She Flew Bombers

Drew Sheets, Opinion Editor

It was Sweetwater, Texas, 1942. The pilot came in flying low like she had done thousands of times. She leveled off right in front of the gunner’s position and laughed as the big guns opened up on the target she towed thirty feet behind her. The pilot knew the gunners well and loved her job.

About halfway through the run, she felt a burning sensation in her left foot. She looked down to find that she had just been shot through the left big toe and it hurt. She jammed the controls and made an immediate landing. The drill instructor came roaring out to her in an Army jeep, demanding to know why she had landed early and unsuspectedly. “Because someone shot my God damn left toe off you idiots,” the pilot screamed back.

Author Jeane Sloan came to SRJC on March 5 and gave a presentation on the history of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program, paying homage to a group of American women who had largely been forgotten by their government, to go unnoticed and unrecognized for almost seven decades. She showcased her book, “She Flew Bombers,” which paints the picture of what it was like to be a WASP.

Sloan’s mother was in the Women’s Army Core, also known as WAC, during WWII. Sloan was always interested in her mother’s role in the war, but her mother continuously told her that all she ever did was type for the colonel. Then she came across an article about the WASPs.

“I was shocked to find out that there were women pilots in WWII,” Sloan said. The article inspired her to write her book, “She Flew Bombers.” It is a historical fiction novel meaning it is historically accurate but dialogue and story are added to set the scene for the reader.
In her presentation, Sloan described how President Roosevelt saw a demand for women pilots in the lead up of WWII. He suspected most of the male pilots were going to be flying into combat, taking much of the licensed pilots out of the country, thus leaving the country short on pilots stateside. He knew he’d take a lot of flack for commissioning a women pilot unit, so he didn’t. Instead, he had the civil service look for women who were interested in getting their license to fly. In 1942 the civil service recruited over 1,800 women to become members, thus establishing the WASP program.
The training was just as tough as it was for the men. The drill instructors hated most of the women because they felt like they had no place in the cockpit. “The women were referred to as girls or dames,” Sloan said. They had to fly as good as the men or be ridiculed and scorned. They were given Air Force mechanic overalls as uniforms, which were mostly oversized and only stayed on because of their belts.
A little more than 1,100 women made it through the training at Sweetwater and started flying around the states. Even though they did not fly in combat and stayed stateside, they played a crucial role in transporting planes from factories to the bases where the men would then fly them overseas.
African-Americans were denied the right to participate because segregation was still in effect and the civil service didn’t want to pay to accommodate them. They were under funded to begin with and segregation didn’t end in the military until 1948.
In fact, the WASPs were so under funded they had to buy their own uniforms that became known as the Santiago Blues. They also had to pay to bury their comrades who perished in the program.

WASPs were not officially in the Army, so the government did not pay for their funerals when they were shot down in training, crashed due to sabotaging mechanics or had in-flight collisions.

There wasn’t Women’s History Month back in 1942 and the WASPs were more or less unrecognized by the U.S. government until President Barack Obama awarded the survivors and many posthumously with the congressional Gold Medal for their service to the country.

After all they went through, all the women performed their duty with bravery and skill. They collectively flew more than 60 million miles in 77 different types of aircrafts, losing 38 to fatalities and having another 407 injured during the two-year program. The WASP was decommissioned in October 1944.

Sloan is currently researching for her third book, “She was a Spy in WWII.” This will be her third historical fiction giving account of the mostly unknown roles women played in the second World War.