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To Wear WASP Wings

1,074 women. That’s the number of the first large group of women pilots—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)—officially recognized as having flown in service of the United States military. Measured against all of military history, that’s a small number. But, measured against the history of the acceptance of women in the military, 1,074 is a significant group.

One of them was Lorraine (Zillner) Rodgers of Alexandria, VA. She joined the WASP shortly after it formed in August 1943, under the direction of Jacqueline Cochran via a merger of the existing Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS—a small group of experienced volunteer women pilots ferrying aircraft) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD—volunteer women pilots training to fly military aircraft). At the time, Rodgers and her 1,073 sister pilots were volunteers serving as a group tied to the US Army Air Corps. (The WASP were not recognized as serving in the military until President Jimmy Carter officially gave them veteran status in 1977.)

Rodgers was an experienced pilot before she joined the WASP. After college, and during weekend time off from working at Douglas Plant in Park Ridge, IL, where she helped to build military aircraft, Rodgers flew as a recreational pilot at a nearby airstrip.

It was at the airstrip that Rodgers heard about the WASP program, she told oral historians in February 2008. “Someone at the airport told me Jacqueline Cochran was in town interviewing women pilots to fly military aircraft. “I said, ‘where is she?’ and called down at the hotel … and was interviewed by her. The only woman I had ever heard of flying airplanes was Jacqueline Cochran, and she’s the one that interviewed me so, needless to say, I was very inspired.”

Initially, there were more than 25,000 WASP hopefuls. Only Rodgers and 1,073 of her sister WASP earned their wings by meeting the previous flight-time experience requirements; passing mental and physical exams; and completing 23 weeks of physical training, military flying and ground school, math, physics, and Morse Code, radio, map reading, navigation, meteorology, engine repair and military regulation lessons.

Before the WASP were disbanded by Congress Dec. 20, 1944, Rodgers and her fellow WASP had flown 60 million miles in 60,000 hours across the country for the war effort. WASP tested new airplanes and tested planes after new or repaired parts were installed. They ferried and delivered planes, performed check flights on repaired planes, towed targets for antiaircraft gunnery practice, flew searchlight-tracking missions, simulated bombings and even instructed male cadets.

“We flew seven days a week,” she recalled. “I would get up in the morning and have breakfast and be at the squadron office at 7. I would pick up my orders and say it was, ‘go to Kansas City and pick up a new plane and deliver it to California.’ I’d go over, pick up this new plane, take it up and test it (if it had just come off assembly), accept it for the Army Air Force and start my trip. You’re alone the whole time. I’d chart my course, take off and start flying … watch the gauges, figure out where the next closest field is and dog in and have them refuel, take off and keep going and going. … As the sun went down, behind the horizon, that’s when you went down and landed. We flew all day long, seven days a week.

My time as a WASP was just another world to learn all these marvelous things and what these airplanes can do. Oh! It was great!”

— Lorraine Rodgers, WASP

While her time in the WASP was always both thrilling and exhausting, there were times it was dangerous as well. In all, 38 WASP died in service. Rodgers was very nearly one of them while completing basic school in Waco, TX.

After she’d gone on a practice run with her instructor he told her to, “take the plane up and practice” on her own. “I was half way out and suddenly my plane flipped upside down and went into a spin, an inverted spin,” she recalled. “I’m inverted upside down, going down and I worked with it. I did everything I had been taught, (and) things I hadn’t been taught. I did anything I could think of to get that plane (righted).

Her efforts were in vain. Nothing the seasoned pilot tried seemed to have any effect on the plane. “Then, I looked out and saw how close I was to the ground. I knew I had to get out,” she said. “As I bailed out of the plane, you’re supposed to count to 10 (before pulling the ripcord), so I said ‘one, two, ten!’ and pulled the ripcord. I was too close to that ground.”

Rodgers somehow survived and after a few bandages, she was called before a board of review. She assumed the worst; she would be kicked out of the WASP for crashing the plane. After repeating her story many times for the board, she was called to the flight line. “I thought, ‘uh, oh. This is where I get the word,’” she recalled. Instead, Rodgers was met by her instructor who gave her a more shocking announcement. “‘Your rudder cables had been cut,’” he told her solemnly. “They never told me who did it (the sabotage).” But after all the BT (trainer aircraft) were checked for similar issues, Rodgers was back in the air, carrying with her, from then on, the ripcord from the parachute that had saved her.

You can learn more about Women Airforce
Service Pilots, like Lorraine Rodgers, by visiting
the “Fly Girls of World War II” traveling exhibit,
on display at the Women’s Memorial, starting Nov. 14.
To find out more about the exhibit,
visit the “FlyGirls” Web page.

Hers was not the only incident of sabotage on WASP planes. Though her case was never proven, others were proven to have been committed by male pilots or crew resentful of women flying military aircraft. Still, such incidents were rare. Much more frequently, WASP encountered men who either couldn’t believe women could be, and actually were, pilots or men who outright didn’t want them to be pilots.

“In training, our instructors were great, wonderful,” Rodgers stresses. But outside of the WASP family is where women pilots often encountered a different attitude, she recalled. “When we got to the outside … they had never seen women pilots and we were treated as officers and they just couldn’t believe it.”

For example, Rodgers told the story of one WASP she flew with who was met at an airstrip by military police once she landed because the men in the tower did not believe that the female voice they heard on the radio could be the pilot and kept asking her to “put the pilot on.”

Rodgers had only one such experience, she noted. “The only thing that happened to me was one time I went in and landed and the gas truck pulled up. The fellas all came around the plane ready to refuel. I jumped out, pulled my helmet off, and here again my long hair fell down. They all looked at me with their mouths open, turned around, and got back on the gas truck and left. Oh boy!”

Rodgers went directly to the operations room to set things straight. “I asked to see the commanding officer. I said, ‘Sir, this plane I’m delivering to California and I have to have it there this afternoon and the gas, refueling truck out there, when they saw it was a woman, they left.’ … Was that tanker out there fast!”

Though the days were long and tiring, and sometimes trying, only one was truly tough, Rodgers recalled. That was the day, Dec. 20, 1944, that Congress voted to disband the WASP program. “It was a shock to all of us,” she said, noting that the WASP were disbanded in large part because the war was going well and men were coming home finding women flying planes without a place for them to fly. “A real fuss went up. … That’s when we were disbanded.”

Rodgers never went far from the planes she loved, however. She went to work at Glenview Naval Air Station, where she met her husband, a pilot who at first had no idea she could fly too. Her husband flew 32 years in the Navy, and together they were among those working for years to gain veteran status for WASP in the 1970s. Rodgers recalled when they were sitting in the US Capitol watching the debate about it and “this one senator hits the desk he’s at and he says, ‘Over my dead body will those pre-Madonnas get veteran status!’ and stormed out. … Everybody was shocked! A senator behaving like that, so they took the vote and it passed!”

Being a WASP—or a woman serving in a man’s military in World War II—wasn’t always easy but it was always rewarding, Rodgers stressed.“My time as a WASP was just another world to learn all these marvelous things and what these airplanes can do,” she said. “Oh! It was great! I really enjoyed it!”

All excerpts in this piece are taken from the Lorraine Rodgers interview by Ali Reed of the Connelly School of the Holy Child History Documentary Project, Feb. 12, 2008, transcript; Women’s Memorial Foundation Oral History Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation, Arlington, VA.

1. Interview: Lorraine Rodgers, interviewed by Ali Reed, Connelly School of the Holy Child History Documentary Project, 12 February 2008, tape and transcript deposited at the Women’s Memorial Foundation, Arlington, VA.
2. Major General Holm, Jean, M., “In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II,” “Chapter 8: Women Airforce Service Pilots: WASP, by Lt. Col. Yvonne C. Pateman, USAF (Ret.),” Military Women’s Press. 1998.*

(November 2008)