A static display consisting of dozens of black-and-white photos of women in uniform piloting or posing with World War II-era aircraft will open to the public Thursday in the rotunda of MidCoast Regional Airport.
They were called WASPs, an acronym that stood for Women Airforce Service Pilots, according to an information brief included with the exhibit.
Although they wore uniforms, flew military aircraft and were a vital part of the war effort, these women were not in the Army or the then-Army Air Corps. And though 38 of the 1,074 women who completed the flight training and took part in non-combat missions across the United States died during those missions, they were not treated as veterans and received no veterans’ honors or benefits for their sacrifice.
When the WASP program was disbanded in December 1944, the pilots even had to pay their own way back home. In 1977, the WASPs were finally given veteran status by Congress.
In 2010, Congress awarded every WASP member the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, posthumously or in person to those still living.
According to Jack Dibrell, chief for the airfield division for Hunter and Wright Army airfields, WASPs served at military airfields across the country, including seven in Georgia.
One of those airfields was Liberty Airfield, now called Wright AAF. Fort Stewart, then called Camp Stewart, started 75 years ago as a training center for anti-aircraft artillery. WASPs stationed at Liberty Airfield flew numerous types of aircraft and missions. One of their missions was to tow targets to help anti-aircraft gunners practice their skill at hitting aerial targets. It was not uncommon for WASP aircraft to get hit.
“The exhibit we have here is the work of the Texas Woman’s University,” Dibrell said. “This traveling display has been in existence for quite a few years. We contacted them last year and asked if we could have the display here during the 75th anniversary of Hunter (in May) and Fort Stewart (this summer). … If you look back in the 1930s and 1940s, the fact that we actually employed females in aviation in support of the war effort, it’s kind of unique. The intent Gen. (Henry) Hap Arnold, (Nancy Harkness Love) and (Jacqueline) Cochran, who founded the WASP — the intent was to relieve a lot of the flying duties from the male military pilots.
“It relieved combat pilots from doing missions stateside,” he continued. “They did everything. They flew every aircraft in the U.S. government inventory, from the fighters to the bombers to the transports. … They really kind of broke the glass ceiling. This was an occupation that was purely male-oriented. They had the opportunity to fill the vacancies and set the stage for future aviation jobs for women.”
According to the display literature, two programs started in 1942 for women pilots, one for ferrying aircraft from the factories to ports and bases, known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron, and one for training, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. The two programs merged in 1943 to form the WASP program.
More than 20 types of missions were conducted by WASPs, including ferrying aircraft, flight- testing new aircraft, towing antiaircraft targets, weather missions, radar-deception missions, bombing-range runs and cargo deliveries. Barbara Erickson, a ferry pilot, was awarded the Air Medal for flying 40 hours and 8,000 miles in five days. In total, WASPs flew more than 60 million miles in service of their country.
“This is the old Liberty Airfield,” Dibrell said. “It was one of the WASP bases for training in the 1940s in support of Camp Stewart. … They have a direct link to Wright (Army) Airfield.”
Dibrell said, called the WASPs’ treatment at the time, their non-military and non-veteran status, a tragedy. He said they were contracted to fly for the government. At the end of the war, he said they were thanked and released to go home and take up whatever occupation they chose.
Despite that and the long road for them to get veteran status, WASPs started the process that allowed women to become part of military aviation, Dibrell emphasized.