The WASP of World War II Put Girl Power in the Cockpit
This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war, and we need to fight it with all of our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used. — Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942
I just finished the best book. It was The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by one of my favorite authors, Fannie Flagg. As always, Ms. Flagg tells her story with the flair for the dramatic that you expect from a southern storyteller, but she also works in a mighty dose of poignant self-discovery that tugs at your heartstrings while she is at it. The book is laugh-out-loud funny too.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion weaves in two story lines, one in the present and one in the past, that circle around each other until they meet up at the end in a twist. When we meet Mrs. Sookie Poole, the modern day heroine of the story, she has just married off her last of three daughters — three weddings over the span of a year (wrap your brain around that)–and is looking forward to putting up her feet and enjoying herself for a spell. Her most pressing worry now is how to keep the blue jays from emptying her bird feeders before the little birds can get their share.
Sookie gets to rest for half a minute before her world turns upside down. The arrival of a registered letter containing documents from her past uncovers a family secret that sends her on a quest to find out who she really is.
Growing up in the shadow of her larger-than-life domineering mother leaves Sookie feeling ordinary and boring. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry was a great beauty in her youth and never recovered from it. Winged Victory, as her family calls her, is the chairman of every club she belongs to and the center of attention wherever she goes. She is deeply devoted to the Simmons family honor and its Frances I silver that she claims was buried on the family property to protect it from the Yankees during the war. Everyone in town thinks Lenore is a hoot, but she always makes Sookie feel like she never measures up to her mother’s expectations.
Meanwhile, in early 20th century Pulaski, Wisconsin, a young Polish family turns convention on its ear. The Jurdabralinski clan is a hard working family living the American dream. Stanislaw Jurdabralinski emigrates from Poland, marries a pretty girl, and with her raises a family of four girls and a boy. Together they open and run a successful Phillips 66 filling station in town. Fritzi, the oldest daughter and free spirit of the bunch, joins a flying circus and in turn teaches her siblings how to fly planes.
World War II calls away their brother, Wink, and the girls soon find themselves running the filling station on their own. They all know their way around an engine, and with cute uniforms and roller skates they turn a trip to the filling station into an event. The station is wildly popular, and the girls keep it running until wartime gas rationing takes its toll on their customers.
Fritzi gets restless, and when the opportunity arises to become a pilot with the Women Air Service Pilots, known as WASP, she packs her bags and heads to Texas. Two of her sisters later join her in the program.
As Sookie connects with her past, she finds the courage to step out of her mother’s shadow and become her own person.
I love all kinds of books, but I especially love books that capture a moment in history. In the same way that women flocked to the factories during WWII to free up male workers for the military, female pilots joined WASP beginning in 1942 to ferry planes from factories to deployment points across the U.S., freeing up their male counterparts for combat. They even towed targets during training exercises. With live ammunition.
Nancy Harkness Love and Jackie Cochran, leaders of the WASP, had hoped that the government would militarize the program granting participants more equality in pay and reimbursement of expenses. This would also make them eligible to claim veteran status once the war was over. They came close to reaching their goal in 1944 when General Henry H. Arnold, who was the commanding officer of the program, planned to commission the women pilots as Second Lieutenants in the Army Air Force.
The media and Congress vigorously opposed the plan. By 1944, the German Air Force had been crippled, and in response, the U.S. scaled back its pilot training programs. The male flight instructors suddenly found themselves at risk of being drafted into the Army ground forces, and they began a letter writing campaign to Congress and newspapers across the country lobbying for the jobs the WASP pilots held. Once public opinion shifted against the program — the pilots successfully created the perception that the women were no longer freeing up men for combat but instead taking jobs that should be held by men — the program was shut down in December 1944.
The slightly more than 1,100 women in the WASP program ferried over 50 percent of the combat aircraft within the U.S. during the war years. Thirty-eight of their pilots lost their lives in training and on missions. After the war, the WASP records were classified and sealed from the public for more than 30 years, and their contribution to the war effort was forgotten.
Then in the 1970’s, the Air Force announced that it would allow women into its pilot training program. Of course, there was a lot of noise about this being a great first for women, which, as you can imagine, did not sit well with the women who were truly the first. The WASP rose up and demanded recognition for their service, and in 1977, they got it. Jimmy Carter signed a law granting former WASP pilots veteran’s status along with limited benefits. The awards due to them came in the form of WWII Victory Medals and American Theater Campaign Medals in 1984 and Congressional Gold Medals in 2009.
These women were truly pioneers. Sally Ride makes a cameo appearance in the book, and the arc of history comes full circle. WASP pilots broke down barriers. They proved that women could fly the big military planes every bit as well, and sometimes better, than the men could. They had to be better at their jobs with character above reproach to prove they belong there, and like the women in the factories, they were asked to go back home to their traditional roles when the war was over. Many did, but really, they did not.
There is a song from WWI that asks “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?” The women pilots of the WASP program proved that they were equal to task of flying some of the most difficult aircraft around. Once that genie was out of the bottle, she was not going back in. They opened the door a crack, and the women who followed burst right through.
To learn more about the WASP program, NPR has a good article on the program as well as the Air Force Historical Support Division. If you really want to dive in to what it was like to be a WASP, read Fannie Flagg’s book. I highly recommend it.
This article originally appeared on the Georgia Commission on Women blog March 1, 2016.