WASP Legacy Honored at Texas Event

Remembering the groundbreaking female pilots who shaped U.S. history in WWII.

Three WASP at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. [Courtesy: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum]

Not all homecoming celebrations happen in the fall. The weekend of April 28-29, the WASP Homecoming is being held at the National WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) World War II Museum, located in Sweetwater, Texas.

The event is billed as Journey to the Stars and is intended to honor the WASP  and to recognize the women who followed them into military flying and celebrate 30 years of women flying in service to their country.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend. Some are relatives of WASP. Others were inspired to fly by the WASP. There are usually quite a few women military aviators in attendance. 

A plethora of World War II era military aircraft are expected to be on display.

This year the Masters of Ceremony will be John Marsh and Kathleen Fowler—children of WASP Marie Barrett Marsh.

The weekend is filled with storytelling to remember the WASP. Participants are encouraged to "bring your favorite WASP story to share with your table during brunch or while mingling. Be sure to bring or email a copy for our Archive. The Museum wants to tell the most complete stories of your WASP."

The WASP who have gone West will also be remembered. This year the ashes of Jean Jeep Downy Harman, class of 44-W-9 will be scattered, and the life of WASP Susie Winston Bain, 44-W-9, will be honored at the museum plaza.

There is also a hangar dance scheduled, the proceeds of which will benefit the museum. Period correct attire is encouraged.

About the Town

Sweetwater, Texas, is 223 miles west of Dallas. The town of Sweetwater was established as a railroad town in the 1880s, and later during WWII, Avenger Field air base was established there. 

At first, it trained British Royal Air Force pilots, then was converted to train Women Airforce Service Pilots. The area then, as now, was very rural. According to WASP Florence G. "Shutsy" Reynolds Class 44-W-5, when the WASP went into town, they were mistaken for a women's baseball team because of their matching coveralls and ball caps. No one knew that women were being trained for the war effort at the air base.

Walt Disney was an admirer of the WASP. He created the iconic Fifinella image. Fifi, as she is known, is a female gremlin who is said to protect women aviators in flight by distracting the male gremlins who create mechanical issues with airplanes.

About the WASP

The Women Airforce Service Pilots were established in 1943. The organization was the creation of two women, Nancy Harkness Love, who, even before the United States entered WWII, pushed the idea of properly trained women delivering military. And after the war began, Jacqueline Cochran, who saw the value of having women fly in non-combatant roles to free the male pilots up for the all-important fighting. 

Cochran was able to persuade Army Air Force General Henry Hap Arnold to activate the Women's Flying Training Detachment in 1942, and in 1943 the two groups merged as the Women's Airforce Service Pilots were merged in 1943, with Cochran taking the role of director. The women had to be between the ages of 21 and 35 and hold a Commercial Pilot certificate. More than 25,000 applied to be WASP, and 1,102 made it to graduation. 

The WASP did multiple flying jobs including target towing for live-fire exercises, aircraft delivery, test flying aircraft after maintenance, and even persuading male pilots that certain models—such as the B-29 Superfortress—could be flown. 

When the men were reluctant to get into these aircraft, the WASP showed them how it was done. The WASP were regarded as civilian contractors during the war, so when a WASP was killed in the line of duty—and 38 were—there were no military burial benefits to ship the body home, and the family was not permitted to put a gold star in their window signifying a family member had died in service to their country.

The WASP would not gain military status until 1977 under President Carter. In 2009 they would receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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