Gil Cohen Oil 2013
I only very recently learned of the WASPs, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. Their story is amazing, heroic, dramatic, sometimes tragic, and most of all highly disappointing. I hope that some of you that see this painting will read about them and tell others. Their story is only disappointing because it is not widely known. We need to change that.
In 1943, World War II was raging. America needed pilots. Many men were tied up in the States doing things like training and ferrying aircraft from factories to bases. Enter the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). A year later they would combine to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASPs.
As their names imply, these women pilots took over training and ferrying, freeing men for combat. A call went out for experienced pilots. 25,000 women answered the call to serve their country.
1,074 women graduated from the WASP pilot training program where they learned to fly the “Army Way.” These women flew every single aircraft the male pilots did, from bombers, to fighters, to transports. They flew the same missions that men flew within the continental 48 from 126 different bases.
But they also were required to really go above and beyond in a lot of ways. When an aircraft was damaged and it received repairs, it was the WASPs that took the planes up to test for safety before the male pilots could fly them. Amazingly, even in these conditions they were instructed that under no circumstance should they touch the emergency equipment, even if in imminent danger. That equipment was to be reserved for male combat pilots in battle.
One of the most amazingly heroic missions they flew were training missions. They would fly planes with targets attached to the tail of their planes for the male students. The students were firing LIVE ammunition at the targets.
In August of 1944, the US Congress rejected the WASP Militarization Bill presented by General Hap Arnold. It was widely believed at the time that with the draw down of pilots, many of the male civilian pilots would lose their jobs to their female counterparts if they were given official military status. To some extent, this would have been true as many of the WASPs were more experienced and were flatly just better pilots.
However, the politics and sexism had even great consequences. The WASPs did not receive military benefits or honors. Thirty eight woman died in service of their country. Their classmates and friends had to pool their money and take a collection to send their bodies home. They were not allowed to have a flag placed on their caskets. They were not allowed to be buried as veterans.
In December of 1944 the WASP program was unceremoniously ended, less than two weeks after the last class graduated from flight school. The women, stationed all across the country, were just told to go. They even had to pay for their trips home.
The WASP files were sealed and classified. For 35 years they were not acknowledged in any way. They did not receive VA benefits. They were largely forgotten.
In 1976, the military officially began accepting females into their academies. It wasn’t until this time that the WASPs began to stir. The media attention to the “first women” in the military prompted them to organize.
Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold, became a strong ally to the WASPs in the 1970s to help get them the recognition they deserved. Largely due to their own organization, as well as help from Barry Goldwater, President Carter officially recognized the WASPs as veterans and awarded them VA benefits. In 2010 the surviving 300 members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Gil Cohen is known as an aviation artist from Bucks County, PA. He has numerous works depicting World War II, many of which include women in different capacities. Many of his works are available in giclee from Aviation Art.
The artist gives this background for the painting: “During the late Autumn of 1944 on the tarmac of the Lockheed Aircraft Plant in Burbank, California, a group of four Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) are gathered around their flight leader.” Read a bit more about it here: Brooks Art.
I love the look of the panels of the planes in this painting. They show the wear and tear of planes used in war. The light shining in spots on the floor gives an accurate representation of light shining through the netting above them.
The women look like pilots, just like they should. These were not just women dressed up like pilots. I can’t help but think the one kneeling on the right has a Peggy Carter look about her.
If you would like to email a real WASP, here is a link for you to do that. Email a WASP What a great way to learn! There is a PBS documentary you can watch with great information. You can see the trailer here: We Served Too
It wasn’t just the WASPs! Please also learn about the WAC–Women’s Army Corps, the WAVES–Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Services in the Navy, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserves, the SPARS–the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, and of course, the Army and Navy Nurses Corp, including the Angels of Bataan. Women have been a part of our military history since the Revolutionary War. It’s time we acknowledge them.