By Margaret DiBenedetto
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Hazel Ah Ying Lee was born in Oregon in 1912. She obtained her pilot’s license in1931 at the age of 19. One of the oldest applicants, Hazel was accepted into the WASP class of 43-W-4. Fearless and calm, gregarious and funny, popular with her classmates. She often wrote their names as Chinese characters in red lipstick on the tail fins of planes she ferried.
Hazel encountered a tense situation when in training she experienced engine problems above a field and executed a forced landing. The Texas farmer approached her plane. Hazel was standing next to the tail which bore the Chinese characters she’d drawn. The farmer became agitated, certain that she was a Japanese invader. It took some doing, but eventually Hazel convinced him that she was not Japanese, but Chinese, and an American as well, and that she really was a female pilot. It was a lot for him to accept, but accept it he finally did, and allowed her to use his telephone for assistance.
After completing her training, Hazel was based in Romulus, Michigan, flying administrative flights and ferrying C-47’s and other aircraft. She then attended Pursuit School and began ferrying P-51 Mustangs and P-63 Kingcobras.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1944, one month before the WASP disbanded, Hazel picked up a P-63 from the Bell Factory at Niagara Falls and flew to Great Falls, Montana. She was nearing the Great Falls runway when more P-63s arrived, piloted by both WASP and male pilots. She began her descent and the long final approach. Unknown to Hazel, a plane had drifted above hers. The other plane’s radio was malfunctioning; the pilot had relied on hand signals from a nearby pilot for communication. The control tower noticed the plane dangerously close to Hazel’s and shouted a hurried order: “Pull up! Pull up!”
Not knowing the order was meant for another pilot, Hazel obeyed the tower and lifted the P-63 directly into the plane above her. Both aircraft crashed to the runway and burst into flames. The male pilot was rescued, but Hazel was trapped inside her cockpit. By the time she was pulled from the wreckage, she had been severely burned and died two days later.
Hazel Ah Ying Lee was the last WASP to die on duty. Of the 1,074 female pilots, there were 38 fatalities and 38 injuries. Their accident rate was one-seventh of the men’s. The reputation of the WASP is legendary among military pilots. Meticulous, diligent, exacting, and fearless are just a few of the adjectives used to describe the women and their aviation abilities.
There was no allowance for transportation of killed WASP back to their families. Sometimes the family bore the costs; often her friends took up a collection so that one of them could accompany her body home.
Just 3 days after learning of her death, Hazel’s parents got word that their son had been killed in action in France. They then had to overcome hurdles of anti-Chinese sentiment in order to bury their children side by side in the Portland Cemetery.
With thanks to:
Profile, by Kali Martin
May 24, 2021
The National WWII Museum, New Orleans
Photo Source: U.S. Airforce Photo via Wikipedia