With thousands of men fighting in World War II, women are offered jobs in fields that had not previously been available to them, including aviation. Bernice "Bee" Falk Haydu and Dawn Rochow Balden Seymour join a civilian program called the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. The WASPs perform a number of military tasks, including ferrying planes and helping train machine gunners in ballistics. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Women Airforce Service Pilots
KATE SNOW, anchor:
In Europe and the Pacific, World War II rages on relentlessly.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Preparing for another night raid on Nazi Germany.
SNOW: In the United States, the war is consuming an unprecedented amount of resources. Families survive on rations of food, clothing, and gasoline, and every manufacturer churns out supplies for the military.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: American industry stands supreme! America is winning the battle of production!
SNOW: But perhaps the biggest impact on resources is on people. With millions of men serving overseas, women are offered jobs that had never been available to them before-- including aviation.
DAWN ROCHOW BALDEN SEYMOUR (Women Airforce Service Pilots): I was absolutely thrilled with flying. The sky, the land, everything was boundless and without any borders.
BERNICE "BEE" FALK HAYDU (Women Airforce Service Pilots): I loved flying and I would be hopefully be helping the war effort and at the same time doing something I really like to do.
SNOW: Recreational pilot Bernice "Bee" Falk Haydu and War Department employee Dawn Rochow Balden Seymour, are prime candidates for a new top-secret civilian program-- Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
FALK HAYDU: Initially when the program started, they weren’t sure whether or not the women would be able to fly military aircraft. So we were started as an experiment.
SNOW: To help the Army Air Forces fill the jobs left behind by men overseas, aviation pioneer Jacqueline Cochran begins the WASP program with over 1,000 hand-picked female civilian pilots. The WASPs are trained on military aircraft with each clocking several hundred hours of flight time, under Cochran's leadership.
ROCHOW BALDEN SEYMOUR: She wanted to prove that women indeed could fly every aircraft in the Army. And she didn’t want just one special woman to do this. She wanted a group of women to do it.
SNOW: Despite their non-military status, the WASPs learn to fly military planes-- such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, P-51 Mustang, and B-25 Mitchell.
With this specialized knowledge, they take on a wide range of missions crucial to the war effort, from ferrying newly-built planes from aviation factories to Army bases, to maintenance flights and engine checks.
FALK HAYDU: I did engineering training as well as utility pilot. You would have to fly it in a certain manner for a certain number of hours to break the engine in.
SNOW: But one of the riskiest jobs for a WASP involves live ammunition training for machine gunners being taught to shoot at moving targets--a critical part of getting ready for combat.
ROCHOW BALDEN SEYMOUR: Here are thousands and thousands of young men between the ages of 18 and 20, perhaps, were learning how to fire the 50 caliber machine guns.
SNOW: Called tow targeting, the WASPs fly their planes downrange from machine gunners while towing a long target.
Dr. REBECCA GRANT (Military Aviation Expert): So the WASPs towed a target sleeve to let the new gunners practice, and this was a matter of getting the ballistics right.
SNOW: Ballistics is the scientific study of how an object, like a bullet, travels through the air on a certain path, called a trajectory. A trajectory of a bullet is affected by a number of variables, including speed, direction, and gravity.
If a gunner fires straight and level at an enemy plane, by the time the bullet reaches the target, the plane will have traveled to a different position, and the bullet will miss--passing behind and falling short.
To adjust for distance and the effects of gravity, the machine gunners use the WASP's flying tow targets to learn how to adjust their aim.
Dr. GRANT: Gunners had to learn how to lead a target, fire a little bit ahead in order to compensate for the time in flight. It’s a simple scientific principle, but a little bit of a hair-raising mission for the WASPs on occasion.
SNOW: While no WASPs lose their lives during tow training exercises, 38 WASP pilots are killed during other dangerous training missions and in plane crashes. Courageous women whose names may not be known by the general public, but whose memories are etched in the hearts and minds of their fellow pilots.
ROCHOW BALDEN SEYMOUR: My best friend was killed during the war, but there was no provision made because we were civil service at that time. The war brings back all these emotional issues for us that we keep down below, I suppose, and don’t bring out every day.
SNOW: The WASP program is disbanded in December of 1944, as the war begins to wind down and men who were overseas return to their jobs. Because of their civilian status, the women are not initially recognized for their part in assisting the Army Air Forces. For decades, the WASPS and their supporters petition Congress to get the military recognition they so rightly deserve, finally winning it in 1977.
FALK HAYDU: We didn’t get the benefits that had been initially given out, but that wasn’t our motive. Our motive was to get the recognition.
SNOW: Through their bravery and skill, the WASPs not only shatter gender stereotypes they play a crucial role in helping the U.S. and its allies win World War II, and inspire women to reach new heights.
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