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US Women Pilots in World War II Struggle to Tell Their Stories

During World War II, more than 1,000 women were trained as military pilots.  While they were not allowed to be combat pilots, they flew all sorts of missions.  But their story was a classified secret for over three decades. On the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, VOA Producer Zulima Palacio found two women determined to tell their story and keep it alive.

The day Deanie Bishop turned 21, she applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASP.  It was 1942, and the middle of World War II. “Our basic function was to fly the missions to relieve male pilots for combat,” she said.

More than 1,000 women became military pilots and were station at 120 Army air bases across the United States.   They never flew outside the country or into combat.  And they were never taken into the military. But the people flying with them were.

"Navigators had to be trained, somebody had to fly that plane so that navigators could train, and bombardiers -- gunners -- had to be trained for combat; somebody had to fly those missions," said Ms. Bishop.

They also tested new and repaired planes, and they ferried them across the country; Women had never done those jobs before.  Thirty eight female pilots died on missions.  Military personnel killed with them received all honors. The female bodies were sent home in cheap pine boxes.

In December of 1944 Congress disbanded WASP and all the female pilots had to pay their own way back home.

"You know what happened once we were disbanded?  The government took all of our military records and they sealed them and they stamped them classified.  And they sent them to the basement of the Archives in Washington.  That's where they sat for 33 years.  So when the historians were writing the history of World War II, they didn't know we existed," says Ms. Bishop.

For all those years, the memories of these extraordinary women, were kept only in their hearts.

"It was not until 1977, the Air Force or somebody in public relations, put a little statement that says the Air Force was graduating 10 women pilots, the first women in history to fly military aircraft.  And we said, 'Now you cross the line,' " Ms. Bishop said.

The battle in Congress was hard, but they won.  Their records were opened and they were finally recognized as veterans.  Although, Deanie says, that only meant the right to have a U.S. flag draped over their coffins.

Later on, two medals came in the mail.  Despite it all, Deanie never felt bitter.  Now, 60 years later, Ms. Bishop and her daughter Nancy have teamed up in another mission: to spread the story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in a website and through the creation of the first WASP Museum.

For the last five years Deanie and Nancy have collected hundreds of items, publications and memorabilia for the planned museum in Sweetwater Texas, where all the female pilots were trained. 

They have recorded 106 interviews in 19 states, with some of the 400 WASPs who are still alive.

"These women forever changed the role of women in aviation.  They flew every kind of airplane, they flew every kind of mission, they flew 60 million miles.  I learned the story of the granddaughter of one of the WASP.  She was going to do a paper for her history project.  And the teacher said, 'OK, stand up and tell us what you are going to do your papers on,' and it got to her turn.  She got up and said, 'I am going to do my paper on my grandmother.  She was a pilot on World War II.' And the teacher said, 'Sit down, there weren't any pilots in World War II,' says Nancy.

Now people are beginning to recognize how wrong that teacher is.  And the WASPs hope their story will become known and be remembered.

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