Women's History Month: Seventy-Five Years of Selfless Military Service
By Richard Ryan, 39th Air Base Wing Historian
/ Published March 10, 2016
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- This year, the 35th anniversary of women's history month, the month of March has carried official recognition from both the White House and the U.S. Congress.
March offers unique perspective for the military member in commemorating the milestones passed and sacrifices made by women in the defense of our nation. The contributions of women in uniform have also reverberated resoundingly into civil society, in business and industry, politics, the sciences, and our collective national heritage. This year's celebration offers a plethora of opportunities to observe fitting examples of the doors that were opened by military women years ago. The foundations of selfless service are still being rendered in this region by all of our fighting forces today.
Seventy-five years ago in the spring of 1941, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to fly a combat plane across the Atlantic when she ferried a Lockheed Hudson bomber to London in support of the Lend-Lease Act. Europe had been in the throes of war for nearly two years and America still remained officially on the sidelines. As a flight captain and training instructor in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, she was to be part of the wave of American volunteers fighting during the Battle of Britain. She had already been a household name in the states, having won the 1938 Bendix Trophy, air racing's top prize in an era when flying was still new, the sport was immensely popular and the Super Bowl was still thirty years in the future: Jackie Cochran was already a legend. She lobbied her influential contacts hard throughout 1941, including Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the father of the modern U.S. Air Force, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Upon American entry into the war, she returned to the U.S. and, having convinced Arnold of the utility of the program, drove the creation of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots. For two years, the WASPs ferried planes, towed targets, and conducted Instrument Flight instruction for male counterparts who were bound for the war zones in Europe and the Pacific. When they were deactivated at the end of 1944, 1,074 women had flown in the WASPS, 38 had given their lives in the line of duty, and their accident rates were lower than the rest of the Army Air Corps. Today, fewer than 100 WASP veterans remain.
One of the great disappointments for Arnold, the first man to wear five stars in the Air Force's uniform, was that he and other like-minded visionaries were unable to successfully lobby the legislative branch for full military commissioning for WASPs during the war. Still, Cochran went on to set numerous aviation records, earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Distinguished Service Medal, and retired at the rank of colonel.
One of the most highly decorated women to ever serve in the U.S. military was Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught. Vaught commissioned in 1957, and became the Air Force's first female comptroller to earn promotion to general officer in 1981. Vaught had already deployed with an all-male Strategic Air Command squadron, served a full tour in Vietnam, and earned both the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Medal. After retirement, she served as president of the foundation that created the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, DC.
There are also countless less-known heroines like Maj. Marie Rossi, the Army's first female squadron commander. Twenty-five years ago, she became a national celebrity as one of the first service personnel to cross into Iraq ahead of the ground assault phase of Operation Desert Storm. She rapidly rose to role model status with her humility and professionalism when she was interviewed by CNN regarding her leadership of an aviation unit in the combat zone. Sadly, Americans were shocked two weeks later when, on March 1, 1991, she and her two crewmates were lost when her CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed in a Saudi sandstorm.
While it is easy to take these accomplishments for granted as they fade into the shadow of history, there is an incalculable debt we will always owe to these pioneering women, leaders who made what was once extraordinary something closer to ordinary today, across all the military services.