Autograph June 2010

“Theres a wonderful feeling about being on your own in the air,” says WASP veteran Lillian Yonally….You get there safely, and it’s all because of you—no one else.”

In the summer of 1943, that wonderful feeling drew Lillian Yonally and a band of other young female pilots to Sweetwater, Texas, a small town off Interstate 20, two-hundred miles west of Fort Worth. There, at the military training base Avenger Field, the women donned men’s khaki jumpsuits, tied their hair back in scarves, and began Ground School for the Women Air Force Service. During those first days of training, townspeople gathered on the outskirts of town, setting up picnics beneath the shade of mesquite trees. They had braved the dusty heat to see the “Lipstick Squadron” fly overhead – the first women in United States history to fly for the military.

President Obama signs the bill awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to Women Airforce Service Pilots.

Roughly 1,100 served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a short-lived military program that trained women to ferry aircraft, test planes and tow targets for gunners while male pilots were away at war. WASP, as the program is commonly referred to, was dubbed an experiment from the beginning, a test of what women, whom the Pentagon had repeatedly deemed “too high strung to fly,” could do in the air. But as the numbers of stateside pilots dwindled, Henry Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, hesitantly warmed to the idea that racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran had been pushing for since 1939. Though it seemed a bold move at the time, the decision followed a wave of change moving throughout the country. Women were taking off their aprons and doing men’s work, filling the assembly lines that the men had abandoned for the battlefield.

WASP Congressional Gold Medal.

But the WASP were a special sort. These 1,100 women, picked from a pool of 25,000 applicants, seemed to the people in Sweetwater creatures cut from a different cloth entirely. “They were self-contained, self-assured, and self-sufficient,” remembers Helen Kelly, who was a young girl when the WASP came to Sweetwater. “They didn’t mix with the locals, who, like me, stared at them with mixed curiosity and awe.”

The military instructors, on the other hand, weren’t so enthusiastic. “They were wary of us,” recalls WASP Helen Snapp. “They had never taught women, and some of them didn’t approve of us at all.” This skepticism, in part, had been handed down from the Pentagon, which required that a hush surround the program. “We were told to talk as little possible about what we were doing, and to never speak to the media,” says Snapp.

As a result, the instructors weren’t sure what to do with the women at first. They handed them men’s coveralls 10 sizes too big, and ordered them, Snapp recalls, to act like ladies out in public. “But we weren’t allowed to wear dresses, and we were denied access to restaurants,” she says. “It was pretty hard to act like ladies.”

Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz returns a salute from Bernice “Bee” Heyda during the March 2010 reception. Photo by Andy Morataya.

The training was a kind of experiment for the women themselves. “We had to throw a lot of our ideas about life out the window,” remembers Snapp. “We had no privacy; we were thrown together. And I was intimidated by all that togetherness.” If the WASP weren’t cut from a different cloth when they arrived in Sweetwater, they certainly were by the time they left.

The pilots were to act like military, train like military, live and breathe the rules and regulations of military, but were denied the status and the basics that came with it: decent pay, proper uniforms, the privilege of flying with a star in their window or draping a flag over a fallen woman’s coffin. And though they did not see combat, their service—short, dangerous, and packed with strenuous work—gave new color and intensity to life. “Oh my god, we got very, very close,” says WASP Janet Simpson. “We didn’t know if we were going to die the next day.” Simpson watched her best friend die in a traffic pattern—one of the 38 fallen pilots that the military refused to send home. The women gathered funds among themselves.

Doris Burmester Nathan.

They were prepared for these hardships and limitations. “We accepted how everything was going to be from the beginning,” says WASP Bernice Haydu. But they weren’t prepared for the program’s abrupt end. In 1944, when a bill to give the WASP full military status failed, Cochran decided to close down the program, and the collapse at Avenger Field was immediate: instructors were agitated and unavailable, the food was almost inedible, and morale plummeted. “I was so mad at the army when they dropped us like a hot potato,” says Yonally.

Iris Critchell.

At their graduation, Cochran predicted that the women would return to the lives that convention had laid out for them: “Their careers will be marriage.” And overnight, the happenings at Avenger Field were swept away with Sweetwater’s dust, the WASP story startlingly absent from the press.

This past July, 65 years after their service ended, and 32 years after they were finally granted military status, the pilots were awarded the congressional medal. Now, the women who are still alive to receive it can add the award to the few other keepsakes that survive from that time: a snapshot of Janet Simpson sweeping the floor in the nude, contraband photographs that Lillian Yonally sent back to her father to develop, the silver wings given at graduation that they would never wear in military aviation, and, of course, the abiding love of the flight.

Vi Cowden.

“When you’re up there, especially at night—all by yourself with the moon and stars—you feel like, over the drone the motor, you’re hearing a symphony,” says Simpson.

“I asked my roommates: Do you feel that? And they all said they did.”