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Vi Cowden during her service with the WASPs in the 1940s. (Courtesy Jonna Hoppes)

We Represented All Women

During World War II, WASPs proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot.

“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.

I’d like to tell you that I knew exactly what I was getting into when I signed up for the WASP program. But I didn’t. You see, the fledgling organization grew out of a merger between Nancy Love’s Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Both Love and Cochran believed that there was a “sound, beneficial place for women in the air—not to compete with or displace the men pilots, but to supplement them.” Over 25,000 women applied for this program. Standards were set much higher for women pilots than for their male counterparts. The training was rigorous and only 1,830 applicants made the cut. By the time they finished, almost 50 percent of them had washed out, leaving 1,074 graduates.

But I didn’t know any of this when I borrowed money from my sister to pay for the train ticket to Sweetwater, Texas. The Army furnished transportation from the train station to Avenger Field. Two GIs picked me up in an open truck. I expected the passenger to give up his seat and allow me to ride in the cab. However, I found myself in one of two seats in the back, with my little suitcase tucked between my feet.

A thought came to me as we bumped along the dry, rutted road. I am not competing with women anymore: I am out there competing in the men’s world. I am asking for a man’s job, so I have to start thinking that I’m not the girl, I’m the person that has a job to do and I have to do it as well, or possibly better, than most men. In fact, starting at that exact moment, bouncing around in the back of an Army truck, I needed to prove to the world that I could do it.

My heart sank with that first look at my new home. Sweetwater, Texas, is the rattlesnake capital of the world. Dusty, dry, and hot, the landscape stretched for miles in every direction in an unvarying shade of sand punctuated with tumbleweeds. I took one look and wanted to turn around and go home. If I’d had any money left, I just might have done that.

Especially after I saw the planes! “They’re so big!” I said to myself. “I don’t think I can do this!”

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