Remembering the “Forgotten Air Force”
Sun City, Calif.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II would never have come into existence without the recommendation by Eleanor Roosevelt to her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt. Pancho Barnes, a movie stunt pilot at the time, was turned down to fly for the Army Air Corps, but was permitted to train young men to fly.
There were 1,102 women who flew during World War II. They were not allowed to fly in combat, but they did tow military targets and ferry aircraft stateside from manufacturing plants to air bases. They are called the “Forgotten Air Force,” because their records were sealed for 35 years and they were not granted veteran status until 1977. They were denied benefits under the GI Bill, including life insurance, medical coverage, education assistance, and home mortgages, and were not allowed to join groups like the American Legion after the war. The government refused to pay for the burial expenses of the 38 women pilots who died serving our nation; they were not even given flags for their coffins. It was up to the other women pilots to “pass the hat” so that the body of the departed could be returned home for a proper burial. The women who were chosen to serve had an average of 1,100 hours of flight time, while most men had none.
While these women regret that their record of service was hidden for so long and that their program was disbanded eight months before the end of the war, they served with pride and distinction, knowing they were expanding opportunities for women of the future.
When our youngest daughter went through helicopter school, the owner bought an old helicopter for training. Our daughter called me and complained about the safety of this old machine, so I called the owner and told him of her concern. He said, “Women don’t like older helicopters because the seats are torn and they don’t smell new.” I said, “She doesn’t care about the seats or the smell; she is concerned about her safety.” They did put the helicopter in the shop for repairs, but I didn’t like his attitude. The good news is that after she completed her training, they invited her to become an instructor, so they must have liked her flying ability.
Young women pilots of today owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneer women of World War II, who opened the door of opportunity. Of the 1,102 women who served, only about 170 are still living, so if you know one of them, tell her “thank you for your service to our country.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.