Women Airforce Service Pilots join in Air Force 60th anniversary celebration

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ray Sarracino
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Three World War II veteran Women Airforce Service Pilots were among the distinguished guests at the Air Force 60th anniversary celebration Sept. 18.

The pilots, 1st Lts. Lorraine Rodgers, Velta Benn and Elaine Harmon were part of the Army Air Forces program, called "WASP," in which the military trained women to become pilots during the war.

The women pilots performed flying duties like ferrying aircraft from factories to military bases and towing targets for gunnery training.

Lieutenant Harmon joined the WASP program at age 24 after earning her civilian pilot license at College Park Airport, Md. in 1944.

"When I began flight training, the school required at least one parent's signature," Lieutenant Harmon said. "Although my father was very supportive of my adventures, my mother was absolutely against the thought of me flying. So, I mailed the letter to my father at his office. He promptly signed it and returned it in the next day's mail."

Of the more than 25,000 trainees who applied to the program, 1,857 were accepted into flight training. Of these, 1,074 graduated and earned their wings.

Lieutenant Harmon graduated WASP flight training in September 1944 at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

As women pilots proved they were as competent as their male counterparts, they were given additional duties, such as flight instructors, test pilots, and cargo and utility flying. Throughout her career, Lieutenant Harmon flew aboard a number of military aircraft including: the AT-6 Texan, PT-17 trainer, BT-13 trainer. She also served as a co-pilot on the B-17 Flying Fortress, she said.

Although they were considered civilians during the war, the women pilots served with distinction. They flew military aircraft and faced the same risks as military pilots, but were not afforded the same benefits and recognition of their male counterparts.

If a WASP was killed while serving her country, she was not entitled to a military funeral. Her family bore the expense of returning her remains home, and they were not authorized to fly a gold star flag to commemorate her loss. During World War II, 38 WASP were killed in the line of duty.

In 1977, women pilots who served in the WASP program were accorded veteran status in the armed forces by the U.S. government. 

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