Women Airforce Service Pilots and their fight for veteran status

  • Published
  • By Stephen Arionus, PhD
  • Air Force Personnel Center

On the evening of August 23, 1943, a pilot named Mabel Rawlinson died in a fiery crash in the North Carolina swamplands near Fort Davis. Unbeknownst to her, she was doing night exercises in an aircraft that another pilot previously flagged for engine troubles. In a separate incident, when a woman pilot trainee died in a crash, her classmates had to send around a collection to return her body to her family because the government would not foot the bill for the expense. And on October 2, 1944, in Victorville, California, another plane crashed killing all on board. In that incident, all but one crew member received a funeral with full military honors. That last crew member and her family received nothing. Each of the pilots who gave their lives in service to their nation were Women Airforce Service Pilots; however, due to a bureaucratic technicality, the federal government classified all WASPs as civilian employees rather than military during World War II. This was never meant to be a permanent status. At the time, many believed WASPs would eventually be militarized like other all-women auxiliary units. “Civil service was a convenient expedient to get the program started,” stated retired Air Force Col. Bruce Arnold, the son of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold. The United States just needed pilots. Gen. Hap Arnold worked on the principle of “get it done now and worry about the details later,” according to his son. It would take more than 30 years and an act of Congress before WASPs would receive the recognition of their efforts in WWII, and the status as military veterans.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into the war, the nation was woefully underprepared. It would take months for the United States to become the “arsenal of democracy” that President Roosevelt envisioned; it took time to convert plants outfitted to mass produce cars into ones that could output a B-24 Liberator every 63 minutes. Jacqueline Cochran, the famed pilot, air racer and one of the brains behind WASP, understood that the bottleneck in terms of pilot production would be their training. She believed WASPs could help produce more pilots by shouldering some logistical burdens thus allowing male pilots to focus on combat related training and overseas duty. She outlined her proposal for Eleanor Roosevelt, which ultimately became the roadmap for WASP with the addition of some modifications including the incorporation of Nancy Harkness Love’s independent pilot program for women, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron.

Between 1942 and 1944, more than 25,000 women applied to become a WASP, but only around 1,100 completed training and earned their silver pilot’s wings, according to historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck. Thirty-eight WASPs died in service of their nation. WASPs flew 12,000 aircraft 60 million miles thus allowing male pilots to focus on combat related training. Although their primary responsibility was to ferry newly built planes from the factory floor to points of embarkation, WASPs also towed aerial targets for aerial combat training for their male peers, and some even served as check pilots. Chief of the Army Air Corps, Gen. Hap Arnold described WASP’s service as a complete success. Moreover, he said it was “on record that women can fly as well as men” and that they could fly any plane—from AT-6s to B-29s, WASP flew those each platform “like veterans.” Such praise from Gen. Arnold was notable, especially because he was skeptical of women’s ability to fly before he met WASPs. By the end of their service, they had made Gen. Arnold a believer. One of the most respected military pilots of his age praised WASP’s competency and skill during a time when much of society still believed that women should remain in the domestic sphere, certainly not flying a military aircraft.

In 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the War Department disbanded the WASP program five days before Christmas with little warning, a plan for demobilization (some women had to pay for their own way home), and without the militarization of their unit, something most assumed would eventually happen. According to the official AAC history, “it was the general consensus (within the AAC) that within a short time the WASP would be nonexistent as a separate organization.” Arnold was a proponent of militarization. Some believed it would fold into the Army’s Women’s Auxiliary Corps whose members handled things such as switchboard operators, mechanics and typists; however, Jacqueline Cochran thought that women pilots should be commissioned directly into the Army using existing authorities. WAC placed certain limitations on women that did not suit experienced, skilled female aviators. Congress gave authority to the AAC to make temporary officer appointments, but the AAC chose not to do so adhering to a narrow interpretation of the law stating it applied to men only. Years later Senator Goldwater pointedly remarked, “Women could be commissioned as typists, file clerks or nurses, but when they wanted to fly aircraft, women were not even considered to be ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law.”

After the war, WASP veterans continued to press for the recognition to which they believed they were entitled. Surviving members enlisted the aid of prominent voices including Senator Barry Goldwater, Congresswomen Margaret Heckler and Lindy Boggs, along with retired Col. Bruce Arnold. Their efforts led to Congressional hearings in 1977. This was not the first time a bill for the militarization of WASPs came before Congress. Those earlier efforts failed in large part because of opposition from the same type of groups who opposed the 1977 bill: the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans among others. Their argument against recognition in 1977 was that granting veteran status to WASPs would open the floodgates to other people, thereby diminishing the status of, and entitlements to, veterans everywhere. These fears proved unfounded. Congress passed the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977, which retroactively granted WASPs “active duty status” for the “purposes of laws administered by the Veterans’ Administration.” In 2016, Congress passed a separate law affording WASPs burial rights in Arlington National Cemetery after the Secretary of the Army denied WASP Elaine Harmon burial at the cemetery.

As we celebrate Veterans Day, let’s take a moment to remember the remarkable history of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Their story reminds us that the term “veteran” and the rights associated with it are not etched in stone, unaltered for time eternal. Rather that designation is granted by the state and is therefore susceptible to the vicissitudes of Capitol Hill politics. Nevertheless, from the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (precursor to the Veterans Administration) in the aftermath of the Civil War to equitably extending GI Bill benefits to all who served in WWII, veterans’ tenacity ensured the state kept the promises it made—both implicit and explicit—in exchange for their faithful service to the nation.

As the United States moves away from a perennial war footing to one of peacetime, with thousands of citizen-soldiers becoming citizen-veterans each year, it becomes imperative for us to remember the debts we owe to previous generations who safeguarded our democracy because, as the history of the WASPs has shown, it is far too easy for us to forget.