Everyday life across the United States was dramatically altered after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Food, gas, and clothing were rationed. Communities conducted scrap metal drives and planted “victory gardens.” Women and Blacks found employment as electricians, welders, and riveters in defense plants.
One group of women, however, supported the war effort and shattered a glass ceiling all in one fell swoop. They became the first female pilots to fly U.S. military aircraft. There was a severe shortage of male pilots to fly both stateside jobs and combat missions. Qualified women pilots offered to help to no avail until Eleanor Roosevelt intervened by telling her readers, “We are in a war, and we need to fight it with . . . every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this case, are a secret weapon waiting to be used.”
The Women Airforce Service Pilots became a reality. All trainees held pilot’s licenses, but they needed to learn to fly military aircraft which required an Army Air Corps training base. Texas answered the call. The first two classes graduated from Houston, but a more suitable base became available – Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX.
When the mass transition was made from Houston to Avenger Field in May 1943, locals turned out to watch the arrival of the women pilots as they landed on the airfield. Cars lined old Highway 80, the Bankhead Highway, for two miles in each direction from the main gate. The locals fully expected no more than half the WASP trainees to successfully pilot their BT-13s for 350 miles cross-country to Avenger Field. The local farmers predicted the women would wind up “scattered to hell and gone.” Much to their chagrin, every plane landed uneventfully.
The WASP were excellent flyers with skills equal to their male counterparts. After graduation, they were assigned to 120 U.S. duty bases. They performed every stateside mission freeing the men for combat assignments. Jacqueline Cochran, the WASP’s commander, described it as aerial dishwashing – boring jobs that were nevertheless critical to the U.S.’s success in war. The WASP disagreed with Cochran. They found their jobs to be exhilarating, flying the biggest and fastest airplanes in the army Air Corps arsenal. Collectively, the WASP piloted all 77 aircraft, from the heaviest bombers to the fastest pursuit planes, and flew over 66 million miles.
As the war came to an end, the U.S. had more than enough male pilots, so the WASP program was deactivated in December 1944. The women went home and most never flew again. While deactivation was a grave disappointment, most WASP would say their two years of service were invaluable. They acquired new skills and developed character and resolve that translated to the rest of their lives.
With the WASP gone, Sweetwater didn’t think much about Avenger Field although it would be used by the government through the Vietnam War. Over time, the air base deteriorated from lack of use and upkeep. In 2003, a spark ignited on this long-forgotten field, and it was repurposed as the National WASP WWII Museum, a place that will forever preserve the history, promote the legacy, and preserve the airfield of the WASP.
With humble beginnings, Sweetwater citizens worked their 8 am – 5pm jobs by day and restored a 1929 hangar by night with their own sweat and money. The doors opened in 2005 with a team of volunteers and the Museum was launched.
20 years later the Museum has grown significantly with two exhibit galleries, all-new displays and four training aircraft representing the three levels of pilot training. Visitors can talk with “Betty” in the bay (WASP living quarters), sit in the BT-13 cockpit and fly a simulated AT-6 Texan. School groups enjoy riveting, Morse code, and wire tying. Everyone can hear stories of breaking technical, social, and emotional barriers and just possibly be inspired to break a few barriers of their own.
The best day of the Museum’s year bar none is its annual WASP Homecoming and Fly-in Celebration hosted the last weekend of April. Families enjoy kid’s activities, food trucks, and best of all, World War II airplanes. From the B-29 “Doc” to the SB2C Hell Diver, Avenger Field holds them all. WASP families come and talk about their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. Female aviators attend to honor their WASP mentors. It’s a day to celebrate what 1,108 women accomplished for their country and wonder what we could accomplish if we just prepared like a WASP.
For more information on the WASP Museum, visit waspmuseum.org.