Women Pilots of WWII Trained in Texas

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran

When the United States entered World War II, the top brass, including General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), had doubts about women’s ability to pilot large aircraft.  In the summer of 1941 even before the United States entered the war, two famous women aviators Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love presented separate proposals for women pilots

Nancy Harkness Love

Nancy Harkness Love

to be used in non-combat missions.  Meantime, the British government asked Jackie Cochran to recruit American women pilots to ferry aircraft for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, the first organized group of American women pilots to serve in the war.

Finally, after lobbying by Eleanor Roosevelt and the military’s realization that there were not enough male pilots, in September 1942 Nancy Love gained permission to recruit women for training in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware.  Soon thereafter Jackie Cochran returned from Britain to win appointment as director of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) headquartered at Houston’s Municipal Airport (present Hobby Airport).

Class 43-3, January 1943, Houston Municipal Airport

Class 43-3, January 1943, Houston Municipal Airport

The new recruits were classified as civil service, not military personnel.  Calling themselves “guinea pigs,” the Houston WFTD were housed in motels and private homes and transported to the airfield each day in trailer trucks. They had no life insurance; there were no crash trucks or fire trucks on the airfield, and they had no uniforms. Since there were no facilities for changing clothes they wore the same gear—GI coveralls in the standard size 52, which they called “zoot suits”—to ground school, to drill, to fly, and to march to and from the mess hall.

When they were moved in early 1943 to better quarters at Avenger Field—the only all-female air base in history—at present Sweetwater, they had to pay their own way and pay for their room and board.  If they washed out of the program, they had to pay their return fare back home.  After the WFTD and the WAFS merged in August 1943 to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Jackie Cochran became the director of the program and Nancy Love headed the ferrying division.  Jackie Cochran recruited women from all over the country but excluded black pilots claiming that since the program was new, innovative, and not very popular, including black pilots might endanger the service’s status.  More than 25,000 women applied, fewer than 1,900 were accepted, and after seven months of military flight training, 1,074 earned their wings to become the first women to fly American military aircraft—a rate comparable to male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.  The WASP were all pilots with a minimum of 100 hours when they entered the service, but they were trained to fly “the Army way.”  Their program followed the same course as male Army Air Corps pilots except for no gunnery training and very little aerobatic and formation flying.  The women received 210 hours of flying time divided equally between PT-17s, BT-13s, and AT-6s.

Shirley Slade, trainee, Avenger Field, July 19, 1943 LIFE magazine

Shirley Slade, trainee, Avenger Field, July 19, 1943 LIFE magazine

The WASP flew sixty million miles ferrying12,650 aircraft from factories to military bases and ports of embarkation.  They towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and flew simulated strafing missions, even dropping tear gas and other chemical agents during the training of ground troops.  They accepted the very dangerous task of testing damaged airplanes.  As part of bomber crew training, the WASPs flew the aircraft while male combat trainees practiced as bombardiers, navigators, and gunners.

When the AAF reached a surplus of male pilots toward the end of 1944, it was determined that the WASP was no longer needed.  By the time the WASP was disbanded on December 20, 1944, thirty-eight had been killed in accidents—eleven in training and twenty-seven during active duty.  Since they were not considered military, the dead were sent home at family expense and did not receive military honors.  Even their coffins could not be draped with the U. S. flag.

In her June 1, 1945 report Jackie Cochran wrote that WASP safety, accident and fatality rates compared favorably with male pilot records.  Despite her report, WASP records were classified secret and sealed, not to be released for thirty-five years.  Ironically, Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold who had originally been opposed to women pilots, began lobbying in 1975 to have the WASPs recognized as veterans.  With the help of Senator Barry Goldwater, who had served as a WWII ferry pilot, Congress passed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977, granting the WASP corps full military status for their service.

On July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Gold Medal into law and the following May 10th the 300 surviving WASPs came to the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders.

July 2009, President Obama signing WASP Congressional Gold Medal into law

July 2009, President Obama signing WASP Congressional Gold Medal into law

The National WASP WWII Museum is located in Sweetwater near Avenger Field.

Texas in the American Revolution

Texas’ inclusion in the American Revolution began on June 21, 1779, when Spain declared war on Great Britain.  Over 10,000 head of Texas cattle were rounded up on the vast rancheros operated by the Spanish missions that spread along the San Antonio River.  Presidio La Bahía at Goliad served as the gathering point from which its soldiers escorted the vaqueros trailing the cattle and several hundred horses up through Nacogdoches in East Texas to Natchitoches and on to Opelousas in Louisiana.  To help finance Spain’s involvement in the war, King Carlos III asked for donations of one peso “from all men, whether free or of other status” and two pesos from Spaniards and nobles.  An accounting dated January 20, 1784, lists a total of 1,659 pesos from presidios all over Texas where the cavalry had two pesos each taken from their pay.  At that time two pesos represented the price of a cow.

King Carlos III commissioned Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana, to raise an army and lead a campaign against the British along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.  BernardoGálvezGovernor Gálvez had been in contact with Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Henry Lee who sent emissaries requesting that Gálvez secure the port of New Orleans and permit only American, Spanish, and French ships to travel the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi served as the doorway through which vast amounts of arms, ammunition, and military supplies could be moved to the troops fighting in Kentucky, Illinois, and along the northwestern frontier.

The cattle grazing the mission rancheros in Texas offered the best hope for Gálvez to feed his Spanish troops and the governor of Spanish Texas eagerly answered the request. The Texas beef helped feed from 1,400 men to over 7,000 as the campaigns under Gálvez moved from defeat of the British at Manchac and Baton Rouge in Louisiana and on to a victory at Natchez, Mississippi.  After a month-long siege using land and sea forces in 1780, Gálvez captured Fort Charlotte at Mobile.  The final push to secure the Gulf Coast began in 1781 when Spanish troops captured Pensacola, the British capital of West Florida.  The next year, a two-month siege finally overwhelmed Fort George in Pensacola, leaving the British with no bases in the Gulf of Mexico.  Finally, the Spanish force under Gálvez captured the British naval base in the Bahamas.  The war ended before General Gálvez could initiate plans to take Jamaica.  The campaigns under Gálvez kept the British from encircling the American revolutionaries from the south and kept the supply lines open from the western flank.

Gálvez helped draft the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War and returned Florida to Spain from British control.  George Washington honored Gálvez by placing him to his right in the July 4 parade and the American Congress recognized Gálvez for his service during the revolution.  Gálvez capped his career in 1785 when the Spanish crown appointed him viceroy of New Spain.

While Gálvez served as governor of Louisiana, he ordered a cartographer to survey the Gulf Coast.  The mapmaker named the largest bay on the Texas coast “Bahía de Galvezton,” later becoming Galveston.  Galveston County and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana are among several places that bear his name.  The famous Hotel Galvez, built in 1911 on Galveston Island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, also bears the name of the Spanish hero of the American Revolution.