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.

Cultural (Mis)representation of Indian Culture in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones is arguably one of the most famous film heroes of all time, with four movies total so far and a fifth one supposedly coming out next year. I am an Indiana Jones purist, so I prefer to think of the series as just including the first three films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but that is an argument for another day. Even so, these movies are close to my heart as I grew up watching them with my dad as his passion for history was one of the main reasons I ended up also being a history nerd.

That being said, now that I have watched these films again as an adult, I have a bit of a different view of them, and Temple of Doom in particular, than I did as a kid. Thus, for my print project, I am proposing that I will delve into the Temple of Doom film to study its representation of Indian and other Asian cultures. While the movie is not exactly presenting history, I am interested in how it is rooted in themes of Western imperialism, a white savior complex, and the divide between the white American hero and the culturally stereotyped villains, who are in this case promoting child slavery and practicing human sacrifice.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Indiana Jones, the man himself is an archaeologist, professor, and adventurer of some of the world’s most famous artifacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Each of the movies follows a different one of Jones’ adventures as he searches for a new artifact, often with a different group of villains (usually Nazis) and of course a different love interest in each one.

The official movie poster

For a very brief plot summary of Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones flees Shanghai after almost being killed by a Chinese crime boss and he comes to northern India, with his young sidekick Short Round and a nightclub singer Willie Scott. Jones comes across a village that claims a sacred stone has been stolen from them, so he agrees to enter the mysterious Pankot Palace to help find it. The three main characters find themselves welcomed into a lavish palace, but later that night, Jones is captured and finds an underground temple, where the Thuggee cult is worshipping the goddess Kali (a real Hindu goddess) with human sacrifice. As Jones attempts to find the sacred stones, Willie is almost sacrificed, but they escape the temple. Not only does Indiana Jones manage to return the stone, but he also frees the slave children from the temple and they are returned to the village. What a hero.

Indiana Jones and Willie Scott entering the village of Mayapore in India

For this project, I will be using Voyant to analyze the movie script, which I easily found online, in respect to the aforementioned themes. This computational text analysis will aid my project by allowing me to more efficiently delve into the movie script as it gives a visual representation of the common themes and phrases. This will be helpful, but only part of the story. Therefore, I will also be critically analyzing the problematic representation of these cultures as they are in visuals and sounds, such as the makeup, costumes, sets, accents, and other aspects of the movie. By doing a close study of both of these components of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I will capture how the film presents colonial era India with Western heroes coming to save the day.

A look at the script in Voyant… I searched the goddess Kali’s name, which comes up with quite the description.

As I was researching for this project proposal, I thought to myself: why does this matter? Why am I studying a movie from 1984? Why am I critiquing one of the most famous film franchises of all time, and one close to my heart? While it might be easy to say that representation in media is important, we also have to consider the negative side of this same idea. This is especially the case when our most famous movies depict certain cultures in harmful ways. In the end, I will explore this issue through the case study of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the representation of Indian and other Asian cultures, along with the accompanying portrayal of the classic, handsome Western hero Indiana Jones himself.

Intro: Claudia Vinci

Hi everyone! My name is Claudia, and I am a first year in the Public History MA program. I am from Indianapolis, Indiana, but I just moved to DC a few weeks ago! I went to Butler University in Indianapolis for my undergrad, where I studied History, Political Science, International Studies, and Chinese. For my undergrad honors thesis, I studied the experiences of the two Chinese American Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee, while also more broadly exploring themes in Chinese American history at that time. This project stemmed from a few of my main historical interests, which include women’s history, Chinese history, and military history. Right now, I am working in a work study position at the Department of Literature as their Graduate Coordinator, which has been great so far! I am also working with the 1882 Foundation in my practicum course, so I am excited to see where our project goes!

During my week in Prague, while I was studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland!

I decided to pursue a master’s in public history when I figured out, after a long time being unsure, that out all of my interests, history was the one that I wanted to have a career in. From a young age, I have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries and exploring these cultures and visiting museums in these places also led me to this path. I have many career interests, but my top choices right now include curatorial work at a museum, a historical research or writing-related position, and working as a federal historian. My research projects and courses in history in undergrad were some of my favorite academic experiences, so it has been amazing delving back into this in public history, and now with digital history!

While I have not had a lot of direct experience in digital history, I am thrilled to learn more about it in this course. Digital history is such an important part of the field, especially now, and I look forward to improving my skills in this area to benefit my future work in public history. My past work at my undergrad university library had me working in similar areas, such as being trained in in various academic technology platforms and learning about information and media literacy, among other things. I also wrote personal blogs for both of my experiences abroad in undergrad, which include a semester in 2018 at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a summer internship in 2019 in Beijing, China. I really enjoyed doing this for these trips, so I am also excited to bring those skills to this course and our blog!