The Mobile in Mobilization
The legacy of WWII’s Women Airforce Service Pilots
When World War II began, there were 2,733 licensed female pilots in the United States; a big part of the job of flying warplanes from manufacturers to embarkation points fell to the 1,074 of them who became Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASP flew all 78 types of aircraft in the Army Air Forces inventory, including the Bell P-39 Airacobra.
To many WASPs, ferrying the P-39 was just one leg of a round-robin flight. “We liked it because it kept us away from the base,” laughs Bobby Willis Heinrich, a WASP who was based in Dallas. “We’d take the P-51 from Dallas to Newark. Then in Newark, [we’d] pick up orders to pick up the -39 from Buffalo [and fly it] to Great Falls.” Single-seat fighters weren’t known for having luggage space, so WASP Rosa Lea Fullwood Meek Dickerson had to improvise. “I had to carry a map case so I put an extra shirt, a pair of socks and underwear in there,” she says. “Sometimes you’d be gone for two or three weeks with the same uniform on.”
Once the WASPs got the fighters to Great Falls, their jobs were done; military brass had decided that the women would be restricted to domestic flights, which ruled out flights even through Canada. Many of the women pilots were frustrated by that decision and wanted to deliver the aircraft to their destination in Alaska. “We thought it would be fun, exciting. We were up for the adventure,” says Heinrich before scorn enters her voice. “But they said, no, they had no facilities for women up there. So the men took them from Great Falls to Alaska where the Russians picked them up.”
“We didn’t understand that,” says Meek Dickerson. “I think it was mostly political.”
Blake Smith, who has researched the Alaska-Siberia ferry route extensively, says there were a couple of reasons for the restriction. “One was the lack of segregated accommodations, and in the early going they were living in tents.” Smith pauses. “I think [Army officers] were concerned about the added problem of females on a base out in the middle of nowhere...and men in the middle of nowhere for a long period of time,” he continues. “They just thought it was a bad mix.”
Another factor, according to Smith, is that military leaders weren’t sure a woman could survive if she landed in the Canadian wilderness.
Of the 38 WASPs who died during the war, two were flying Bell aircraft. Dorothy Mae “Dottie” Nicholas, a member of the first class to graduate at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, had refueled a P-39 near Bismarck, North Dakota, and was killed just after takeoff on June 11, 1944. Hazel Ah Ying Lee and Violet Cowden were flying Bell P-63s on Thanksgiving day, 1944, to Great Falls, Montana. Lee was bringing in her aircraft for a landing when another airplane was coming in overhead. Without a working radio, the pilot in the higher aircraft could not hear the air traffic controller’s warning, and the two collided.