We Represented All Women
During World War II, WASPs proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot.
- By Jonna Dootlittle Hoppes
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 22, 2009
Courtesy Jonna Hoppes
Jonna Doolittle Hoppes’s new book, Jimmy Doolittle, was a memoir about her grandfather, the famous four-star general. The following profile of Violet “Vi” Cowden of the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I am sure God must grin when he watches a hawk fly. On wings spread wide, it soars above the earth with grace and majesty. And with deadly accuracy, it swoops down upon its prey. Perhaps there is no creature so magnificent.
I can’t remember a time that I didn’t envy the hawk, didn’t yearn to soar, and swoop, and climb through the clouds with such pure elation. As I sat on the stoop of our little sod farmhouse in South Dakota, I dreamed of escaping the bonds of earth. I would watch with fascination as my hawk would swoop down, zero in on a little chicken, snatch him up and fly away.
“Oh,” I would say to myself, “if only I could do that!”
So you can imagine my delight when a barnstormer landed his little Cessna on our picnic grounds during my senior year of high school.
Our nation was in the grips of the Great Depression and we had little disposable cash. But my boyfriend paid the five dollars that opened the door to my future. Perhaps there are no words to describe that first flight.
I went on to college. Worked my way through and earned my teaching credential. I taught my first grade in a little school in Akaska, South Dakota. I earned $110 a month. My rent came to $10, so I had enough left over to buy clothes and other luxuries. Within a short time, I decided that my clothing needs were more than satisfied and, if I budgeted wisely, I could afford flying lessons. I put away $10 a month, and in a fairly short time, I earned my private pilot’s license.
The airfield was six miles out of town. I didn’t own a car so I rode my bicycle to the field early in the mornings; just slipped out of bed and started the day.
The children knew.
“You’ve been flying,” they would greet me at the beginning of class.
“How did you know that?”
“Why, you’re so happy!”
On December 7, 1941, I sat listening to Artie Shaw’s music on the radio before church. An urgent announcement interrupted the program: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I could not believe it. I thought after suffering through the Great War that the world had become a more civilized place.
“This isn’t going to happen again,” I told myself. “It’s just not right.”
On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. I sent a wire to Washington, D.C.
“I have my pilot’s license and I am ready to serve.” Surely we needed planes to fly up and down our Pacific and Atlantic coasts, on the lookout for enemy submarines.
I didn’t hear back from Washington, so I made my way out to California to stay with my sister, who was expecting her first child.
That’s where I was when I received a call from Jacqueline Cochran. With the blessings of General Hap Arnold, Jackie formed a women’s flying organization for the purpose of training women, thus releasing male pilots for combat missions. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) would ferry planes from the factories to points of debarkation for shipment overseas. Would I be interested?
Would I be interested in spending my waking hours flying without having to pay for the fuel? I had never heard of WASP before, but I didn’t need time to consider the answer.
“Where do I sign up?” I asked.
The first step required an interview with Mrs. Hayward, one of Jackie’s Hollywood friends. I walked up to the front door of a home that could only be described as an elegant California mansion.
“Oh my!” I thought as I rang the doorbell and listened to chimes reverberate through the spacious interior.
Mrs. Hayward asked me a lot of questions about my upbringing and experience as a pilot. She sized me up, seemingly satisfied with my answers so far, then looked me directly in the eye and asked, “What would you do to get into this program?”
I looked around her enormous living room with its beautiful furniture and soaring windows.
“If you asked me to scrub your house with a toothbrush,” I said, re-establishing eye contact, “I would do it.”
I reported to Long Beach for my physical.
“You’re in excellent health. Twenty-twenty vision with perfect depth perception,” the doctor reported. “But I can’t pass you.”
“Why not?” I asked, my heart pounding against my ribs in an attempt to escape.
“The minimum weight for a WASP is 100 pounds.” He consulted his notes. “You weigh 92.”
“Give me a week!” I pleaded. With my German-Russian heritage, I was certain I could put on eight extra pounds in a week’s time. My sister, an excellent cook, joined my crusade with shared determination. I ate everything in sight, but on the morning of my weigh-in I came up just a tad short.
“Give me that bunch of bananas,” I told my sister. I ate every one and followed them with as much water as I could force down my throat.
“Well, you made it!” the doctor said when I climbed on the scale in my scant little hospital gown.
“I should have!” I said, pulling the gown tight over my bulging stomach. “Look at this belly!”
He started to laugh. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!” he said, shaking his head. “Do you mind if I call in another doctor?”
“Not before you sign that paper!” I told him, cradling my distended stomach with both hands.