SWEETWATER, Texas -- It's been a difficult year for fans and former members of the U.S. Army's Women's Airforce Service Pilots.
The WASPs, if you are unfamiliar with local history, were female pilots trained in Sweetwater during World War II to fly military aircraft in the United States and Canada. The first women who applied for the civil service jobs were required to already have 500 hours of flight time (compared with 200 for men), received lower pay than any male counterpart, and could only fly the smallest trainers or liaison aircraft.
That changed over time, at least partially. Eventually, only 35 hours were required for entry. But more importantly, the 1,102 WASPs who served during the war ended up flying every type of aircraft in the nation's arsenal.
WASPs ferried aircraft across the country, or performed flight duties while training male pilots. Two WASPs flew the B-29 bomber, notorious then for catastrophic engine fires, and demonstrated to the reluctant male pilots that it could be done safely.
"Jackie Cochran herself called these the 'dishwashing jobs of the Army,'" said Sarah Byrn Rickman, referring to WASP founder Jacqueline Cochran. An author of seven books about the WASPs, Rickman spoke by phone from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"They were the jobs the men really didn't want to do because they considered them boring or beneath them," she told the Abilene Reporter-News. "But the women wanted to, because they would do anything to fly."
That included towing targets 50 yards behind an airplane for anti-aircraft gunners on the ground to practice on. Or taking a plane up into the air to see if the mechanics had really done as good of a job as they said they had on a reconditioned engine.
Thirty-eight WASPs lost their lives in the line of duty. Most of the casualties were due to mechanical failure; others were simply accidents, such as Cornelia Fort's.
Fort died March 21, 1943, during a mission to ferry BT-13s to Love Field in Dallas. One of the male pilots flying alongside clipped Fort's plane, causing it to crash near Merkel. She never had time to bail out, and Fort was the first female military pilot to die.
Another WASP death was more mysterious.
On the website Wings-AcrossAmerica.us, Susana J. Kelly writes how Betty Taylor, a California WASP, was ferrying a camp chaplain in September 1943 when their A-24 flipped during landing. The weight of the aircraft crushed the canopy, killing them both.
An investigation determined traces of sugar were found in the fuel tanks; just a small amount would seize up any engine. The saboteur never was caught.
Given the amount of flight hours earned by WASPs, the percentage of deaths within the program was low. Still, WASPs were denied government insurance and death benefits. The pilots' families had to pay for their funerals.
The WASP program ran from early 1942 until it was closed in December 1944.
"They went home, they got married, they had kids, they got jobs. They did all the things all the other women did," Rickman said. "They didn't forget about their WASP service, but they were basically told not to talk about it."
WASP records were sealed and for 30 years forgotten. The women who tried to describe their service were met with disbelief — surely if there had been such a program, everyone would have known about it, right?
"First women pilots to fly military airplanes," one headline read.
"The WASPs read that and said, 'Absolutely not! We were the first,'" Rickman said. Shortly after, WASP records were unsealed, and in 1977 the group was officially recognized as World War II military veterans. The benefits of that recognition included the option of placing their ashes inside above-ground structures at Arlington National Cemetery. The first WASP inurnment, as it is called, was at Arlington in 2002.
In March 2015, however, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh declared the WASPs never should have been allowed to be inurned at Arlington. Army lawyers concluded that WWII veterans such as the WASPs and Merchant Marines could only be buried in cemeteries run by the Veterans Affairs Department, not at Arlington, which is run by the Army.
The WASPs, who already had endured a third of a century with the Army denying their service, were not happy.
"Any WASP that you talk to, they are all disgusted with the turn of events," Rickman said. "They feel like they fought for the country, and then they were told to go home."
She called the WASPs a remarkable story, one that proved women could fly any plane they wanted.
"The aircraft does not know what sex is flying it; the aircraft responds to the body that is flying it, whoever it belongs to," Rickman said. "That's what they proved, but somehow the world in 1945 or '46 decided we didn't need to know about that."
A movement began. A petition at www.change.org already had received more than 178,000 signatures by Tuesday. That and thousands of letters and postcards sent to Washington, D.C., led to the passage of the WASP AIR Act by both chambers of Congress, which President Barack Obama has signed into law.
Rickman was to celebrate its passage with 13 of the WASPs when they meet for a reunion in Sweetwater this weekend at the National WASP World War II Museum. Of the 1,102 original members, only 104 are still living.
"The WASPs deserve it. What they did, in the great scheme of things, it was a very small part," Rickman said. "But in the small scheme of things, they did something that women had not done before — fly for their country!"
Carole Caine, the Sweetwater museum's associate director, said the WASPs came from all social strata, all classes and a wide range of educational achievements.
"But they had two things in common," she said. "First of all, they loved to fly, and second, they loved their country."