Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Little WASP History For You

There have been some great posts about bees lately from some very knowledgeable bloggers and writers, but WASP are very different. Yes, this space has typically been used to talk about gardening, or to brag about my recent road trip or adventure, but there is some particularly exciting activity around my family right now and I just have to share a little of it with all of you. Join me for a little WASPkid history lesson.

If you are one of those who maybe wondered what a WASPkid is, but never took the time to read the little bio on the side of the page, you're about to find out. The very lively lady in the picture above is my remarkable mother. Mom was one of 1,074 women to fly military aircraft during WWII as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). These amazing women trained to more stringent standards than the men, flew all sorts of non-combat missions.
After completing primary training in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and logging some hours, mom was fortunate to be selected as a candidate for what was then a very controversial program. WWII was in full swing and male pilots were in demand for combat operations. Pioneering aviatrix Jaquie Cochrane had the political clout to convince Washington to give women a shot at filling the non-combat flying jobs, freeing up more male pilots for combat positions.
From 65 horsepower Aeroncas, Taylorcrafts and Cubs, they would move to the Primary Trainers like this Stearman. From there they would move into the Basic Trainers like the BT-13 Vultee in the top picture.

After mastering the basic trainer, they progressed into the advanced trainer, the AT-6 Texan. With 650 HP and retractable gear, this was a big step up in training. The T-6 has never been accused of being docile when touching down and landing in the strong winds of West Texas was often a test in itself.

Successful graduates went on to advanced schools for different aircraft, like pursuit school where they would train to fly fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt, P-38 Lightning or the P-51 Mustang. Others went on to fly bombers like the B-17. One crew was even trained to fly the massive B-29 when male pilots were having concerns about their airworthiness. It worked too. The men were not about to be shown up by a "bunch of girls".

Mom went on to earn a multi-engine instrument rating and was sent to Mather Field in Sacramento, CA where she flew B-25s for a considerable time. Missions involved flight training, flight testing of equipment and relocation of assigned aircraft. From here she went on to March Field in Riverside, CA to fly target towing missions in a variety of aircraft. She would tow a target, trailing on a cable behind her aircraft for artillery platoons training in the desert. She helped train my Uncle Matt's platoon as they were preparing for the invasion of Normandy. She flew out of several desert airfields including Muroc, now known as Edwards AFB and home of the Lockheed Skunkworks. Any flying here was likely flight testing or in direct support of flight testing as there were lots of interesting new things going on while she was there.

The WASP program was terminated in December of 1944. The war was winding down and pilots who had completed the required number of missions were returning stateside needing jobs (at least that's the official story). Each WASP was separated wherever she happened to be at the time and had to pay their own way home. Their records were sealed, stamped "Classified" and locked away in storage for 30 years. They were not granted veteran status until 1977, when the US Air Force announced that it was graduating the first women to fly American military aircraft. The WASP mounted a public campaign and with the help of Sen. Barry Goldwater and Bruce Arnold (Son of Gen. Hap Arnold), were finally recognized as veterans, entitled to all the same benefits as any other service member.

So what's the excitement you ask? Last summer Congress passed a bill to award all of the WASP graduates and the 11 who were killed during training a Congressional Gold Medal. The President signed the bill into law on July 1, 2009. This past Friday, January 29th, it was announced that the WASP Congressional Gold Medals would be awarded at a ceremony in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol on March 10th, giving us about five weeks to make preparations. My six siblings and I are extremely excited and doing everything we can to get to Washington DC. It will be a serious stretch, but what better way to honor an incredible lady than getting all of her kids together for this grand occasion? It will be an adventure to meet some of the surviving WASP and listen to their stories. Of course I will be picturing mom along side them the whole time.

Here is a little more WASP info for you:
  • 25,000 women applied for Army Airforce flight training.
  • 1,879 women were accepted into training.
  • 1,074 women graduated training.
  • 38 women lost their lives in service over the duration of the program. 11 of those during training.
WASP Links:


  1. Wow - WOW. What an amazing mother you had! Is that a photo of your mother holding the plane's propeller? So beautiful!! I can't wait to read more of your trip to Washington - what an honor, I'm glad you're such a proud son and acknowledging her (as well as the other women's) achievements.

  2. Thanks Rebecca. Yes, that is her holding the prop. She is also in the photo standing next to the little Taylorcraft and she's in the center of the seven gals lined up in front of the T-6 wing. And BTW, today is her birthday, she would be 93 today were she still with us.

  3. matt! your mom sounds (and looks!) like an INCREDIBLE woman!! i'll bet you and your siblings are so proud of her accomplishments. the honor was long in coming but i am so glad she and her fellow wasps will get some recognition for the amazing service they gave to their country.

  4. Matt, very interesting read about your mom. What an honor for her and how great that her kids will be there when she receives her Congressional Gold Medal. Fascinating history - I'm glad to know a little more!

  5. Matt, An amazing story, and an amazing woman. Hope you'll write more. There's a book in there, for sure!

  6. You are so lucky to have such an adventurous mom! She sounds wonderful.