by Mary Bahr
The Women’s AirForce Service Pilots (WASPs) was a WWII civil service organization, consisting of approximately 1,037 women from across the nation who volunteered to pilot open-cockpit planes for various military duties.
These duties included teaching men to fly, transporting new aircraft from the factories, hauling supplies and personnel, and towing targets behind their plane for live-fire target practice from the ground.
In taking up the war effort, they were expected to finance themselves in previous pilot training and air time requirements, and pay for their own transport to and from camp. And, they had to receive and graduate in ground school training in code, map reading and engine maintenance, and pass rigorous military training and course exercises (of course).
And since the WASPs were civil service, the women were not recognized as military or even paramilitary — so they received no recognition or medals from the military they served until 35 years later in1979, when it was declared by the Secretary of the Air Force, that the service of the Women AirForce Service Pilots (WASPs) and the predecessor organizations of the group — the 25 pilots of the Women’s Air Force Ferrying Squadron (WAF), which services encompassed from the period of Sept. 10, 1942 to Dec. 20, 1944, shall be considered active military service in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of all laws administered by the Veterans Administration…and have gained full active military benefits.
Too little to collect, too late for the majority.
Because Congressional legislation would have been required and because it takes a long time to get the legislation of military status, the WASPs were denied it all the years they waited for it, even though Polly had inferred in an interview, that they were told they would be militarized upon entry into the WASP program.
When they were young, active and needed it, they didn’t have it.
After these many years they get some militarized monetary benefits and recognition but long after most of the women have passed from their lifetime.
Among other lacks in recognition were, that if they died in their duties, they were not allowed a flag across their casket and by extension therefore, were not allowed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Thirty-eight women died in service. Their families had to pay for the funeral elsewhere.
Nell Bright, a WASP aviator, watched one of her comrades crash one day. “We were all at the field to support her with our fingers crossed as she took the plane up – only to watch it dive tragically towards the ground. It was very traumatic.”
When these women died, Bright recalls the government being officious, which is to say, not kind. “One of the girls’ families got a telegram saying that ‘Your daughter was killed today. Where do you want us to send the body?’ ”
All the military supplied for the dead was a pine box and the trip home [and even that is up for debate].
Even later recognized for their bravery in service, the women were awarded Congressional Medals by President Obama, and other medals, ribbons and citations.
The last of the three obstacles was overcome by Senate and House votes on Tuesday, May 11th 2016 — after action by a galvanized public. This allows the surviving female aviators to have their ashes placed at Arlington – even if they had no other military connection (i.e., marriage) allowing them space. With about 100 women survivors left, most do not chose to be buried there now, but they want the right to do so.
But this “right” did not happen without their reaction against the usual insidiousness of the male military complex for not taking care of women in civil service serving exactly the male military. The prohibition of an Arlington burial for the women aviators was instigated by the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, who overturned a 2002 Army ruling that had de facto allowed inurement honors at the cemetery for the women.
Consequently, the Arlington officials noted in a January 5th post on their website that,
“While certainly worthy of recognition, the WASP’s service does not, in itself, reach the level of active duty service required for inurement there,” adding, “the eligibility criteria are more stringent due to space limitations.”
This has been a decades-long campaign by the aviators, the public lobbyists, and website techies like Change.org,, who provided stats and successful petitions. Congressional Representative Martha McSally, of Arizona, the first woman to fly in combat for the U.S., sponsored the legislation. It awaits an expected signature by President Obama.
So, how does this connect with Elkridge? You may well ask.
I will answer that service as a WASP aviator has everything to do with former Old Lawyers Hill Road resident, Pauline “Polly” S. Cutler White. Born in 1919, she is a vigorous 97 and has since retired to Charlestown after the death of her husband, John. She was a single woman during her time as a WASP, and her last name was “Cutler.”
At the Elkridge Heritage Society, we have a “dossier” [ahem — a “file”] regarding Dr. and Mrs. White’s family history, with photos and articles in an “Honoring Our Veterans” of WWII binder.
So what a surprise for me when a friend pursuing women’s history, told me about wanting to document a pilot’s story – only to find out he meant Polly, my former neighbor on Old Lawyers Hill Road, and mother to my childhood friend, Bobbie…such a small world!
We were graciously welcomed by her and she was easy going throughout. So he interviewed Polly while I was the woman behind the camera.
Before marriage to Dr. John, Polly Cutler was a secretary in Washington, D.C. According to previous news interviews, she said,
“My brothers and sisters were in the service. In fact, everyone I knew was touched in some way by the war and I guess I didn’t want to look back and feel I had done nothing.”
Becoming a pilot was something she was sure she could do
“…because my mother was the second woman in the country to fly in a seaplane.”
Her cousin, Jack Vilas, had a pilots license (No.6) and was one of the earliest to order a seaplane from the Wright Brothers.
“It was delivered to Alexandria Bay on the St. Lawrence River, I guess about 1910. The pontoons were too heavy and Jack couldn’t get it off the river. So he had to lighten the pontoons and when it was ready, and on a dare, Mother took off and flew with him.”
This is a prime example of “the acorn not falling far from the tree” and her mother being an adventurous example.
The other reason was that Polly’s two brothers were in the Army, as well as her “to-be” husband. Then her friends were involved in the war effort too.
“Why should I not be involved?”
In Washington, Polly was told by Jacqueline Cochran (one of two foremost aviators in the country), that she was required to have 35 hours of previous flying time in order to apply for the course. The first requirements of application was a strict physical, ration cards for gasoline and an official letter from Cochran stating Polly’s intention to join. Polly also needed a loan to pay for flying lessons. All this was to be undertaken with no guarantee of acceptance into the WASP program.
In August of 1943, at the Laconia Airport in New Hampshire, she decided to become a WASP after three minutes of air time, and got her required 35 hours air time in a month, got a loan, and went on her way to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas in December of 1943.
Stating in more detail here than at the beginning of this article, she had a six-month training course in flying instruction and ground school training in code, weather, instrument training, engine maintenance, navigation and map reading at Avenger Field. Also there was a rigorous physical education program.
“You had to be in darn good shape to be able to maintain the schedule they set up for us, from daybreak until lights out at 10 p.m. And, we had 30 lb. chutes to carry. Because I was short, I had numerous cushions to carry as well — to sit on and to reach the pedals. I just made the height requirements of 5 ft., 4 in. Some [women] actually had to undertake stretching exercises to help them qualify.”
The women pilots had the same courses men did, except for gunnery practice and celestial navigation. At Avenger Field, the women were taught by civilian instructors.
“We wore white shirts and khaki trousers and shoes that had to tie. When we started doing acrobatics, the instructors flipped the plane over and did barrel rolls and other stunts. A couple [of the women] didn’t have their safety belts fastened properly and they fell out of the planes.
We always had to wear chutes, so fortunately they came down okay, but they [without tied shoes] lost their shoes on the way down. Well, in the Panhandle of Texas, it’s all mesquite, briars and sand and walking back to the base left badly scarred feet. So orders came down that everyone had to wear shoes that tied.”
After 20 hours of schooling, an Air Force pilot gave a flight check.
“If you didn’t pass, you had a second chance,” Polly remembers. “But that was all. If you didn’t make it [then], you washed out and were sent home at your own expense, of course.”
According to Polly’s account, originally there were 25,000 girls who applied for the course, and 1830 were accepted, and only 1,074 who went through the course graduated. According to another account, Polly was one of the 75 women out of 150 who began the program to pass the test.
At Avenger Field, she flew a PT 19, a single-engine primary trainer with an open cockpit. She later flew an AT6, an advanced training monoplane; a BT 13, a basic trainer used for instrument training; and the AT 6 again for cross-country flight instruction.
With more than 210 hour of instruction, Polly earned a commercial pilot’s license, and instrument rating, and a Link trainer certificate.
After graduation and receiving her wings, she served at a training base for Air Force Pilots at Foster Field in Victoria, Texas. Among other duties, such as towing targets for aerial gunnery practice and ferrying VIP’s around, she instructed men in instrument flying.
“One guy I instructed, got very upset with me. I guess he still had some hang-up about flying with a girl…he turned off the gas. Fortunately I could hear him laughing…and guessed he was up to something. I found out what was wrong almost immediately. I was so mad I was red hot, so I pink-slipped him – that meant [I reported] he had done an unsatisfactory job. I don’t think he gave anyone else any trouble.”
Another good duty was ferrying planes. But Polly remembers flying planes that were going into storage. “That meant the government didn’t want to spend much time or money on them and many of them were in pretty bad shape.”
The WASP program came to an abrupt and unexpected end in 1944, five days before Christmas. There was no severance pay nor military benefits.
Forgetting for a moment that the military still has a gender problem:
“The Air Force didn’t have the high number of casualties they had anticipated,” Polly explained. “The boys coming home were given desk jobs and they were very annoyed at the girls still flying. So, we were told that the need for us was not as crucial and we were let go. As a WASP, I did not feel that I was infringing on a man’s rights. We were needed. Trained personnel were required to fill that need.”
What do men do to pay equally hard-working women? Give them gifts of fashion, of course. For the departing pilots, tailors from Nieman-Marcus in Texas were sent to Avenger Field to custom-fit summer and winter uniforms. And Walt Disney created an emblem – a female gremlin with flight goggles, all in bright blue, red and yellow.
With the emblem, they became known as the Order of Fifinella.
Surely this writer is not jesting when I say insecure men tag strong women with silly names for poodles!
“You know,” says Polly, “it’s really irritating when you read about the new frontiers available for women today. So many young girls think they ware the only females who have gotten out of the kitchen. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that makes a former WASP angrier than to have the Air Force intimate that its current pilot program for females is the first.
We did it all [now 72] years ago!”
I would urge readers of this article to Google “WWII Women’s Air Force Service Pilots” on YouTube.com to see the various documentary films for a better background of the organization.
For even further information search for books on the subject at AbeBooks.com and Amazon.com/books:
Turner, Betty “Out of the Blue and Into History” Aviatrix Publ. 2001, page 400.
Keil, Sally “Those Wonderful Women in The Flying Machines.”
Credits to and contributions for this article:
– Gateway to Women’s History at Texas Women’s University (twudigital.admhost.com)
– Norman Fulton, reporter for The Times/1979
– the Elkridge Heritage Society
– Seaplane photo by Mary Bahr