Today’s military females serve as full-fledged veterans, but it wasn’t always that way. The story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots has been well hidden from most Americans. This year, when the WASPs celebrate their 70th anniversary, it’s time we share their contributions and sacrifices.
Their story begins in 1939 when Jacqueline Cochran tried to highlight their skills and the contributions they could make in non-combat areas so the men would be free to fight if the war came, but no one would listen. A year later, Nancy Harkness Love, tried to convince the military to use women pilots to ferry aircraft.
Finally, in 1941, Cochran got the ok to fly a Lockheed Hudson bomber to Britain and study the use of British women pilots. By 1942, Cochran was training women pilots to replace men being sent overseas, and to ferry planes across the ocean.
The women had to have 500 flying hours compared to the men’s 200. They were paid less, and unlike the men, they had to pay their own way to Texas for training in addition to their own room and board. Although their training was the same as the men, ground and flight school, cross-country, night and instrument flying, daily calisthenics, flying link trainers and lots of marching, if they flunked out they had to pay their own way home. Of the 1,830 who started, 59 percent graduated.
Collectively WASPs qualified for 78 different kinds of planes, with the average woman pilot current in 10-12 different planes at any given time. General Hap Arnold said there was not an airplane that the air force had been able to build that these women couldn’t handle, and that it was on record that women can fly as well as men.
In two years, they flew more than 60 million miles for our country, with many injured and 39 killed. But unlike their male counterparts who were killed in action, the families of these women had to pay for the return of their bodies for burial and received no gold star or even a flag to drape the coffin.
They were disbanded in December of 1944 and given no G.I. benefits, fringe benefits or dress parades. For the next 30 years, their contributions were unrecognized. Finally, in December of 1977, president carter signed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act granting them military veteran status and limited benefits. Even today, as their numbers decrease, they are still only allowed burial in Arlington National Cemetery as enlisted personnel. These women veterans are legendary pilots, yet they receive no officer’s honors.
We were honored to have two of these legendary, female pilots, Ms. Alma Fornal and Ms. Margot Demoss, in attendance at the 452nd Air Mobility Wing Military Ball on Nov. 2, 2013, as we celebrated their service.
Fornal, a retired teacher from Riley Elementary School in San Bernardino, earned her pilot’s license before finishing college. She received her military flight training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and was assigned to fly the B-24 off the shores of Florida, over the Gulf of Mexico. Fornal towed a target then, which allowed gunnery students live practice at shooting airborne objects. In March 2010, years after earning it, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her service. Coincidentally, she even flew the two planes that are on the medal, the B-26 and the AT-6.
Demoss graduated in the same WASP class as Fornal. She said that earning those wings was the most wonderful thing in the world. The AT-6 was her favorite plane to fly and if she could own one today, she would.
She once transported a male pilot, who had been seriously hurt in an accident, to a large hospital in Texas. When he discovered his pilot was a female, she said he passed out. That didn’t stop her from talking to him during the flight about how beautiful it was up so high. On her return flight that day, her engine caught fire. She turned the key off and radioed the tower that she had lost power but that she thought she saw the tower in the distance and was going to try to glide in. She coasted down, without power and just made it to the runway. She landed amidst the fire engines and ambulances waiting for her. The plane was very well scorched, blackened and burned. She never knew what caused it, but said the engine just stopped.
These two women and their fellow Women Airforce Service Pilots blazed the trail for today’s service women. Without their perseverance, dedication and bravery, the United States Air Force would not be what it is today. Ladies, we salute you!
To learn their history, visit www.waspmuseum.org. Keep their story alive by sharing it with future generations.