Amazing Women: Then and Now
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
We met a few times before she came to this book signing back in 2007.
George E. Wahlen, Kim, Gary Toyn, circa 2007.
Kim went out of her way to visit a Barnes and Noble store because she wanted to shake hands with an American hero, George E. Wahlen, a Medal of Honor recipient. (And the subject of my book “The Quiet Hero.” )
Kim was an intelligent, yet soft-spoken seventeen-year-old. She was still in high school, but she acted well beyond her years. She was in ROTC at the time, and was quite clear about her goals. She wanted a military career and was determined to fly jet airplanes. That was then.
Today, she’s on top of the world. And I mean that literally.
Kim flying on the edge of space in a U2
She’s one of only a handful of women qualified fly the U2 high altitude reconnaissance planes. She routinely flies 13 miles high at the edge of space.
And because she's an active U2 pilot, I can't use her last name.
Kim celebrating her first solo flight as a U2 pilot
To become a U2 pilot, the selection process is competitive and grueling. Only the best pilots are asked to apply for the program, and the application process requires an extensive interview process lasting weeks. Roughly 40% of prospective pilots are rejected.
But unlike many pilots I’ve known, (especially fighter pilots,) Kim remains one of the kindest, most humble, and as down-to-earth as anyone you would ever want to meet. By anyone’s standard, Kim is a role model. And she deserves to be.
But Kim would be the first to admit that she stands on the shoulders of some pretty amazing women pilots who preceded her. Woman you may have never heard of, like Betty Tackaberry Blake. Nancy Harkness Love, and Jackie Cochran. These are just a few of the original female aviation pioneers of World War II, members of the WASP, or the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
A Women's Airforce Service Pilots flight team walks from the "Pistol Packin' Mama." (Photo courtesy/WASP Museum)
The WASP were created so women pilots could assume the responsibility for domestic ferrying operations. In other words, they were ferrying military planes from the factories to ports where the planes were shipped to the theater of war. The goal was to free up men in the states so they could go overseas and fight.
While we venerate these women today, unfortunately at the time, many of the opposite sex resented them. Even many Generals at the Pentagon thought the whole idea of the WASP was a farce. One General wrote privately to General Hap Arnold, (who played a key role in establishing the WASP,) admitting “We know we need to give these women an opportunity to fly, but we do not think they will ever be able to fly military aircraft. Get rid of them as soon as possible.”
Not surprisingly, these women were forced to endure such unabashed discrimination that by today’s standards it would make our skin crawl.
Women were not only paid two-thirds of what their male counterparts were paid, but they were given inferior planes. A base commander in North Carolina told the women as much to their faces, saying “both the planes and you women are expendable.”
Men who washed out of pilot training courses were often assigned to refueling and support crews. Sometimes they were forced to refuel a plane being flown by a WASP pilot. You can imagine the resentment they felt seeing a woman fly an airplane they once dreamed of flying.
Consequently, many women found their planes sabotaged. Some women found their control cables were cut. Others discovered sand or grass in their fuel tanks. Some were lucky and discovered the sabotage beforehand. Others weren’t so lucky. A total of 38 WASP pilots died, many more were injured.
While the evidence can only link a few deaths to sabotage, the unfortunate fact is that despite overwhelming evidence and sworn testimony to the contrary, not one official accident investigation ever acknowledged that a woman’s plane was sabotaged. No charges were ever brought against anyone for fatally tampering with a WASP airplane.
Although the WASPs were a quasi-military unit, they were under Army command, used Army equipment, and were paid by the Army. Yet, they were not accorded military status. They had to pay for their own travel to and from training, they had to buy their own uniforms, pay for their meals and housing. The families of each of the 38 woman killed in the line of duty, were required to pay for the bodies of their daughters to be transported back to their hometown. They were not permitted to drape the flag over their casket. Their families couldn't hang a gold star from their window as was the custom when someone was killed in the line of duty. That honor was denied all fallen WASP.
In the fall of 1944, the WASPs were surprised to learn the program would be shut down. The Generals at the Pentagon announced they had enough men to finish the mission. However, some speculate that sabotage was becoming such a widespread and pervasive threat, that it was simply easier and safer to close the program, than to continue to put the WASP pilots at risk. Because so little documentation remains that mentions sabotage, we’ll probably never know what impact it had in making their decision.
After December 20, 1944, women were no longer permitted to fly military aircraft. During the short, two-year span of the WASP program, 1074 women earned their wings. These women flew out of 120 air bases from coast to coast, amassing over 60 million miles.
But after the war, all the records of the WASPs were stamped “classified” and hidden away in the archives. WASPs were instructed to keep quiet about their experiences, and dutifully they did.
For thirty-three years, Americans knew next to nothing about the WASPs contributions to the victory in WWII.
It wasn’t until 1977 when an Air Force press release erroneously stated the Air Force was, for the first time ever, training women to fly military aircraft. Many former WASP had held their tongues for long enough, and spoke up loud and clear about their two years of flying. Eventually the official WASP records were unsealed and finally their story could be told. An act of Congress gave the WASP military status so they at long last had military benefits. In 2010, they were all awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
It was fascinating to learn about the WASPs. Many wonderful books exist, written by some amazing authors who are much better suited to tell their story than I am. But it was all part of the delicious research I conducted for one my main character in my soon-to-be-released historical novel called “For Malice and Mercy.” (More about that later.)
Jackie Cochran (center) sits among WASP in training
It’s a wonderful story, and I wish I had discovered it before I started writing this book. But I now have such a deep respect for these women, for what they had to overcome, and how brave they were to ignore the threats to their lives, and continue flying. I consider all of them heroes.
Kim, a fellow pilot, and her "jet"
That’s one reason I’m proud to know Kim. She embodies everything good about the WASP, as well as all those who currently serve our country, and are willingly putting themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.
Thanks Kim! It’s an honor to include you among all the other women heroes of generations past.