by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
President Harry Truman once remarked that there is nothing new under the sun except the history you haven’t learned yet. How right he was, and nothing proves the point so well as this appreciation for the life of World War II aviation pioneer, Violet Crowden and all the other 1,078 Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Here is the crucial problem they helped to solve:
When the United States entered World War II, (December 1941), it placed its massive manufacturing and industrial capacity at the service of the Allies. This meant producing aircraft in the quantities needed to overwhelm Germany and Japan thereby ensuring the fastest possible victory. But there was a problem here.
The war drained America of its male pilots; they were needed at the front, to fly the crucial missions. But there weren’t enough male pilots in the country to replace them. That left a huge problem that had to be solved and had to be solved fast: how to get the planes being manufactured to the landing fields worldwide where our “boys” desperately needed them?
Cherchez la femme, particularly the thousands of American women who were licensed pilots. They were the ace in the hole… though they had to get through a mountain of male skepticism and doubt before they got the opportunity to show America and the world that they could do their “bit” too.
Creation of the WASP.
Even before America entered the war far-seeing women were at work on solving problems that would occur when she did. Two famous women pilots — Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love — independently submitted proposals for the use of female pilots in non-combat situations. These proposals were submitted to the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), predecessor to the United States Air Force, or USAF. They rightly believed the war would spread and that the United States must be prepared when it did.
Their (separate) proposals were rejected by General H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the USAAF. Poor “Hap” was hapless. Not least because Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s activist First Lady, intervened and strenuously so. Her involvement triggered the usual winks, nudges and (privately) malicious digs and comments; why couldn’t she just give teas in the Blue Room like all the First Ladies before her?
But that wasn’t Eleanor Roosevelt’s way and the USAAF got a whiff of what one determined woman could do to help other determined women help America. In due course, America’s need for pilots trumped the arguments against female pilots… and so, bit by bit, women were integrated into the services. Some ferried new planes to their destinations; others towed targets for aerial gunnery practice; still others were flight instructors.
The “Big Cheese” syndrome.
But if women could do men’s work, they also suffered from the same turf battles. Who was going to be the Big Cheese of these proceedings — “Jackie” Cochran or Nancy Love? Cochran was in England volunteering to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). While she was gone, “Hap” Arnold decided to go with Nancy Love’s proposal. “Jackie” Cochran, back from England, immediately made An Issue of this decision… while Hapless Hank Arnold claimed ignorance… anything to cool Cochran down.
Arnold’s solution was classic: both proposals were accepted and a final decision postponed. Of course both tenacious, determined, bureaucratically adept women continued the battle for supreme control. In July 1943, Cochran, famous and better connected, got what she wanted. With Arnold’s assistance Cochran became director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. No one knew better than General Arnold why they were called WASPs.
Violet Cowden at work for America.
While these internecine battles were playing themselves out, the recruitment of women pilots got underway… and the results were astonishing. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP service. Fewer than 1,900 were accepted and just 1,078 of them got their wings… including Violet Cowden, who served the WASPs in 1943 and 1944. Cowden was typical of the kinds of women who became WASPs and the constant obstacles they faced.
Born October 1,1916 in Bowdle, South Dakota, in 1936 she earned a teaching certificate from what was then the Spearfish Normal School, in Spearfish, S.D. She then stayed in Spearfish to teach first grade. There, she rode her bicycle 6 miles each way to a local airfield for her first flying lessons.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Cowden, by then a licensed pilot, asked to join the Civil Air Patrol but got no reply. That was typical. She tried again and applied to the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, an early incarnation of the WASPs. She was one of the 1830 lucky applicants and reported to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas for six months of rigorous training.
There she discovered that because WASPs were civilian employees and not military, they had to pay for their own food, lodging, and (generally ill-fitting) attire. Barely 5 foot tall Violet Cowden was installed in a men’s Size 44 for the duration.
Violet Cowden faced the snubs and slights the way most WASPs did — by ignoring the fact they were ignored and getting on with the job. They knew something about America’s pilots that these male pilots often forgot: they needed these women and their often overlooked skills. It was a simple as that.
Always an afterthought, Cowden worked seven days a week, sleeping on commercial flights that ferried her to and from her crucial business. There was hardly ever a good word for a dangerous job well done… and remember what the WASPs did could be very dangerous indeed. Thirty eight WASPs died in accidents during training or on duty.
And despite all they did, when in late 1944 male pilots began coming home in significant numbers, the WASPs were, with hardly a word of thanks or recognition, simply dismissed. For Violet Cowden that day came in December, 1944 when the Army dissolved the WASPs altogether and told them to go home. For Cowden this was the “worst day of my life”… but it was a man’s world then… and this was how things were done. It was America at our crudest and most insensitive, and it is painful to recall that our nation treated these patriots so.
Recognition, at last.
If there contemporaries ignored and overlooked them, later generations did what they could to bestow proper recognition and acknowledgement for a job well done. President Jimmy Carter signed in 1977 legislation to give WASPs full military status for their service. On July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal and said, “I am honored to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.”
As for Violet Cowden, having been kicked out of the war, the WASPs dissolved, she got the only job in aviation she could… behind the ticket counter of Trans World Airlines, waiting for history to catch up. Perhaps now it has…
* * * * *
About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at worldprofit.com and JeffreyLantArticles.com
* * * * *