Past Times

Flying was serious business for WASPs

WASPs (from left) Viola Thompson, Mary Clifford, and Lydia Linder were part of the target-towing Squadron at Camp Davis in 1943
WASPs (from left) Viola Thompson, Mary Clifford, and Lydia Linder were part of the target-towing Squadron at Camp Davis in 1943 State Archives of North Carolina

During World War II, there were many arenas where women contributed to the war effort, and one of those was the wild blue yonder. In 1943, writer Ann Stevick visited the WASPs stationed at Camp Davis in Onslow County.

Girls will be girls and Army Air Force pilots, too, if the achievements of Jacqueline Cochran and her Wasp squadrons here are a sign of things to come.

The Wasp, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, are step-children in hand-me-down clothes so far. They replace men of the First Tactical Air Force for combat by tow-target and tracking mission flying, two of the most difficult and tedious flying jobs. Both require the tedious labor of flying back and forth hour after hour on a set course, making precise turns.

Wasp are issued Air Force uniforms. But they’re Civil Service employees. When they appear on strange air fields in uniform they are apt to have encounters with baffled MP’s who feel they are impersonating something but don’t know what. The girls were all chosen for ability to stick it out, however, and they hope to be in the Air Force in a few months.

A Hollywood scout looking for a Wasp type would have had a hard time picking one from the squadron of 30 at attention in front of the hangers. There are cover types, Campfire Girl types, and some who look like good cooks. Some wear Air Force olive green and some “pink” trousers and shirts.

The first batch of 25 Wasp moved in on 50,000 incredulous men at Camp Davis on July 10. Later 22 more Wasp arrived to bolster the first group, and three weeks ago, three more came. By January Miss Cochran expects 600 flyers and 500 trainees to be in action.

They are all graduates of a six-month’s training course at Sweetwater, Texas. They were recruited from thousands of applicants, about 50 per cent of whom get through the recruiting scrutiny. There doesn’t seem to be any pigeon-hole for Wasp recruits, either. There are six married women. There are teachers, bookkeepers, a magazine writer, a parachute rigger, a claim agent for a wholesale dry goods store. At least 13 of the girls have come home to roost from Civilian Pilot Training Courses in colleges.

Miss Cochran is emphatic that there are more women flyers available than can probably ever be used, and regrets the possibility of more girls scrimping to take flying with the hope of getting in. There are a lot of recruiting requirements on health, weight, and height, but more important is the record of the applicant for sticking to things she has tried.

The Camp Davis six-weeks’ training course includes physical exercise, work in the Link trainer, identification of aircraft, navigation, meteorology, medical training, seamanship and woodsmanship, airplane and engine maintenance, among a lot of other things. They learn to fill out reports. They do unceasing study of dot-dash codes, both by key and blinker.

The day of the Wasp begins with rising in time for 6:45 calisthenics. Between 7:15 and 7:30 they must change from shorts or slacks to their regular clothes, eat their breakfasts and get to the air field in time to check up on missions for the day. They say it can be done when you get used to it, and the bed made, too, with square corners. But no toying with curls or eye-shadow.

If the Wasp doesn’t get a coveted mission on the board in the operations room when she reports for the day she is likely to lurk around anyway, hoping to get an extra chore that pops up. If there is a first flight of a new-type ship or a cross-country flight, the pilots will gather in their own briefing room for conference with the flight leader. The briefing room is marked “Wasp’s Nest. Drones Keep Out, or Suffer the Wrath of the Queen.”

If the girls go into the Army it will mean a raise in pay in most cases. Their civil salary is $150 a month in training and $250 a month at camp. Out of this the girls pay about $50 board and room and buy their own uniforms. Trousers cost $12.50, and shirts $8 to $12. Most of the girls find it necessary to have about four uniforms. The N&O Oct. 31, 1943

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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