His need for pilots made Army Air Forces Commander General Hap Arnold listen to Jacqueline Cochran, a renowned aviatrix who proposed that women pilots could do everything a man could do. Women were trained to fly powerful military aircraft at Sweetwater, Texas, with 1074 WASP earning their wings. Some highly qualified WASP were selected for an experiment at Camp Davis.
One of the most important training centers of the Antiaircraft Command was the Army's Antiaircraft Artillery School, Camp Davis at Holly Ridge, North Carolina. It sprawled at the edge of a swamp near the Atlantic Ocean barrier island of Topsail.
ANTIAIRCRAFT GUN TRAINING
Gunnery training took place at Topsail Island and Fort Fisher ranges. It comprised rather primitive aerial target towing, searchlight maneuvers for night firing, and later, development of drones to better simulate enemy aircraft.
An experiment placed fifty-two highly qualified WASP at Camp Davis to fly military aircraft and tow aerial targets for antiaircraft gunnery training. They flew these targets over the ranges while live ammunition was being fired at them.
Antiaircraft guns and searchlights necessarily trained together. Night firing practice needed spotlighted targets so that the guns could find their quarry. This meant difficult flying for WASP. They flew as high, medium and low altitude targets on instruments, because the searchlights were so blinding that they could not fly visually.
REMOTE CONTROLLED DRONES
Fifteen WASP volunteered to participate in a secret drone program that was to replace target towing with more realistic targets. While trainees learned to fly them, WASP controlled the drones in flight, so they could recover the ships. This was valuable groundwork for the unmanned aircraft of today.
LIFE AS A WASP
They faced various forms of discrimination for invading a man's world. Faced with managing awkward controls of cockpits designed for men and living in barracks intended for males, they quickly learned to adapt.
Before dawn, their "wakeup call" was the earsplitting warm-up of engines nearby. Responsible for six days of flying each week, they checked the flight board for their day's assignments.
OPERATIONS TOW TARGET
Target-towing and strafing to train antiaircraft gunners for aerial defense were their primary missions. The Camp Davis WASP were bright, confident women who showed their determination to succeed, for themselves and for women to follow.
WASP PROGRAM ENDS
In December, 1944 General Hap Arnold announced the end of the WASP program. The war was ending and returning male pilots were given job priority. WASP were discharged as civilians without military status, so no benefits were available to them. After a thirty-three year struggle, Congress, with Senator Barry Goldwater pressing the issue, awarded WASP military status with veterans' benefits.
These women were pioneers and patriots. Their spirits will always be flying in the Wild Blue...
CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL This is the highest award Congress can award civilians. It was signed by President Barack Obama July 1, 2009, and presented in a Capitol ceremony March 10, 2010. This was in recognition of their service during WWII, when these trailblazers flew military aircraft over 60 million miles to aid in the war effort.
"Many of us married during the war, and a number of us continued flying for our livelihood. But we could never go back to the way we were. The WASP experience changed us all forever."