WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds
It should be noted, in the interest of full disclosure, that the mother of this reviewer was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Hence the personal interest in reviewing this publication although she is not referenced in the text.
With this volume, author Sarah Byrn Rickman has essentially completed a trilogy on the WASP. The first two volumes were a history of The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II and a biography, Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II; Love being the founding leader of the initial squadron of women pilots of the Ferrying Division (later Command).
Rickman is also the recipient of the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s 7th Annual Combs Gates Award for her written coverage dedicated to the women pilots of World War II.
The approximately 1,100 WASP have received considerable publicity and recognition in recent years for their pioneering exploits as the first women to fly military aircraft for the United States armed forces. In 2010, they were the recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal.
As civilians under the U.S. Civil Service, they received no insurance or other benefits and had to pay their own way to training fields upon acceptance and, in case of fatality, their own funeral expenses. There were 38 of them during the course of the program (including one who is still MIA). Attempts were made to militarize them in 1944 but they failed due to politics and resentment from male pilots who felt a woman’s place should be in the home and not in a cockpit.
It was not until 1977 that they were awarded veteran status even though, during the course of the conflict, they wore their own specially designed uniforms and were subject to the chain of command, marching, drills, and other military procedure and protocol.
In this volume, the author has mostly focused on the experiences of the early graduates of the program from the classes of 1943 and how they were able to transition from flying and ferrying basic, primary, and advanced training aircraft to those of faster, heavier, and more advanced technology: Pursuit (fighters) and twin and four engine bombers. As it was, two of the women “checked out” on the biggest aircraft in the U.S. inventory, the B-29.
Graduates of later classes went on to tow targets for anti-aircraft training, fly VIPs wherever needed and war-weary planes to the “boneyard,” while the earlier ones ferried planes all over the country in all kinds of conditions and weather throughout the year.
Although there was an ongoing rivalry between Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrixes in their own right, over the leadership and command of the women, both worked strenuously to demonstrate the capabilities and the necessity of women pilots to free up male pilots for active combat service overseas.
However, progress made toward winning the war in 1944 was the WASP’ worst enemy, in a manner of speaking, as the losses in theaters of operations became much fewer than anticipated, and the United States’ military found itself with more pilots than it needed. As a result, the women’s organization was deactivated in December 1944 with little in the way of thanks, recognition, or much of anything else and with many aircraft still needing to be ferried.
The text employs not only many sources of the behind-the-scenes events of the conceptual development and evolution of the WASP and the controversial aspect of this unique program but also makes extensive use of the oral histories, diaries, and memoirs of the women themselves. In effect, they tell a lot of the story from their personal perspective.
In spite of having no maps, the book is replete with many photographs of the ladies themselves and the planes they flew, thanks to the excellent WASP repository at the Texas Women’s University in Denton, not far from the women’s base, Avenger Field, at Sweetwater.
Inasmuch as the WASP have finally been getting their due, their experience and history are still somewhat obscure for many Americans. These women were trailblazers for the ladies who have come after them in our modern military. Any further recognition, as with this volume, can only help as their ranks dwindle and they face their final flight.