Soviet Union, which already had a tradition of women in combat, was the
first nation to use women pilots. After suffering huge battle casualties
in 1941, the government ordered all women without children who were not
already engaged in war work to join the military. There were three
all-woman regiments: fighter, bomber, and night bomber. Other women flew
with male regiments and pilot Valentina Grizodubova was even the
commander of a 300-man, long-range bomber squadron. With the exception
of Turkey’s Sabiha Gokcen, the Soviet women were the only women who flew
in combat. German pilots were often surprised suddenly to be circled by
Russian planes and hear female voices shouting to each other. Lily
Litvyak became an ace, downing 12 German planes until she was shot down
in 1943. Twenty-three women were given the "Hero of the Soviet Union"
medal. When Marina Raskova, who had helped organize the female pilots,
was killed in combat in 1943, the government held its first state
funeral of World War II, entombing her ashes in the wall of the Kremlin
as a sign of gratitude for all Soviet women who flew.
Fascist ideology dictated that a women’s role in society was as a mother
and frowned upon women working in any capacity. A few German women did
find ways to work, some in jobs such as ferrying and test pilots.
Melitta Schiller was awarded the Iron Cross for conducting 1,500 test
dives of new dive bombers. And Hitler favourite Hanna Reitsch, a
record-breaking glider and test pilot before the war, flew every
Luftwaffe plane and helicopter. Denied permission to organize a women’s
flight squadron, she organized a suicide squadron that would use V-1
rockets modified with seats to hold pilots to attack British industrial
centres. The program was eventually dropped. In the final days of the
war, she flew a Luftwaffe general through Soviet artillery fire and
fighters to land on a road in central Berlin and meet with Hitler just
days before he killed himself.
Although Canada and Australia did not allow women to fly military
planes, Great Britain used women to ferry planes as part of the Air
Transport Auxiliary. Organized by Pauline Gower, eight women began
ferrying single-engine Tiger Moth trainers around England in 1940.
Despite their unpopularity among the male pilots, the women proved
themselves capable pilots. The variety of planes increased and more
women joined the program--not only from England, but also from the
Commonwealth nations and from Poland, Chile, and the United States.
Ferrying planes in England was not without dangers, and pilots
encountered barrage balloons, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries, Royal
Air Force training flights, radio silence, and German planes. The women
were expected to fly anything assigned to them, even if they had to
consult the Ferry Pilots’ Notes to learn the basic information on an
aircraft before taking off. The ATA women survived all their obstacles
admirably, with an accident rate equal to their male counterparts,
earning the respect of their countrymen.
United States, with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who
called them a "weapon waiting to be used," record-breaking pilot
Jacqueline Cochran tried to use her influence to form a woman’s
squadron, but seeing that it was hopeless, she took a group of women
pilots to England to fly with the British ATA. During her absence, the
U.S. Army organized the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1941 (WAAC)
(changed to the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) when the group was militarized
in 1943). The WACs were assigned to non-flying aviation positions such
as Link trainer instructors, radio operators, mechanics, photo
interpreters and parachute riggers. The Navy established the WAVES
(Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1942 to perform the
same assignments as the WACs, as well as become control tower operators,
a controversial decision since detractors worried that women could not
handle the multiple tasks required. But the women excelled and the only
problem was that the WAVES uniform skirt was too snug for climbing the
ladders into the towers.
Nancy Harkness Love was
twenty-eight years old when she became the leader of the WAFS.
U.S. Air Transport Command had been investigating, through pilot Nancy
Love, using women to ferry planes from the factories to stateside
military bases. Although U.S. Army Air Force Chief of Staff Henry "Hap"
Arnold had promised Jacqueline Cochran and the White House that Cochran
would have command of any women’s unit, that was not to pass. Military
politics led to the announcement on September 10, 1942 of the Women’s
Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), under the command of Love. The first
WAFS group arrived, after an intensive screening process, at New Castle
Air Base in October. Although civilians, they began flying military
planes in the contiguous United States.
peace offering to the angry Cochran, Arnold organized the Women’s Flying
Training Detachment (WFTD) to train pilots.
WFTD training school was at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where
1,074 women were taught to fly "the Army way" while living the military
lifestyle with uniforms, drills, regulations, and morning reveille.
Although never officially made members of the military, the women still
behaved as if they had been.
Irene Englund stands in front of
one of the planes she piloted during World War II.
August 1943 the two women’s groups were merged, under Cochran’s command
and renamed the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). The WASPs
accumulated an amazing record. They flew every airplane in the USAAF’s
inventory, including half of all pursuit planes delivered during the
war. When male pilots were afraid to fly the new B-29 Superfortress
because of mechanical difficulties experienced during testing, two WASPs
took one, Ladybird, on a tour of air bases to show the men how safe the
plane was. And the women’s duties increased beyond ferrying. They towed
targets for aerial gunnery practice, simulated strafing, served as
flight instructors, and ran check flights for recently repaired
aircraft. And Ann Baumgartner worked as a test pilot at Wright Field
where she became the first woman to fly the YP-59 jet. Thirty-eight
WASPs were killed performing their duties. In total, the female pilots
logged 60 million miles flying their planes.
Jacqueline Cochran (right) and
the Woman's Flying Training Detachment.
end of 1944 it was apparent the war in Europe would end soon. Male
pilots, wanting to avoid being sent to the Pacific, lobbied hard for the
duties the WASPs were performing. It was announced that on December 20,
1944, the WASPs would be deactivated. Cochran lobbied for a one-day
militarization, which would at least give her women veteran status and
access to GI Bill benefits, but she was denied.
Arnold called the program a success, saying, "We will not again look
upon a woman flying as an experiment." They had proved themselves, but
there was still no place for them. The women were crestfallen. Some
volunteered to work without pay. One unit received letters from an
airline only to find offers for stewardess jobs. Like all women who had
kept the home-front running during the war, when the men returned home,
they were expected to return to their traditional roles as housewives.
Many, like Nancy Love, did. Others held out hope for flying futures, but
these hopes were dashed when the establishment of the independent U.S.
Air Force in 1948 brought only non-flying positions for women. The WASPs
slipped into obscurity. In 1977 the air force announced that "for the
first time, the Air Force is allowing women to fly its airplanes." The
WASPs found each other again, and with the help of former ferrying pilot
Senator Barry Goldwater fought for, and in November 1977, received
military recognition and veteran status. Their efforts were finally
recognized. But although they could be interned at Arlington National
Cemetery, WASPs did not begin to receive military honours until June
2002, when Irene Englund became the first WASP thus recognized.
WASP flight crew of Boeing B-17
Throughout World War II, women contributed to the war effort in many
ways, earning the respect of society and laying the foundations for the
women’s movement. As a group of male Russian pilots said to their combat
partners: "Even if we were to place at your feet all the flowers of the
earth they would not be big enough tribute to your valour."