Book Review: The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II


by Katherine Sharp Landdeck

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2023. Pp. viii, 246. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95 papee. ISBN:1524762822

The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, as Axis countries continued to expand their global reach, the United States military found itself in desperate need of personnel to fill highly skilled stateside aviation jobs so that male pilots could be released for overseas combat. When Roosevelt called for the production of 45,000 combat aircraft in 1942, two renowned aviatricxes, Nancy Harkness Love and Jacquelyn Cochran, were each determined that the demand for qualified personnel to serve the Army Air Forces (AAF) would include women. Ultimately the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), and the elite Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) were amalgamated into what would in June 1943 become the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) under the direction of Jacquelyn Cochran, who had successfully lobbied General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the Commander of the AAF, for the merger.

The WASP occupied the entire spectrum of aviation-related jobs on over 120 bases around the United States, according to the National WASP World War II Museum. Their training mirrored that of the male pilots of the AAF and the women proved themselves to be capable, dedicated, versatile and brave--tasked as they were with testing new planes, towing targets for live antiaircraft artillery training, ferrying newly built aircraft from factories to bases, and training bomber crews. They lined up to test and deliver the P-47 Thunderbolt—one of the largest and most complex planes in the AAF arsenal. One of them, Ann Baumgartner, tested the B-29 before it was deployed in the Pacific.

The women routinely faced derision and hostility on the part of their male colleagues on air bases. It was rumored—though never openly alleged during wartime—that at least one WASP had been killed as a result of sabotage, when it was discovered that sugar had been poured into her gas tank. Although sabotage as a cause of both fatal accidents and non-fatal failures was apparently widely suspected by the women pilots, none of these incidents were referred for official investigation. In total, 38 WASP were killed while the program was in operation--eleven of them while still in training—out of a class of 1074. As a non-militarized force, however, the casualties were not entitled to have their remains shipped to their families at government expense. The cost was borne by their comrades.

The WASP were unceremoniously disbanded at the end of 1944, after it was denied militarization in a highly publicized and humiliating media blitz. It took over thirty years, the unflinching support of Senator Barry Goldwater, and the overcoming of vehement objections from veterans’ organizations, for the honorably discharged WASP to finally receive treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals and be permitted burial in military cemeteries. By that time, the other entitlements of the GI Bill were gone.

The story of the WASP is replete with all the elements of compelling narrative, including the dynamic personality of Jacquelyn Cochran, the unswerving loyalty of her women, wartime political controversies, interpersonal conflicts, betrayal by male colleagues, slanderous treatment by the media, dismissal by an ungrateful public and, most importantly, a staggeringly high death statistic for a civilian force. This fact, together with the often compelling histories of the individual women themselves, ought to have garnered at least one full-length journalistic work about the WASP--particularly after their hard-won battle for veteran status concluded in 1977 with the signing of H.R. 8701 by President Carter. However, other than personal memoirs and amateur histories, no large-scale, professionally commissioned chronicle of the WASP reached the public until well into this century.

In contrast to Commonwealth countries the United States has been slow to recognize the contribution and, more pointedly, the sacrifices made by its servicewomen in World War II. Hollywood films about nurses in the Pacific don’t show them dying of starvation and disease in Japanese camps, nor have any feature films been made about Cornelia Fort, the society beauty turned flight instructor, who narrowly escaped collision with a Japanese aircraft in the attack on Peal Harbor only to be the first WASP killed on the job. Twenty years ago it was difficult to find PBS affiliates that would broadcast documentaries about American women’s military service, except as part of their “Women’s History Month” programming, given the lack of public interest in the topic. The decisive push for attention to the role of women in US military history has come from within academia, which in less than a decade has attempted to reshape the study of military history--once considered the last bastion of male hegemony--into an almost unrecognizable subgenre.

To be sure, many of the works produced as a result of this trend are worthwhile, informative and long-awaited undertakings. However, even with the best of intentions, millennial academics whose research has been developed under the heavy-handed influence of 21st-century “woke” ideology often make a mockery of their studies by explaining away events with misapplied theories, which simply do not fit within the wider historical context.

Earning Their Silver Wings is an unfortunate example of this, as the author’s preoccupation with identity politics is evident in the first few pages of the introduction and interferes on all levels with her examination of this understudied outfit. Whether Sarah Parry Meyers, an assistant professor at Messiah University, is making cynical references to “the Greatest Generation myth,” questioning Jacquelyn Cochran’s decision not to accept African-American applicants, or interpolating theories about American men and women “battling for contested air spaces” during the very years when an Allied victory in Europe was anything but assured, she clearly has nothing but contempt for the accepted values and concerns of the era.

A frank and unbiased account of the reasons why it took over thirty years for the WASP to achieve veteran status is indeed a worthy topic, though better suited to a feature article than a book-length project. In fact, only about forty pages of Earning Their Wings deal with this issue, while a full third of the book consists of endnotes, some of which are unsourced, with the author occasionally referencing herself as an authority.

Myers uses the book format as a platform from which to hold forth on her ideas about gender, racial and ethnic discrimination, some of which have little to do with reality. On page 45, for example, she groups American Jews together with “communities of color,” who enlisted, she postulates, because they “hoped to receive full citizenship after the war.” The fact is that Jews have never been designated as non-white by any United States government agency. Although Americans who served in World War II wore dog-tags indicating their religion, there was no institutionalized anti-Semitism in the US military. Unlike African Americans, Jews were in no way collectively subjected to restrictions either with regard to where they served or in what capacity, nor were they held back from advancement in any of the armed forces—even those that were rumored to be “anti-Semitic.” Having produced a documentary exploring this topic, this reviewer is well-positioned to refute any assertion to the contrary.

The long road to achieving veteran status for the WASP has been chronicled more honestly—and compassionately--in another recently published work. Although Myers dismisses Katherine Landdeck’s The Women with Silver Wings * as “not peer reviewed,” it was in fact published by Random House to numerous accolades from within academia, and has attracted 723 reviews on Amazon with a 4.7 out of a possible 5-star rating. Landdeck, who is a pilot and an associate professor at Texas Woman’s University, began interviewing WASP veterans in 1996 for the doctoral dissertation on which her heavily anecdotal and highly readable book is based. With a talent for bittersweet prose while maintaining historical integrity, she respectfully follows the wartime and post-war lives of the WASP who played an integral role in the battle for veteran recognition all the way through to their “final flights.”

The issue of Congress’s refusal to militarize the WASP has also been efficiently addressed in another expertly researched work—this time from outside academia--which takes a comprehensive look at all the US women’s services in World War II. In three fact-laden, fast-paced chapters on the WASP, Valiant Women **, by Lena Andrews, a military analyst for the CIA, offers a nuanced view of the circumstances surrounding the disbandment of the WASP, which can in large part be explained by the changes in public attitude toward the war in 1944, as well as the shift in demand after the Normandy invasion away from pilots to infantrymen. Male pilots of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) feared being drafted into the infantry for overseas deployment. They lobbied hard to retain their stateside pilot status – even going so far as to argue that the WASP were superfluous and the program wasteful – a contention readily accepted by the media and Congress, despite General Arnold’s best efforts.

Nonetheless, Andrews points out, it was Jacquelyn Cochran’s misguided decision not to allow the WASP to be incorporated into the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (later Women’s Army Corps) under Oveta Culp Hobby that was ultimately responsible for the bitter situation in which her women found themselves at war’s end. She includes Cochran’s rejection of the proposal for incorporation: “Look Mrs. Hobby, you’ve bitched up your own outfit. You are not going to bitch up mine … If you think I’d work for a woman who doesn’t know one end of an airplane from another, we are a different breed of cat.”

Predictably, Myers prefers to view Cochran as a victim of the patriarchy, theorizing that her dynamic personality was so “threatening to the male hierarchy of the AAF” that they had no choice but to disband the WASP for fear that they might eventually become Cochran’s subordinates.

As much as one would like to greet Earning Their Wings with enthusiasm, one cannot in good conscience recommend it either for recreational reading or research, as it contains egregious errors of fact, while adding little to the already existing body of knowledge on this topic.

* The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II, by Katherine Sharp Landdeck. New York: Random House / Crown, 2021.
** Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II, by Lena S. Andrews. New York: Harper Collins / Mariner Books, 2023


Our Reviewer: Deborah Duerksen's documentary We Were In It, Too!: American-Jewish Women Veterans Remember World War II, was broadcast on major PBS affiliates, including WLIW. She did her master’s thesis on the 18th- and 19th-century military history of Governors Island and has lectured for the National Park Service summer program on the island. Her articles on American military history and British war poetry have appeared in American and British publications. She has previously reviewed A Village in the Third Reich.



Note: The Women with Silver Wings is also available in hardover and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Deborah Duerksen   

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