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Hazel Ying Lee: Showcased Asian-American involvement in war effort

Hazel Ying Lee: First Asian-American pilot during World War II. (Graphic by Sylvia Saab)

Hazel Ying Lee: First Asian-American pilot during World War II. (Graphic by Sylvia Saab)

FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- The Asian and Pacific island influence for the Air Force began during the early days of World War II when Chinese-American women were recruited to serve in the "Air WACs," a special unit within the Army Air Corps where Asian-American women served in jobs that ranged from aerial photo interpretation, to air traffic control and weather forecasting.

The Women in Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) worked directly with the Army Air Forces during World War II, ferrying planes from factories to air bases, testing planes, and towing targets for aerial gunnery students to practice shooting. They also conducted qualifying flights for military pilots to renew their instrument ratings and copiloted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers through mock dogfights staged to train bomber gunners.

Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American woman aviator, was also the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the United States military. She joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots and was trained to ferry aircraft. She delivered transport aircraft, but she also flew more powerful fighters, such as the P-63 Kingcobra, to their destinations. Hazel and her husband were the embodiment of the relationship that the United States shared with our allies, especially during World War II. He was an officer in the Chinese Air Force.

Whether it was an homage to her Asian ancestry, or simply a practice that gave her comfort, Hazel "named" each plane prior to its delivery flight by inscribing Chinese characters in lipstick on the tails of the planes.

It was during one of these ferrying details that Lee, described by her fellow pilots as "calm and fearless," had the first of two forced landings. It took place in a Kansas wheat field. A farmer, pitchfork in hand, chased her around the plane while shouting to his neighbors that the Japanese had invaded Kansas. (Hazel was Chinese.) Alternately running and ducking under her wing, Lee finally stood her ground. She told the farmer who she was, and demanded that he put down the pitchfork. He complied.

Sadly, she was killed in the line of duty ferrying the P-63, the last WASP to die in service to her country. She was killed when her plane and that of a colleague received identical instructions from an air traffic controller on their approach to Great Falls AFB, Montana.

There's an Asian saying, "No strength within; no respect without." It's that inner strength that defines the women of the Air Force.

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