Women Pilots of WWII Inspired Generations
By Carol L. Bowers
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2010 Under clear blue skies, beneath the spires of the U.S. Air Force Memorial here, military aviators gathered today to pay homage to the achievements of the first women to fly military aircraft during World War II.
Jan Nicolai holds a photo of Helen Jo Anderson Severson, a deceased pilot from South Dakota who flew with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, during a wreath-laying and remembrance ceremony for all 1,102 pilots at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., March 9, 2010. The ceremony was part of a two-day event in which all pilots will receive the Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol for their service. DoD photo by Linda Hosek
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony, with a reception afterward, was a prelude to the March 10 presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the 1,102 pilots who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, the keynote speaker at the service, told those assembled that by answering America’s call to duty in 1942, they gave birth to a fledgling service that would become the WASPs with achievements that would go on to inspire another generation of women in the military.
“As aviators, you possessed an invaluable capability that our nation desperately wanted,” Crea said. “You joined not because you were great pioneers, but because of your great sense of duty. You served America in its time of peril.”
Nearly 200 of the surviving women pilots attended the ceremonies with family and friends, and family members represented other pilots.
Thirty-eight of those women were honored with roses during the memorial ceremony for having made the ultimate sacrifice for their country during their service, and the 20th Fighter Wing from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., performed a flyover in the “missing man” formation.
The WASPs' service, and their ability to fly every type of aircraft, Crea noted, prompted U.S. Air Force Gen. Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold to declare, “ ‘We have not been able to build an airplane that you can’t handle. It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.’ ”
Crea herself is an accomplished aviator, inspired by the WASPs’ service, serving for 36 years of active duty, most recently as the 25th vice commandant of the Coast Guard. She became the 21st and only female Ancient Albatross, a designation given to the longest serving active duty Coast Guard aviator.
“It has taken over six decades for our nation to recognize the unique service and valor of the WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal you shall receive tomorrow,” Crea said. “But your true legacy is much more vital, enduring and transformational than that honored piece of gold. It is in the young women and men, from your peers and your own children to today’s youngest generation that you have inspired with your patriotism.”
Crea said that because of the WASPs, there is a new generation of women fighter pilots, lifesavers and warriors “who enjoy the absence of any conception that they can’t do something because of a coincident of birth…that women are equal partners in war as they are in peace.”
From 1942 to 1944, more than 25,000 women applied to the WASP program, an Army Air Corps experiment to explore the opportunity for women to serve as pilots and relieve men for overseas duty; 1,102 women were accepted. The WASP were not granted military status until 1977.
At a reception at the Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery after the service, Gen. Norton Schwartz, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said this week's special events “take us back to another era, and not merely to honor the past, but truly in a larger sense, also to correct some of its errors. The well-deserved respect for the WASPs is long overdue.”
Schwartz said it is important to celebrate the WASPs’ contributions, not only in wartime service, but for their pivotal roles as women pioneers blazing a trail to the military cockpit.
"Pioneers like you often had to endure persistent criticism, which made your efforts ever more courageous, and your achievements ever more substantial,” Schwartz told the WASPs.
The legacy of the WASPs, he said, is that these accomplished women went on to become leaders in civilian life “continuing their noble efforts to vanquish societal limitations and subtle forms of discrimination” and living the example of what diversity can mean.
“You demonstrated that our great nation benefits most when it rightly harnesses the abundant energy, the generosity, the talents of all of its citizens, and you proved that far greater strengths and vitality lie in inclusiveness,” Schwartz said.
For Jan Nicolai, whose late aunt, Helen Jo Severson, was in WASP Class 43-5, the days of celebration of the WASPs’ contributions is very special. She carried roses and a photo of her aunt to the memorial service.
“When she was inducted into the South Dakota Air Hall of Fame, and in 2007 she received her star on her grave site, we thought that was it,” Nicolai said at the start of the memorial service. “But this, this is magnificent.”
For many of the women who became WASPs, it was their love of flying, as much as love of country, that set them on a course that would change their lives.
“When Lindbergh flew over the ocean, I was seven years old, and I thought, ‘I want to be a pilot some day,'’” recalled Dolores Reed, 92, WASP Class 44-1. “Not long after, my dad spent a dollar and put me in the back of a plane. That was a lot of money in The Depression. I could barely see over the seat. And when we landed, I said ‘I’m going to fly.’”
When she started working, Reed paid $8 per hour for flying lessons, and with 35 hours of flying under her belt, she applied to be a WASP. “I did aerial gunnery. I flew targets four hours a day while the boys sharpened their skills,” she said.
Reed also set her sights on her squadron commander – marrying him and raising three children. She continued flying after the WASP was disbanded, taking up air racing.
Her friend Josephine Swift, 92, also Class 44-1, said she was hooked on flying after her brother, a Navy pilot, took her up in the air. She got her private license and worked for a flying service and jumped at the chance to be a WASP. “I just applied and they accepted - that was the secret, getting accepted,” she said.
For Swift, the two days of ceremonies marked an opportunity to reminisce with old friends, and miss the ones who had passed on.
Carol Brinton Selfridge, 92, Class 44-5, said flying was something she just had to do after following the achievements of Amelia Earhart and test pilot Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran as a child. Sibling rivalry played its part as well, she recalled. “My brother flew, and I don’t let my brother get ahead of me,” Selfridge said.
When she joined the WASPs, she had two children, who were cared for by her mother while she flew. Her husband, who worked for Lockheed, could not serve, and Selfridge recalls he told her “I can’t go, so you might as well.”
After the WASPs disbanded, she went on to have two more children, and she now has a granddaughter in the U.S. Air Force
“It means a lot to me to see them recognized,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christy Kayser-Cook, Selfridge’s granddaughter, who is assigned to Scott Air Force Base, Ill. “I got interested in flying because of my grandmother’s experience, but I think a lot of people haven’t heard of the WASPs before.”
Selfridge, however, remains modest about her own achievements and instead conveys pride in her granddaughter’s accomplishment. “I don’t know why they’re making so much of us because I loved every minute of the flying,” Selfridge said.
For Jeannette Goodrum, Class 43-8, the service, reception and anticipation of the March 10 award ceremony were “exhilarating.”
“It’s the greatest story of all to see young people who graduated from the Air Force Academy because of what we did in 1942,” she said.
One of those young people was U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski, the first female Thunderbird pilot, who was among the guest speakers at the reception.
Malachowski, who was one of the leaders of the movement to have the WASPs awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, said the WASPs’ story “helped write my story.”
As a child, she said, she wanted to be a fighter pilot, but few took her seriously. In 1986, her parents took her to the Smithsonian, where there “was a small display in a dusty back room” about the WASPs, and proof that she could achieve her own dreams.
As a Thunderbird performing in her third air show, Malachowski recalled how five WASPs elbowed their way to the front of the line to meet her and get her autograph.
“I made a beeline for them, and before I could get a word out of my mouth, they were thanking me for my service,” she said. “Here are my heroes, and they’re thanking me. They redefined what’s possible for women who want to serve their country.”