In summer 1943, the United States had been at war for almost two years against Germany, Italy and Japan. The nation had responded to the war with a vigorous mobilization of more than 16 million men and the conversion of much of American industry to war production.
That summer, it was not unusual to see frequent flights of military aircraft, especially from Lockbourne Air Force Base (now named Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base) on the southeast side of Columbus. Residents of Columbus might not have been surprised to see B-17 bombers in the skies over the capital city.
They might have been surprised, however, had they known the flight crews of the B-17s usually were women.
Female aviators were not uncommon.
Their ranks included Amelia Earhart, who thrilled Americans with her exploits until her untimely disappearance over the Pacific in 1937. Long after the war was over, Columbus resident Jerrie Mock would make aviation history in her own right as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe alone.
In wartime, the assumption generally was held that men would handle most of the fighting and certainly would pilot the weapons of war. Generally, that was the case.
The U.S. Air Force as we know it did not exist when World War II began. The modern air force was created as a separate service after the war. During World War II, each of the major branches of the armed forces had their own air divisions. The Army had the oldest air force, having begun military flights with the Wright brothers a few years after their first successful flight in 1903. In fact, the first person to die in a powered aircraft accident was Army observer Thomas Selfridge in 1905.
Over the course of more than three decades, military aircraft had developed significantly from the canvas and bamboo box kites that helped make Columbus native Eddie Rickenbacker America’s ace of aces in World War I. The fighter aircraft of World War II were fast, sleek and deadly. Bombers were slower and less maneuverable, but they were more heavily armored and equipped with more guns in more places than fighters. The B-17 earned its nickname, “Flying Fortress.”
But the Army’s air force needed some help to keep all its planes flying. Asking women to do some of the work meant male pilots were freed for duty elsewhere.
This was not an easy sell.
In 1941, as World War II raged in Europe, noted American pilots Jacquelin Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love submitted proposals for a women’s air service to ferry aircraft and perform other noncombat flying duties for the Army air service.
They were turned down, but they persisted, resubmitting their ideas on several occasions while seeking support in Congress and with the public. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt became a supporter and wrote a column for the national press promoting the idea.
By fall 1942, two separate organizations – the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron – were training civilian women pilots to fly military aircraft. These two organizations were merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots in August 1943.
A total of 25,000 women applied to the WASP program, and 1,074 women with pilot licenses and flying experience were selected. Several of these women were trained to fly B-17 bombers at Lockbourne Air Force Base.
WASP pilots were stationed at more than 100 air bases across America and flew more than 60 million miles from aircraft factories to airbases and seaports. They towed targets for live artillery practice and transported cargo. In all, they delivered more than 12,000 aircraft to their destinations.
Yet the WASP pilots were considered civil servants and did not receive military benefits. It was not until 1977 that WASP pilots were, by act of Congress, considered “active duty” for veterans benefits from World War II. In 2009, President Obama and Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Three of the 300 surviving WASP pilots were present to accept the belated thanks of a grateful nation.
A few B-17 bombers still fly. Restored and flown regularly, they serve as a reminder of the rise of American air power.
If one has a chance to fly in a B-17, it might be well to remember that its first pilot probably was a woman trained in Columbus.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.