For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we will focus on 2 Chinese American women who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during WW2.
Although the media depict women’s involvement in the war mostly in a sidekick role as homemakers, nurses, and factory workers, they were a lot more than that. They were spies, farmers, nurses, and pilots. This post will be focused on the two Chinese women who participated in the WW2 and their work and sacrifice for humanity.
Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was formed as a civilian women pilots’ organization in order to free up the men for the war. The members of WASP were trained to become test pilots, ferriers, and trainers as women were not allowed to participate in combat at the time. WASP delivered a total of 12,650 aircraft of 77 types. They logged a total of 60 million air miles for the Air Force but wasn’t recognized until 1977.
The beginning of WASP:
The idea of having women participate in the war was first brought up in a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt by American aviator Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran once Warsaw fell to the Germans. Jackie also wrote a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds, who was organizing the Air Corps Ferrying Command at the time. Jacqueline Cochran at the time was considered to be the best female pilot in the United States. She had caught people’s attention when she received a gold medal for her accomplishments as one of the 10 outstanding women of 1938 by American Women magazine. First Lady Roosevelt was the one to decorate her with a medal. By 1939, Cochran had already become the first woman to make a landing entirely by instrument and had set 17 records for national and international speed, distance, and altitude.
By 1941, British women pilots were already ferrying aircraft but the idea of a woman ferrying aircraft was still foreign to many. However, Cochran persisted. First, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron WAFS was formed after Nancy Love’s suggestion. Nancy’s husband participated in the Army Air Corps Reserve. After Nancy’s proposed WAFS was accepted, Jackie was angry that she had been rejected. By the fall of 1942, Cochran’s proposal of forming Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).
By the summer of 1943, WAFS and WFTD were consolidated to form WASP. 1,830 were accepted for training while 1,074 completed the training. Most of the accepted applicants were Caucasian women, but there were also other women of color who participated including Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee.
Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. She was born and raised in Oregon. She was from an immigrant family raised at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was prevalent. She persisted despite the discrimination she faced growing up. She worked as an elevator operator at Lieves Department Store in downtown Portland which allowed her to save up for private flying lessons. By the time she was 19, she was flying in a program sponsored by the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society.
Lee traveled to China during the Japanese occupation hoping to join the Chinese Air Force. However, she was rejected as they did not accept women pilots. She was assigned a desk job and only flew a commercial plane out of Nanjing before she returned to the United States in 1938.
Upon returning to America in 1942, she applied to join WFTD and was accepted to train in Texas to fly a variety of military planes. She was then stationed at the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron at Romulus Army Air Base in Michigan. Lee died on November 25th, 1944 as a result of injuries sustained on a collision on a runway in Great Falls, Montana.
Maggie Gee was another Chinese American who participated in WASP. Similar to Lee, she was the daughter of an immigrant family. Her parents owned a successful Chinese importing company and raised the family in Berkeley, California. Her father died of a heart attack on a San Francisco Street in 1929 when the stock market crashed leaving her mother and 5 other siblings around. Gee passed a drafting test and dropped out of college to work as a draftsman for the engineers at Mare Island Naval Shipyards in Vallejo, California. By 1943, Gee saved enough money to move to Minden, Nevada to learn how to fly. Then she applied for the WASP training program in Texas. She served throughout the war as a tow target pilot in Las Vegas Army Airfield, Nevada. After the war, she returned to Berkeley and pursued her degree in physics and lived as a researcher covering the fields of cancer, nuclear weapons design, fusion energy, and other related fields.
Although women worked alongside men, they did not receive their military status until the 1970s. Their service was mostly forgotten until President Obama signed a bill rewarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Model.