Update 06/05/14: Last Veterans Day, America Tonight worked with Texas Woman’s University to examine the indelible mark female pilots left on the country. In honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day on Friday, we thought it was important to revisit the WASP program, and the women who fought and fell – unrecognized – in the lead-up to one of the war’s great turning points.
Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold was skeptical of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during World War II. Then the commanding general of the U.S. Army Armed Forces, Arnold questioned whether, when push came to shove, "a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather." But by the time the program folded in December 1944, Arnold said there was little doubt that women could fly as well as men.
With the population of veterans expected to take a nosedive in the next 30 years, one population that is expected to spike considerably is that of female service members.
WASPs were some of the first women to ever serve in the military, playing an integral part in WWII. But it was only in the past few years that these female pilots have received recognition for their service.
1,102 female pilots flew for the WASP program
All of the female pilots in the WASP program were civilian volunteers who, among other responsibilities, ferried new planes long distances to U.S. military bases and departure points, and towed targets to train gunners, according to Katherine Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman's University.
29 female pilots helped create the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron
In 1942, Nancy Love, who helped organize the effort for female pilots in World War II, recruited 29 experienced female pilots to join the the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron, which would help supplement the existing pilot force. The first female pilots began flying out of New Castle Army Air Field in Wilmington, Del., under the the ATC's 2nd Ferrying Group, according to the WASP Museum.
WASPs flew 60 million miles in 77 different aircrafts
By the time the WASP program wrapped up, the WASPs had a safety record that was slightly better than male pilots -- and they even started training male pilots.
Fewer than 8 percent of the 25,000 women who applied to WASP training were accepted
Just 1,879 candidates who applied for training were accepted. According to the Army, 57 percent of the 1,879 candidates wound up completing the training program at Avenger Field.
WASPs weren't given veteran status until 33 years after the program disbanded
Even though WASPs carried out more than half of the ferrying of high-speed pursuit aircrafts in the contintental U.S. between September 1942 and December 1944, they went largely unrecognized in the U.S. military history. In 1977, WASPs were finally given veteran status, 33 years after the program came to a close.
38 WASPs died serving the U.S.
At the WASP Museum in Sweetwater, Texas, three 35-foot flagpoles stand in memory of the 38 WASPs who died during their military service.
The WASP program lasted for 29 months
In January 1944, the Comptroller General of the Army Air Forces ruled against the request to commission WASPs as service pilots. In June 1944, a bill to make the WASP a women's service in the Air Force was defeated by 19 votes.
"When we needed you, you came through and have served most commendably under very difficult circumstances, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteer services are no longer needed," Arnold wrote. "The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know the WASP wouldn't want that. I want you to know that I appreciate your war service and the AAF will miss you..."
The Lost Last Class served two and a half weeks before the WASP program disbanded
Even after Arnold announced the program had been disbanded in December 1944, the WASPs-in-training were allowed to finish. Soon after the final class of WASPs graduated, they would go on to serve for two and a half weeks before they were sent home on Dec. 20, 1944.
Members of WASP were honored 65 years after their service
It took a while, but the women of WASP finally got their due. In July 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding members of WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. A ceremony was held in March 2010.
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since," Obama said. "Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."
Fewer than 300 WASPs were alive to receive the Congressional Gold Medal
The ceremony, which was attended by President Obama, and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who sponsored the bill, remembered those who had died and weren't able to be honored in person.
"I'm sorry that so many girls have passed on," WASP veteran Lillian Yonally told NPR in March 2010. "It's nice the families will receive it, but it doesn't make up for the gals who knew what they did and weren't honored that way."