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Episode 2:

The Women Airforce Pilots did not let anyone stand in their way of serving their country during World War II. These women flew and delivered planes to assist in the war efforts, but their struggles and achievements have gone unrecognized for years. After World War II, the U.S government sealed all documents relating to the WASP. Our guest Diane Belanger is an expert on the history of WASP and tells us about their work—ferrying newly built warplanes to be used overseas—and the one of the women who started it all: the formidable Jackie Cochran, who “did not suffer fools gladly.” 

See an exhibit about the WASP in our Personal Courage Wing, and watch Diane perform live in our Living History programs. Transcript after the player.





AUTOMATED:          The Flight Deck is made possible by the generous donors supporting the Museum of Flight. You can support this podcase and the Museum of Flight’s other initiatives across the United States and the world by visiting Museum of Flight.org/podcast.


SEAN MOBLEY:       Hello, and welcome to The Flight Deck; the podcast of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. I am your host, Sean Mobley. Today is the first installment of our Personal Courage series covering stories of the people who have served the United States in times of war and other conflict.

I met up with Diane Belanger, a living history volunteer here at the museum who shares stories from a women’s Air Force service pilots; ladies who would not let anyone stand in the way of their serving their country during World War II. These women not only had to prove themselves under perilous conditions for practically no pay, but after the war, their stories were sealed up and classified by the government for 35 years, essentially silencing the voices of these individuals who risked their life serving the military in the war.



DIANE BELANGER: The main idea of the WASP was to let our combat pilots get overseas. In 1942, the war was raging. We needed our pilots over there. So, Jackie Cochran who was an award-winning pilot knew that the British were fairing their airplanes taking place of the pilots’ job. So, she went over to England for a few months with the Air Transport Auxiliary and flew with the British women. And there, this was also during war time over there. So, she came back with her program for having Americans do this. And she presented it to generals. And they said, no, we don’t want women to fly. So, she managed to – she was a very formidable woman. [Sean chuckles] Jackie Cochran was, didn’t suffer fulls gladly. She got this program. She also had the backing of Eleanore Roosevelt which I’m sure put it forward much quicker.



However, there was a lot of red tape. And she finally got the okay to find women pilots. 25,000 women responded to the letter that they had to fill out if they wanted to be in this program.

SM:     So, what was the actual purpose? What did the WASPs actually do?

DB:     The WASP, because we were manufacturing so many airplanes at this time, they would go. After their training, they would be assigned to different manufacturing plants all around the United States. And they would go. And they were assigned to an airplane. And they were literally given the key to a million-dollar aircraft and said, ‘Here. Take this and deliver it.’ And they were flown to different disembarkation points where the airplanes were dismantled and put on ships and taken to their points and reassembled. They flew 77 different kinds of aircraft from the smallest trainer to the B-29 Bomber. 38 of the WASPs did die. 11 during training, and others while they were delivering an aircraft.

SM:     How were they found? Was there just, like, a nationwide recruiting call, or?

DB:     No. There was no recruiting. They had records of all the women who had pilot licenses. So, then a form letter went out; a greeting and a form letter. If you’re interested in this, please fill this out and send it back. Even though they were not military, the plan was to militarize them through this whole program. They had to live like military women; bounce a quarter off your bed, go through calisthenics as they called it, march with the men. And they were very, very not comfortable. There was one bathroom for every 12 women. It was hotter – it was called the rattlesnake capital of the world. And they had to lay out on cots in the sun so that the spiders and all the tarantulas wouldn’t crawl on them.


SM:     And I’m sure being on a base with men, they also faced harassment and…

DB:     They had a lot of prejudice against them. There are a couple sad stories about that. They found that one of the women who crashed and died on impact – of course there was an investigation. And it was just called accident during training. However, they found sugar in her gas tank. And there were other episodes as well.

SM:     Oh, my gosh.

DB:     Yeah. So, they were really on borrowed time, literally, because nobody really wanted this – the men did not want this program, including the government. They had to behave themselves. And if they got any bad press, they were told, we will shut you down.

SM:     Yeah. I’ve heard other stories of programs for women in war time that were similar.

DB:     Yes.

SM:     And not just for women, for other—


DB:     Exactly.

SM:     …groups that were excluded from the military.

DB:     Right. Right.

SM:     Basically, the first sign of anything bad, you’re gone.

DB:     Exactly.

SM:     Whereas, the men can go to—

DB:     Absolutely. Absolutely.

SM:     Yeah.

DB:     But as you can imagine, they were very strong-willed women and they looked out for each other. They literally had to because once this got going, they received a small stipend every month, but they had no benefits. So, they had to watch out for each other. They had no hospitalization. They had no, nothing to help them. And they did not have any rank either. If you joined later and you flew with an experienced pilot, you all got the same measly salary. And on their own dime, they had to do everything.


Sometimes, if they went into a base or an area when they landed and the base did not have quarters for women, on their own dime, they had to find a bus to get to a hotel. And sometimes, a hotel manager would call the base and say, ‘I have a woman here telling me she’s a pilot. What am I going to do about this?’ They didn’t believe her.

SM:     Wow. A man pilot in training, they would specialize and say the B-17. The WASPS basically though had to be able to on-demand fly… How many did you say?

DB:     77.

SM:     77 different type – did they have any training. Or, were they basically just—

DB:     Yeah. So that was the purpose of Avenger Field. That’s where they got their training. And it was close to two to three months. And then they got their training. And they were also engineers, mechanics, teachers, test pilots. So, they were really, really excellent at what they did. And their dropout record or washout record was lower than the men pilots who were tracked during this time.

SM:     Go figure. Right?

DB:     Yeah. Go figure.



DB:     The WASP program brought women from all over the country from all walks of life. And that was their dream. To fly. Cornelia Fort, she lived in Honolulu. She was 21 years old. And she was an instructor. She took up students in her small airplane. And on a sunny day, December 7, 1941, she was buzzing around Pearl Harbor with her student. And all of a suDBen, she saw these airplanes whizzing past her. And then she caught sight of the red sun on the airplanes. And they started shooting at her. So, she managed to get through all that strafing and get down and get behind a building.

SM:     Wow.

DB:     Yeah. And so, in the museum, we have the actual copy of her log of what happened during those moments which is one of my favorite things to point out. And she got back to The States and she was a buDBing journalist. And she got the call. And she went to Texas to become a WASP. And she was one of the very first to die in an accident during training. She was 23. And in the museum, we have a whole page that she had written about her love of flying before she died.


When these women did die, because they were not government, the government did not offer to send them home like military. They got an escort. They were also not allowed to fly gold star to show that a member of their family had died. And because some of them were poor and many are sending home money, like probably every soldier, male or female did, a lot of times, the girls would take up a collection to send their compatriot home and/or pay for the funeral.

SM:      So, it was really a tight sisterhood amongst all of these pilots.

DB:     Absolutely. Absolutely. Even now, I did meet three WASP. They were here at the museum. They were all in their nineties. They are all neighbors. And I was talking to the one that was – she just looked like she had a really fun personality. [Sean chuckles] And I asked if she ever met Jackie Cochran. Because in my research I have found this woman to be so strong and so formidable. And I said, ‘Do you recall, did you work with, converse with Jackie Cochran?’ And she looked up at me and her eyes were just twinkling. [Sean chuckles] And she said, “Oh, honey. When she walked in the room, you better shut your mouth.” [Sean chuckles] She brought Jackie alive for me at that moment. And I was wondering what was going around in her little head at that moment. I could see she was having some thoughts. So, I really appreciated that.

SM:      I know you also talk with young people about the WASP program. Can you talk a little bit about that? Some of the reactions, some of the people you’ve met?

DB:     Yes. Well, everybody that comes through the museum is in a happy mood which is another reason I like to work here. But the children, especially when they see the Fifinella badge which was the mascot for the WASP – the morale was getting pretty low in the very beginning because they were having trouble getting organized.


So, Jackie Cochran, of course, thought, well, all the other Navy, Army, Marines, they all have a mascot. So, she got in touch with Walt Disney, of course. And she knew that she wanted something that was really very catchy. So, she found that he had this character called Fifinella. Well, Fifinella was a gremlin. And Fifinella was created by Roald Dahl, the children’s book author.

SM:      Oh.

DB:     He was also a very excellent pilot in the Royal Air Force. However, he got shot down. And while he was recuperating, he wrote this book called The Gremlins. They were bad little guys who got in your engine. So, you had to watch out for them. [Sean chuckles] Fifinella was feminized. She has curly horns. And she’s all about keeping that airplane in the air. So, it’s really nice for me to tell the young people that there’s a Walt Disney connection to these women who flew airplanes long, long ago.

SM:      When young people come through, are they surprised to learn this story?

DB:     Yes, they are. Boys and girls. One time when I was telling the story about how 38 of these women died… This little boy was about 11 years old. And he just looked up at me. And he had tears in his eyes. And he says, “That is just so sad.” Well, it just about broke my heart. But he was really paying attention, and he cared.


And the girls who want to be pilots who want to grow up – I had a mother. She came in with family. But she said, “Are you going to be here next week?” I said, “I can be.” She said, “I want my 12-year-old daughter to come in here and listen to you. She wants to be a pilot.” And low and behold, she brought the young lady back the next week. And she was wrapped listening to me. And she was so happy to know that women flew airplanes in World War II because she didn’t know, as most people do not know.

SM:      What resonates with you personally about these stories? Why do you continue to volunteer and keep these stories going?

DB:     I think just being aware of these women. And there are so many individual stories that I could tell you. Some are sad. Some are funny. One of the really funny ones to me is one of the WASP was delivering an aircraft. It was a small one. So, she was up there lumbering along. And she was the only – many of the planes were just single pilot anyway. And they were by themselves for hours and hours on end. And she would take a sun bath as she called it. And she would take her blouse off. Well, one day, she’s up there. And she is enjoying her sun bath. And she had tucked her blouse down in the front of the cockpit. And it flew out of the airplane. [Sean chuckles]


And she landed. And on her radio, she says, “Do not come out here unless you have a blanket for me.” So… [Chuckles]

SM:      Well, thank you so much for taking some time today. And thank you for your continuing service to the museum. I know—

DB:        Yes.

SM:      I know visitors really value you.

DB:     Thank you. I enjoy being here very much.



SM:      Thank you for joining me today on The Flight Deck, the podcast of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. Diane is a volunteer in our Living History program; a group of storytellers and actors that make history personal for our visitors at the Museum of Flight. You can learn more about the WASPs and the World War II exhibit of our museum’s Personal Courage Wing. And if you’re lucky, you might meet Diane in person.

The Muesum also offers a girl scout program for the Junior rank centered around the WASPs which fulfills the requirement for the Playing the Past badge. Learn more about all of this at our website, Museumofflight.org/podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to the podcast to stay up to date with our episodes. And rate and review up on Apple podcasts or wherever you downloaded us from. You can contact the show at podcast@museumofflight.org. Until next time, this is your host Sean saying we’ll see you out there, folks.



Host: Sean Mobley
Producer: Justin Braegelmann
Webmaster: Layne Benofsky
Content Marketing Manager: Irene Jagla 

Contact us: podcast@museumofflight.org

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