognized WASPS retroactively as having served in active duty, and WASP veterans received official honorable discharges.
Other countries employed women as military pilots in battle during WWII. In Russia, female pilots were called night witches (fascinating reading) by the Germans who often tangled with them in the air at night. From what I’ve read, our female pilots would have been willing to do the same.
For more info on WASPs and their accomplishments, see WASP on the Web.