Fly Girls: The Forgotten Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII by P. O’Connell Pearson is a nonfiction book written for middle school children introducing the lives of various female aviators who made an impact on the world by their contribution to the war effort in World War II. Laying the groundwork, Pearson goes back to the beginning of the unrest in Europe, describing the actions of Hitler and the Axis as well as the relationship between England and its Allies, especially when the Germans invaded Poland and war was pronounced. She then takes us to Pearl Harbor and the start of the United States’ involvement in the war. In between there is a discussion of the rise of aviation with heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart creating a public interest in flight.
During the prewar period, the head of the Airforce realized America needed more military planes. The growing number of female pilots, often overlooked because of their gender, wanted to help, but they were referred to opportunities overseas since the US military did not allow female recruits. Those attitudes changed slightly as the need for volunteers increased resulting in the introduction of the WAVES (Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Service) and the the WACS (Women’s Army Corps), but it wasn’t until the establishment of the WASP (Women’s Arlington Airforce Service Pilots) that women aviators were allowed to be of use to the Army Airforce.
In the meantime women could play a role as instructors since male pilots were desperately needed in fighter planes. Women were considered too weak to handle the physical challenges of controlling a plane in rough weather and while they might be capable of filling auxiliary roles, they were not allowed to be involved with combat due to their “unstable”, “feminine” characteristics. At least that was the public perception, in spite of the fact that thousands of women were accepted in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce in England while the Russian Airforce had three all female combat units complete with women manning the bombers.
Still, the war needed pilots, so Nancy Love was asked to form a Squadron and women were finally recruited to fly in noncombat missions for the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron), but they had to stay civilian until Congress approved the measure. Unfortunately, Congress was reluctant to give their approval for what they considered an experimental program. Twenty eight women answered the call with another twenty five women already in the British Corps. Eventually over a thousand of woman were recruited to become pilots for the newly established WASP. The standards for these female recruits, even though they weren’t officially military, was higher than those for the men because they were expected to prove their worth, despite the unequal rate of pay.
The details of the lives of Nancy Love, Betty Giles, Jacqueline Cochran, Cornelia Fort, Betty Huyler Gillies, Barbara Poole, Evelyn Sharpe, Gertrude Meserve, and Marion Florsheim are intermixed with the war effort. These women took on the more tedious and often dangerous tasks such as transporting planes from the factories to the bases, flying planes pulling targets for artillery practice, and testing newly designed aircraft or piloting those which had just been repaired.
Even though there were many qualified African American women ready to serve, since the black and white troops were kept separate during the war, allowing these female pilots into the WASP would have jeopardized the program. (It wasn’t until 1948 that the military was integrated, after the war was over). In spite of this precautionary measure, in 1944 Congress voted to disband the WASP organization even though the women had done a stellar job on some very difficult and dangerous tasks attempting to overcome the prejudice and harassment from service men who felt threatened by their presence. Unfortunately, the propaganda against female aviators was used against them despite the positive reports from their commanding officers. In 1977 their service was finally recognized as active duty by the military and they received the recognition they deserved, but the right to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery was still being contested as recently as 2016.
With the current emphasis on the role of women in American Society it is appropriate that the actions of these courageous women are revealed, especially for our youth. It’s also important that our young women have these role models brought to their attention as well as showing the male population that women are just as capable as men, even in professions considered too “tough” for a female to handle. In 1991 Congress finally authorized women to fly in combat missions with 1998 the year that women fighter pilots actually flew in a combat mission to Iraq in Operation Desert Fox, but it took until 2004 for the first woman in US Airforce history (Col Linda McTague) to command a fighter squadron.
It is evident by the way the story is told that this is a book aimed at children. While it starts out more like a textbook than a nonfiction book, as the narrative progresses it gains our interest reflecting the fact that this is a worthy topic and the author has done extensive research. There are insets giving background information to help with the reader’s understanding, including a comparison of 911 with Pearl Harbor and a description of the Great Depression. Some of the tidbits are quite informative, such as the annotated list of military medals and honors.
Unfortunately, this is an overview and the lives of the majority of women aviators are given only a cursory glance, instead of an in depth biography. An annotated listing of each woman and her accomplishments would have been a welcome addition. However, the book does include an index, notes, and a list of references, so it would definitely be good for basic research, as long as the reader recognizes that Patricia Pearson has placed her own definitive American slant on events, often simplifying complicated scenarios. A plus is the emphasis on the role of women in the twentieth century and their fight to be taken seriously, especially in the field of aviation. It wasn’t until 2015 that women were legally considered on an equal footing with men throughout the military, but the implementation of this ruling is a work in progress.
There were quite a few photographs in Fly Girls, but I felt that since this book was for youth, even more illustrations were necessary. Overall, a good introduction to a topic full of little known facts from this historic time period appropriate for Middle School and High School Libraries, but also relevant for adult readers.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.