On 74th Anniversary of D-Day, America Remembers Brave 'WASPs'

By Morgan Montalvo

WOAI News

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

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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.

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