WASP Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions)

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  1. How did the WASP get started?
  2. What is the WASP Motto and where does it come from?
  3. Why were the WASP disbanded?
  4. Did the WASP ferry bombers across the Atlantic?
  5. What kink of training did the WASP go through?
  6. How many WASP trainees were washed out of training? Why?
  7. What's the difference between a WAF and a WASP?
  8. What did the WASP do after they were disbanded?
  9. If training was really tough, why did these women sign up to be WASP in the first place?

How did the WASP get started?

WASP were started as the result of the vision, drive and determination of one woman: Jacqueline Cochran, who first proposed using women pilots to release male pilots for combat in 1939. For 3 years, she developed and refined her plan, eventuating in the training program andthe Women Airforce Service Pilots.

On December 7, 1944, General Hap Arnold answers this question quite simply in his speech to the last graduating class of WASP:

"The possibility of using women to pilot military aircraft was first considered in the summer of 1941. We anticipated than that global war would require all our qualified men and many of our women. We did not know how many of our young men could qualify to pilot the thousands of aircraft which American industry could produce. There was also the problem of finding sufficient highly capable young men to satisfy the demands of the Navy, the Ground Forces, the Service Forces, and the Merchant Marine. England and Russia had been forced to use women to fly trainers and combat-type aircraft. Russian women were being used in combat.

In that emergency I called in Jacqueline Cochran, who had herself flown almost everything with wings and several times had won air races from men who now are general officers of the Air Forces. I asked her to draw a plan for the training and use of American women pilots. She presented such a plan in late 1941 and it formed the basis for the Air Forces use of WASP."


For a more complete version, read the General's speech.

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What is the WASP Motto and where did it come from?

According to WASP Dot Swain Lewis, who was an instructor at Avenger Field at the time, the motto first appeared in the very first issue of The Avenger on May 11, 1943 (The Managing Editor was Mary Nelson)

 "We live in the wind and sand...and our eyes are on the stars" is credited to Editor Gene Slack .  However, Dot remembers one of her favorite books at the time was called "Wind, Sand and Stars" by Antoine de St. Exupery.

This just in by email from Dot: "I called Mary this morning and asked if she also knew that book then.  When she said yes, the mystery was solved!"

Thanks to Dot for tracking down the answer!

Why were the WASP disbanded?

A combination of things caused the WASP program to be disbanded.  BUT, in the end, they were disbanded because they had done their job and the male pilots were coming home from the front--they were no longer needed.  OK.  You believe that, right?  Now, let's get to the complicated answer.

I'd go with that simple answer, except that it seems strange  that, after the program was disbanded, the official records were sealed, marked CLASSIFIED, and stored away in some government archive for over 30 years.  Doesn't that sound a little 'fishy'?  Who ordered that?  Why?

In the very beginning of the WASP program, Jackie Cochran had been promised by General Arnold that the WASP would be militarized. She worked tirelessly trying to make her dream a reality, but Jackie, like General Arnold,  wasn't as good at 'playing politics' as she was flying and doing her job.  I don't believe it ever occurred to her that she would have to 'play ball' with the boys in Washington to make something happen that was so necessary to the war effort. 

The plan from the beginning was to PROVE that it could be done, then ask for militarization.  Most WASP activities were kept a secret during the early months of the program.  Jackie set out to create a record of success that no one could argue with. The WASP exceeded all expectations...their record was better than the male cadets.   They flew through conditions that grounded male pilots and had fewer accidents than their male counterparts. (documented in Jackie's report to the Congress--Final Report.).

I believe Jackie thought that because the WASP program had been such a success, the RECORD would speak for itself.  I also believe she and General Arnold were operating under the assumption: It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.  For most other issues, that was the case.  In a war, the Department of Defense needs to be able to act when necessary, and tell Congress later.  Not so with the WASP--not so with some congressman--especially when the issue involves FEMALES!

The following is taken from Doris Tanner's "Zoot Suits and Parachutes," and, I think, puts it all into perspective:

"House of Representatives Bill 4219, the long-awaited legislation designed to grant the WASPs full military status

(and with it, for the first time, insurance coverage, hospitalization, burial benefits, and veteran status) was introduced on February 17, 1944.  Unfortunately for the WASPs, new factors were by this time influencing congressional decisions.

By 1944, the Air Forces' massive flight training program was reaching its peak. Plans for coming invasions of Europe now necessitated the shifting of priorities to ground troops.  As a consequence, there was a cutback in Air Forces training programs that affected two groups of males: (1) 900 civilian flight instructors and 5,000 civilian trainees in the Civil Aeronautics Administration's War Training Service Program; and (2) 8,000 civilian flight instructors employed by the Air Forces in their contract schools for cadets.

These men were dismissed when the Air Forces shut down various flight schools--thus removing them from the draft-deferred status many held as reservists. The Air Forces accepted as many of these men as possible, but many were unable to meet the demanding physical and mental requirements for military pilots.

Threatened with induction into the infantry, these pilots exerted intense lobbying pressure on their Congressmen to defeat HB 4219 and instead pass legislation favorable to their employment. The resulting controversy was heightened by political and emotional overtones.

It was inconceivable to General Arnold that well-trained, qualified women pilots not be utilized.  On March 22, 1944, he testified to the House Committee on Military Affairs that "we should use every means we can to put women in where they can replace men. The bill (House Bill 4219) will help to do that but will also make for more effective employment of the present WASPs that we have in our service."

Discussion in the Committee on Military Affairs centered around the protests of the released men who demanded the positions occupied by the WASPs. Statistics showed that one-third of the men had been assimilated into the Air Forces. General Arnold adamantly refused to reduce standards in order to accommodate those who could not pass qualifying tests. Military pilots held highly-respected positions, and he wanted no erosion of the hard-won recognition.

In executive session with the House Military Affairs committee, Arnold again expressed his preference for the services of the more highly-qualified, trained, and better-motivated WASPs over the male civilian pilots. He was disgusted with the men's demands for preferential treatment in spite of the new needs of the country and the necessity to coordinate overall manpower requirements for the war.   He questioned the integrity and capability of a man who had held a "safe" non-combat job for so long and then insisted on dodging more hazardous duty.

The Military Affairs Committee agreed with the general, releasing a two-page report that recommended passage of the bill to commission the WASP. But lobbying efforts of the men grew stronger, even bitter.

The chairman of the Civil Service Committee, Robert J. Ramspeck of Georgia, instituted an investigation of the WASP (technically Civil Service employees), ostensibly to find out how public funds were being spent on a program about which he knew little. The majority report of Ramspeck's investigation concluded that the WASP was "wasted money and wasted effort."

Most damaging of all was the committee's accusation that the authority of Congress had been bypassed, and that Congress had never authorized the WASP program. The War Department responded that its authority for such action was based on the 1943 military budget section that provided for such "salaries and wages of civilian employees as were deemed necessary."

Ramspeck disagreed that such salaries were necessary; twelve committee members sided with him. General Arnold's arguments for the WASP failed to change the committee's recommendation that the training program be discontinued, although a minority opinion stated that the War Department, not Congress, should decide what was necessary. The committee recommended that the male pilots be utilized immediately.

Again the War department assured Congress that the men had received every consideration, that the two issues should be viewed separately, and that the WASPs should not be victimized by pitting them against the men.

The press, earlier supportive of women pilots, now turned antagonistic. Although the NEW YORK TIMES, NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE, and BOSTON GLOBE favored militarization of the WASP, writers in other papers throughout the country supported the male pilots over the women.  The media, which had aroused women to answer their government's call to war work outside their homes, now swung public opinion against those who had done so.

Editorial writers for the WASHING POST, WASHINGTON STAR, WASHING DAILY NEWS, WASHINGTON TIMES-HERALD, and TIME magazine led the opposition to continuation of the WASP program. Far from being pictured as heroines, the WASPs were now regarded as participants in a frivolous program that had wasted millions of tax dollars.

The competent, proven performance of the women was never the issue. Congressional debate on HB 4219 lasted forty-two hours and culminated on Wednesday, June 21, 1944, shortly after the D-Day invasion of Europe. A roll call vote was taken, with 188 yeas, 169 nays, and seventy-three not voting. By nineteen votes the WASP militarization bill advocated by the Administration, the Secretary of War, the House of Representatives Military Affairs Committee, and the General of the Army Air Forces was defeated.

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Did the WASP ferry bombers across the Atlantic?

NO.  No WASP were allowed to fly planes outside the continental United States.   Nancy Love almost made it...she was on the end of the runway, ready to take off for England. When General Arnold heard about it -- that was the end of that.

Jackie Cochran tried to ferry a bomber to England before the WASP program started. She trained in Canada...passed all her check rides...and was asked to CO-PILOT the plane--something Jackie wasn't used to. 

Her article from the Fifinella Gazette (reprinted from 1943) is in the first issue of the Gossport Gazette!  In it, she talks about ferrying the bomber to England.  (I'll bet she was at the control--in the left seat--no matter what the log book says!)

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What kind of training did the WASP go through?

The WASP went through exactly the same primary, basic and advanced training as every male cadet in the Army Air Force. 

Once the WASP earned their wings, many of them went through specialized training (B-26 school, B-17, etc.) 

Assured that they would be part of the military before the end of the war, some WASP were even ordered to begin officer training.

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How many WASP washed out of training?  WHY?

There were 1830 women who were accepted into the WASP training program out of 25,000 who applied.  Of that 1,830, there were 1,074 women who earned their wings, leaving 756 trainees who were washed out for one reason or another (or were killed in training exercises before they could complete training).

Reasons for washing out were numerous--but the number one reason was -- "can't fly the army way!"  Every single trainee had to already have a pilots' license to enter the WASP...many had more hours in the air and more experience than some of the instructors. 

Of course, other factors could mean dismissal--

  •     disciplinary problems
  •     health problems
  •     resigned for personal reasons

For a more complete answer, check out Jacqueline Cochran's Final Report.

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What's the difference between a WASP and a WAF?

Actually, there were NO WASP until the trainees who were graduating from AAF flight training and the WAFS were merged. At that point in time, the WASP were named by order of General Hap Arnold.

The first 28 WAFs were hired as civillian ferry pilots -- and worked under Nancy Harkness Love and the ferry command.  She was restricted to hiring 25 women, but, eventually, hired 27. The women hired for the ferry command all had to have a minimum of 500 hours (although several applicants had many more and several with fewer hours chose to take flight tests).  In the beginning, the WAFs were only authorized to ferry light trainers and utillity aircraft.

Then there was the WFTD--which is what the trainees in Houston were a part of--the Women's Flying Training Detachment--Jackie Cochran's pilots that had been trained to fly "The Army WAY" by going through exactly the same pilot training as the male Air Force cadets. 1,830 women were accepted into the training program, but only 1,074 graduated.

The WASP were formed when the WFTD (Woman's Flying Training Detachment) and the WAFS were merged into one -- with Jackie Cochran named Director of Women Pilots, and Nancy Harkness Love the  Director of the Women Pilots in the Air Transport Command.

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What did the WASP do after they were disbanded?

There are as many answers to this question as there were WASP!   The very fist thing they did was pay their own way back home.  Many were left stranded...and had to 'improvise' their way back home. (Florence Shutsy Reynolds is just one of the many stories.)

If training was really that tough, why did these women sign up to be WASP in the first place?

from WASP, Doris Tanner, 44-W-4 comes an answer I believe every WASP would agree with

The myth that flying was a glamorous "long white scarf flying in the wind, breeze in your face" was just that--a myth.  The routine was back-breaking, hard, dirty work. It strained every ounce of endurance and courage we could muster.  The dust and sand ground into our clothes, the sun burned our skin to leathery brown and our hair to dry straw.  There were days when we wondered, why not just quit and go home?  Why didn't we? Not an easy question to answer! 

  • Love of flying?
  • Love of a never-ending challenge?
  • Pride in having a vital part in the defense of our nation?
  • Desire to release a man for combat, and thus end the war and bring a loved husband or brother home?
  • To be part of defeating the monster Hitler, and liberate Europe?

Not one of us knew exactly why, but every one of us loved the excitement and determined to make it though and win those silver wings.

   from page 42, "Zoot Suits and Parachutes" by Doris Tanner

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Zoot Suits and Parachutes by Doris Brinker Tanner.  Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, KY, 1996. Phone (502) 443-0121  Limited Edition