By Danielle Prostrollo
Women played an important part of World War II. It is easy to get behind this idea, but it was difficult for me to get a clear image of what that effort really looked like. Everyone knows how important women were as nurses throughout the War effort, but there were many more who worked outside the hospitals, such as the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). This group was formed through the 1943 merger of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and trained over 1,000 women.
These civilian women freed male pilots to be ready for combat. The WASPs were trained pilots who were utilised in all manner of non-combat flying. Without these women, combat pilots would not have had aircraft to fly. Women flew eighty percent of all ferrying missions, delivering over 12,000 aircraft in just over two years. They estimate it that this freed up over 900 male pilots for combat missions. When a ferrying mission came in, the WASPs would go to the factory, take the plane on a test mission, and then deliver it to the air base. They flew almost every type of aircraft used by the USAAF, including the notable B-29 Super Fortress.
In 1943, the WASPs also assisted in combat training, towing shooting targets at Camp Davis. This proved to be a dangerous task. On more than one occasion, the women were shot down because the men mistakenly thought they should shoot the airplane rather than the target they were towing. Eleven WASPs lost their lives during training programs across the US, including Mabel Virginia Rawlinson. Rawlinson had been flying with an instructor when her plane malfunctioned and ultimately crashed. The instructor was thrown from the aircraft, but she was stuck inside the pilot’s seat. It was later discovered that her plane, among others used for towing shooting practice, had not been adequately maintained and the Army Air Corps had been using the wrong octane fuel in them.
As civilians, the WASPs were not considered part of the military and therefore did not receive military benefits. Besides not being considered veterans, this had very real financial implications for those who served as WASPs. Each woman had to pay for their own uniform as well as room and board. Additionally, from the group’s inception in 1943 until it was dissolved in late 1944, 38 WASPs lost their lives (and one disappeared). The bodies of these women were shipped home and buried at the expense of their families rather than receiving a military funeral.
It wasn’t until 1977 that they were retroactively granted veteran’s benefits which allowed them to partake in the programs administered by the Veterans Association. In 2009, WASP received the Congressional Gold Medal, which is on display at Boeing in Chantilly, Virginia. These were just some of the women of World War II who answered the call to protect their country, but knowing about their efforts has helped me to paint a better picture of what role women played at that time.