All They Wanted to Do Was Fly
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
We look into the history of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who were trained and flew every type of aircraft the U.S. Deployed during World War II, including the massive B-29. Yet they were always regarded as volunteers and were never incorporated into the military as they were promised.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Last week, 80 California women were honored in Washington D.C. with Congressional Gold Medals. The recognition comes more than six decades after the women flew planes for the U.S. during WWII as members of the civilian Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS. Last summer, These Days guest host Doug Myrland talked with San Diego author and former Navy pilot Amy Goodpaster Strebe. She documented the Women's Airforce Service Pilots in her book "Flying for Her Country." The interview began with Doug asking why he'd never heard of these courageous women pilots of World War two
AMY GOODPASTER STREBE (Author): Thank you. I'm – Actually, I'm not a naval aviator. My – Trish Beckman, who wrote the forward to my book actually was a former naval aviator.
DOUG MYRLAND: Ah.
STREBE: Thank you, though. No, my husband…
MYRLAND: Maybe you should take some lessons.
STREBE: No, that's one of the questions I get quite a bit, is if I'm a pilot. But, no, I'm not actually a pilot myself. I have a lot of admiration for pilots but…
MYRLAND: Now, I'm 56 years old and when I was growing up, we learned a lot about World War II in school. It was still very much in people's minds. My dad served in World War II. So I think people of a little bit younger generation have a better excuse than I do. I didn't know anything about this until I was going to do this show and saw your book. How did this wonderful service of these women sort of get lost in the mire of history?
STREBE: Well, that's – it's a good question. Unfortunately, you're not the only one who hasn't heard about these wonderful women. And that's one of the things we have been – The last couple of months, I have been working hard lobbying congress for the Congressional Gold Medal for the Women Air Force Service Pilots and one of our biggest challenges really has been ignorance of the subject. Not so much that people don’t want to help us and want to pay tribute to these women pilots but because people just haven’t heard of them. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that when they – they flew between 1942 and 1944 and even during the, war a lot – even the male pilots, people in the military didn't really know who the WASPs were. And Jacqueline Cochran, who started the WASP program really kept it under, you know, pretty tight control because it was an experiment. You know, women had not flown military aircraft before and she wanted to make sure that when it was done, it was done well. And, unfortunately, because it was so secret there really wasn't a whole lot known about it then and even after the war.
MYRLAND: So could you tell us about Ms. Cochran? I know she started out with a different name and a different profession and then she started this. Tell us that story, if you would.
STREBE: Jacqueline Cochran, she is an amazing, amazing person. She started off, actually, her flying career started off kind of serendipitous. She was in the cosmetics business and she decided her future husband, who really financed a lot of her air races and gave her the opportunities for her being a pilot, she – he – she realized that maybe if she got her pilot's license that she'd be able to get to these places a little quicker to sell her cosmetics. And then once she got her pilot's license, she said that was just it. She knew she had, you know, was just born to be a pilot. So from there, she won, you know, several air races, became a very accomplished aviator, and then when the war came, she basically took Eleanor Roosevelt aside and said, hey, you know, we've got all these, you know, very trained, very accomplished women pilots and they really can, you know, be utilized in the war to basically – to help the pilots. The male pilots, obviously, were going overseas to fight, but they would be utilized to do ferry missions in the United States.
MYRLAND: And by that you mean flying brand new planes, generally, to a location that the military needed to put them to use.
STREBE: Exactly. A lot of them would fly them from the manufacturers to the air bases and so, basically, from coast to coast. And lot of them – a lot of them were testing them out for the first time.
MYRLAND: So they were not only delivering the planes, they were the first iteration of the software.
STREBE: Yes, exactly. And another assignment they had was as a tow target pilot in Camp Davis, North Carolina.
MYRLAND: Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.
STREBE: Yes, that was a very dangerous – and there were several WASPs who actually died. Thirty-eight WASPs died, total, during the war on active duty. But, yeah, that was one of the more dangerous assignments the WASPs had.
MYRLAND: Another part of your book talks about women in the Soviet Union providing that same sort of service. Is the parallel exact?
STREBE: It – it's -- You know, it's funny. When I started writing my book and my book actually originated as my master's thesis in graduate school, and I started off wondering, hmm, am I comparing apples to oranges because is it just that they're women that they're – you know, that they have this commonality. But, really, the more I researched it, the more I found that, you know, they both were very patriotic, they both had a love for aviation, and despite their differences in aerial operations, obviously, the Soviet air women actually flew in combat whereas the American women didn't, they did share a lot of things in common. They had – obviously, both had very dangerous flying assignments, and I think in being women, they did kind of take things into a very different perspective than the male pilots did.
MYRLAND: And by that, can you give me an example of that?
STREBE: Of how women – how the WASPs or how the – how the women pilots…
MYRLAND: Had a different perspective than the men.
STREBE: You know, it depends. I don't think they flew the aircraft any differently because I don't think they're – I don't think aircraft – they – you know, they don't know there's a difference between males or females who are flying it.
STREBE: But I think like I know the Soviet air women, after the war, it was kind of interesting to see their perspective on what they felt about women in combat. We, of course, in the United States, it wasn't until the nineteen – what, until the 1980s when they had the repeal of the Combat Act so women were able to fly in combat. The Soviet air women really didn't understand why women would want to fly in combat if they didn't have to.
STREBE: It was very different -- You know, we want to do it because we want to have the opportunity to do it. But the Soviet air women felt like, you know, we did what we did for our country, we would do it again if it was a crises like it was, but, you know, why would you want to do that? You know, why would you want to, you know, leave your families and go through this, you know, just amazing, horrible, you know, situation, which is the war, obviously. But it was just interesting, the perspectives between the American and the Soviet as regards to their flying assignments.
MYRLAND: Now you've been kind enough to agree to read a passage from your book and I think now would be a good time to ask you to do that and maybe you can tell us the context of what you're reading before you start.
STREBE: Okay. Well, the first one, I think, one thing that a lot of people don't realize is that the WASPs actually flew B-26s and B-29s and they – the B-29, in particular, was a very – a very new aircraft at that time, during the war, and considered to be very dangerous, and the male pilots didn't want to fly it. And they decided that if they could get the women to fly the aircraft, well, then the men would say, well, you know, obviously it's safe to fly if a woman can fly it, right? So it was really interesting. They – Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr., who would later pilot the Enola Gay, who dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he actually trained a few WASPs to fly the B-29. And years later, one of the pilots who flew on the historic flight of the B-29 to Clovis Army Airfield in New Mexico, wrote this letter to one of the WASPs in 1995, and I'll read that letter. 'I realize that it was a long time ago but I want to thank you for helping me that day at Clovis. You came to show us that the B-29 plane was not one to be feared. You were the pilot that day and you demonstrated your excellent flying skills and convinced us that the B-29 was a plane that any pilot would be proud to fly. From that day on, we never had a pilot who didn't want to fly the B-29.'
MYRLAND: Hmm. Now the pilots feared the B-29 because it was big? Or untested? Or what was it, was…
STREBE: Yeah, I think at that time, I'm pretty sure it was probably one of the heavy – it was one of the heaviest bombers that they had in the Air Force's arsenal. And I think – in fact, the WASPs actually who flew it, only learned to fly it in three days. So they didn't have a lot of time to do this.
STREBE: But, yeah, so it was pretty impressive. But, yeah, that was one of the things that, you know, I thought, well, if they could get a woman to fly it – and apparently it worked.
MYRLAND: Now we certainly don't have time and this isn't a women's studies class, but certainly we know that there were big cultural changes that happened right after the stock market crash. Women had made a lot of progress in American society up in the early part of the century and up until the economy got bad. And then in – many historians will say that the era of women's rights was really set back. When there was economic pressure, men kind of retook the job market and retook the – those things, so the thirties was not a real progressive era for women's rights with a few exceptions. And so set the context for us in World War II about people's attitudes toward women. We've all read about Rosie the Riveter and women going to work in factories but they really weren't integrated into other kinds of jobs the way we think they might've been, right?
STREBE: Yeah, well the 1930s was considered the golden age of aviation where a lot of the, you know, women pilots, and male pilots obviously, got their training in terms of being pilots. The Civil Air Patrol gave a lot of people opportunity for that. I think in the 1930s, I wouldn't say there was probably a whole – the percentage was pretty low in terms of women out there in the job market, especially with the depression because women were very much discouraged not to have jobs because especially if the man in the family didn't have a job, you wouldn't want to take that away from a family, obviously.
STREBE: In the 1940s, obviously with World War II, gave women a tremendous opportunity to get out, to do jobs they've never done before. You know, working in factories, putting aircraft together. Women, just as the men, obviously, wanted to do their part for the country and I think what happened after the war then, of course, is that, you know, women kind of still wanted to work and do the jobs. Some of them were happy to go back to their families but I think it wasn't until later when women actually were able to get more opportunity, especially with the WASP, too.
MYRLAND: With the WASP, they actually had an unfortunate kind of end to the program in that they weren't really incorporated into the military.
STREBE: Exactly. A lot of people don't realize that the WASPs, when they flew, they were considered volunteer civil servants, so they didn't have full militarization. They tried. In 1944, there was a bill for – that Jacqueline Cochran and Hap Arnold, General Hap Arnold, and the Army Air Forces, they supported it. In fact, when the legislation failed, it was the first legislation ever to fail during the war that was sponsored by the Army Air Forces. And, unfortunately, because not many people knew about the WASP and a lot of the male pilots were coming back from overseas because it was kind of thought that the war was probably won at that point, the men were eying the women's flying jobs. So there was a lot of heavy lobbying from veterans organizations to the Civil Air Patrol to give, basically, the men the women's flying jobs.
MYRLAND: And the other unfortunate aspect of this is that they were not militarized and then very – like almost the next day, congress passed the G.I. Bill, so not only were they not militarized but they didn't get any real benefits for their service either.
STREBE: Right. They actually did not get their veteran status until 1977. And that was – that's the thing, they were – the thing that really hurt the WASP more than anything else was that they were demobilized before the end of the war and that really hurt them because they really felt that they were still needed to do their jobs because it took some time to actually train the men to do the jobs that they had been doing for the last two years. So that was probably their biggest disappointment, not only because they had to stop flying but because they really felt that they were still needed by their country.
MYRLAND: But I understand the experience of the Soviet women pilots, in that way was a little different.
STREBE: Yeah, they basically – they obviously flew to the end of the war. They still, though, did not get – after the war they still didn't get the same kind of opportunities. It was kind of the same but maybe in the United States, as well, whereas – In a time of war, there's a lot of, I think, gender issues and things that can be kind of turned around…
STREBE: …on its head because of war and how it just disrupts everything in society. But after, you know, after the war ended and normalcy was, you know, trying to be reestablished, it really got to the point where, you know, women – they basically had to step back and get back into their families and men were pretty much then accepted into the military and continued on from there.
STREBE: I want to make sure to have time to talk about your effort to get the Congressional Gold Medal but I also want to comment. There are some photos in your book and the thing that struck me about the photos is that in almost every case, and I'm speaking about both the Soviet pilots and the American pilots, the women look really happy. They're smiling. And it's not just sort of smiling at the camera but they really look like they're…
MYRLAND: …they're in a good place.
STREBE: Oh, yeah, well, especially the WASP, I mean, they were so excited to have this opportunity. I mean, they – The thing about the WASP is, they had to have flight hours and flight training even to be accepted into the WASP program whereas the male pilots didn't have to have any experience, any flight time, before they were accepted into the flight – flight school for – or flight training to become a pilot. So these women were already accomplished fliers and they loved to fly. And the fact that they could do this also to benefit their country in a time of need was, you know, even better. So, yeah, they – I think, you know, when I talk to WASPs today, you know, the only two years – they only flew two years at the most as a WASP but that was one of the happiest times of their lives.
MYRLAND: And it's a great opportunity that you took to still speak with some of these women while they're still alive because we all know that people from the World War II generation, you know, it's – they're leaving us.
STREBE: I know, and way too quickly. In fact, I have – I'm privileged to have many WASPs as friends and they're just dear, dear people. And once you get to know them, you just, you know, it's contagious. You want to tell the world about what they've done and spread all the great – I mean, just all the great stories that they have out there.
MYRLAND: And tell me quickly about the Congressional Gold Medal.
STREBE: On March 17th, a Senate bill was introduced to award the Women Air Force Service Pilots with a Congressional Gold Medal. On May 20th, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, I'm happy to say. And next week is actually when the companion House bill is going to be voted on. So basically from then on from there it just goes on to the President to be signed and it should be made official.
MYRLAND: And there'll be a ceremony, I assume, at the White…
MYRLAND: …House or…?
STREBE: Yeah, I'm not sure exactly if it's – if it's at the Capitol or actually where – we're not quite sure if it's going to happen before the summer recess of congress or whether it'll happen in the fall but we're all very excited and it's really long overdue recognition for these great women pilots.
MYRLAND: Well, thank you for all your work on their behalf and for writing this terrific book. It's called "Flying For Her Country: The Amer – subtitle is "The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II." Our guest has been Amy Goodpaster Strebe. Thanks for being with us.
STREBE: Thank you. I appreciate it.
MYRLAND: And thanks to all of you for listening. You've been listening to These Days in San Diego.