Band of Sisters: Jackie Cochran and the W.A.S.P.s
Talk about your bad starts; Jacqueline was born in Florida around May 1910, and, according to her own account, she was orphaned at an early age and was raised in poverty by her foster parents. They were so poor that Jackie didn’t get her first pair of shoes until she was eight, had to steal chickens to feed her family and then began working at a local cotton mill when she was ten, causing her to lose time at school and stunting her academic growth (there have been reports that she made all of this up, including her name.) When she was older, Jackie became a hairdresser and beautician in Pensacola and Mobile, eventually moving to New York and working at Saks Fifth Avenue. During this time she met wealthy Floyd Bostwick Odlum, the CEO of RKO and founder of Atlas Corp., an investment firm. He was besotted with Jackie and helped her launch her own cosmetics line. They eventually married in 1936.
It wasn’t until Jackie took a plane ride with a pilot friend did she realize that she wanted to be a pilot as well, and Floyd encouraged her to get her license. In 1932 after three weeks of training, Jackie aced her test and got her pilot’s license after taking the test, and in two years was able to fly commercially. She loved flying so much that she even called her makeup line “Wings” and used her plane to promote her brand.
In 1934, Jackie tested the first supercharger ever installed in a plane, and later that year broke records by flying an unpressurized biplane to 3400 feet (while using an oxygen mask.) She became the first woman to fly in the 1935 Bendix transcontinental race, and in 1938 won while flying the untested Seversky fighter plane. That same year she was award the General William E. Mitchell memorial award for the greatest contribution to aviation that year.
In 1940, Adolph Hitler and his black-swathed Nazi forces were rapidly invading foreign territories, hell-bent on bringing formerly free countries under socialist rule and Aryan dogma. Many countries had already fallen while France was becoming swamped and Great Britain was in serious danger. At this time, the United States was dead-set on remaining neutral and isolated from the conflict … to a certain extent; the Americans didn’t want to get involved fighting in the war (meaning actually declaring war on Germany), but they weren’t about to just stand there and watch Europe collapse under the weight of one man’s twisted concept of rule. Instead of dispatching troops, the U.S. regularly dispatched ships and planes to carry supplies to the beleaguered Europeans, as well as fly ammunition, weapons and fighter planes there too. The practice was called, “ferrying.” Jackie was the first woman involved with the dangerous mission, and didn’t see why she should be the last … or why the Americans couldn’t do the same thing for their troops.
Jackie wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for assistance in creating an American version of the ATA in order to help free up badly needed pilots for the war. Eleanor was interested in the idea, and suggested that Jackie speak to General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold. A meeting was arranged, and after Jackie pitched her idea, General Arnold thanked her, but said that they already had enough pilots and encouraged her to work with the British women’s Air Transportation Auxiliary (ATA). Irritated, Jackie went back to ferrying planes to Britain (with twenty-five female volunteers), but never stopped lobbying.
While Jackie was in Britain, another American pilot named Nancy Harkness Love pitched a very similar idea to another general, and was accepted. Hearing that—and realizing that he was now officially low on pilots—General Arnold quickly contacted Jackie and asked her to return to the United States to begin training female pilots. Nancy’s group was called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (W.A.F.S), while Jackie’s group was called the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (W.F.T.D). By August 5, 1943, the two groups were combined to form the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (W.A.S.P.s), of which Jackie was director. Their base would be in Sweetwater, Texas, later home to the W.A.S.P Museum.
A call was put out for all available female pilots. Jackie had two thousand spots to fill on her roster—two thousand and five hundred women applied, with 1074 making the final cut. The women were retrained, and then began the process of testing experimental planes, testing planes for defects, experimenting with new aerial maneuvers to be used in combat, dragged targets for the Army to use as target practice (extremely dangerous), as well as ferried planes from the factories to other airfields or all the way to Europe. They flew P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51s, P-38s, P-39s, B-29s, and the B-17 “Flying Fortress.” In the two years that the W.A.S.P.s were operational, the women logged 60 million miles, ferried 12,650 aircraft, and instructed hundreds of new male pilots. At the final class of graduating W.A.S.Ps, General Arnold addressed the women, admitting somewhat sheepishly, “Frankly, I didn’t known in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in the heavy weather they would naturally encounter in operational flying. Well, now in 1944 … the entire operation has been a success … it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
Still, for all their successes, the W.A.S.P.s were not always well received by other male pilots and soldiers; pilot Lorraine Rogers recounted that, on descending to another airfield and signaling the communications tower, the controller refused to believe that she was piloting the plane and demanded that she get off the radio and let them speak to “the pilot.” Upon landing a gas truck drove out to refuel her plane, but upon seeing that she was a woman, the mechanics got back in their truck and drove off without putting in a drop of gas. Another time, a particularly obnoxious airman frequently harassed the female pilots, and Chinese-American pilot Hazel Yee retaliated by using her lipstick to scrawl a message in Chinese on the man’s plane tail. She told the man that it was a love letter, but in reality she called him "Fat Ass." The women were told not to fly while on their menstrual periods—as if a naturally occurring physical event that doesn’t have any effect on so much as walking—because it was “believed” (read: looking for more excuses to keep women from flying) to inhibit their ability to fly well.
On top of that, the work was extremely dangerous. Accidents would happen, planes would be faulty, landings would be flawed … and sometimes the planes were tampered with. Lorraine Rogers nearly died after some unidentified workmen cut her rudder cables, sending her plane into a violent spin. Mabel Rawlinson burned to death in her cockpit after her plane crashed, believed by many to be due to a bitter male pilot pouring sugar into her gas tank (Jackie Cochran was aware of the frequency of this happening, especially since Mabel’s wingwoman had to turn back due to strange engine trouble shortly before Mabel crashed.) Hazel Yee died when bad directions from the control tower caused her to collide her plane into another's. A total of 38 women were killed due to accidents and sabotage.
Amazing to think that the misogyny would run so deep as to drive male pilots to murder female pilots who were aiding them in a war against a common enemy.
Sadly, the W.A.S.Ps were not long for this world, and two years after their creation, the pilots were disbanded. It was 1945, the war in the European theater had ended, and their services were no longer needed. The women were dismissed with little fanfare—and no military status, despite everything they had contributed. Not a single one received a pension, and not one of the 38 funerals was paid for by the U.S. government. In fact, during their days training and working, the women had to pay their own way to the Sweetwater training site and buy their own uniforms.
Jackie remained with the military, serving from 1948 to 1970 with the rank of colonel. She went back to her cosmetic business, became active in journalism, and went back to breaking and making records in flight. In May 1953 she broke the world speed record of 652.3 miles per hour in a Sabre jet, breaking the sound barrier at Edwards Air Force Base, CA. In 1954 she won the Harmon trophy for outstanding female pilot of the year (she won a total of fifteen times), and in 1961 set speed records for flying the Northrop T-38 Talon trainer and for flying the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter at 1429.3 mph, the fastest by a woman. In all, Jackie has set more world records for flight than anyone in history, and has yet to be met or beaten by anyone.
Despite all the time spent testing new planes and setting records, Jackie never forgot about her W.A.S.Ps, or how they had been cheated out of their military status and pensions. She lobbied tirelessly for years to have the W.A.S.Ps recognized, and finally, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter bestowed upon the W.A.S.Ps the military recognition they deserved, granting them all status as veterans and a pension to go with it. On July, 1, 2009, President Barak Obama awarded the surviving W.A.S.P.s the Congressional Gold Medal.
Satisfied that the women now had their recognition, Jackie Cochran died August 8, 1980.
Jackie Cochran and the W.A.S.Ps works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011
Hell Hath No Fury, Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross 2008
W.A.S.P Museum http://waspmuseum.org/
Women Auxiliary Service Pilots http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_Airforce_Service_Pilots
WASP WWII Home Wings Across America http://www.wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/
Air Force Historical Studies Office http://www.afhso.af.mil/topics/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=15244
Jackie Cochran http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacqueline_Cochran
Jackie Cochran http://www.biography.com/people/jacqueline-cochran-9252061
Jackie Cochran http://nationalaviation.org/cochran-jacqueline/
History & Collections http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/Oral_History/oralhistoryhl.html
Mary Creason’s Aviation http://wingsacrossamerica.us/web/obits/rawlinsom_mabel.htm
National Museum “Flying For Freedom” http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Home.aspx