The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II
“These women were heroes in every sense of the word and for more reasons than one.”
Climaxing in 2010 with the award of the Congressional Gold Medal, the story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II has gotten increasing press in the last 40 years. The women’s service to their country has received even more recognition with veteran status and the advent of today's American women being permitted to serve in virtually all roles of the United States' armed forces, including combat. Consequently, the WASPs were trailblazers for those who followed.
Initially, their service to the American war effort was publicized primarily as a morale booster, demonstrating the country's unity and the universal can-do attitude that, with all men, women, and even children working together, we could defeat the Axis forces that threatened world domination.
However, as the war turned decidedly in favor of the Allies, pressure, primarily from male pilots for the aviation jobs available, especially postwar, resulted in bad publicity for potentially taking those jobs from men, the expectation that women should return to their “accepted” domestic duties at home and the ultimate disbandment of the organization in December 1944.
Despite a sterling two-year record of miles and aircraft flown, multiple tasks safely performed and the ultimate sacrifice of 38 of their number, including one who remains missing in action, and whose families received little more than a token government financial payment as a result of not being militarized, most of the more than 1000 survivors accepted postwar non-flying aviation or other jobs or married and raised families.
Lack of militarization and veteran status meant that the WASPs were ineligible for the benefits of the G.I. Bill and were largely forgotten until the 1970s when the fight kicked into high gear in Congress to recognize the WASPs as veterans for their wartime service and as the first women to fly United States military aircraft. They now have their place in history.
The author is a professor of history at the Texas Women's University (TWU) in Denton, Texas, the current repository for all things WASP, and she has evidently spent the last 25 years researching and writing what is a complete and comprehensive story of these women and their organization. Her format has been to focus on the stories of a relative handful of them as a means of emphasizing their “everywoman” origins, commonalities, and experiences as aviators.
Also included are the stories of the leaders, Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran, and their rivalry for the primary leadership position, how the concept developed to employ women as pilots on the home front to release men for the fighting fronts, the merger of two separate female aviation organizations into the WASPs, the wartime effort to militarize the WASPs and provide them with the same rights, privileges, benefits and authority befitting what would have otherwise been commissioned officers and more.
As the author notes in her Acknowledgments, the photographs, one of which is placed at the head of each entry of the contents, came courtesy of the WASPs Archive at TWU, the families, friends or Kids of WASPs (KoWs). One minor criticism is the lack of a map showing the location of Avenger Field in Texas where many of the WASPs trained but, then, one can always Google it for that information.
In addition to the Acknowledgments, there are an author's note, an appendix that lists those WASPs who died on active duty, the end notes, and index. There is no formal bibliography, another small criticism, but the notes demonstrate how Professor Landdecker committed to the WASPs, ensuring that she told their whole story.
With the publication of many individual memoirs and other books on the WASPs in recent years, this is certainly the one that, as mentioned above, is the most comprehensive even, as the author admits, it was not possible to mention or otherwise tell the story of each of these female aviators; however, she has managed to relate the personal lives and experiences of quite a few of them as representative of all.
As requisite as it is to recognize valor, duty and sacrifice, it should also be a priority to emphasize what can be accomplished by individual initiative and personal dedication, especially so in the context of something as historic as World War II. These women were heroes in every sense of the word and for more reasons than one.