“I wanted to fly up there with the birds. I just felt like I needed to be up there.”
Before 18-year-old Alyce Stevens Rohrer had learned to drive, she knew how to fly. This made her perfect to serve in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during the World War II era. Better known as WASP, this paramilitary aviation organization was formed to free male pilots for combat roles, thus employing qualified female pilots to ferry aircraft from factories to military bases and to tow drones and aerial targets.
But despite the important contributions of the over 1,000 pioneering women of WASP made, they endured discrimination in their time and beyond, as they were not even recognized as veterans until almost 1980. Moreover, while serving the armed forces they were not recognized in the same light as servicemen and not afforded equal treatment by the military.
“We were just completely ignored and forgotten. I hope in the future that we won’t be,” Rohrer said.
Fortunately, that’s changed in recent years, and on New Year’s Day, the group was honored with a Rose Bowl Parade float.
WASP Plays Pioneering Role for Women Aviators
Initially, 25,000 women applied to join WASP; 1,800 were accepted but just over 1,000 passed the training and joined the group.
“It’s a group I’m extremely proud of belonging to because they just didn’t sit on their laurels and quit when they were sent home. They all did something special,” Rohrer, one of eight surviving WASP members, told CBS.
During her time in the group, she trained male pilots and performed domestic operations, but says she and her compatriots were dismissed when the male pilots came home. Sadly, the women’s contributions remained absent from many historical accounts.
“They just sent us home. It was a very heartbreaking experience because we all knew that once we got home, we would never fly again. There were no jobs open for women in the flying field,” Rohrer said.
Another WASP, Flora Belle Reece, told CNN that while growing up on a farm during the Great Depression, she would look to the sky and dream that one day she would be able to soar like the birds.
Her goals were anything but typical for women of the era, yet her father supported her.
“He would always shake his head and say, ‘Flora Belle, that is not something women usually do. But if you can figure out how, more power to you,’” Reece said. “So I was never discouraged.”
Another member of the pioneering aviators, Margot De Moss, 92, said: “We were trailblazers because we got in to where no women had ever been in before.”
WASP Faces Gender Bias in WWII and Beyond
While Reece’s father was supportive and progressive, the female aviators faced skepticism from their male colleagues.
“The pilots that were training us at first were very cold to us,” De Moss said. “Finally, they realized that we were patriotic — that we were good pilots.”
These ‘good pilots’ served an essential role logistically, filling in while men were away at war, flying military aircraft across the U.S. Yet their careers ended abruptly as the WWII was coming to an end.
“They just came in and said, ‘Girls, the men are coming back and want their jobs back. You’ve got to leave,’” De Moss said.
She wasn’t even given any money for a ticket to get back home from Texas, where she was based, to her home in the Northeast. She had to hitch rides to return home.
The women of WASP flew almost every type of military aircraft during World War II. In some cases, men were afraid to fly certain aircraft, so the women would be sent up first so as to lessen the fears of the men, according to historian Amber Dzelzkalns.
A few women were even selected to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets.
But because the women were considered part of the civil service, they did not receive military benefits. They earned $150 per month while in training and $250 after graduation. They were required to pay for their own uniforms and lodging.
And death was a very real possibility — 38 WASP aviators died. Yet because they were not considered military members, they received no traditional honors or medals. The Army would not even allow a U.S. flag to be placed on coffins of the fallen women.
An attempt to remedy this discrimination went forth in 1943, when the first of the WASP militarization bills was introduced in the House of Representatives. The idea was to reclassify the group as a separate corps headed by a female colonel — similar to the Army’s Women’s Army Corps. But the War Department opposed it, and in 1944, the House bill was narrowly defeated. One factor in the bill’s failure was an effort by male civilian pilots who lobbied against it.
Then came the final blow. In 1944, the House Committee on the Civil Service decreed WASP unnecessary and unjustifiably expensive and recommended the recruiting and training of women pilots be halted. All WASP records were classified for three decades — effectively rendering its contributions to the war effort unknown and inaccessible to historians.
Then in the mid-1970’s, the Navy announced that women would be permitted to fly military planes. This motivated surviving WASP veterans to seek recognition. With the political help from Sen. Barry Goldwater, a World War II veteran who had commanded WASP in his squadron, WASP finally gained belated veteran status from Congress in 1977.
In 2010, WASP members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over 250 surviving WASP members were invited to Washington, D.C. to receive the honor from President Barack Obama.
“The Women Air Force Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since,” Obama said.
The story of WASP is one of pioneering heroism on the part of women who were willing to break the mold and fly high in the face of oppression.