Summer 1943, the battle for Europe rages on. The United States and their allies are fighting on all fronts pushing Hitler's Third Reich back into Germany, liberating parts of France along the way.
With over nine million people serving across the U.S. military in 1943, many were men serving overseas, leaving factory jobs nearly empty. Women took to the task, leaving behind meticulously manicured lawns and trading in dresses and purses for coveralls and rivet guns.
As B-17, B-26 and B-29 bombers left their factories in places like Seattle, Wichita and Omaha women again took up the responsibility to deliver these aircraft overseas.
These extraordinary female pilots were called WASPs.
The Women's Airforce Service Pilots paid their own way to travel to basic training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied, but less than 2,000 were accepted into the program and just over half earned their pilot wings.
One of those women was Bernice "Bee" Falk Haydu.
"To qualify, applicants had to be at least 5 feet, 4 inches tall, pass Army physicals and have a pilot's license," Haydu said. "Women also had to have at least a high school diploma and be age 18 to 35."
"Most of the women were college graduates, but the toughest part of the training was you started out in a basic aircraft and then you'd go to a medium and then an advanced," Haydu said.
Haydu joined the WASP program in 1944.
During their training the women paid for their dress uniforms, and room and board. They were assigned six women per bay in the barracks with one sink, one shower and one toilet. When the winds picked up, the women would lie on the bottom wings of the aircraft to help keep them on the ground.
After graduation, the women would head to either Ferrying Command or Training Command.
Lucile Doll Wise was a pilot at Ferrying Command where she would ferry aircraft from factories to air bases and points of embarkation.
"There was an alarming shortage of pilots at the beginning of the war," Wise said. "And we delivered more than 12,000 aircraft in the two years we operated. We also performed many other domestic flying duties."
Meanwhile, Haydu served as an engineering test pilot and a utility pilot at Training Command. Here, the women's missions ranged from towing aerial targets for the infantry, flying tracking missions, smoke-laying, searchlight strafing and simulated bombing. They also tested radio-controlled aircraft. The women were also flight instructors, engineering test pilots and utility pilots and performed all stateside flying duties.
"If an engine needed to be flown in a certain manner for a certain number of hours before it went into regular service, I would do that," she said. "I also would fly personnel to wherever they had to go."
The WASPs were disbanded Dec. 20, 1944, with the last class graduating, Dec. 7, 1944.
Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold of the Army Air Corps told the last crop of pilots, "We of the [Army Air Forces] are proud of you; we will never forget our debt to you."
The WASPs had ferried more than 50 percent of the combat aircraft within the U.S. during the war and flew at 126 bases across the country. Thirty-eight of these women died in their service: 11 in training and 27 during missions.
"We have not been able to build an airplane that you can't handle," Arnold told the WASPs. "It is on the record that women can fly as well as men."
He planned to commission the women pilots as second lieutenants within the Army Air Force, but political opposition meant the plan never came to fruition. Paid as civil service employees, the women weren't allowed to call themselves veterans and their records were classified and sealed from the public. As a result, for 35 years, they lobbied Congress and pushed to be recognized as veterans.
On Nov. 23, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Title IV, which granted former WASPs veteran status with limited benefits.
Nearly 32 years later, on July 1, 2009, President Barrack Obama signed into law S.614, awarding the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to their nation.
“The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call," said President Obama.
"Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."
Reprinted from the U.S. Navy’s All Hands Magazine: www.navy.mil/ah_online/