“The WASP, the Womens Air Force Service Pilots was put together in 1942, ’41 and ’42 to move goods and services across the country stateside, while it freed our pilots in the military up for missions overseas,” said Ann Jousma Miller, Curator, Upper Peninsula Military Museum.
Jousma Miller says these women went above and beyond their role.
“These women test flew all planes coming out of the factories,”said Jousma Miller. “They were tow target squadrons and they would fly the planes that would have the canvas banner out the back for the people on the ground to practice shooting at with live ammunition. These women logged 60 million air miles.”
Out of the 1,074 women who served as a WASP, four of them were from the Upper Peninsula.
They are Earlene Hays of Ishpeming, Mary Coon Walters of Baraga, Katherine Landry Steel of Marquette and Nancy Harkness Love of Houghton.
“As a young woman, she qualified for the WASP Program,” Jousma Miller said about Earlene Hays. “Interesting though, she was only 5’0″ and she needed to be 5’2″. So she really had to do some strenuous exercises in order to pass and become a WASP. And her wedding dress was made from a parachute.”
Jousma Miller added that Mary Coon Walters performed every diligent duty that there was.
“Kaddy as she was known as was one of the first women selected out of the first 25 for the tow target squadron,” Jousma Miller said about Katherine Landry Steel. “She flew those planes that were shot at with live ammunition for practice from the ground crew.”
Nancy Harkness Love got her pilots license at the age of 16 and her commercial license by the time she was 20.
“She was the one that put together Women’s Air Force Squadron, that was then incorporated into the WASP Program,” said Jousma Miller. “She qualified in every available military aircraft. Of the 1,074 young women in the WASP Program, there were two Squadron Commanders. Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love. To think that we had a Squadron Commander for this program from the Upper Peninsula to me is a great honor.”
It wasn’t easy being women in this role, They were under the same regulations as the men in this role and paid $100 less every month and they were not recognized as military with no honorable discharge or benefits.
“When they lost one of the girls, the government would not ship their remains home or pay for their funeral, because they were never considered military,” said Jousma Miller.
It wasn’t until 1977 that legislation was introduced to allow these women an honorable discharge and military benefits. That legislation was signed in 1978 and it wasn’t until 2009 that they were able to receive a Gold Medal of Honor. Many of these women had already passed before they got the recognition they deserved.
“Earlene Hayes, Katherine Landry Steel and Mary Coon Walters were all alive in 1978 and they passed away in their 80s,” said Jousma Miller. “But not Nancy. She died three years before, actually two in 1976 at the age of 67 she passed away from cancer so she did not receive. A lot of her awards came posthumously.”