WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds

by wandering freditor / Apr 01, 2016 /

I am a great admirer of the author Robert Caro, the pre-eminent authority on Lyndon Johnson, for his command of detail and the thoroughness of his research. In my view, Sarah Byrn Rickman is drawn from the same gene pool, for her definitive work on the WASP during WWII, entitled WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds.

WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds

Women pilots took up the ferrying role for all manner of military aircraft, from trainers to four engined bombers, including the most advanced single seat pursuit fighters, due to the urgent need for male pilots in the war effort. Rickman's meticulous research chronicles the initial steps to organise, administer, and "man" the transportation of aircraft from factories and bases, all over the United States, to where they would be transported (flown by men, or ferried on ships) to various battle theatre locations in Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific region.

Jane Straughan, Class 43-1, Wilmington ferry pilot. Courtesy WASP Archive, Texas Woman's University, Denton, TX. From WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds

Jane Straughan, Class 43-1, Wilmington ferry pilot. Courtesy WASP Archive, Texas Woman's University, Denton, TX.

Rickman's book addresses the continuous struggle for official approval for women to fly different types of increasingly sophisticated and more powerful aircraft, by not only the military "Brass," but also the Congress, who regarded flying as "men’s business." Things changed slightly after Pearl Harbor, following an urgent need for ferrying flyers. The book also detailes the "power struggle" between two accomplished aviators, the famous aviatrix Jean Cochran, based in Washington, (who had the ear of General 'Hap' Arnold, the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, as well as, "friends in high places"), and Nancy Love, on the West Coast, of the Army's Air Transport Command, for overall 'command' of what eventually became, the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP).

Rickman carefully, and in great detail, "gathers her squadrons," under Love's tutelage, and I was struck by the numerous locations where the ferry pilots went as they ferry hopped across the continent, and in all directions, to bases and ferry ports. Although they often flew together, it was up to the individual pilot to plot their course, so many flights were on their own. Pay was abysmal, accommodation along the way often spartan, and initially, the women needed to provide their own uniforms.

In September, 1943, women pilots Love and Gillies, together with a male support crew, got initial approval, after numerous flight transfers piloting the B-17 Liberator Bomber across country, to fly such an aircraft to a base in Scotland. On learning of the flight, General Arnold gave orders to cease immediately. No women would command (or co-pilot) a "trans-oceanic flight." When Love and Gillies got to Goose Bay, Canada, they had to return to the US. No WASP women ever conveyed any airplanes to overseas.

In 1944, the tide turned against women pilots as air losses in war theatres were not as high as initially envisaged. There were now men to fly the pursuits. Rickman points out, however, there was a shortage of qualified male pursuit pilots. Most "new boys" required many hours training to fly them. Yet there were accomplished pursuit women pilots, fully endorsed, to fly them to the Training schools! Scandalous comments, too, that women pilots were unreliable because they were "grounded a few days each month."  It forced the Surgeon General of Ferry Division to state, "menstruation is not a handicap ... to prevent a woman from fulfilling her job as a pilot of a military airplane."

Romulus ferry pilots: Mary Ann Beard, 43-5, Janet Zuchowski 43-4, and Marion Schorr, 43-2. Courtesy WASP Archive, Texas Woman's University, Denton, TX. From WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds

Romulus ferry pilots: Mary Ann Beard, 43-5, Janet Zuchowski 43-4, and Marion Schorr, 43-2. Courtesy WASP Archive, Texas Woman's University, Denton, TX.

Rickman draws a poignant conclusion. On 20 December 1944, WASP service was ended for 907 now unemployed flyers, just as in Europe, the Battle of Bulge began. What a waste of available talent!  I like her earlier comment (p. 222) - the pursuit flying WASPs were "a crucial cog in the overall - and vast - machinery of WWII." Too right.

This is a well-researched and presented book, excellent anecdotal vignettes and compelling oral history. My only mild criticism is that with all the various models L4-B,- B17 C47, P51 etc. would be better for Winfred Peppinck non-experts, if there were a few more generic photos of the main aircraft models (as well as excellent portraits).

 

Learn more: https://untpress.unt.edu/catalog/3691

and find it at Amazon and your favorite bookstore.

 

Winfred Peppinck, the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators, is the author of the forthcoming Children's book, The Dogs Who Were Left Behind, and various novels, including Not My Country, about Dutch collaborators in WWII