By Morgan Montalvo
As Allied armies storming the French coast on June 6th, 1944 gazed up at a seemingly endless armada of friendly fighters and bombers overhead, most of those troops were unaware that they owed their protective air umbrella to a group of elite female civilian pilots who delivered many of those planes to the military.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS, filled a critical wartime need for trained pilots who could handle complex, high-performance military planes, deliver them to the U.S. Army Air Forces, and free male pilots for combat.
"As planes were rolling off factory lines, or they were at one air base and needed to go to another, the WASPs were really critical in making sure that aircraft - and, when you think about it, military weaponry - were delivered on time," says Ann Hobing, President and CEO of the National WASP WW2 Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
Hobing says when manpower shortages forced the USAAF to abandon its male-only flying policy and issue a call for experienced women to help deliver military aircraft, approximately 25,000 women applied for the program. About 1,800 were chosen, with slightly more than 1,000 completing training to exacting proficiency standards.
Many WASP candidates, it turned out, already had more flying time than most male active-duty pilots, and in a wider range of aircraft types - experience that would prove invaluable as wartime ferrying demands increased.
"Collectively, WASPs flew every single aircraft in the Army's arsenal," Hobing says. "That was over 75 different planes. They were flying fighters and bombers and cargo planes."
Most WASPs trained at Avenger Field, site of the present-day museum west of Fort Worth.
Formal WASP classes, the outgrowth of earlier training incarnations in Houston,. commenced in 1943. The WASP program ended in late 1944, with the final class graduating and the program disbanded shortly before Christmas.
Throughout the war, the WASPs were considered civil servants, and denied military benefits or recognition.
Former WASPs recall taking up collections to fund the burials of fellow fliers killed in crashes or related tragedies, and close friends accompanying victims' bodies to their home towns and families for interment without military honors.
Thirty-eight WASPs died in service to their country. For decades former WASPs and supporters campaigned for veterans benefits. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting veterans status to the WASPs, and lawmakers approved the striking of a Congressional Gold Medal to recognize their exploits.
This year, the WASPs celebrate 75 years since their creation, and Hobing says interest in the group continues to grow, especially among young people as women reach new heights in aviation.
She says she has fielded inquiries from students and scholars in at least a dozen countries, although the bulk of the questions she receives are from everyday history-minded Americans looking for local links to the once-long-forgotten aviatrixes.
"Whether it's stories they heard from their families, or they learn about somebody in their home town, a lot of it is about individual women," Hobing says.
A Memorial Day WASP Homecoming at the museum last month honored survivors, who now number around 55, with five WASPs in attendance, and the facility has plans for expansion and ongoing education programs, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math student and teacher workshops, Hobing says
The National WASP WW2 Museum in Sweetwater, Tx tells the story of America's female civilian pilots who delivered vital aircraft to the U.S. military during the Second World War.
Photo courtesy National WASP WW2 Museum.