Breaking Barriers – Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII
A Special Exhibit For Summer 2017
Chatham Marconi Maritime Center
A unique new exhibit – “Breaking Barriers: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II” – will debut when the Marconi-RCA Wireless Museum opens for the 2017 season during the June 16-18 annual Chatham History Weekend. Massachusetts Representative Sarah K. Peake will help cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the new exhibit at 10:30 AM, Saturday June 17.
In 1942, as the United States reeled from the attack on Pearl Harbor, trained male pilots were in short supply. Qualified pilots were needed to fight the war. The Army also was desperate for pilots to deliver newly built trainer aircraft to the flight schools in the South. Twenty-eight experienced civilian women pilots volunteered to take those ferrying jobs. They formed the country’s first female squadron late summer 1942. Between November 1942 and December 1944, 1,074 more women were trained to fly, first in Houston, TX and later moving to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX. Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran founded the two programs (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Women’s Flying Training Detachment) that became the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in August of 1943.
WASP flew 77 different types of military aircraft, including every aircraft in the Army Air Corp’s arsenal. In addition to ferrying, they served as engineering test pilots, flew B-26s and B-29s (to prove to male pilots that they were safe!), towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and non-flying personnel, and flight-tested aircraft after repairs. For over two years, WASP went on to perform a wide variety of aviation-related jobs and to serve at more than 120 bases around the country, including 9 WASP serving at Otis Field – now part of Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne.
WASP Trainees were expected to complete college level course work, including physics, mathematics, algebra, meteorology and navigation. In addition, they studied airplane structure, hydraulics, engines and propellers, Morse code, electronics, communications, first aid, aerial photography, aerodynamics, military drill, and physical fitness training. By the time they graduated, WASP had each spent 560 hours in ground school and 210 hours in flight training.
The WASP were deactivated on December 20, 1944, prior to the war’s end. At that time, there were no honors, no benefits and no thanks. The WASP even had to pay for their own transportation home. Because the WASP records were stamped “SECRET,” their story was forgotten for many years.
In 1977, after lobbying Congress with the help of Senator Barry Goldwater and General Hap Arnold’s son, Colonel Bruce Arnold, the WASP were finally recognized and granted Veteran status. Finally, on July 1, 2009, President Barak Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in recognition of their pioneering military service and exemplary record in the Armed Forces of the United States of America.
This special exhibit explores their pioneering experience, paralleling the experiences of the women who served as WAVES and SPARS here in Chatham during the war. It features elements and material from several noteworthy institutions including the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, TX, the Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX and the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, GA. The WASP’s story progresses through 20 full-height panels of striking images with detailed explanations, supplemented with videos on interactive PCs for visitors to explore. One of these videos, entitled “Flying The Beam”, highlights the WASP’s use of radio navigation. Also featured is an actual working radio set – designated Aircraft Receiver BC-348-P and Aircraft Transmitter BC-458-A – used extensively in WWII aircraft such as the B-24 Liberator, B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder that were among the many aircraft flown by the WASP. This radio set is on loan from former RCA Chatham wireless operator Harris Pitnof. It is on display with panels explaining that – in addition to being pilots – the WASP performed all the regular airborne duties including Flight Engineer and Navigator, and explaining this actual radio set that they would have used.