A Perspective on the WASP Gold Medal

  • Published
  • By Sarah Byrn Rickman
  • WASP Author and Historian
September 10, 1942, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced that Nancy Harkness Love would lead a group of civilian women pilots who would ferry airplanes for the U.S. Army. They would be known as the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.

Gen. Harold L. George, commander of the Army's Air Transport Command (ATC), escorted his new squadron leader, Mrs. Love, to the secretary's office for this momentous announcement. It was a first. Women pilots were being employed by the ATC's Ferrying Division to ferry single-engine trainer airplanes from the factory to wherever that airplane was needed.

No one, back then, could have foreseen the momentous occasion that, 67½ years later to the day, would crown and celebrate that simple announcement -- and with such enthusiasm.

March 10, 2010, families and friends of the 1,101 women who followed Nancy Love into wartime service to their country, gathered in the Capitol in Washington D.C. where -- recorded for posterity by an enthusiastic news media -- all of the women fliers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

They are known today as the WASP -- Women Airforce Service Pilots. They trace their lineage back to that September day when Secretary Stimson and General George welcomed Mrs. Love and her first squadron to the Army Air Forces and World War II service.

The road was a rocky one. Competing philosophies of how women pilots should be organized and utilized; male resistance to women being allowed into that special "brotherhood" where they could share the rare mystique known only to pilots who fly the most powerful machines of flight known to human kind; jealousies over who did what first; gut-wrenching grief when girls barely out of their teens crashed and burned in training or on active duty; private despondency at washing out of training; elation over earning one's wings; joy at being sent to pursuit school -- the ultimate dream of most of the "fly girls" of the 1940s.

Twenty-eight "Originals" -- Nancy Love's first recruits and experienced women pilots all -- banded together with 1,074 women who earned their wings at the Army flight school first located at Houston Municipal Airport and in March 1943 moved to Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas.

A common misconception is that Nancy Love's squadron and the women recruited by Jackie Cochran were two separate groups who were merged in the summer of 1943.
Not true.

The women who Cochran recruited for training at the Army facility in Texas were destined to fly for the four ferrying squadrons Nancy Love had been tasked to organize. And the earliest of the girls from the Texas school did go to the "Ferry Command," as it was nicknamed. But fate, the ever-changing necessities of the war, coupled with the Army's ability to shift priorities as those needs arose, changed everything -- more than once, in mid flight.

Cochran achieved her goal to train women "to fly the Army way" and send them out to do flight-related jobs no one, prior to 1943, would have dreamed of sending a girl or woman to do.

Love grew and nurtured her squadrons and led the way for her women ferry pilots to fly and ferry not just single-engine trainers but nearly every airplane in the Army's arsenal -- twin-engine cargo planes, hot pursuits and heavy bombers. A woman could check out in any airplane she could handle.

The girls in training in Texas were known as the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). A mouthful. The name WAFS, with the emphasis on ferrying, did not aptly describe the total mission of the women pilots as a whole. Cochran, conscious of public relations, sought an appropriate "catch-all" name. Women Airforce Service Pilots was born. WASP they became and WASP they are today -- all 1102 of them who received medals from their grateful and admiring country on March 10. Jacqueline Cochran who, unlike Nancy Love, is not counted in the final tally of the WASP, also received a gold medal posthumously.

Fewer than 300 WASP are alive today. Still, nearly two thirds of those surviving gathered in Washington for recognition withheld for 65 years.

They were denied militarization as a group in June 1944 when a Congress, swayed by a vicious publicity campaign against the women pilots, voted AGAINST General "Hap" Arnold's wishes for the first time. Arnold wanted "his girls" militarized. Congress said "no." The training of future classes of WASP was cancelled. In October, the women were told they would be disbanded. On December 20, 1944, they were dismissed and told to go home -- on their own nickel. Many a caring commanding officer, who had grown to appreciate these WASP, their abilities and their dedication, helped see that they did get home for Christmas.

The militarization they sought -- recognition of their efforts and role during the war -- was granted 33 years later, in November 1977. Bee Haydu, WASP Class 44-7, led that fight as WASP president. She credits the efforts and support of Hap Arnold's son, Bruce Arnold, as the reason they achieved their goal.

Even then, their victory seemed a begrudging one. Movement to complete the process was slow, and of course, they had missed the GI Bill by 30 years. None of this really fazed the WASP. They remain, today, thankful for the opportunity to "fly those beautiful airplanes."

So, when July 1, 2009, brought President Obama's signature to the Senate Bill to honor them with the Congressional Gold Medal, these ladies took it to heart and began to plan for the BIG day. Sadly, we lost a few of them in the intervening months.

Seeing their faces Tuesday, March 9, at the Air Force Memorial and Wednesday, March 10, in Emancipation Hall was worth it all. Whether they walked in under their own power, were helped by a self-propelled walker or a uniformed military escort, or arrived in a wheelchair, the women who gathered were aviators -- women who still have their heads in the sky and their eyes on the stars.

We, who know and love them, salute our heroines. Ordinary women -- the girl next door who learned to fly a Piper Cub and went to war. Thirty-eight of them came home in pine boxes. Those 38 were honored at a memorial ceremony March 9 at the Air Force Memorial.

On March 10 the living WASP -- joined by their families and friends and by the families of their sister WASP who have flown west -- took home the Gold.