Saluting ‘Fly Girls’ Of World War II

Few people know of pilot Cornelia Fort and her airborne drama over Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. While instructing a student flying out of an airfield now known as Honolulu International Airport, Fort encountered Japanese attack planes coming at them. After quickly landing, she and the student almost perished from strafing bullets that killed the airfield manager. She had earned her flight wings right here in Hawaii.

Fort, who later perished ferrying a military plane in Texas, is one of the Irrepressible “Fly Girls” – the U.S. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II, who this past Sunday were celebrated at the seventh Distinctive Women in Hawaiian History Program presented by the Hawaii Council for the Humanities, He Ho’olaule’a No Na Mo’olelo o Na Wahine at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Speaker Vera S. Williams, author of WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, brought these pilots’ own words to life through stories that made the audience laugh, applaud and squirm at the outrageous gender barriers present in an era when women were supposed to wear aprons, not flight suits.

“When male pilots refused to fly the newest bomber called the Superfortress, a brilliant colonel had the idea of taking a couple of WASPs, training them to fly the B-29 and having them take the thing on a base-to-base tour,” relates Williams, who interviewed 200 WASPs across the country for the book. “They (Dorothea Moorman and Dora Strother, specifically) flew the behemoth from base to base with the unspoken message that if a girl can fly it, then anyone can.”

But, bottom line, these women mostly just wanted to fly airplanes, not prove a point.

The attack on Pearl Harbor exposed a grim reality: Against the superbly equipped and trained Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, the U. S. Army’s air division was woefully insufficient.

Enter American aviation pioneer (and former hairdresser!), legendary airplane racer Jackie Cochran, who had been working as a civilian contractor for British Air Transport Auxiliary (ASA) ferrying military aircraft to support the European war effort. The ASA relieved male pilots sorely needed in combat of noncombat-related duties.

Cochran, ambitious and influential, petitioned Eleanor Roosevelt in early 1942 to support an effort to establish an arm of the Army Air Force made up of qualified American women pilots to offer the same support flying for the Pacific campaign.

Through much perseverance and persuasion on Cochran’s part, Lt. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, then commanding general of U.S. Army Air Forces, agreed. Cochran would ultimately form, head up and deploy WASP.

Between 1942 and 1944, 1,074 strong female WASP pilots flew more than 60 million miles in all types of military aircraft, including jets. Sadly, this feisty, controversial bunch didn’t get recognized officially as a military (not just paramilitary) organization until 1977 and never got benefits of active service, though great effort was made by unlikely allies, the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Another Hawaii connection is that WASPs Mildred Marshall, Vivian Fagan and Jeanne Robertson made Hawaii home after their service.

Female pilots in today’s military cockpits are the legacy of the WASPs.