Women Pilots in WW II
The Role of Women in the United States Armed Forces

Comments by Amy Etkind

I found the following article in our local excuse for a newspaper last Monday. It seemed appropriate to some of the threads.

Resident reminisces about World War II service

By Kathy Powell
Register Correspondent


World War II women pilots for the United States and the Soviet Union shared the common experience of being resented for invading a man's domain while in the service of their countries, Jane Miller says.

Miller, 69, a North Branford resident, went to the U.S.S.R. in May with about 40 other members of the U.S. Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) to meet their Soviet counterparts. The visit was in conjunction with a Soviet celebration of the 45th anniversary of Germany's surrender.

Miller says the visit was "the most moving, wonderful adventure I've ever had."

Miller, a liberated woman long before anyone thought to coin the phrase, says the initial meeting between the groups at the airport in Moscow was "extraordinary. They met us with hugs, tears and flowers. It didn't matter that we didn't speak the same language."

Throughout the two weeks, Miller says the women shared their experiences through interpreters. "We also danced and drank vodka and spoke of children and grandchildren," she says.

The WASPs were the first American women to pilot military airplanes. Their non-combat duty was to ferry aircraft, tow targets and do test piloting.

The female Soviet combat pilots, called the "Night Witches", flew over German encampments at night, dropping bombs to harrass the enemy, says Miller, a native of Colorado.

"These women not only flew planes, they flew in combat. They also serviced the planes, navigated the planes and led their own battalions. It's incredible to think it was allowed," she says.

A joint plea for world peace to President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was drafted by the "sisters in the sky" during the visit. "That's really what it's (the gathering was) all about," Miller says.

A phobia therapist who specializes in the fear of flying, Miller says that "although we were trained by the Air Force, worked on their bases and wore their uniforms, we were paid and classified as civil servants. The men resented our presence because we infringed on their wild blue yonder," she says with mock remorse.

The Soviet men were no different, Miller said she learned from the Night Witches. "They were humiliated by the women's presence and by their bravery. They were very macho, even then. It's interesting that not much is said about the Night Witches in Soviet history. It's like they served a purpose and were forgotten," Miller says.

The WASPS weren't forgotten, but it did take 33 years for them to be recognized, Miller says. Through an act of Congress in 1977, after the women had "lobbied like crazy," the WASPS were recognized as part of the United States Air Force. They were presented with medals for the time they served and became eligible for all veteran benefits.

While touring the Antonov aircraft factory in Kiev, a WASP member asked how many women serve as pilots in the Soviet air force today, Miller says. The answer - from male plant workers - was none. When asked why not, a retired director of the factory proclaimed that "war is not for women."

But, "Did you know 84 percent of the doctors in the Soviet Union are women?" Miller says, shaking her head. "Such a paradox."

Miller says she supports "women in combat, if that's where they want to be. Look at the women flying the big transport planes in Saudi Arabia. It's wonderful."

The Role of Women in the United States Armed Forces

"She Learned to Fly to Aid War Effort", John J. Archibald (interviewer), St. Louis Post-Dispatch Magazine, March 19, 1989, p. 6

Adele Riek Scharr, 82, can still slip into the uniform she wore during World War II when she delivered military planes for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). While teaching at an elementary school in St. Louis in the 1930s, Scharr took streetcars and busses to Lambert Field [our main airport] to take flying lessons.

"My master's degree at the University of Missouri was in educational psychology and history, and my reading convinced me that Hitler woudln't be stopped without war. I knew that when it came, I wanted to be part of it, and flying seemed to be my best bet."

During the war, Scharr wrote hundreds of letters to her husband, the late Harold Scharr, and these became the basis of a two-volume set of books, "Sisters in the Sky" (Patrice Press).

Q: Was it difficult for a woman to learn to fly in the 1930s?

A: When the men at Lambert became convinced that I was serious about learning to fly, they accepted me. I could only afford one half-hour of air time a week, so it took me five years to get my license. Eventually, I married one of the guys, Harold Scharr.

Q: And then?

A: The St. Louis Board of Education forced all women teachers to resign if they married. I taught ground school at St. Louis University five nights a week. I flew passengers for joy rides on weekends, kept house and continued to learn until finally I had a flight instructor's rating. The pay for teaching people to fly was $2 an hour.

Q: Did you have to talk the military into considering you for service?

A: No. In September 1942 I received a telegram that said the Army Air FOrce was establishing a group of women pilots for domestic ferrying and invited me to report in Wilmington, Del. -- at my own expense -- to be interviewed for possible acceptance.

Q: After you were accepted, were you a member of the armed forces?

A: Technically, we were civilians in the early years. We were called WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron). We paid for our uniforms and for many other expenses out of our $250 monthly salary. The planes we transported usually didn't have radios, so I paid $40 for a TransLear radio so I could listen to the tower communicate with big planes while landing at an airport.

Q: You had to make your own travel arrangements?

A: Absolutely. In January 1943 four fellow pilots and I landed in Atlanta, where we were told there wasn't a hotel room available in the entire city. I finally located rooms at the ancient Kimball House, for $1 a night. The bellhops carried our parachutes to the third floor and we lugged the rest of our equipment. The blanket was so thin that I used my flying suit for extra warmth.

Q: Was ferrying military planes risky?

A: Yes, 38 women pilots were killed in accidents, as well as many men. The Bell Airacobra P-39 was especially tricky because its engine was 7 feet behind the propeller and the vibrations made it feel as though the tail were wagging the dog. Before I flew it, I memorized the manufacturer's instruction book, but there really was no way to check out the plane except by flying.

Q: Did you still fly after the war?

A: Yes. I taught flying at Lambert. Two years ago in Hawaii, at a reunion of women pilots, I tried parasailing -- it's like hang-gliding -- and I was up about 300 feet. I had a great time. [According to the bio at the beginning, she was 80 at the time!]

Go Back to Shy David's Feminism Page.