Monday, November 10, 2014
Of WASPs & WAVEs
The WASPs, or the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, was a paramilitary organization serving under the direction of the United States Army Air Forces. Formed in 1943, was comprised of female pilots whose service freed the same number of male pilots to fly combat missions during World War II. The program was controversial since the idea of women piloting aircraft was still a novel idea, but it proved to be popular amongst young women who wanted to do their part to help with the war effort. Over the course of the program a total of 25,000 women applied to be a part of the program, 1,830 were accepted and 1,047 passed the training course which included commercial pilot training as well as 30 days of Army orientation before going on to become pilots. Two of the women were Chinese-American, one was Native American and the rest were white. Rather than flying in combat WASPs flew on ferrying missions transporting supplies between bases both domestically and internationally in support of America's war effort. A few select women served as test pilots for both rocket and jet propelled aircraft. In total they flew over 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft and 38 made the ultimate sacrifice but because the WASPs were not granted full military status they were unable to American flags draped over their coffins. Their presence was all but unknown to people outside of their missions and after the program was dismantled in these pilots were expected to simply return to their pre-war lives. It wasn't until 1977 that WASP veterans were granted veteran status. In 2009 the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal for having "performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after that achievement". In 1993 the then Secretary of Defense finally allowed women to fly in combat missions and you could say the rest is history.
The WAVEs, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Service, was the Navy's equivalent of the WASP program. Established during the summer of 1942, the understanding was that women who "volunteered" their time were doing so due to the unusual circumstances of the war and that at its conclusion, these women would readily return to civilian life with no expectation of continuing with their military service. However unlike the women serving in the WASP, WAVEs were a full part of the Navy, served as both enlisted personnel and commissioned officers attending the same trainings as the ranks as their male counterparts, received the same pay and were subject to the same disciplinary procedures.
WAVEs were initially restricted to service within the continental United States and were not allowed to serve on combat ships or aircraft but were eventually allowed to serve in Hawaii. Within the first year there were 27,000 WAVEs serving mostly in clerical positions although there were women serving in the medical, aviation, intelligence and science and technology communities. The first female African-American officer was commissioned in 1944 and within the enlisted ranks there was roughly one black woman for every 36 white women. By the end of the WAVEs accounted for 2 1/2 % of the Navy's personnel. As was the original plan, at the end of the War, women did not simply slip back into civilian life. Rather, with the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, women were granted permanent status in the armed services and that summer fourteen WAVEs became the first women to be commissioned as officers (8) sworn in as enlisted personnel (6) in the regular Navy.
My late great aunt Irene was a WAVE during World War II. She was always proud of her service and continued to attend WAVE reunions until her health no longer permitted her to travel. She would talk about her service at every opportunity she had, was a regular at her local Veterans Day celebrations and proudly wore (and showed) people her old dog tags at our Navy tradition infused wedding. Aunt Irene was a character and a tough cookie but when I think of the WASPs and WAVES I think of her. So tomorrow, Aunt Irene will be at the top of my list of veterans whom I remember and give thanks to.