National WASP WWII Museum, Sweetwater, TX

D.WASP.PRT.063The Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were the first women to fly America’s military aircraft, women who forever changed the role of women in aviation.

Women pilots — 1,830 of them, ages 18 to 35, with a private or commercial pilot’s license and at least 500 hours cockpit time (later lowered to 200 and then 35 hours) — answered the call of their country from 1942-44 and joined the WASPs to train at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Avenger Field was and is the only all-female training base in U.S. military history.

Patriotism was running high and women, like men, were caught up in the fever to “do their bit for the war effort.” Though they never left continental North America, the contributions of the 1,084 who graduated, received their wings and were deployed to 120 bases all over the United States, helped turn the tide in favor of America and our Allies. Today there are 176 surviving WASPs.

In addition to being an elite corps from the standpoint of skills, ability and experience, the WASPs were guinea pigs; no program like this had ever been tried before. The future of women in military aviation hung on how the women performed professionally and conducted themselves morally and socially.

Although they were Civil Service, they maintained military standards and observed military regulations. The objectives of the program were to relieve male pilots for combat, determine if women could serve as military pilots, and decrease the Air Force’s total demand on manpower pools.

Even though these women knew how to fly, they were sent to Avenger Field to learn to fly the Army way, under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran and General Hap Arnold. Their assignments were to ferry planes from factories to bases; tow targets for live ammunition ground/aerial gunnery practice; simulate strafing using smoke; searchlight missions; test pilot-repaired aircraft (sent to the U.S from the front); instruction, and tracking.

They trained in PT-17s, PT-19s, BT-13s, BT-15s, AT-6s, AT-17s, UC-78s, UC-43s and UC-81s. Most went on to advanced pilot training flying high-powered fighter and bomber aircraft – P-47s, P-38s, P-51s, B-17s and B-29s – from coast to coast. Of the 77 types of planes in the Army Air Force arsenal, at one time or another, a WASP flew each type of these aircraft.

Training at Avenger Field lasted 30 weeks, in which pilots were required to complete 393 hours of ground school, including math, physics, maps, charts, navigation, weather, communication, Morse code, first aid and other topics, after which they completed 210 hours of flight training, including 70 hours primary, 70 hours basic, 70 hours instrument, 50 hours advanced and 20 hours multi-engine.

Thankless service
Because the WASPs were paid under Civil Service and not as part of the military, they didn’t receive military benefits or insurance, and they had to pay their way to Avenger Field and home when the program was deactivated. The 38 women who were killed in service to their country had no American flag on their coffin, weren’t buried in military cemeteries and their families couldn’t place a star in their windows.

Political maneuvering led to their deactivation on 20 December 1944. Grueling schedules, sacrifices, gender bias and the loss of 38 women pilots apparently meant nothing. Their records were sealed and they were asked not to talk about their training. The women were expected to go home and assume their proper place in the kitchen.

In the 1970s, as military institutions were opening their doors to women, the U.S. Navy announced that they were training women cadets to fly military aircraft, “the first women to fly military aircraft.” After being denied military status by the U.S House of Representatives in 1944 (although the WASP Bill was favorably reported out by the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives), the WASPs petitioned Washington and, with the help of Sen. Barry Goldwater, received military status in 1977.

DSC_0466The museum
In the fall of 2002, community interest began to surge for opening a museum to pay tribute to the WASPs who had trained at Avenger Field. The need for the museum to be located in Sweetwater at Avenger Field became of utmost importance.

Even though the area has changed throughout the years, the runways where the WASPs trained and the vistas that they saw during take-off and landing were still the same.

The City of Sweetwater once again leased some of the airport land: the hangar that originally housed the Sweetwater Municipal Airport and 55 surrounding acres was leased to the National WASP WWII Museum for $1 a year for 200 years. In 2005, the WASP Museum board decided to remodel the existing hangar into a museum, and on 28 May, the National WASP WWII Museum opened, which was the 62nd anniversary of the first class of WASPs to
graduate at Avenger Field in 1943.

Since opening its doors in 2005, the WASP Museum has continued to grow and has become a nationally recognized facility with visitors from all over the United States and several foreign countries. A PT-17 and PT-19 are currently on exhibit when they are not flying.

In 2010, the Woman Airforce Service Pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama. The Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers were also Gold Medal recipients.

Although the WASPs have been left out of American history textbooks, denied rights, given inferior equipment and subjected to gender bias, their story is now being told. The young women who fly today’s advanced military aircraft give credit to the WASPs for paving the way so they can follow their dreams. Female commercial pilots know that it was the WASPs who put the “first crack” in the glass ceiling, allowing them to have careers in aviation.

On 24 May 14, 16 WASPs returned to Avenger Field for Homecoming 2014. The ashes of two WASPs, “Gunny” Gunderson and Betty Jo Reed, were spread over the runways where they had trained. In interviews most have said, “These were the best years of our lives.” One said, “We would have flown for free if they had let us.”

Although these women came from all walks of life, different social and economic climates, they had two things in common: they loved their country and they loved to fly.

The National WASP WWII Museum overlooks the runways where the WASPs flew. The north horizon is exactly as they saw it in 1943-44. The Museum Hangar is the original Sweetwater Municipal Airport, used for civilian air traffic, repairs and frequented by WASPs in 1943-44. Avenger Field’s original barracks, administration buildings, classrooms and Hangar One burned in 1955, but the Wishing Well remains. Texas State Technical College is now located where they stood.

At sunset, on quiet evenings, if you listen carefully, you can hear the echoes of the WASPs singing their marching songs on this hallowed ground.

Sweetwater, TX 79556; phone 
325/235-0099, is open Wednesday-Saturday, 10-5; Sunday 1-5. Admission is free of charge.