WWII women pilots on a deck of playing cards
The women looked cool striding purposely to some unknown place in their leather bomber jackets, full-legged pants and thick boots. Their backdrop was a World War II plane with an imprinted name of which I could only make out the word “Mama.”
The women looked as if they’d just stepped out of the plane. The photo was on a deck of playing cards promoting the National WASP World War II Museum, whose name was printed on one side of the pack. On the other of the pack was a replica cover page from the July 19, 1943, edition of Life magazine featuring a photo of WASP Shirley Slade in her Army Air Force pilot uniform. The magazine did a photographic essay titled “Girl Pilots (page 73),” including a photo of them sunbathing.
I was familiar with WASP and female pilots, but I didn’t know they had their own museum. At some point, perhaps, this deck of cards was sold at the museum, located in a 1920s-era municipal airport hangar that overlooks the runways where the women trained in Sweetwater, TX. A campaign is underway to build a new hangar to expand the museum.
WASP, or the Women Airforce Service Pilots, was first formed in 1942, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the year before and the Army Air Force needed more pilots at home to release men to fly combat planes overseas. The idea of women pilots had already been floated, but dismissed. This new wrinkle in the war made the military realize that it needed more pilots for non-combat duties stateside, and women – more than 25,000 of them – offered to do the job.
Over the next two years, more than 1,074 women rigorously trained to fly every type of plane – including B-17, B-26 and B-29 bombers – at Avenger Field in Sweetwater. WASP itself resulted from the joining of two women’s flying programs on site. Aviator Jacqueline Cochran – who had sent a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt in support of women flyers in noncombat roles – directed the program.
The group included Mexican American, Chinese and Native American women but no African Americans, who were not permitted to apply. Black aviator Janet Harmon Bragg applied but was rejected because of her race. She was said to have been told by Cochran that it was too much to take on both discrimination against women and African Americans in this fight. Another account said Cochran felt that including African American women might both jeopardize and destabilize an already not-so-popular program.
Bragg had learned to fly at a black-owned aviation school in Chicago in a class of black men who had not readily accepted her because she was black and female – until she bought a plane for the class to use to learn to fly. One of her white female students had encouraged her to apply for the WASP program. Interestingly, Bragg trained white women who went on to become WASPs.
The military wasn’t used to accommodating women in its ranks. They wore zoot-suit clothing made for men, slept on cots in crowded wooden barracks (which were called bays), relieved themselves in less-than-appealing latrines, and ate some meals that were just so-so. Some people also doubted that they could ever master flying military planes as well as men – even though they were already licensed pilots.
The women also performed other jobs, including test-flying planes that had been repaired before they were handed over to male pilots, towing targets for live ammunition practice and transporting equipment. After their training, the women were stationed at more than 120 bases across the country.
Even though they were trained pilots, the women were considered civilians and not military. When an ally, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Force, sought in 1944 to have them officially designated as members of the U.S. military, the request was denied by Congress. The WASP program was discontinued in 1944, and the records sealed and stored. In 1976, the Air Force began allowing women to fly military planes.
Finally, in 1977, President Carter signed into law a bill giving WASP military status, and the women received their service medals in 1984. In 2010, they received the Congressional Gold Medal.
As for the deck of cards, the cool photo is of WASPs Frances Green (starting at left), Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn as they left their B-17 bomber called “Pistol Packin’ Mama” during training in Ohio. Each is holding her parachute.