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Fly Girls

The Daring American Women Pilots Who Helped Win WWII

In the tradition of Hidden Figures, debut author Patricia Pearson offers a beautifully written account of the remarkable but often forgotten group of female fighter pilots who answered their country’s call in its time of need during World War II.

At the height of World War II, the US Army Airforce faced a desperate need for skilled pilots—but only men were allowed in military airplanes, even if the expert pilots who were training them to fly were women. Through grit and pure determination, 1,100 of these female pilots—who had to prove their worth time and time again—were finally allowed to ferry planes from factories to bases, to tow targets for live ammunition artillery training, to test repaired planes and new equipment, and more.

Though the WASPs lived on military bases, trained as military pilots, wore uniforms, marched in review, and sometimes died violently in the line of duty, they were civilian employees and received less pay than men doing the same jobs and no military benefits, not even for burials.

Their story is one of patriotism, the power of positive attitudes, the love of flying, and the willingness to do good with no concern for personal gain.

Fly Girls CHAPTER 1 War Clouds


President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood in front of a well-dressed crowd. His legs, paralyzed by polio years before, were held stiff with braces and hidden behind a large podium. Rain threatened on this April morning, but the president stuck out his chin and smiled in his usual way. Roosevelt was in New York for a happy event—the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an exhibition of new ideas and innovations for the “World of Tomorrow.” The New York Times reported, PRESIDENT OPENS FAIR AS A SYMBOL OF PEACE.1 Everyone knew about the predictions of war in Europe. The radio news was full of Adolf Hitler’s threats and military aggression every night. But while the president may have been worried about dictators and wars, he understood that visitors to the world’s fair were far more interested in dazzling new technologies and a bit of fun. In his brief remarks FDR mentioned peace and American prayers for an end to strife in Europe, but he didn’t dwell on those ideas.

The 1930s had been an economic disaster in the United States and around the world. After the stock market crashed in 1929, banks closed, businesses shut down, and millions of people lost their jobs and homes. That kind of economic slowdown is called a depression, and this, the Great Depression, had been the worst in history. Roosevelt and the people in his administration had worked tirelessly to ease the misery Americans suffered, yet the Great Depression wasn’t over. Finally, though, businesses had started hiring again, and now more people could afford to buy a few things and relax a little—exactly what they wanted to do. Whatever the radio said about conflicts and threats in Europe, problems three thousand miles away had nothing to do with the United States, they thought. In America it was time to dream a little and look forward to a better decade ahead.


Causes of World War II
During the 1920s and 1930s, dictators gained control in several countries, including Germany and Italy. In Japan a group of military leaders gained the powers of a dictator. Dictators have complete power. They are not limited by constitutions, laws, courts, or elections, and can use their nation’s military to control people. These three totalitarian governments—Germany, Italy, and Japan—were called the Axis. Their people did not have freedom of speech or the right to fair trials. There were no elections, and the government controlled newspapers and radio. The Axis powers built huge militaries and promoted the glory of war. They also promoted extreme nationalism—the belief that their countries and peoples were better than other countries and peoples—and felt they had the right to take over weaker nations (which is called imperialism). The world’s strong democratic countries did almost nothing to stop them. Totalitarianism, militarism, extreme nationalism, and imperialism in the Axis nations were major causes of World War II.

When Roosevelt declared the fair officially “open to all mankind,” a cheer went up from the dignitaries. Then ordinary fairgoers streamed into the park—more than two hundred thousand on the first day alone—having paid their fifty-cent admission and ready to see what the “World of Tomorrow” might look like.

Massive halls filled with elaborate displays from companies including General Motors, Ford, and Westinghouse showed off plans for the future. Before long, regular houses would have marvels like electric refrigerators with freezers, quick-to-cook frozen foods, and dishwashers. Women were promised they’d be able to finish fixing dinner and doing the dishes and still look like the model in the display—“as neat and refreshed as when she started.”2 Those new houses would have air-conditioning, too, and even televisions. In fact, the president’s speech that very morning was the first event ever broadcast on television. The television audience, of course, was almost nonexistent, since companies like RCA and General Electric were just introducing the television at the fair. Everyone wanted to see the display models, but television sales wouldn’t take off for another decade.

Visitors to the fair saw more than household goods in their future. They learned that in just twenty years, by 1960, they’d travel in hover cars zipping at 100 miles per hour above high-speed roadways crisscrossing the country in every direction. Even more amazing, ordinary people would soon be able to travel great distances by air.

Air travel wasn’t new in 1939. Anyone over the age of forty could remember the reports of the Wright brothers’ first airplane in 1903. They’d seen pictures of the amazing flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The airplane had seemed like a glorious toy at the time, and in some ways it still did, though flying had come a long way in the few decades since then.

During the Great War—what we call World War I—dashing pilots in tiny aircraft had introduced a new kind of warfare and captured the imaginations of people around the country and the world. When the war ended in 1918, most of those people tried to forget the horrible number of deaths and terrible destruction the war had caused. They vowed never to repeat such a thing. But their fascination with the quick little airplanes and heroic pilots who flew them remained.

Many of those pilots continued to fly after the war as barnstormers, holding shows at fairgrounds and in open fields. The sound of their happily buzzing engines let people in towns know they’d arrived. Whole families trooped to wherever the pilots had set down to watch the daredevil performances. Pilots spun straight down toward the earth, pulling their planes up at the last possible second, the crowd gasping in shock. They rolled lazily through the sky as if they never got dizzy. For a fee, a brave spectator could go up for a short ride. When barnstormer and mail pilot Charles Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, he became an instant hero worldwide. And everyone worried and then wept when aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific ten years later.


Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart
Charles Lindbergh was the first pilot to fly solo from New York to Paris. He made his transatlantic crossing in 1927 in a tiny plane called the Spirit of St. Louis. Several other pilots had already tried and failed to cross the Atlantic, so the whole world followed news of Lindbergh’s flight and cheered his success. Lindbergh was handsome, clean cut, polite, and humble—traits that made him an instant hero.

Five years later Amelia Earhart became the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. There had been other daring women pilots who made news, but Earhart—who was tall, thin, and fresh-faced like Lindbergh—had the same kind of soft-spoken, polite humility he did and won people’s hearts as well as their admiration. She used her fame to promote aviation and women’s rights and opportunities. While attempting to make a flight around the world in 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared near Howland Island in the Pacific. No evidence of their crash has ever been found, though searches still continue today.

A lot of young people—boys and girls—watched those shows and wished they could be pilots. They dreamed of seeing the world from above and going farther, faster, and higher than anyone ever had. The Depression had stifled an awful lot of dreams, but not flight. By the time visitors to the New York World’s Fair were staring openmouthed at the cockpit of a passenger plane in 1939, some of those young dreamers were licensed pilots and logging as many hours in the air as possible. Only a few people, most of them men, actually made a living as pilots. The others flew small one- or two-seater aircraft for the sheer joy of flying.

Most people in 1939, of course, may have liked watching planes, but they had never traveled by plane or even considered the possibility. So when visitors to the world’s fair climbed the stairs into one of the first commercial planes anywhere—an American Airlines passenger plane—they saw a remarkable future. Very soon multiple passengers would sit in cushy seats while pretty, perhaps glamorous, women in crisp suits and high heels brought them food and drinks, like elegantly uniformed waitresses in a nice restaurant, as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean. Amazing. Even more astonishing were the mind-boggling controls, dials, and levers visitors stared at in the cockpit of the sleek silver plane. How did the handsome men in almost-military uniforms learn to operate such a complex machine? How did they have the nerve to try?

In Washington, DC, that spring General Henry “Hap” Arnold was thinking about the future of flight too. Arnold’s interest in flying, though, was work, not play. In fact, he was working harder than was good for his blood pressure, but he couldn’t see a way to slow down. Not in 1939.

A career military man with over thirty years in the army, Arnold had taken flying lessons from Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1911. He was an expert on aviation and had studied the way airplanes were used in the Great War. He concluded that bigger, more powerful planes would be key to winning any future war. He had a hard time convincing very many people to listen to his ideas, though. Military leaders didn’t want to think about a completely new way of fighting. And most of Congress and the American people wanted nothing to do with building the military during the 1920s and 1930s. They’d been shocked by the horror of the Great War and were determined to avoid any more international conflicts. Besides, the Great Depression had used up every financial resource the country had, so there was no money for aircraft or pilots anyway.

The United States Air Force
In 1909, just six years after the airplane was invented, the United States Army began using aircraft. Less than twenty years later the Army Air Corps was established as the aviation arm of the US Army. It was reorganized into the Army Air Forces during World War II and played a major part in the Allied victory. When Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, the United States Air Force (USAF) became a separate branch of the armed forces. Its head is the secretary of the Air Force.



As the threat of war increased in Europe, though, Franklin Roosevelt listened to and believed Hap Arnold and persuaded lawmakers that the armed forces had to modernize and grow. Congress passed legislation to increase the military budget, and Hap Arnold was appointed head of the Army Air Corps. Arnold seemed to smile a bit all the time. But when it came to building an air force, he was deadly serious. He and FDR asked Congress for money to build ten thousand planes. Congress okayed six thousand.

It was a start. Yet Arnold worried that the country had dragged its feet for too long. How much time would it take to build those planes? How long to train thousands of pilots? How soon would they be needed? From Arnold’s desk the world of tomorrow didn’t look nearly as bright as the world’s fair promised.

• • •

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, a young woman named Ann Baumgartner was trying to decide what to do with her life. Ann had graduated from Smith College in June with a degree in premed. That was a bold choice for a woman in 1939, since less than 10 percent of doctors were women at the time. Ann wasn’t afraid of bold choices, but she wanted a break before deciding about medical school. Her mother suggested she sail to Europe and then they would meet in England for a visit to their British relatives while she considered her choices. Ann had aunts, uncles, and cousins in England and had always enjoyed her stays with them. Being able to see the great art museums of Italy and France as well . . . what could be better? This trip, however, wasn’t what she expected.

At each port we visited . . . I felt the deep hatred Hitler had already engendered . . . .

. . . Nazis spoke confidently in loud voices, played loud music, drank, and sang loud songs, while the Europeans glanced at them with hatred . . . When the ship stopped at Venice . . . I saw . . . a marching column, circling the square, singing and clapping loudly . . . .

Later I came to recognize, and fear, that marching song in other European towns.3

In England there were no Nazis to deal with, yet Ann could feel the growing tension Hitler was causing. She walked in the countryside and watched her aunts play croquet and tend their rosebushes while fear seeped through the warm air. Hitler had made and broken many promises as he took control of ever more territory in Europe, and England and France gave in to his demands again and again to avoid war. Neither country was fully recovered from the Great War, and they weren’t prepared to fight again so soon. But they had vowed to defend Poland if Hitler invaded.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party
The Nazi Party was founded in Germany soon after World War I. Its leader was Adolf Hitler. Hitler promoted extreme pride in Germany and absolute loyalty to his dictatorship. He encouraged racism based on the belief that “true” Germans—he called them Aryans—were tall, blond, blue eyed, physically fit, and superior to other people. He blamed Germany’s problems on Jews in particular, as well as minorities, the disabled, and others who didn’t fit the Aryan model (this is called scapegoating). His powerful speeches convinced many Germans to support discrimination and the takeover of neighboring countries. Hitler was largely responsible for the outbreak of ?World War II and for the murder of over six million Jews and other targets of Nazi hate in the Holocaust.



Every night news of Germany’s advances sent Ann’s uncles and cousin, all government men, behind closed doors for hushed phone calls and discussions. Her aunts were distant and distracted while they tried to play cards or make conversation. The Great War had been devastating. It seemed an entire generation of young men had died. Another war could be even worse.

On Friday, September 1, the news everyone dreaded came across the radio. German armies had invaded Poland.

Ann’s family spent the weekend in a tense quiet. They knew all the men in the family would be called on if Britain went to war. They knew how unprepared the country was. Some newsmen joked without humor that England had “four good rifles and three good planes to defend herself” against the German war machine.4 The waiting was miserable as the whole country held its breath.

On Sunday the wait was over. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the nation over the radio, sounding tired and terribly sad. He spoke very briefly. What was there to say? Only one sentence mattered. “I have to tell you . . . this country is at war with Germany.”5

A frightening stillness fell throughout Great Britain. It seemed no one dared to speak, as if so long as no one said anything or caught another person’s eye, if they didn’t breathe too loudly or move, they could hang on to the last moment of peace and postpone the beginning of war. In fact, war had already begun.

A day later Ann and her mother boarded a horribly overcrowded Danish refugee ship with hundreds of other people trying to get home to America. Ann hated leaving her British family, but her uncle Vernon had insisted.

Fifty mattresses covered the floor of a big room on the main deck, and trying to sleep only six inches from a perfect stranger’s snoring was difficult. Worse, the three nearest toilets overflowed onto the floor beneath some mattresses. Though the smell was awful, the discomfort was nothing compared with the worry that spread with reports of another refugee ship being hit and sunk by a German submarine, a U-boat.

Ann helped paint all the ship’s portholes black so lights couldn’t be seen by other ships or U-boats. Days and nights crawled by. No one could bathe. Food and drinking water ran short and then vanished. Passengers didn’t feel safe until the Statue of Liberty appeared on the horizon.6

As desperately glad as she was to be home and out of danger, Ann couldn’t stop thinking about what her uncle had said as he told her good-bye.

If you want to help, then work to persuade your country to help us supply ourselves with what we’ll need. Though your president sees our need, his Congress and your people are not behind him. You must help.7

Ann promised herself she would somehow help Great Britain against the horror of Hitler. And not just for her family. If the United States didn’t help, democracy might be destroyed in Europe. If democracy died there, it could very well die everywhere, even in America.

P. O’Connell Pearson has always taught history—first in the high school classroom and then as a curriculum writer and editor across grade levels. Ready to share her enthusiasm for stories of the past in a new way, she earned an MFA in writing for young people from Lesley University and now writes narrative nonfiction for ages ten and up. Her books have received recognition from Bank Street, NCSS, the New-York Historical Society, Arizona Library Association, and more. When Pearson is not writing about history, she can often be found talking about history as a volunteer with the National Park Service in Washington, DC.

"[A]n adventurous and tumultuous account. A solid account of women's contributions as aviators during World War II."

– Kirkus Reviews

"[An] often thrilling tribute to these aviation heroes."

– Publishers Weekly

*"It’s a truly inspiring read, and Pearson adeptly addresses the support and censure these fearless and dignified ladies received, and their shamefully drawn-out fight for recognition."

– Booklist, starred review

"Pearson excels at clarifying this complicated war for young readers in a style that is riveting, informative, and never watered down...A fine purchase that provides a more balanced and empowered perspective of U.S. history."

– School Library Journal

"Readers with an interest in women aviators may want to follow this title with Stone’s Almost Astronauts (BCCB 4/09) to learn what happened when women tried to soar even higher."

– BCCB

  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Council)
  • Grand Canyon Reader Award Nominee (AZ)
  • Jefferson Cup Award Honor Title (VA)
  • Grand Canyon Reader Award (AZ)
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • Wisconsin State Reading Association's Reading List
  • Topaz Nonfiction Reading List (TX)

More books from this author: P. O’Connell Pearson