Minority Servicewomen in the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII: An Interactive Timeline Proposal

World War II was a significant period of transition for minorities and women in the United States in positive and negative ways as economic opportunities expanded, the military allowed more groups to serve, and American society’s views on women and ethnically diverse populations fluctuated. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into World War II, the military recognized the need for more manpower (that word is ironic here) in order to free more men into overseas service. Therefore, women’s auxiliary programs for each of the different branches of the military were developed, which mostly created noncombatant roles for servicewomen. One of these was the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.

Image of four WASPs from the National Archives

WASP was active between 1943 and 1944 and was considered an auxiliary program of the Army Air Corps. Thus, these 1,074 pilots were technically civilians yet they were also some of the first women to fly for the United States military. According to the WASP digital archive, WASP “logged more than 60 million miles and flew every plane the Army Air Forces possessed and every type of mission a male pilot flew during WWII except combat.” These trips often consisted of flying military planes across the country in order to deliver aircraft to and from military bases and factories. Even so, these trips could be dangerous as 38 WASP pilots died in service. Unfortunately, these servicewomen were not only not given military benefits or military status during the war, they were also deactivated in 1944 when it was deemed that they were not needed anymore. WASP was only given veteran status in 1977 and President Obama awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

President Obama awarding WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

For my undergraduate university honors thesis, I researched the two Chinese American Women Airforce Service Pilots, Maggie Gee (1923-2013) and Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944). Out of the 1,074 WASP pilots, there were only a small number of minority women. Other than Gee and Lee, the other minority women include Native American (specifically Oglala Sioux) Ola Millie Rexroat and two Mexican American women Verneda Rodriguez McLean and Frances Dias Gustavson (there is very little information on these two). African American women applied and even interviewed to join yet were rejected. In one of these interviews, the founder of WASP Jacqueline Cochran explained to applicant Janet Harmon Bragg that WASP was already facing enough gender discrimination that she felt it would be too difficult to include African American women. Another African American woman that was rejected is Mildred Hemmans Carter, who was actually retroactively accepted into the WASP program seventy years later.

Hazel Ying Lee, one of the two Chinese American WASPs (U.S. Air Force photo)

Not only are the WASP in general fairly underrepresented in research and in military histories, its minority servicewomen are even more so. I became aware of this issue while researching for my thesis, in which I stated: “The scholarship that has focused on or at least mentioned WASP often failed to include or elaborate on Lee and Gee or any of the other minority servicewomen. While there were only a small number of minority women in WASP, this unfortunate trend whitewashes American history” (21). My proposal for this project is to develop an interactive timeline on the Northwestern University Knight Lab’s Timeline JS tool. I learned of this program through the official WASP digital archive as they do have their own WASP history timeline using this tool yet this part of their website, as with many sources on WASP, neglects highlighting its minority servicewomen.

A screenshot of the WASP archive’s interactive timeline for its history (https://twu.edu/library/womans-collection/collections/women-airforce-service-pilots-official-archive/history/)

I contend that the Timeline JS tool is one prime example of how I can document these women’s stories in an interactive and distinctive way. In my timeline, I hope to both include the 5 minority women I mentioned while perhaps also featuring the African American women like Bragg and Carter that were rejected yet are still important to WASP history. The timeline would allow me to include pictures, descriptions, dates, links to further reading, and other information that would relate to these women’s lives and their experiences in WASP. While most of these materials would come from the WASP digital archive itself (I used many of their primary sources in my thesis, so I would hope to be able to do this again), I would also draw from other archives and various secondary sources. While I would be thrilled to continue this project as its own thesis, I think that this interactive timeline, and perhaps an accompanying website on WordPress, is another unique way to document this history. With an interactive timeline, we are able to both visualize these significant minority women in American military history as well as learn about their lives and time in service to their country.

2 Replies to “Minority Servicewomen in the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII: An Interactive Timeline Proposal”

  1. Claudia, I think this is a really cool idea. I have never heard of this tool but it seems like it would be a great fit! I wonder if it would allow for audio inclusions–perhaps oral histories with WASPs or even some of your key narrators? I think that would add a powerful element to your story.

  2. Very much enjoyed reading your project proposal! I appreciate the specificity of what you are focused on and it’s great that it would build on your previous research. I think it makes a lot of sense to be looking at an interactive timeline as a way to develop a resource and it seems like you already have a good bit of ideas about both what to plot on the timeline and the kinds of sources and media that you can include with it.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to be thinking about a wordpress site to host/embed the timeline. That way you have a landing page for the project. It sounds like you also have a good sense of some of the organizations and groups focused on and interested in this history. So that gives you some built in contexts to think about reaching out to and potentially getting feedback on what you develop. That is, you’re already on your way to having a strong sense of audience and users which is great for thinking about how you could engage them too. Very much interested to see how your project develops.

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