MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. — An Army newspaper from Aug. 25, 1944, shows Pfc. Emma Jane Burrows Windham wearing a leather flying jacket, fire extinguisher in hand, and grinning near a B-17 bomber. “Windy,” according to the article, earned her air crew status in June while with the 7th Ferrying Group at Gore Field in Great Falls, Montana. Windham is today considered the first crew chief and aerial engineer in the Women’s Army Corps.
A candid photo from the same period shows Hazel Ying Lee, smiling in her dark blue Women Airforce Service Pilots Dress Uniform. As a civilian pilot employed by the U.S. Army Air Forces, Lee flew high-performance pursuit aircraft from factories to operational centers including Great Falls. Today, Lee is recognized as the first Chinese-American woman to fly aircraft for the United States military.
Both were accomplished aviators before World War II and used those skills to serve their country after hostilities broke out. Ultimately, both gave the supreme sacrifice in the course of their duties.
March is Women’s History Month. This year’s theme, “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government,” is an opportunity to remember pioneer women in military aviation while also highlighting the bond forged between Great Falls and the Air Force by the flames of World War II.
The war’s intense demand for manpower afforded new opportunities for women, both on the home front and abroad, as males were increasingly needed for combat. In Great Falls, women were employed in numerous roles at Gore Field and at the newly-built Great Falls Army Air Base, now named Malmstrom Air Force Base. Some, for example, learned aircraft maintenance and prepared military airplanes to fly north to Alaska. Others, like Windham, served in the Army Air Forces as WACs.
Windham hailed from San Antonio, Texas. A wartime feature by “Stars and Stripes” reported that she and her five brothers all held civilian pilot licenses. A recent account portrays her as an only child who successfully ran away from home sometime after age 12 to escape a hard, migratory life. Either way, Windham studied aeronautical engineering at the University of California and was the director of flight training for the New Mexico Wing of Women Flyers before enlisting into the WAC in late 1943.
While serving in Montana with the Air Transport Command, Windham flew regular hops to Seattle, Alaska and Florida as the engineer on multi-engine aircraft. By early 1945 she had been reassigned to the Air Inspector’s office in England where she was noted as the only WAC aerial engineer in the European Theater of Operations and so much a rarity that military police stopped her on the street to question her authorization to wear air crew wings.
Tragically, Windham was killed in a training mission over England on March 31, 1945, less than six weeks before the war in Europe came to an end, when her B-17G “Flying Fortress” collided with another aircraft in a heavy overcast. She was 23 years old and the first WAC to give her life in the line of duty in the ETO.
Windham was also one of 16 WACs to receive the Purple Heart during the war. Nearly 40,000 women served in the AAF as WACs or its predecessor the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, performing in more than 200 job categories including administration, logistics and communications. More than 500 WACs were on flight status during World War II.
While regulations didn’t allow WACs to serve as pilots, the AAF met the need with the civil service WASP program. From its inception in 1942 until the program’s end on Dec. 20, 1944, more than 1,100 women completed rigorous training to fly all types of military aircraft. WASP pilots logged over 60 million miles in the air and ferried more than half of all combat aircraft within the U.S.
Hazel Lee was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1912 to immigrant parents during an era of anti-Chinese sentiment in America. As a teenager, Lee took a job as department store elevator operator to pay for private flying lessons and soon joined the one percent of American women holding a pilot’s license. After Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932, Lee attempted to join the Chinese Air Force in 1933. She remained in China until 1938, working a military desk job and flying for a commercial airline.
Lee joined the WASP program in 1942 soon after America entered the war. Six months of instruction at Sweetwater, Texas, qualified her to ferry cargo and trainer aircraft with the 3rd Ferrying Squadron at Romulus AAB, Michigan. Advanced training in 1944 at the Army’s Pursuit School at Brownsville, Texas, designated Lee as among 130 women certified to fly high-powered fighters like the North American P-51 “Mustang” and Bell P-63 “Kingcobra.” Remembered as both jolly and fearless, Lee consistently flew seven days a week with little time off.
Thirty-eight WASPs died in this duty. Because they were not then considered military personnel, they did not qualify for death or injury benefits or even flags on their coffins. Fellow WASPs, typically paid less than male pilots and also responsible for their own food, lodging and uniforms, took up collections amongst themselves to bury their comrades.
Lee was the final WASP fatality. She was mortally injured Nov. 23, 1944, when the P-63 she was delivering for the Lend-Lease program collided with another as both approached Great Falls AAB. She died two days later, less than a month before the WASP program was disbanded.
The trailblazing lives of Lee and Windham each included Great Falls. Remembering their service reminds us we have a rich Air Force heritage worth exploring during Women’s History Month and beyond.