Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Flying Femmes: The Female Pilots of World War II

Flying Femmes: The Female Pilots of World War II
Written by Patricia Chappine

Excerpt from New Jersey Women in World War II by Patricia Chappine

“You and all WASP have been pioneers in a new field of wartime service and I sincerely appreciate the splendid job you have done for the Army Air Force. You, and more than nine hundred of your sisters, have shown that you can wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there were a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASP have dispelled that doubt.”
—General Henry H. Arnold
With the many changes that occurred during World War II, the flight training of women was certainly among the most dramatic. Never before had women stepped into such roles. This was so much more than stepping into a desk position to free a man to fight. Gender-based stereotypes of women as too emotional for flight were hard to surpass. Yet somehow, the female pilots who served during World War II did just that. Early on in the conflict, Jacqueline Cochran, already a respected pilot, believed that female pilots would be an essential part of the war effort. She wasted no time in contacting the commander of the Air Force. At about the same time, Nancy Harkness Love, another female pilot, was in contact with the Ferrying Division of the Army Air Force. Her idea was that women could free men for active duty by taking over ferrying responsibilities. With these two persistent women fighting for the inclusion of female pilots and the war heating up in Europe, the lack of male pilots available soon warranted the recruitment of women. In her September 1942 “My Day” column, Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed the idea of female pilots:
The CAA (Civil Aeronautics Authority) says that women are psychologically not fitted to be pilots, but I see pictures every now and then of women who are teaching men to fly. We know that in England, where the need is great, women are ferrying planes and freeing innumerable men for combat service…I believe in this case, if the war goes on long enough, and women are patient, opportunity will come knocking at their doors. However, there is just a chance that this is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.
Finally, in early September 1942, the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron) was formed. Headed by Nancy Harkness Love, the group started out with a mere twenty-eight members. Days later, the WFTD (Women’s Flying Training Detachment) was formed with Jackie Cochran as leader. When the WAFS and the WFTD combined in August 1943, the WASPs (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots) were born. Unlike the other branches of the military, the women of the WASP were never given military status during World War II. They were considered civilians who worked with the air force. Regardless, these women aided the war effort bravely, defying social stereotypes.

Jackie Cochran finally had approval for her group of female pilots but a larger task now loomed ahead. In a letter to the Fifinella Gazette (fifinellas, female gremlins used as WASP mascots, were designed by the Walt Disney Company and given to the group to use free of charge), she addressed the first classes of women being trained:
With the start of the war, I became convinced that there was a sound, beneficial place for women in the air—not to compete with or displace the men pilots, but to supplement them—and I never let up trying to establish in practice the birth of my belief…What will be the ultimate result—good or bad—will be up to the girls themselves. You of the first classes will have the real responsibility. By your actions and results the future course will be set. You have my reputation in your hands. Also, you have my faith. I have no fear—I know you can do the job.
The women of the WASP felt the pressure of this responsibility, but many still kept their sense of humor. The Fifinella Gazette, a newsletter produced by members of the WASP, contained factual reports speckled with poems, comics and generally good-natured sarcasm about the life of a WASP trainee from the women who knew it best. The opening of an April 1943 issue stated, “It is claimed that demerits are issued for everything but breathing. Breathing comes under the heading of Meteorological Phenomena, however, it cannot possibly compete with the breeze that blows at Avenger.” The author was referring to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. In another article, a trainee complained, “Hairnets cannot cover the ravages of Texas dust on once lustrous locks. It takes but three weeks of flying fumes to rob faces of any possibility of being skin-you-love-to-touch. Fingernails crack, and the polish chips, and morale gets lower than a Houston fog.” In another column, a trainee commented on their lack of time off. She joked, “Remember way back when we thought we’d get a week off for Christmas??????”

Members of the WAACs Air Corps train in Newark, New Jersey. National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.
Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, a New Jersey native who was born on December 15, 1920, in Monmouth County, was a member of the WASP. In her book, Letters Home, 1944–1945, Bee recalled that her family never expressed any strict idea that women should stay at home. While looking for college courses that might interest her, she noticed that the Newark College of Engineering was offering aviation classes. Reasoning that flight was an area that would continue to offer job opportunities, she enrolled in the program in 1943. Bee truly loved her training and completed her first solo flight on August 1, 1943. A short time later, she applied and was accepted to the WASP. After initial acceptance, candidates supplied character references, obtained release forms from current employers if their jobs were related to the defense industry and passed the Army Air Force Physical for pilots. Next on the agenda was a trip to Avenger Field for seven months of training in the dry Texas heat. The recruits themselves paid for transportation to the facility. Failure in any part of the training program meant a trip home, something the recruits called “washing out.”

Before she left for Texas, Bee recalled the tense and uncertain atmosphere of New Jersey during the war. “Those days, everybody was patriotic, even citizens who weren’t serving in some military manner. It was just, we were so afraid that we were gonna lose that war.” People undoubtedly banded together to support the military effort. She said, “There was a huge spirit of cooperation.” In this spirit of camaraderie, both her love of flying and her desire to do something for the war effort led her to apply to the WASP. “We saw an ad in the paper that they were recruiting for the Women Air Force Service Pilots and they were going to be doing interviews in Newark. So six of us went down with our log books and our paperwork and everything and we were all accepted in the WASP training program.” Embarking on her long journey from a train station in Newark, Bee and five other women traveled to Texas via coach class. Bee fondly recalled Jacqueline Cochran’s campaign to convince the army air corps that they should train women:
She wanted the women to be able to do everything stateside that the men did and then they could go off to war because the jobs were being done here by women…We did all the jobs, not just ferrying aircrafts, like towing targets for the anti-aircraft practice shooting or flying at night so that beacons would have an opportunity to practice or flying gunners so they would have practice shooting from a moving aircraft.
Going from civilian life to basic training was an adjustment. Bee went through a program similar to that of the male cadets except that aerobatics were not as prevalent because WASPs were not permitted to fly combat missions. Although stress abounded, Bee persevered. She recalled, “Well, it was because we were flying 65 horsepower aircraft and in those days before you even soloed an airplane you had to know how to put it into a spin and then take it out of a spin.” She remembered one particular trial during training:
When we went down to Sweetwater Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas where we were trained, we started out in a Stearman, which is an open biplane, which was 220 horsepower, so that was quite a jump. And in the beginning of ’44 they wanted to experiment to see if, because it’s usually primary, basic, advanced, and they wanted to see if they could eliminate the basic training and have you go directly from primary into advanced. They said well let’s try it out on the women and if women can do it then we’ll change the training. So we went from 220 horsepower aircraft directly into a 650 horsepower aircraft. It was quite a jump, but we did it.
Through many shocking adjustments, such as early wake up calls and regimented routines, Bee kept a positive attitude. There was a demerit system for every possible infraction, no matter how minor. Seventy demerits could earn a recruit a trip home. Physical training was a difficult adjustment for many, especially in the cruel Texas heat. Any free time was spent cleaning the bay or studying. The recruits were constantly busy. In a letter written to her mother, Bee said, “Next a.m. we got a bit of good news. We are supposed to have PT right after breakfast but it was called off today. This gives us a whole hour to ourselves.”

When asked about the most nerve-racking part of training, Bee answered, “You were always afraid of the testing. You had two deck rides in every phase and there were three different phases. If you didn’t pass then you could be washed out, so we were always very apprehensive about any flight testing.” The instrument training presented a particular hardship for Bee. In a letter to her mother on June 6, 1944, she said, “I am practically on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Instruments have turned from a course of interest to one of torture.” Many of her letters home expressed a fear that she would wash out and be sent home. Of course, this worry never materialized, and Bee completed her training. Her first assignment was at the Pecos Air Force Base in Pecos, Texas.

WASP trainees and their instructor. US Air Force.
The acceptance of women in the air force was not always easy. Some people offered reluctant acceptance and others were absolutely antagonistic toward women pilots. Bee recalled:
There was resentment against women by some but certainly not by all. There were some that were at a base where the women were sent and they refused to let them fly anything except the smallest aircraft. But when things like that happened, they would complain to Jacqueline Cochran, who was in Washington, D.C., and when she went out to meet anybody it was like General Arnold was there. She would be speaking for him and she would go out and she would straighten out the commanding officer and tell him that they were to be able to fly anything and everything.
Luckily, Bee did not personally experience any such resentment. She was lucky enough to encounter military men who treated her with respect. When asked how her life changed after being in the WASP, she fondly recalled, “Well, it completely turned it around. I had never dreamt about a career in flying.” She continued her flying career after the war. She started a ferrying business, sold airplanes and joined a group of veterans who established a flight school.

The WASP program was considered a success. General Henry H. Arnold, the commanding general of the army air force, praised the women of the WASP. He proudly stated, “Certainly we haven’t been able to build an airplane you can’t handle…We will know that they can handle our fastest fighters, our heaviest bombers; we will know that they are capable of ferrying, target towing, flying training, test flying and the countless other activities which you have proved you can do.” Despite an impressive service record, the WASPs were never integrated into the U.S. Army Air Force. The group was disbanded on December 20, 1944. Thirty-eight WASPs died during World War II. WASPs were not given military status until 1977.

British Air Transport Auxiliary
The often overlooked female volunteers of the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) flew planes back and forth during World War II. As the initiative of Gerard d’Erlanger, director of British Airways, the ATA was envisioned as a way for pilots who would not be readily accepted into the military to help the war effort. By September 11, 1939, mere days into World War II, the first twenty-six pilots of the ATA stood at the ready. It was not long before the need for more pilots surfaced. With Britain in a tense standoff with Nazi Germany, more pilots where necessary to fly combat missions, which in turn meant that more pilots were required to ferry planes. Desperation for more recruits led to campaigns for pilots around the world, and many American citizens became members of the ATA.

Both men and women served in this capacity and ferried planes to be repaired or delivered from manufacturing points to squadrons. Within the first month of the war, women were considered as possible pilots. By New Year’s Day 1940, the first handful of women had signed on with the ATA. Much like other duties, performed by women during wartime, these pilots helped to free up more men for active combat. These civilian pilots had dangerous jobs. There were instances when they were shot at during ferrying missions. Bad weather was a constant concern. Pilots often flew several different, sometimes completely unfamiliar, planes in any given day. The threat of enemy attack or contact was made that much more disastrous when coupled with the fact that these pilots were unarmed during their flights. Although the casualty rate for the ATA was low, many brave men and women still lost their lives flying for this auxiliary.

The pilots who served in the ATA came from twenty-five different countries. One pilot in particular, Suzanne Humphreys-Ford-de Florez, was a New Jersey native. Born in 1915 in Far Hills, New Jersey, Suzanne was intrigued by aviation at an early age. Suzanne began taking flight lessons when she was sixteen. By the time she entered college at New York University, she was quite the talented pilot. Suzanne performed in air shows, often making the local papers. Once the war was on, Suzanne, like many others, had a deep desire to do her part. As luck would have it, she got her chance with the ATA. During her time as a ferry pilot, she flew around seventy-five different planes. She was stationed in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Her duties with the ATA came to an end on October 31, 1945, and she soon returned to the states.

All told, 157 men and 16 women died flying for the ATA during the course of the conflict. The ATA was deactivated in November 1945. Its pilots’ records were truly amazing, with around 309,000 aircraft deliveries completed. These brave men and women proved that civilian pilots were an invaluable addition to combat forces. The women, in particular, proved that they could learn to fly virtually any type of plane, even under the most stressful conditions.

About the Book
Real-life Rosie the Riveters worked the lines in New Jersey's factories, such as those of General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division, while women on the vulnerable coast enforced blackout orders. Others sold war bonds, planted victory gardens and conserved materials for the war effort. Thousands more served as nurses and in branches of the armed forces like the Women's Army Corps and the U.S. Navy's Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. African American women fought a double war - one against the nations enemies and another against discrimination. Historian Patricia Chappine explores the pivotal roles that New Jersey women played in World War II.

About the Author
Patricia Chappine is an adjunct professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and Atlantic Cape Community College. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and a Master’s degree in Holocaust and genocide studies from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and is currently a PhD student in the history and culture program at Drew University. She is a member of the New Jersey Historical Society, Atlantic County Historical Society, and Hammonton Historical Society. Purchase a copy of her book, New Jersey Women in World War II, on Amazon or at your local retailer.

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