These Female Aviators Went Unrecognized For Decades

Nov 8, 2017

For Veterans Day, we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces.  In this segment of Time and Place, historian Alicia Barber tells the story of one group of veterans whose military service went largely unrecognized for decades.

Hazel Hohn during her years serving in the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Credit Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

There were just over a thousand of them total—a highly-trained fleet of female aviators known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.  Hired by the U.S. Army Air Forces at the height of World War Two, the WASPs took on stateside flight duties for the military in order to free up male pilots for combat.

One of these high flyers was longtime Carson City resident Hazel Hohn, who joined the WASPs at the age of 21. Her first job was with the ferrying command, flying bombers and fighter planes straight from the factory to sites across the country. 

In a 1995 oral history, Hohn described one of her next duties: flight testing newly repaired military aircraft.

“Anytime there was something wrong with a plane, they’d redline it, and they couldn’t fly again until we had tested it. Now if they put a new wing on, we’d go up and bring it out for an hour of aerobatics, and see if the wing would stay on. And then if it was okay, then the men could fly it.”

As if that weren’t daunting enough, another common job was “towing targets”—a training exercise where the pilot would take off in a B-26 Martin Marauder, pulling a target that was used for artillery practice—using live ammunition. 

“They’d be shooting behind you, but as often as not, they’d shoot the airplane. I don’t know of anyone being shot down, although I’ve heard there were.”

Published in 1995 by the University of Nevada Oral History Program, the oral history compilation War Stories: Veterans Remember WWII can be viewed online through Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Tragically, thirty-eight of the women lost their lives in accidents, and because they were classified as civilians, their families received no military benefits.  The program ended in December of 1944, when the war was winding down, and the male pilots wanted their jobs back.

“At the end of the two years, that’s when  men started coming back from Europe—they didn’t need them as much as they did—and we were flying and they weren’t, and that was a bad scene. They were waiting on tables, and here we were, flying.”

After years of lobbying, the WASPs were finally designated military veterans in  1977. It was an important victory for these groundbreaking women, whose service and sacrifice had flown under the radar for far too long.  

The book War Stories features oral histories from Hazel Hohn and 20 other World War Two veterans. Archival audio for this segment was provided by Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.