People & Events
Militarization of the WASPs
More than thirty years after the WASPs were disbanded in December 1944, the
women pilots of World War II were shocked by a series of headlines in the
paper. The U.S. Air Force announced that women were going to be allowed to
serve as military pilots for the first time. WASPs from all over the country
were incensed that their service to the country had been totally overlooked.
"When the Air Force Academy decided they were going to take women, and they
made the announcement that for the first time in history women were going to
fly military aircraft, it really set a bomb under all of us," one WASP later
recalled. "I thought: 'Come on, after all we put into that program."
Much had changed in America since a powerful male pilots lobby shut down the
WASP at the end of 1944. In the final months of its existence, the program was
under constant attack in the media. "NOT CREATED BY CONGRESS" declared one
headline. One writer quoted an unnamed source who predicted the imminent
demise of the organization. "We'll wake up one of these mornings," the
informant allegedly said, "to discover there are no more WASPS to sting the
taxpayers and keep thoroughly experienced men out of flying jobs." By
contrast, reporters in 1977 were moved and intrigued by the women who had flown
military planes during the Second World War.
In the 1940s the media saw no justification in the women's demands for military
benefits. By 1977, reporters felt the lack of benefits was an injustice. One
writer explained to readers that when a young female pilot died flying military
planes, not only was her funeral not paid for by the U.S. government, her
friends on base often had to pass a hat to pay to ship her body home.
In 1976 the WASPs found a powerful champion on Capitol Hill in former World War
II pilot Senator Barry Goldwater. His first attempt to have the status of the
WASPs officially changed to that of World War II veterans came in an amendment
to an obscure bill that had already passed the House. The House voted against
Goldwater's amendment. But the Senator from Arizona was not deterred. The
following year he presented a WASP bill to the Senate that called for military
recognition of the WASPs. In his presentation he threatened to attach a WASP
amendment to every piece of legislation that he introduced into the upper
chamber if opponents in the Senate continued to block the WASP bill.
The WASPs themselves were able to whip up much public and congressional
support. Now that several decades had passed since the end of the war, the
women were free to discuss publicly what had at the time been classified
missions. They talked about their flights and the risks they had taken, and
they got members of the public to sign petitions. One WASP discovered an
especially good spot for collecting signatures: the lines outside movie
theaters for that year's blockbuster movie, Star Wars.
The WASPs did meet powerful opposition from several quarters, including
President Jimmy Carter, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and
the Veterans Administration. The latter in particular argued that if the WASPs
were granted veteran benefits, then other civilian organizations that had
supported the war effort -- the Civil Air Patrol for example -- would also
begin to lobby for military recognition. In testimony before the Senate
Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the son of World War II General Hap Arnold
outlined clearly why the WASPs were essentially not a civilian unit. Both
Colonel Bruce Arnold and WASP veterans described the military training, the top
secret missions, the drills, the uniforms and side arms that made the WASP a
military rather than a civilian organization.
The WASPs hoped to prove both that the Army had intended to officially
militarize them and that in many ways they were a de facto part of the
military before the end of the war. In his testimony before a House committee,
Colonel Arnold outlined what he called his father's intentions to militarize
the WASPs. He concluded his remarks with an impassioned plea: "...Who is more
deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders who is shot
down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those
orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver
office?... We hope that this committee will remember that the WASP too have
borne the battle, a battle that left 79 of them killed or injured. Not to care
for them also makes a mockery of the motto of the Veterans Administration as
well as the whole Veterans Administration system in our country."
A former WASP commanding officer, Byrd Howell Granger, compiled a dossier of
more than 100 pages of documents showing that the WASPs were subject to
military discipline, that they were assigned to top secret missions, and that
many of them received service ribbons after their units were disbanded. One
document more than any other was especially persuasive. It was an Honorable
Discharge certificate granted to WASP Helen Porter by her commanding officer at
Strother Field in Kansas. It read: "This is to certify that Helen Porter
honorably served in active Federal Service in the Army of the United States."
In the fall of 1977, both the House and the Senate voted to grant the WASPs
military status and to make the women pilots eligible for veterans benefits.
For many of the WASPs, the victory meant more than financial support from the
government. It was an acknowledgment of their service and accomplishments
during the war. One veteran said, "We were finally recognized for what we had
done thirty years before." Another added that the measure "gave the families
of the girls that were killed a feeling that they died for their country." The
victory also meant that a few days after Congress' decision, Colonel Arnold
could triumphantly tell a WASP that she could and should put the Stars and
Stripes on the grave of a WASP colleague to commemorate Veterans Day.