Women’s legacy parallels Air Force history

  • Published
  • By Martha Lockwood
  • Air Force News Service
As we celebrate the Air Force’s 67th birthday, we talk of how far we’ve come and look ahead to what the future holds, but it’s just as important to look at where we’ve been. The story of women in the military, specifically the Air Force, parallels that of the Air Force itself. In fact, for women pilots and early women Airmen, their history dates back five years before the Air Force officially became a separate service.

The year was 1942. A unit of flight nurses who had not yet quite finished their training, were sent into North Africa on Christmas Day following the Allied invasion in November of that year. It was a slightly different story for flight nurses who were members of the military from the beginning.

As it was with so many advances and innovations resulting from World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps was forced to radically change military medical care, and the development of air evacuation and the training of flight nurses were advanced to meet this need.

After the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, the need for flight nurses exceeded the supply, and women who had not yet finished their training were called into action and sent to North Africa on Christmas Day. Finally, in February 1943, the first class of Army Nurse Corps flight nurses graduated.

Unlike their stateside-stationed counterparts in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), flight nurses (nicknamed “Winged Angels”) in the Army Nurse Corps served in combat.  They were especially vulnerable to enemy attacks because aircraft used for evacuation could not display their non-combat status:

These same aircraft were also used to transport military supplies. In anticipation and preparation for almost any emergency, flight nurses were required to learn crash procedures, receive survival training, and know the effects of high altitude on a vast array of pathologies. Of the nearly 1.2 million patients air evacuated throughout the war, only 46 died en route. About 500 medical evacuation nurses (only 17 died in combat) served as members of 31 medical air evacuation transport squadrons throughout the Army Air Corps.

For the most part, the military favored the use of experienced women pilots to fly USAAC aircraft on non-combat missions. Two women's aviator units—The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS—with a capital S) and the WASPs were formed to ease this need. More than 1,000 women participated in these programs as civilians attached to the USAAC, flying 60 million miles of non-combat military missions.

These two units were merged into a single group, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in August 1943, and broke ground for U.S. Air Force female pilots who would follow in their footsteps decades later.

Of the more than 25,000 women who applied for pilot training under the WASP program, 1,830 were accepted, 1,074 were graduated, and 916 (including 16 former WAFS) remained when the program was disbanded in December 1944.

WASP assignments were diverse—as flight training instructors, glider tow pilots, towing targets for air-to-air and anti-aircraft gunnery practice, engineering test flying, ferrying aircraft, and other duties. Although WASPs had the privileges of officers, they were never formally adopted into the USAAC. In November 1977—33 years after the WASPs program was disbanded—President Carter signed a bill granting World War II veterans' status to former WASPs.

When President Harry Truman signed The National Security Act of 1947 creating the Department of Defense, the U. S. Air Force became a separate military service. At the time, a number of Women’s Army Corps (WACs) members continued serving in the Army but performed USAF duties. The following year, 1948, some WACs chose to transfer to the Women’s Air Force (WAFs) when it finally became possible to do so. Originally, WAF was limited to 4,000 enlisted women and 300 female officers, all of whom were encouraged to fill a variety of ground duty roles—mostly clerical and medical—but were not to be trained as pilots, even though the USAAC had graduated the first class of female pilots in April 1943, during wartime.

In 1976, when women were accepted into the USAF on an equal basis with men, the WAF program ended, but not before many milestones were achieved and marked along the way in preparation for today’s USAF woman.

The WAFs in Evolution

The first WAF recruit was Sgt. Esther Blake who enlisted on July 8, 1948 in the first minute of the first day that regular Air Force duty was authorized for women. She had been a WAC, and she transferred in from Fort McPherson, Georgia. The first recruits reported to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 1948. When basic training was desegregated in the USAF the following year, many African-American women recruits joined, even though the integration of quarters and mess had not yet been achieved.

At first, WAFs wore men’s uniforms with neckties. It was “a look” that didn’t last long, and inter uniforms for WAFs were modeled after flight attendants’ uniforms, using the same material as the men’s winter uniforms. The necktie was abandoned early on, and was replaced with tabs on the collar. The summer uniform—a two-piece dress made of cotton-cord seersucker—didn’t fare as well. Ill-fitting, it required frequent ironing. It would be years before a suitable women’s uniform would be achieved.

By the end of World War II, women were fully incorporated into the military, although still primarily limited to mostly clerical roles such as typists, clerks and mail sorters, and represented only about two percent of the force.

Less than a year after the Air Force became its own service, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, accepting women as a permanent part of the military. It was the beginning of the Women’s Air Force, and for the next 30 years would represent a separate, but equal part of the military.

During the Korean War (1950-53), the only Air Force women permitted to serve in the Korean battle zone were medical air evacuation nurses.  Servicewomen who had joined the Reserves following World War II, were involuntarily recalled to active duty as Women in the Air Force (WAF).

Together, with already in-service WAFs, the women carried out support roles at rear-echelon bases in Japan.  They were air traffic controllers, weather observers, radar operators and photo interpreters. Nurses served stateside, and flight nurses served in the Korean theater.

By the end of the Korean War (1953), 12,800 WAF officers and enlisted women were serving worldwide, and in 1955, Air Force nurses experienced a moment of turnabout when men were accepted into the Air Force Nurse Corps.

These events would prove to be a harbinger of women’s emerging equality in all aspects of military service. Yet, it would take two more decades and service in another war to achieve parity.

The Vietnam War (1965-75) numbers reveal a different story than the Korean War. American women military serving in Southeast Asia numbered 7,000, with 600 to 800 reported to be WAFs. However, although the numbers may vary, it is more interesting to note the solid achievements and the  expanding role of women in the military that evolved during that time of intense service.

No longer thought of only as nurses or medical evacuation personnel, WAFs also served in a variety of support staff assignments, in hospitals, with MASH Units, in service clubs, in headquarters offices, intelligence, and a in variety of personnel positions throughout Southeast Asia.

With the 1967 repeal of the two-percent cap on the number of women serving, and the lifting  of the restriction on the highest grade women could achieve, the first of many glass ceilings was shattered.

Then, in 1968 the passage of Public Law 90-130 allowed women to enlist in the Air National Guard, and on campuses in 1969, Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (AFROTC) opened to women.

Perhaps the most notable (to date) women’s accomplishment came in 1971 when Jeanne M. Holm was promoted to brigadier general. She was the first female airman to reach that rank. It was an achievement that would serve as inspiration for women throughout the WAFs for two years, until 1973, when she was promoted to major general.

It was that same year, 1973, that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Air Force Lt. Sharon Frontiero and changed military life forever. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the inequities in benefits for the dependents of military women.  Until then, military women with dependents were not authorized housing, nor were their dependents eligible for the benefits and privileges afforded the dependents of male military members, such as medical, commissary and post exchange benefits.

By the end of the Vietnam War (1975) the Department of Defense had reversed policies and provided pregnant women with the option of electing discharge or remaining on active duty. Previous policies had required women to be discharged if they became pregnant or if they adopted a child.

By the conclusion of the WAF program (1976) when women were accepted into the Air Force on an equal basis with men, women were laying a solid groundwork for attaining leadership positions and equal opportunities.

t was that year—our country’s bicentennial—more than 200 years since women first served on the battlefield of the American Revolution as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs—that women were admitted to the service academies.

After that, the sky was the limit. In 1976, the Air Force selected the first woman reservist for the undergraduate pilot training program, and the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) assigned the first woman aircrew member to alert duty.

n 1980, the first women graduated from the service academies, and just two years after that (1982) the Air Force selected the first woman aviator for Test Pilot School.

Six Air Force women served as pilots, copilots and boom operators on the KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that refueled FB-111s during the raid on Libya in 1986.

That year was a banner year academically for women as, for the first time in history, the Air Force Academy’s top graduate was a woman.

The War in the Persian Gulf (1990-91) deployed 40,000 American military women during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. And at the end of that war, the Air Force Reserve selected its first woman senior advisor and Congress repealed laws banning women from flying in combat.

It wasn’t until 1993 that women in the Air Force stood on the threshold of space. In that year, Brig. Gen. Susan J. Helms (then Maj. Helms) a member of the first class of the U. S. Air Force Academy (’80) to graduate women, became the first American military woman in space as part of the Space Shuttle Endeavor team.

By the Numbers

The milestones cited above are just that—the highlights of women in service to their country. Every day, women in the USAF distinguish themselves and honor those who have gone before them by doing the jobs that matter to us all—performing in professional, administrative, technical and clerical positions.

Today, women make up 19 percent of all USAF military personnel, 30.5 percent of all civilian personnel, with nearly equal representation in both the officer (18.8 percent) and enlisted (19.1 percent) corps.

Of the officers, 55 percent of the female officers are line officers, and 45 percent are non-line. Of the 328,423 active duty personnel, 62,316 are women, with 712 female pilots, 259 navigators and 183 air battle managers.

Whether it was Sheila E. Widnall, the 18th Secretary of the Air Force (1993-97)—and the first woman to take the oath of office as the secretary of any of the armed forces—who came out of academia to answer her country’s call; or the current secretary, Deborah Lee James, with more than 30 years of government and private sector defense experience, or Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy in engineering sciences, who has come up through the ranks to become the Air Force’s first female four-star general; or Maj. Nicole Malachowski, who in 2006, was the first woman pilot on the precision flying team the  Air Force Thunderbirds, the same can be said of each: One success served only to provide the inspiration and firm foundation for the next.