During World War II, women aviators took on flying roles for the U.S. Army Air Force. As civilian pilots, they ferried aircraft, towed targets for aerial and ground antiaircraft fire, and flight-tested aircraft. Some 25,000 women applied for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, with 1,830 accepted and 1,047 graduating. They flew more than 60 million miles and put in 300,000 flight hours. The state of Washington was well represented in the effort. There were dangers and 38 pilots were killed in training or on missions, five of them from Washington. The program lasted about two years before being disbanded, but the women pilots became pathfinders who altered aviation history and American society. This essay describes some of the many with ties to Washington who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots. All those who served contributed to the war effort and demonstrated that women could fly as well as or better than men.
Before World War II, two famous pilots proposed to the Army Air Corps that women pilots support national defense. In 1939 Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran (1906-1980) presented a plan for women pilots flying non-combat roles. Nancy Harkness Love (1914-1976) independently made a similar but a narrower proposal that women ferry aircraft from factories to airfields. Their proposals met with opposition as they encountered the sexist belief that women were not suited to be pilots. However, the need for pilots and the opportunity to free male pilots for combat helped the case. The effort also had the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), who lobbied for women's flying programs. Finally, in September 1942 Love's Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Cochran's Women's Flying Training Detachment were organized to fly military aircraft. They were merged on August 5, 1943, into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Cochran commanded the program with Love as executive officer, Air Transport Ferrying division.
Washington Women Among the First
Twenty-five thousand women applied for the WASP program and only 1,830 were accepted. Of those, 1,074 graduated. The Women Airforce Service Pilots flew more than 60 million miles and put in 300,000 flight hours. They had an excellent safety record and exceeded expectations. Washington was well represented in the women's aviation programs. Candidates and pilots from the state were remarkably similar in motive and experience: They met the program requirements for flight experience, with many already holding licenses, and they had a desire to serve the nation and contribute to the war effort. They were trailblazers who left the relatively short program with the confidence to do exceptional things with the rest of their lives.
Barbara Erickson London (1920-2013) was born in Seattle. During her second year at the University of Washington in 1939, she entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a federally subsidized program intended to increase the pool of trained pilots in readiness for war. She was able to obtain an instructor rating despite limitations on women in the more advanced courses. In 1940 she competed in national aviation events. In August 1942, while an instructor at Walla Walla, she was accepted into the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. She became the 14th to qualify. Barbara Jane Erickson, or "B.J." as her squadron mates called her, ferried aircraft from factories to airfields. In one five-day period, she made four 2,000-mile flights. She commanded the 73-member ferrying squadron at Long Beach, California. In 1943 she was the first woman pilot to receive the Air Medal. Following the war, she was turned down for pilot positions as airlines did not accept women as pilots. Despite the discrimination, Erickson continued in aviation by participating in air races and airport administration. She married a pilot and their two daughters continued women's advances in aviation.
Dorothy Kocher Olsen (b. 1917) was born in Woodburn, Oregon, and fell in love with flight as a youth while attending air shows at the Oregon State Fair. She joined a flying club and became an excellent pilot. When she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1943, she ferried aircraft, making 61 flights delivering many types of planes. After the war Olsen returned to the Pacific Northwest and married a Washington State Patrol officer. They moved in 1960 to University Place, where Dorothy Olsen continues to live in February 2013.
Alta Corbett Thomas (b. 1918) was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from Smith College she spent her free time at Portland's Swan Island airport falling in love with aviation. During World War II, Alta Corbett went to Washington, D.C., and worked for the War Department in the Air Branch. Corbett was accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilot program in 1943 and towed targets, first at the Camp Davis antiaircraft school in North Carolina and then at Camp Stewart in Georgia. This required that she fly above antiaircraft guns that fired at the targets she towed behind her plane. She also flew night missions to train searchlight crews in detecting and tracking aircraft. Following the war Corbett applied for pilot positions with no success. To remain in aviation she served in airport communications in Alaska. Alta Corbett returned to the Pacific Northwest and in 1961 married Ralph Thomas (1904-2003). They eventually settled in Sequim, Clallam County.
WASP Program Expands
Opal Vivian Hicks Fagan (1915-2000) grew up in Everett and joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots for the adventure of flying and to serve her country. During her 1944 training she took part in tests to demonstrate that women could fly while having their menstrual period. An argument against women pilots was that they would be unable to fly at this time. The tests disproved the prejudice. Fagan was involved in ferrying flights and when she heard that the program might be disbanded, she worked to get time in high-horsepower aircraft. When the program was disbanded, she gave flying lessons in Prosser, Washington. She opened a flying school that catered to returning veterans using their educational benefits. In 1949 she went to Hawaii and was turned down as an Aloha Airlines pilot because she was a woman, but was hired to teach Aloha pilots instrument flying.
Mary Barnes Sturdevant (b. 1921) was born and raised in Tacoma. Because she was poor, the women's pilot program represented a great opportunity for her to become a pilot. Her wartime flying experience included surviving a crash in a basic trainer. She was flying with another trainee when the plane's engine died. The aircraft broke apart and crashed. The other trainee was permanently disabled while Mary Barnes recovered from her injuries.
Nancy Nordhoff Dunnam (b. 1923) was from Seattle. Her father had been an aviator in World War I and introduced her to flight. Her first plane ride was with him. Nancy Nordhoff, a graduate of Seattle's Garfield High School, was attending the University of Washington when accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilot program. Another Garfield and University of Washington graduate, Carol Nicholson Lewis (b. 1924), entered training in February 1944 with Nordhoff. Also in this class were Margaret Eleanor Neyman Martin (b. 1921), of Sequim and Seattle College, and Jean Isabella Landa (1917-1980) of Opportunity, Washington, a University of Washington graduate. The University of Washington had about eight women who became World War II pilots.
Before the war Marjory Foster Munn (1921-2009) was a beautician in West Virginia. She won a contest whose prize was free flying lessons. The lessons changed her life, creating a lifetime devotion to flying. Marjory Foster obtained her license before joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots program in 1944. She was a test pilot in Alabama and flew repaired aircraft to Great Falls, Montana. Foster also qualified in the P-39 pursuit or fighter aircraft and the B-25 bomber. Her most dramatic event came during a landing when another plane landed on top of her airplane. Its propeller chopped through Foster's plane's fuselage and its wing but Foster was unhurt. After the war she remained in aviation by first working in communications and then as a stewardess. In 1949 she received a commission in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Lieutenant Foster served in administrative roles and married Captain James Munn (1923-2002) in 1953 while assigned to Okinawa. They returned to the United States and she was promoted to captain. They left the service and moved to Seattle in 1962. Marjory Munn graduated from the University of Washington in 1965. In 1983, she was selected to serve on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. During this three-year appointment she inspected military bases to evaluate military women's treatment.
Five Who Sacrificed
Thirty-eight pilots in the WASP program were killed in training or on mission flights. Since the women pilots were not actually in the military, they had no benefits, not even burial coverage. For a number of those killed, fellow pilots contributed to ship the body home for burial. Often another pilot would accompany the body to the deceased pilot's hometown. The deaths included five Washington women.
Dorothy F. Scott (1920-1944) was killed in a mid-air collision on December 3, 1943. She was on approach to landing at the Palm Springs, California, airbase. Scott had clearance while a second plane, a fighter, was next in landing order. The faster fighter overtook Scott's plane and crashed into it. Scott, of Oroville, Washington, was a 1941 graduate of the University of Washington. She had earned a private pilot's license by the time she graduated. In 1942 she obtained an instructor's license and was teaching new pilots at the Moscow-Pullman Airport. She joined the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron in November 1942. She was one of the original members of the ferrying squadron. She went to Love Field in Texas for ferrying duty following graduation. Scott was then assigned to Palm Springs for pursuit (fighter) aircraft training. The Oroville Airport is named in honor of Dorothy F. Scott.
Jayne Elizabeth Erickson (1921-1944) had a collision over the Avenger Field training base in Texas while on an April 16, 1944, solo flight. Erickson was born in Seattle and moved with her family to Preston, Washington. She attended Preston High School and majored in art at the University of Washington. She moved to Yakima and took flying lessons there.
Katherine "Kay" Dussaq (1911-1944) died in a November 26, 1944 crash. She was from Dayton, Washington.
Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck (1912-1944) lost her life while testing a repaired BT-13 basic trainer in South Carolina on October 16, 1944. Jeanne Lewellen graduated from Washington State College with an English major in 1933. She went to work as a secretary on the Grand Coulee dam construction project and met engineer Ed Norbeck (1916-1991). Ed Norbeck took a job in Hawaii and Jeanne Lewellen joined him. They married there in 1940. Both learned to fly. Ed Norbeck joined the Army when war broke out and Jeanne was an early WASP pilot. Jeanne Norbeck's name is inscribed on the Washington State University Veterans Memorial.
Mary Louise Webster (1919-1944) was a passenger on a December 9, 1944, flight from Frederick, Oklahoma, to Tulsa when the plane iced up and crashed near Tulsa. The crash killed Webster and two others. Webster was born in Ellensburg and attended Holy Names Academy in Seattle and Seattle Business College. She had worked as a secretary in Ellensburg and had flight training there and in Yakima. Webster earned her Women Airforce Service Pilot wings on October 16, 1944. She is the only woman whose name is listed on the War Memorial at the Kittitas County Courthouse.
Quick End and Delayed Recognition
The Women Airforce Service Pilot program ended on December 20, 1944. Marjory Foster Munn later described disbandment as like a funeral, a horrible shock. Many of the pilots desired to continue flying as a profession, but with the large number of male pilots available at the end of the war, few women were able to locate positions. Some turned to private aviation and many returned to other activities. The Women Airforce Service Pilots' contribution was quickly forgotten. That is until the 1970s and efforts by the women to achieve due recognition. The women spoke of being denied military benefits and assistance for burial, and of not receiving the educational benefits afforded other war veterans, or the respect.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) signed legislation granting veteran status to the women pilots. On March 10, 2009, President Barack Obama (b. 1961) further honored their wartime success by awarding all of them the Congressional Gold Medal. The 38 killed in training or on duty received the award posthumously. At the time of the awards, approximately 300 Women Airforce Service Pilots were alive, 12 of them living in Washington.
In February 2013, eleven veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots are residents of Washington: Lois Dobbins Auchteronie (b. 1918), Mary "Pat" Hiller Call (b. 1919), Nancy Nordhoff Dunnam, Elizabeth White Dybbro (b. 1923), Margaret Neyman Martin, Elizabeth Keatts Munoz (b. 1917), Dorothy Kocher Olsen, Andrea Shaw (b. 1919), Mary Barnes Sturdevant, Josephine Keating Swift (b. 1919), and Alta Corbett Thomas.