Salute to Service: Women of W.A.S.P.
The year is 1943, and the world is embroiled in a conflict the likes of which has never been seen. Manpower is at a premium on all sides, and this means that all over the world women are again stepping forward and adding their might to the push for victory. For some that means things like austerity and adhering to rationing schemes – thereby allowing every spare ounce of food, and the supplies needed to make uniforms, weapons and other military equipment to be spared for the war effort – others follow Rosie The Riveter’s example and go to work in the factories that keep their boys at the front supplied, while still others sign up for duty at home, joining services like the Navy Waves or the Women’s Army Corps, freeing up men to go to the front. So it was for three young women – Georgia natives all – who took to the skies for the good of their country, and in the process forever opened doors for those that would come after them.
Evelyn Greenblatt Howren was born in Atlanta in 1917, and took her first flying lesson in 1939 while a student at Vanderbilt. She was bitten by the flying bug after the trip and soon after began taking flying lessons, eventually earning her private pilot’s license on November 3, 1941, one month before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. Meanwhile, 300 miles south-east of Vanderbilt University of Georgia student Marion Stegeman Hodgson also learned to fly, the Athens native having been one of the few women accepted into the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and finally, up in the north east a young woman named Ann Baumgartner – who lived in New Jersey, but was born in the Augusta Army Hospital – took flight instruction from her employers at Eastern Airlines. The paths of their three lives would all intersect in Texas, as they each underwent around six months of training using largely the same regimen as male air cadets, to become one of 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots, or W.A.S.P.s.
Evelyn Greenblatt Howren had in fact already begun putting her skills to use by flying with the Civil Air Patrol when the W.A.S.P. group was formed by the merger of the W.A.F.S. (Nancy Harkness Love’s all-female air-ferrying outfit) and W.F.T.D. (a group of female flight instructors led by Jacqueline Cochran), and she had to be released from an Air Traffic Control assignment in mid-1942 to join the first W.A.S.P. class (Class ‘43 W-1’), flying out of what is now William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, TX. Evelyn graduated on April 23, 1943, so she was still there when Ann Baumgartner arrived with class ’43 W-3’ in January of that year, leaving just before the program’s move to more suitable facilities at Avenger Field outside Sweetwater, TX. Baumgartner would have completed training just before the move too, but a case of the measles delayed her graduation until July 3, when she moved on alongside the women of ’43 W-5’ – one of whom was Marion Stegeman Hodgson.
Over the course of their curriculum W.A.S.P.s were trained to fly every kind of aircraft in the USAAF’s arsenal – from light observation aircraft and trainers to heavy bombers, and upon graduation they were sent all over the country and performed a myriad of airborne duties. Evelyn Greenblatt Howren flew out of Love Field near Dallas and Paterson Army Air Base in Colorado, delivering aircraft from their factories and ferrying them between air bases, in the process piloting 30 different types of aircraft, including B-17 and B-24 bombers. Marion Stegeman Hodgson was also based at Love Field, but given detached duty in Wichita, KS delivering planes from the nearby Boeing, Beechcraft and Cessna factories to their new home airfields. Ann Baumgartner’s first assignment was at Camp Davis, N.C. – an artillery training establishment where she flew many types of aircraft as targets for visual and radar tracking – ranging in size from Cessna’s UC-78 Bobcat trainer to the Douglas A-24 Banshee fighter, and on further to include the Lockheed B-34 Ventura medium bomber. She later went to Dayton, OH to test aeromedical equipment, and while there she was granted an assignment with the Flight Test Division. Baumgartner’s duties there were clerical at first but as time went on she saw duty transporting staff officers between bases and helping to put the American B-17, B-24 and B-29 aircraft through their paces as a bomber flight tester – a position that also gave her the opportunity to pilot the British De Havilland Mosquito, and even a German Junkers ‘Ju88’ fast bomber. Baumgartner also became the first American woman to fly a jet-powered aircraft when she took to the skies to test the Bell YP-59A on October 14, 1944.
As the war gradually turned in the Allies favor, redeployment of aircraft within the United States likely became less of an urgent need, and the W.A.S.P. program was brought to an end in December 1944 – just over two years after its establishment. However, in the postwar years our heroines found other ways to continue blazing the trails they started as W.A.S.P.s. Evelyn Greenblatt Howren continued to work with military pilots as a flight instrument instructor in Colorado, before returning to Atlanta to run a Fixed Base Operation with her husband Hillman, and taking part in the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race in 1951. Both Marion Stegeman Hodgson and Ann Baumgartner (then known as Ann Carl following her marriage in 1945 to Major William Carl) started families and took up writing, with Stegeman Hodgson authoring several short stories, magazine articles, and a number of special features (many on women in aviation) for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and releasing four cookbooks. Ann Carl wrote a great many scientific newspaper columns, and both have committed their time with the W.A.S.P.s to paper in autobiographies – Marion Stegeman Hodgson’s ‘Winning My Wings’ was first published in 1996, and Ann Carl’s ‘A WASP Among Eagles’ first emerged in 1999.
The end of the war however, did not mean and the W.A.S.P.s’ battles were over – and in the decades to come they would fight to become recognized as WW2 veterans, and for the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. They won on both occasions, and though no medals were awarded to those who flew with the W.A.S.P. program immediately following the war, as the years have gone on their service during the conflict has become more and more recognized, to the point where each of the 1,074 W.A.S.P.s have since been awarded both the World War II Victory Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal, with some also earning the American Campaign Medal depending on how long they served with the group. We at Bob Richards are immensely proud to pay our own small tribute to a group of women who flew every type of aircraft that the USAAF had in service at the time, racking up 60,000,000 miles flown in 2 years of operation and facing many of the same dangers, hardships, and sorrows experienced by their male counterparts – which sadly includes the loss of 38 W.A.S.P.s in the line of duty – and helped pave the way for the world we live in today. So to those surviving veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots program, and their colleagues who unfortunately are no longer with us, we humbly say thank you for all that you have done for your country, and women everywhere.