TOPSAIL — At the height of World War II, the skies above Topsail Island were full of fighters and bombers from the United States Army Air Forces. Operating out of Camp Davis, the aircraft flew the kind of training and logistics missions that were taking place around the country. But at Camp Davis – and a select few other locations – there was a different kind of pilot flying the planes.
They were WASPs, a para-military group of women pilots.
The Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASP) came to be because the U.S. Army needed pilots but would not accept female applications — so a deal was reached, allowing women to perform training and logistics missions stateside. While technically they remained civilians, serving under the auspices of the Civilian Service Commission, the members of the WASP crews endured the rigors of Army life, and participated in dangerous missions.
In two years of service 38 WASPs gave their lives — but for decades their contributions and sacrifices remained classified. Even after the existence of the WASPs became public, surviving pilots had to fight for recognition.
Rose Peters, director of the Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach, has become an expert on the WASPs, who operated out of Camp Davis during 1943 and 1944.
“We actually had a former pilot visit us, and said we probably had the most extensive exhibit on the WASPs, even compared to the one in Washington, D.C.,” Peters said. “It’s a shame because they were the most amazing women.”
The WASP program absorbed several earlier civilian female pilot programs and was directed by Jacqueline Cochran, a pilot from Pensacola, Fla., who would in the course of her life shatter a slew of aviation speed and distance records.
WASPs performed difficult missions, Peters said, including towing aerial targets for anti-aircraft guns. But according to Peters, the WASPs she’s spoke to didn’t mind the danger – or the chauvinism of their Army counter parts – because they got to fly.
That’s how Lucile Doll Wise remembers it. Wise, who graduated with a WASP class in 1943, served in Asheville, N.C., and later transferred to Kansas City.
“Our story is still largely unknown,” Wise said.
“I became interested in flying before the war started. My first lesson was on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the Pearl Harbor attack. I loved flying, as we all did, and was thrilled when I learned that Jackie Cochran was looking for women pilots to fly for the AF (Army Air Forces). We were thrilled to have a chance to fly bigger and faster aircraft, those lovely AF planes, and also glad to have the chance to show that women could fly military aircraft just as well as the men,” Wise said, adding that she was “glad I was not assigned to towing targets.”
The WASP program was Cochran’s labor of love. According to Peters, Cochran personally helped pay for everything from lodging to uniforms; she even designed and awarded her own aviation wings – based on a combination of the U.S. Army Corps wings and the shield of Athena.
And, when WASPs died, Cochran would help afford them decent burials, Peters said.
“Because these pilots were still technically civilians – governed by the Civilian Service Commission – they received no honors of benefits. Their bodies were shipped home in pine boxes, at the expense of the families,” Peters said. “Cochran and others did their best to help cover the cost. But it was a tragedy. They died serving their country.”
Despite the Army’s seeming disavowal of the WASPs service, the pilots themselves knew and seem to accept the risks.
Pilot Cornelia Fort died March 21, 1943, at a Texas WASP airbase — the first woman pilot to lose her life in military service. Before she died, she wrote her own eulogy that, according to Peters, expressed the attitude of many of her fellow pilots.
“If I die violently, who can say it was before my time? I want no one to grieve for me. I was happiest in the sky – at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light. Think of me there and remember me, I hope, as I shall you,” Fort wrote.
Two WASPs also lost their life at Camp Davis: Betty Taylor Wood and Mabel Rawlinson, both died in 1943. It would be decades before their deaths were public record.
In 1977, the WASP program was made public – though hardly publicized, Peters said. Several crashes – some fatal – remained classified and, more importantly, surviving WASPs had still never received recognition for their WWII service. But that was starting to change.
Later that year, then-President Carter signed legislation that officially considered the WASPs’ service “active duty” and entitled pilots in the program to Veterans Affairs benefits. In 1984, after years of petitioning, all of the WASPs were awarded the U.S. Armed Forces WWII Victory Medal. Those who had served for a year or longer received the American Theater Medal.
In 2010, nearly seven decades after the women had served, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. By then, only about one in four of the pilots were still living.
Even in death, WASPs have had to fight for their place among men. The 1977 legislation did not allow WASPs burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery. For a period of time, between 2002 and 2015, WASPs were allowed burial before the Army again decided to deny them.
The reason? A lack of space, after 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even in 2016, over 70 years after their service, legislation only allows enough space for the cremated remains of WASPs.
Peters remains optimistic that, even if the military has not always done so, history will do the WASPs justice.
“They were the most amazing women. They took terrible risks, they put up with all kinds of nonsense, but they did what they loved and they did it better than anyone else,” Peters said. “That’s what I hope people remember.”
Lucille Doll Wise recommended “On Final Approach,” by WASP Byrd Howell Granger, for more information on the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. For those interested in the WASP exhibit and more Topsail-area history, the Missiles and More Museum is located at 720 Channel Blvd. in Topsail Beach. More information is available on its website. You can also check out Wilmington-area writer David Stallman’s “Echoes of Topsail.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.