“The first time I saw Pueblo, Colorado, it was the most welcoming sight I’d ever seen,” the old woman said. Her skin had weathered from years of exposure to the sun. Her hair was white. But her voice was still crisp and clear and she sat tall and proud next to the men on the chairs.
“Why was that?” asked one of the school age children clustered about.
She smiled. “One of my engines was on fire.”
I’d been walking through the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum in Pueblo, Colorado. Depending on who you talk to, some call it that, others call it the International B-24 Museum. Out in the display area, there’s a number of aircraft, to include a B-29 and a B-47, but no B-24. Aside from models and parts, there isn’t even one inside.
Simply put, they don’t have one.
But here’s these old timers talking about flying B-24s out of Pueblo, and she’s talking about an emergency landing with an engine on fire.
And if the lady is who I think she was, I would years later, kick myself that I didn’t walk in, sit down among all the little kids, and listen wide eyed to stories I might never hear again.
Instead, I walked away like an idiot obsessed with schedules after just a few minutes of listening.
Let’s flash back to the dark days of World War II. Men were being called up to fill the ranks of the military services. With men leaving the factories and ship yards, the jobs fell to women to build the airplanes, tanks, and ships that would win the war. As result, we got one of the most iconic pictures of all times, that of Rosie the Riveter with her sleeve rolled up, her arm flexed and the declaration that “We Can do it.”
But there was one group of ladies that took Rosie and put her on steroids. These women were recruited when General Henry “Hap” Arnold realized he had himself a small problem. Pilots were in short supply. The Army Air Force needed desperately to put men in the cockpits of fighters, bombers, and transports, and put them where the fighting was.
That meant there was no one to test aircraft coming off the production line, or transport them across the country, or do any of the dozens of things men had been doing.
Both women were pilots and very good one’s at that. They submitted two separate proposals that suggested women take over the task of testing and ferrying that men had done before.
About this time, Jackie was introduced to General Arnold who asked if her and her girls would be interested in ferrying some bombers across the ocean to England. She jumped at the chance and assembled a group of women who did just that. While in England, she studied how the British were doing something similar of having women doing the testing and transporting.
So far so good, only now, things almost got derailed. Jackie Cochran flew home, and arrived the same day to find out that the WAFS had been formed around Love’s proposal.
Jackie was livid, and felt like her proposal had been ignored. She went to Washington and confronted Arnold.
Frankly, I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. I know women who are in high pressure jobs like flying, police, and fire, and they can be a force a nature. I’m married to one of these epic women. The confrontation must have been something to see.
It turns out that Arnold had been on extended sick leave when all this went down, and it happened without his knowing anything about it. So in true blue military fashion, Arnold sat about fixing something that had huge potential. He put Cochran in charge and they adopted her flight training program.
This ignited an all out effort to get women trained up to fly the fighters, bombers, and transports the military was using.
From the very beginning, the female pilots were treated differently. They were issued baggy coveralls, told to wear any shoes they happened to have, and had to wear hair nets on the flight line. To get to the training center, they had to find their own way.
The women were viewed as contractors, and as such had no real military status. They were expected to pay for their own housing and food. Training began 16 November 1942 at the Houston Municipal Airport. Many of their
aircraft were hand-me-downs, and most had huge mechanical problems. So in addition to flying, the girls also learned to be aircraft mechanics.
There were a number of women who applied. While the vast majority were white, there was a handful of Asian and Hispanic women. Several black women applied and while most were more than qualified, none were accepted. One applicant recalled being told by Cochran that it’s tough enough facing the discrimination in this field of being a woman without adding in the race factor.
Makes you wonder how bad it was really getting. If the the Tuskegee airman had problems, what would it have been like for a black woman?
March 7 was a dark day for the ladies. During a routine training maneuver, Margret Oldenburg and her instructor were killed. Because they weren’t military, no money was provided for her burial. Cochran paid for the funeral out of her own pocket. Margret was escorted home by the unit’s executive officer Deidie Deaton.
Two weeks later Cornelia Fort was killed. While ferrying some trainers with male pilots, one of the men started showing off with some fancy flying. In the course of his fancy flying, he caught Cornelia’s plane, causing her to crash.
If routine operations weren’t dangerous enough, some of the women found themselves towing aerial targets. The idea here was to train gunners on aircraft and ground/seaborne platforms on how to engage an aerial target.
OK, let’s take a look at this one.
We have a someone in an airplane. Said airplane is towing an aerial target. You got people on the ground who haven’t clue what they’re doing so far. While I found some records of the aircraft doing the towing being shot down, many of the aircraft were hit by ground fire, and the some of the lady pilots were wounded.
Of course the women were sometimes used to the rub flying into the noses of reluctant male pilots. It seemed a fair number of male pilots didn’t want to fly the B-29 Super Fortress. They felt it was too complicated an aircraft for a man to fly. So Hap Arnold asked Jackie to send a couple of girls to deliver a B-29 to a bomber base at Alamogordo.
Well, the big silver plane comes into view and all the guys are out waiting for it to crash and burn. The wheels comes down and the plane lands, taxis in, and shuts down. The hatch opens and two babes get out and start walking towards the operations building.
Of course male machismo kicked in at that time and the argument that it was to complicated a beast for a man to fly fell by the wayside. It became if a girl can fly that thing, I can fly it better.
Women also test flew aircraft that were on the cutting edge of things that had wings. This included rocket propelled aircraft as well as jets. They also ferried aircraft fresh off the assembly line as well as aircraft that had just been overhauled.
Some of the women reported on occasion being treated like celebrities’. On several ferry missions, when putting in for fuel, they were treated like royalty. The idea of a woman flying a powerful military plane seemed to sit well with most.
None of it was done without a price however. Thirty eight women lost their lives. Some of it can be laid right at the feet of how they were treated. As mentioned, they were often given aircraft that were little more than flying wrecks.
And there was the usual Sexual harassment. At least one Base commander was relieved over that.
And when a woman was killed, and because they weren’t considered part of the military, their families carried the load of burying them. A flag wasn’t even allowed on their coffin.
An effort to fix this was made. John M. Costello, a representative from California who introduced a bill that would make the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) part of the military. General Arnold was a hundred percent behind it, his only proviso was that a woman would stay in charge of it.
Needless to say, this went over with all the grace of a hippo at a hoedown. Male pilots lobbied against it, and a news commentator went so far as to accuse General Arnold of being seduced by Jackie Cochran’s “feminine wiles.”
The bill was defeated by a very narrow margin.
The women faced entrenched opposition in a number of ways. There were little things like bathroom facilities or not being allowed to eat in restaurants when ferrying aircraft because they were wearing pants.
On December 7, 1944, three short years after Pearl Harbor, the WASPs graduated their final class. Two weeks later, they ceased to exist as a unit.
General Arnold ordered every commanding officer at every base where WASPs served to be issued a “certificate” similar to an honorable discharge. With that, the women began heading home. Some were allowed to fly home on military aircraft if there was room, But most ended up finding their way home at their own expense.
Over the course of time, several attempts were made to recognize the WASPs and the vital service they’d conducted. There were notable efforts made by Sen Barry Goldwater as well as efforts by Rep. Patsy Mink and Linda Boggs.
Someplace, somewhere, opposition usually surfaced.
Finally, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation allowing that the WASPs fall under the GI Bill. In 1977, and they were finally furnished with “real” Honorable Discharges for their service. In 1984, they were awarded World War II Victory Medals, and assorted other decorations. Many were accepted by their children or grand-children.
On July 1, 2009, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barrack Obama and the Congress of the United States.
The efforts and dedication of this fine group of women have served to inspire other women to push out of the norms and reach for the Heavens. Some of the women they’ve inspired include Jerri Cobb, Desert Storm pilot Kelly Hamilton, and Astronaut Eileen Collins.
Today, it’s not at all unusually to see a lady flying a commercial jet or a military aircraft. I recall that General Griffith’s chopper pilot was a female Warrant Officer. And of course, we’ve had more than a few female astronauts, and we have women training for the Artemis Moon Missions.
There’s an old expression that states we’ve gotten where we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants. In the case of women in aviation, that is most certainly the case.