By Margaret DiBenedetto
The WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program began with a feud and ended, some might say, in abandonment. The program’s two years of existence was an experiment that yielded overwhelmingly positive and beneficial results, contributed undeniably to the US victory in WWII, and was short-sightedly terminated.
Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran were in competition. Both were pilots, both had ambitions. The attack on Pearl Harbor spurred both to action.
In early 1942, Commanding General Hap Arnold recognized a severe shortage of Army Airforce pilots. Jackie Cochran attempted to convince the Army Air Corps that female pilots could fill the void, but was unsuccessful. In an effort to prove her point and to assist in the war effort, she took a group of female pilots to Britain to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian service established in 1940.
Nancy Harkness Love had herself taken female pilots to fly in Canada. She’d married into the military and obtained Army support to establish the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS); she’d already recruited 25 female pilots into the program. When Cochran learned of Love’s impending flying program, she was livid. She did not level the accusation that nepotism played a role in Love’s formation of the WAFS, but was not about to allow someone else to commandeer what she felt was her own, initial idea.
Cochran approached General Arnold. She argued that the WAFS requirements of at least 500 hours of flying experience and a commercial rating were too restrictive to supply enough female pilots; Cochran’s group accepted any women over the age of 18 who had more than 200 hours of flight experience. Her reasoning convinced Hap Arnold, and Cochran’s and Love’s groups merged into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Cochran was the Director of the WASP program and the training division, and Love was in charge of the ferrying division. The long-standing resentment between the two persisted throughout their careers; they never became friends.
In March of 1944, after experiencing the wholly positive effects of the WASP program, Hap Arnold appeared before the House Military Affairs Committee and requested military commission for the WASP. This would have reassigned the civilian program into the military and would have ensured its continued existence. Arnold was highly respected and made an impression wherever he went. Had he remained in Washington to press his case, he may well have succeeded in commissioning the WASP. However, duty required him to leave immediately for Europe. Without a strong advocate or public pressure to support this little-known program, the plan was doomed. Rising costs of the war were cited as the main reason for the defeat of the measure, but resistance from the nearly all-male Congress to females in the military had been loud and continuous and likely was the real cause of its defeat.
The WASP program was disbanded in December of 1944. No closing ceremony, thank you, or goodbyes for the 1,074 women who had flown for the program, nor for the 38 who gave their lives.
Featured Photo: Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leaving their plane, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, circa 1944, U.S. Air Force photo via Wikipedia.