These girls reached for the sky

Published 11:59 pm Friday, March 27, 2009

If you were around during World War II, you might have looked up and seen them flying high above you and not known it. I’m referring to WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots, who flew B-17s, B-29s and other aircraft. They were all qualified pilots and the first women in history trained to fly American aircraft.

There are probably a lot of people in the United States today who have never even heard of this organization that made a significant contribution to the war effort. This select group of young women pilots tackled assignments that freed young men to fly in combat zones.

A total of 25,000 women applied, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 graduated. The first class graduated from Army Air Force flight training at Ellington Field, Houston, and the remaining classes from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

These volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 35, ferried planes from factories to bases, towed targets for live air-to-air gunnery practice and live anti-aircraft artillery practice, transported cargo, and simulated strafing and night tracking missions. They helped train future pilots and bombers for combat duty.

Five Alabama army fields were among the many fields where WASPs were stationed. They were Courtland Army Field, Courtland; Gunter Army Air Field, Gunter; Craig Army Air Field, Selma; Maxwell Field, Montgomery; and Napier Army Base, Dothan. At Napier Army Base, for example, WASPs served as engineering test pilots, administrative and instrument instructors and ferried planes to other bases.

Thirty-eight WASPs gave their lives for our country. Evelyn Sharp, one of the most experienced women pilots in America, with 2,968 hours of flying time on record upon entrance, was assigned to the 2nd Ferrying Group at New Castle Army Base, Wilmington, Del. She died when an engine on the P-38 she was ferrying failed on take-off on April 3, 1944.

Death benefits for the active WASP included $200 and a plain pine coffin. There was no military escort and their families were not entitled to use the American flag on the coffin. Survivors of WASP trainees also had no right to display the Gold Star.

Ironically, WASPs had been hired as civilians without military status and in 1944 when the bill to militarize WASPs was presented to Congress, the need for pilots had almost diminished. That same year the WASP was deactivated and no funds were provided for them to return to their homes. In 1977, after a 33-year battle, the WASP finally gained veteran status. Sadly, some did not live to see that happen.

This month, which is Women’s History Month, the 17 women in the U.S. Senate are sponsoring the introduction of legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to those who served in the WASP.

For more in-depth information about the WASPs including games, paper dolls, biographies, news releases, etc., refer to the Web site,, whose webmaster Nancy Parrish graciously granted me permission to use the above.