Early on the morning of Sunday December 7th 1941, with the first rays of the sun glinting off the wings of her Interstate Cadet monoplane, Cornelia Fort, aviatrix and flight instructor, had the misfortune to be the first person in Pearl Harbor to catch sight of the incoming Japanese planes. The ‘Zeros’ came past her on their way to bomb the American navy but had time to shoot at Cornelia as they went.
Seizing the controls from her hapless pupil, she took the plane down to John Rodgers civilian airport then make a dash for the cover of the Hanger as the true horror of the devastating surprise attack unfolded around them. It was a terrifying start to the dreadful day that brought American into World War II, but for a novelist looking for interesting angles into this huge event, it felt like a gift. I was instantly hooked and keen to know more about the role of female pilots of whom, it turns out, there were many.
Stunt flying was all the rage in America before the war, with air shows drawing huge family crowds at weekends, and many aviatrixes had become the darling of the American people. The most famous of these was Amelia Earhart who filled the headlines through the late twenties and thirties and was the first woman (and second person after Charles Lindbergh) to pilot a plane solo across the Atlantic. Sadly she lost her life attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, but there were plenty more cut in her mould.
Marguerite Gambo was a young Hawaiian who’d achieved her commercial pilot’s licence in 1937 and established the Gambo Flying Service out of Pearl Harbor. She was also in the air on the morning of December 7th and had to navigate her little plane through a seldom-used mountain pass to land safely out of the way of the Japanese.
Then there was Jacqui Cochran, a remarkable young woman from a poor family of millworkers who talked billionaire Floyd Bostwick Odlum into paying for her pilot’s training if she passed within six weeks. She did it in three weeks and three days; Floyd paid up and then married her! She went on to fly competitively, winning important races, setting many records, and securing prestigious prizes.
From the opposite end of the social spectrum was old-money Nancy Love who gained her pilot’s licence at sixteen and celebrated this by flying her brother dangerously close over her school, only avoiding expulsion because they had a policy banning girls from driving cars but not planes… She went on to work as a commercial test pilot at Inter-City Aviation and to marry the boss, Robert Love.
Both Nancy and Jackie were keen to get women serving their country, ferrying planes between factories and bases around the US to free up male pilots for active combat. But the American authorities were reluctant and in 1942, a frustrated Jackie took a troop of talented female pilots over to Britain to serve with the Air Transport Auxiliary. Britain had been taking women into the ATA from 1939 and by 1942 female pilots were flying all types of military planes, including the heavy Hurricanes and the super-nimble Spitfires.
Whilst Jackie was over in Britain doing her bit, however, Nancy Love was able to use her moneyed contacts to finally talk Lieutenant General ‘Hap’ Arnold into authorizing the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under her command. Needless to say, Jackie was furious and returned almost immediately to confront him. Arnold caved and formed the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) under Jackie to train more female pilots. The two services were merged in August 1943 to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
Jackie worked hard to bring new women into the program, fighting to create a training program at the Howard R Hughes Airport in Houston, although much of the set-up there was borderline farcical. The first recruits were encouraged to pretend that they were part of a basketball team – very tricky for those women who were barely above five feet tall! Their only canteen and toilet facilities were at the Houston Municipal Airport Terminal, a mile away. They were issued with no uniforms and even the silver wings they received at their much-delayed graduation were paid for by Jackie herself. There were no barracks for them on site so they had to find billets in the nearby town and, unbelievably, the bus found to transport the girls to the airfield had previously been used for a Tyrolean orchestra so was white with red and white striped awning and decorated all over with Edelweiss!
These highly-skilled, volunteer women were only trying to serve their country and were treated very poorly. They didn’t give up though and in the end over a thousand women flew planes around America as the factories churned them out for service in Europe and the Pacific. Theirs was a desperately undervalued role by a country who chose, after D-day to encourage these brave, talented women to get ready to return to their “real roles” of healing men’s physical and emotional wounds when they came back from war and gave them little credit for their hard work. I hope this article and my novel, A Letter from Pearl Harbor, can do their bit to bring these amazing women’s stories back to life.