When we conjure thoughts about the roles individuals played during World War II, we often think of men on the frontlines and women at home working in factories. We often overlook the contributions made by the 200,000+ women who served the U.S. military during that time.
In the 1940s, women rushed to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) to work as nurses, clerks, drivers, typists, telephone operators, radio mechanics, code breakers and more. A few women, 1,074 to be exact, even took to the skies in the Women Air Service Pilot (WASP) program.
Training & Duties
While the WASP only lasted 16 months, it maintained rigorous acceptance and training requirements. Of the 25,000 applicants, 1,879 made it into the program. The Army trained men to fly starting with zero experience, but women needed to have previously obtained a pilot’s license to gain entry. Even still, the WASP training regimen followed the same schedule as the men’s. For 27 weeks, from 6am to 10pm, these women learned the ins and outs of flying military aircraft. Only 57% of those who entered graduated to become WASPs — higher than the men’s 50% completion rate. During the run of the program a total of 18 classes earned their silver wings at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and went on to be known as the “Avenger Girls.”
In order to reserve as many men as possible for the front lines, WASPs performed a variety of services for the Army Air Forces. Primarily, they transported planes across the country to air bases used as departure points for soldiers going overseas. During their time of operation, WASPs relocated more than 12,000 planes, including those used during the D-Day invasion. They also tested new and newly refurbished aircraft to ensure their safety and readiness for combat. The “Avenger Girls” towed target aircraft to give the male pilots combat practice — with live ammunition. Yes, that does sound dangerous. WASPs also worked as flight instructors for male pilots. A few commanding officers refused to allow women to conduct inflight instruction, but as WASP Ethel Meyer Finley put it in her oral history, “teaching had always been a woman’s profession, so consequently there wasn’t that much objection.”
Flying as a WASP required skill, courage and gumption. And while many stereotyped women of Greek-letter organizations as delicate and solely dedicated to homemaking, several WASPs belonged to sororities and demonstrated their dynamic nature. Among them was Mildred “Micky” Axton, alumna of the Eta Chapter of Alpha Delta Pi at Kansas State University. When Micky heard about the WASP program, she made childcare arrangements for her one-year-old daughter and boldly volunteered her services. One of the first three women to become a WASP, Micky was also the first woman to pilot a B-29. She described the experience as being in “hog heaven.”
Prior to joining WASP, June Braun Bent, alumna of the Gamma Theta Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at Drake University, pursued a career as an equestrian, but changed course when the Great Depression hit. While working as a secretary she took flying lessons, joined the Civil Air Patrol and served as vice president of her local Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. By the time she applied to the WASP program, June had 35 hours of flight time and a solo trip under her belt. In an interview for The Key, June reflected on the joys and dangers of the assignments given to WASPs. With a jam-packed schedule, she said they “were too busy to be scared.”
Projects entrusted to WASPs were indeed dangerous and a total of 38 women died during the program’s brief existence. Because the WASP was not officially part of the U.S. military, support was not provided for transport of the deceased or funeral arrangements. The WASP community came together to provide the funds necessary for their fallen sisters.
In 1944 the U.S. Army Air Forces disbanded WASP because, as stated by Commanding General H.H. Arnold, “They are serving, however, to release male pilots for other work and not to replace them.” The only WWII women’s branch to not receive military recognition and to be disbanded before the end of the war, WASPs were required to fund their own journeys home. Without veterans benefits, the women who courageously volunteered had to find their own way after the war. Some transferred to Women in the Air Force, though they weren’t allowed to pilot a plane, while others went on to become air traffic controllers or commercial flight attendants. Many returned to their previous professions and lives at home.
After the War
Post-WWII WASP members formed an organization to keep in touch and hold reunions. June Braun Bent played a role as the Judge of Elections, who oversaw the committee who processed by-law votes. The organization published regular newsletters that shared updates submitted by members, so the women who worked diligently side-by-side could foster that sense of connection.
More than 30 years later, a bill was proposed to give WASP official military status and to recognize the women who served as military veterans. Many supported the legislation, including pilots who flew with the WASPs during WWII, but some spoke loudly in opposition. Perhaps the strongest resistance came from the American Legion, who worried that by giving these women veteran status it would diminish the meaning of the word for others. Thankfully, the bill passed and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in November 1977. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill granting the 300 remaining WASPs Congressional Gold Medals in thanks for their service.
It’s our honor to share these hidden stories with you, but it’s the efforts of our partners, like Kappa Kappa Gamma and Alpha Delta Pi, that preserve the stories of the individuals who made the history happen. We’re proud to work with our clients to digitally preserve primary documents that make history accessible and open windows of discovery to the general public. You never know what kernel of information will lead to broadening your understanding of our shared past.