Visitors to the San Antonio International Airport can now pay homage to the women pilots of World War II. A traveling photography exhibit unveiled Tuesday showcases the lives of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and their training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.
In 1942, as the United States reeled from the attack on Pearl Harbor, trained male pilots were in short supply. To fill the void, military leaders invested in the experimental WASP program. It trained women to fly military aircraft in non-combat missions so male pilots could be released for duty overseas.
Avenger Field was the only all-female military training base for the WASPs.
“These ladies received a tremendous education in Sweetwater,” said Lisa Taylor, executive director of the National WASP World War II Museum, which provided the photos. “They came with a pilot license and flight instruction, never knowing if there was going to be a career for them. Because of the program, there was a path for them for a time.”
For 30 weeks, 1,074 women trained before being sent to 120 duty stations around the country. They flew every aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. In addition to ferrying planes, they towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and personnel and flight-tested aircraft that had been repaired.
Ann Haub, lead archivist with the National WASP World War II Museum, said that the WASPs’ operational exploits are well-known, but their off-duty lives during training have been largely forgotten.
“What they did beyond graduation was so extraordinary that how it started got left behind,” she said. “There is more to the story.”
The WASP: Untold Story -- a Photographic Exhibit showcases activities the WASPs enjoyed in their downtime: swimming, boating and golfing at Lake Sweetwater, socializing at the soda shop, touring the city and having weekend dinners with local families. Several photos document the WASPs’ visit to a rodeo at the Double Heart Ranch, where they watched branding and bronco-riding.
"As you view the photos, you’ll get a glimpse into the lives of these courageous women,” Haub added.
The WASP program deactivated in 1944 as the war wound down and returning male service members reclaimed their jobs. Female aviators were told that they would be able to join the services post-war, but that offer did not materialize.
The WASPs’ records were then sealed from the public until the late 1970s, when the Department of Veterans Affairs began awarding them veterans’ benefits.
Matt Evans, arts and culture manager with the City of San Antonio’s aviation department, estimated that 3 million viewers would see the WASP photos on their way through the airport.
"When we heard the story of the WASP, we absolutely knew it had to be here,” he said. “As a city that cares so much about its military personnel, about its military heritage, and about its aviation heritage, it was a perfect fit for San Antonio."
The WASP: Untold Story -- a Photographic Exhibit will be on display at the airport until the end of the year.