History: Jane Harris (Cunningham), a World War II WASP — Part I

Jane Harris (Cunningham) standing in front of B-25 Bomber in 1944. (Courtesy of the Edmonds Historical Museum)

Part 1 of 2 parts

An Early World War II Issue

Less than six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Air Force had a big problem.  Thousands of new airplanes were coming off the rapidly expanding assembly lines and they needed to be delivered to military bases nationwide. But there was a shortage of pilots, as most of the trained pilots were fighting overseas. To solve the problem, an experimental program was launched to train women pilots to fly military aircraft. The program became known as WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots).

The WASP program had its origins earlier through the efforts of two exceptionally skilled and ambitious female pilots. Before the U.S. had entered into World War II, Nancy Harkness Love — the youngest woman to have earned a private pilot’s license up to that time — lobbied for the creation of a program that would allow female pilots to ferry military aircraft from the factories to the air bases.

Nancy Harkness Love, youngest female pilot, age 17. (Photo courtesy Texas Women’s University)

In addition, Jackie Cochran — recognized as one of the most accomplished pilots of her era (male or female) — had demonstrated the feasibility of this type of program by flying a lend-lease bomber to England and had organized a group of female pilots to fly warplanes as a part of the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

Jackie Cochran (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

With the shortage of trained pilots, the American military establishment took notice and became receptive to the idea. In September 1942, Love organized the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), and 24 of the nation’s best female civilian pilots reported to New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware for transport training.

Two months later Jackie Cochran convinced Army Air Forces commander Henry “Hap” Arnold to activate the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), a similar program, based at Howard Hughes Airport in Houston.

The Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program. 

The two programs operated separately until August 1943, when they merged as WASP under the direction of Jackie Cochran. Notices went out about the new program and over 25,000 women applied.  Fewer than 10% were accepted. Candidates had to be between 21 and 35 years of age, have graduated high school, possess a commercial pilot’s license and have the physical endurance to survive the military training program that was a part of the acceptance process. In the end, only 1,078 women made it through the eight-month training program in Sweetwater, Texas, which was comprised of both flight and classroom instruction.

Four WASP pilots after B-17 test flights. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

After earning their wings, the women were stationed at over 100 airbases where they flew non-combat missions. Their responsibilities included:

  • Ferrying new airplanes from the factories to their embarkation locations.
  • Towing targets 25 feet behind their aircraft so that gunnery trainees could practice and hone their skills against enemy aircraft while firing live ammunition.
  • Being flight instructors for both male and female pilot trainees,
  • Flying simulated strafing missions,
  • Testing radio control flying,
  • Flying missions testing “laying down smoke and other chemicals,”

They also served as test pilots for planes that had been repaired, as well as new aircraft. In October 1944, Ann Baumgarter, serving as a WASP test pilot, became the first American woman to fly a jet aircraft, when she successfully completed a test flight of a YP-59A Airacomet.

Author’s note: Among the most dangerous duties was towing targets 25 feet behind their aircraft so that gunnery trainees could practice firing live ammunition and hone their skills against enemy aircraft. Several of the WASP pilots suffered wounds to their feet while towing targets behind their plane. Errant live ammunition penetrated the underbellies of the aircraft being flown ahead of the targets, striking the pilots’ feet. Fortunately, none of the tow planes were shot down by the gunnery trainees.

During the course of the program’s life, WASP pilots logged over 60 million miles and delivered 12,650 aircraft — including 78 different types — to their designated locations. By performing these valuable services, the WASP program freed up their male counterparts to fly combat missions. Sadly, 38 WASP pilots died serving their country. Eleven died during various training missions, and 27 in active duty pursuits.

Unlike the Women’s Air Corps (WAC) or the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES), the WASP program was considered a civil service and not as an official militarized auxiliary force.  As a result, the 38 women who died were not entitled to burial expenses or survivor benefits. The cost of shipping the bodies back to their homes was borne by fellow WASP members.

By December 1944, as victory in Europe appeared to be imminent, more male pilots became available, and the WASP program was abruptly disbanded without ceremony.

Who Were The WASP Women?

The women came from a wide variety of backgrounds. They included teachers, nurses, factory workers, secretaries, waitresses, students, housewives, debutantes, actresses and even a Ziegfield chorus girl. At a glance, they seemed like an odd lot, but they shared two unifying passions: a love of flying and a strong desire to serve their country.

Jane Harris (Cunningham) was one of the 1,078 women who heroically served within the WASP program. This is her story:

The Early Years

Jane was born on Oct. 8, 1919, in Ely, Nevada and had a sister who was five years older. As a young child, she remembered living in four houses in Ely during the first seven years of her life.

Jane in an early childhood photo, courtesy of the Cunningham family.

In her oral and written histories her early childhood memories included:

  • “Our kitchen had a wood burning stove on which water for the weekly bath would be heated up in an old round galvanized wash tub. This was the same tub our clothes were washed in, and hung outside to dry.
  • We had a two holed “Chic Sale” (outhouse) in the back yard and I accidentally dropped a sweater down one of the holes, when I didn’t realize that the lid was up. I don’t remember if I was punished or not, after it was retrieved.
  • I remember asking our next-door neighbor for her son’s worn out overalls. They had been washed so many times that the fabric felt smooth on my skin. I think I was trying to be the boy that my mother always wanted.
  • I had a doll. My cousin Joan somehow put a crack in the doll’s head. It was mended somewhat, but she still had a fine line crack and a small hole in the back of that beautiful head.
  • I started school in Ely. There was no kindergarten, so I started in first grade. In the third grade I received an award for perfect attendance.
  • There are old snapshots of us fishing and gathering pine cones, but I don’t remember those trips.”
This is a childhood photo of Jane in a fairy costume. Jane couldn’t have known that she would earn a pair of silver wings as a member of the WASP in less than 20 years. (Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family)

Jane also recalled: “Then my father had an accident. My mother’s brother was driving a small car. My father was sitting on the other side with the door open and his foot on the running board. I don’t remember what happened but my father broke his back. This changed our lives forever. We had to move out of the small house. My father recovered from the back injury, but picked up TB in the hospital and was eventually sent to a sanitarium in San Diego.

We moved to San Diego to live with our Uncle Jim to be close to my father.   I remember my father kissing me goodbye about two years later, when we went to visit him. He passed away soon after in September 1928 and was buried in Reno, Nevada.”

After her father’s death, Jane’s family moved to Los Angeles. During the Great Depression, her mother ended up working as a domestic in several homes of the well-to-do. Jane recounted that her family lived out of their suitcases, moved around a lot and had very few possessions.

When Jane was in the sixth grade her mother placed the girls into The Busy Bee Home, which was a foster home for Christian Science children.  Jane shared a room there with two other girls her age. The rules were very strict, Jane recalled. The children had to line up in two columns to go into the dining room and they had to eat everything on their plates.

On days when Jane went to see her mother, they met in downtown Los Angeles or Glendale and treated themselves to a fudge sundae or a root beer float. Sometimes they would sit and talk and feel they were special. Then they would each go back to their separate homes.

In 1934, at the age of 15, Jane moved out of the foster home network and lived in several homes over the next couple years while working as a “mother’s helper,” which included taking care of a family’s children at night, doing a little cleaning and other chores. She received room and board and a small allowance to help with her school expenses.

After attending 15 schools in 12 years, Jane graduated from Glendale High School in 1937, and then entered Metropolitan Business School while still working as a mother’s helper. After graduating from the business school, Jane took positions as a stenographer for three years in the Los Angles and Glendale area while living for several years with a friend named Renata.

Learning to Fly

In 1942, Jane and a girlfriend took a trip to Palm Springs and they loved the weather and climate.  Several friends suggested that they move to Tucson, as the climate was similar to Palm Springs, and one of Jane’s friends told her she could learn to fly there too. During the war it was illegal for women to fly in California.

Jane in her early 20s. (Photo courtesy of the Cunningham famiy)

Hearing this, Jane packed up and — taking her Schwinn bike with her — she headed to Tucson. One month later, on Jan. 21, 1943, Jane rode her bike five miles out to the Gilpin Airport on the edge of town and began taking flying lessons. By April 15, she had logged 35 hours of flight time, which included soloing, and received her private pilot’s license. She continued to fly, accumulating more hours, and when she heard about Jackie Cochran’s effort to train women pilots for the Army Air Force, she immediately applied. After passing all the entrance exams and physicals, Jane was accepted into the program. She reported to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas at the end of January 1944. 

Jane as a WASP member. (Photoc courtesy of the Cunningham family)

The WASP Program

Jane recounted: “I knew when I went to Avenger Field to train for the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots Program, we were not really in the military, we were Civil Service employees,” despite the fact that the program was announced as an Army Air Force authorized program.

Jane’s group was the seventh class of women to graduate in 1944, so their group designation was 44-W-7. (W = Women).  The class began with 103 pilots who were divided up alphabetically by last names. Jane was housed with five other women.  In each housing unit, 12 women shared two wash basins, two showers and two latrines. Some of the group were from wealthier families and apparently were appalled by the living quarters, and “washed out.”

A photo of part of the 44-W-7 class. Jane is at the far right. (Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family)

Jane recounted: “For some women the regimented way of living was a hardship. For others, like me, it was not a problem for I had lived sort of this way in my growing up years. So sharing a room with five other women and the bathroom with eleven other women was not new to me. Marching off to the mess hall or to our classes varied from the Busy Bee Home only in that we were in step.”

In the classroom, the pilots were taught navigation, Morse code and how to fly on instruments in a Link Trainer, an early flight simulator. They also went through physical training every day, including how to land correctly if they had to abandon an aircraft and use their parachutes. Many of the pilots had to deploy their parachutes in various situations during training and deployment, but Jane never did.

Jane’s group trained first on a Boeing PT-17 Stearman Bi-plane. Jane successfully soloed on March 17, 1944, and as was the custom, she was later pushed fully clothed into the shower by her classmates, and the cold water was turned on.

Jane in the cockpit of a PT-17 Stearman. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Next was training on the AT-6, a light attack and armed reconnaissance aircraft. Jane subsequently flew one across the country to an airbase over 2,000 miles away.

Jane and the other pilots were stationed at multiple air bases around the country during their training and while performing their jobs. At Douglas Air Force base in Arizona, Jane learned to fly twin engine planes including the AT-17 (twin engine-advanced trainer aircraft), AT-9 (twin engine-advanced trainer aircraft) and UC-78 (military light transport aircraft). By early September of 1944, after successfully being trained on and flying multiple aircraft, Jane had earned her silver wings as a WASP pilot.

After earning her wings, Jane continued to fly various missions for the country. Her log book shows that on Dec. 20, 1944, in a single day, she took up three different AT-9s for testing.

Jane in the cockpit of a B-25 after a successful test flight. (Photo courtesy Cunningham family)

Jane also learned to fly the B-25, a medium bomber, in the later months of 1944. She and a co-pilot successfully flew one on several long test flights, with Jane taking off and landing the plane.

Unfortunately for the WASP pilots, just a day or two before Christmas 1944, the WASP program was deactivated because of the resentment of the powerful male pilots lobby and others.

Each WASP member received a letter from General B.K. Young praising them for their help and for proving that women could do the job of flying every plane the Air Force had. Indeed, WASP pilots had proved to be more than capable, flying everything from training planes to high-performance fighters and even the B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber.

After the abrupt deactivation, Jane returned to Tucson, where she was invited to take a test flight on the B-24, a long-range heavy bomber. Jane sat in the co-pilot seat and was allowed to fly the plane. Jane also recounted that she was able to go into the tail of the plane and shoot a few rounds from the tail gun into the barren desert below. She was also allowed to land the plane.

That was the last time Jane flew a plane. When asked why she didn’t fly anymore, her response was “I couldn’t afford to.”

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes.  Full credits will be given at the end of Part 2.

  1. Thank you for contributing this story about Jane Cunningham’s extraordinary life, Byron. Jane and her husband, Seattle rowing legend Frank Cunningham, lived just up the road from my childhood home in Edmonds. What incredible neighbors for us kids to have! I look forward to Part 2 of this piece. Jane’s story deserves to be shared far and wide.

    1. Fabulous. I’ve been reading about all the women that made a significant difference in WWII, and were not acknowledged. Read A Women of No Importance. Thank you so much looking forward to the next part.

  2. What a wonderful story about Jane! I am looking forward to reading part 2. I had the privilege of meeting Jane several years ago at Firdale Village. We were at the rubber stamping shop open house. We found out that J.P. Patches would be attending the toy shop’s open house downstairs. We attended it. Jane said she didn’t have her camera. I took a picture of her with J.P. and sent her a copy. When Jane passed away, I sent the picture to her daughter. Jane had the biggest smile and was thrilled to be standing with J.P. Patches. What a wonderful, down to earth lady she was. Thank You, Byron Wilkes for sharing Jane’s story!

  3. “Nancy Harkness Love, youngest female pilot,” was born February 14, 1914, and according to Wikipedia, “took her first flight and earned her pilot’s license within a month” of her 16th birthday. My mother, Anne Stoney Read (who was friends with Jane Cunningham) was born 23 days later, and won her license on March 9, 1930 – her 16th birthday. As the date on Nancy Love’s is license is not given, my mother might just have been able to claim the title of “youngest female pilot.”

    Mom gave up flying not long after; Dad was much given to motorcycle accidents, and the family legend is that there was a mutual understanding that she’d quit flying if he’d quit motorcycles. How true this is, I don’t know, but it may be why I’m here!

    Mom retained her love of flying all her life; I always hoped to save up enough to taker her to Europe on the Concord, which would have been a contrast to her Waco F biplane – but Concord went out of action before we could do it. Mom never developed her flying to the level of Jane Cunningham or Nancy Love, but she just may have been the

    1. Nathaniel, thanks for the information, and congratulation on your mother’s aviation exploits too.

      As you might imagine, the records regarding early women’s flights and when they got their private pilot licenses is sparse and at time conflicting. The most important thing in regards to Nancy Harness Love, was her influence along with Jackie Cochran in convincing the U.S. government and military to allow women to prove that could fly military aircraft as well as men.

      In the end, Jane Harris (Cunningham) and the other WASPs proven that belief was accurate and they provided a valuable service to this country when we truly needed it.

  4. This is another great article by Mr. Wilkes. What an Edmond’s treasure he has become. Thanks so much for your writing gift to all of us, Byron.

    Carolyn Douglas’ comment mentioning Frank Cunningham, the subject’s husband, brought back some great personal memories of having Mr. Cunningham as an extremely popular teacher at Edmond’s High School. His classes in Contemporary Problems and Humanities were college level in sophistication and much sought after electives by the more intellectual crowd at our school. I had no knowledge that his wife was such an interesting person too, until reading this today.

  5. A fascinating and well written article, Byron. Can’t wait to read Part 2.

    One small, but not insignificant correction: There was no “U.S. Air Force” during WWII. It was called the Army Air Forces (USAAF) and was still a part of the US Army (as it had been since 1907), although it operated independently of Army command. The USAF was created, as a separate military service, in 1947.

    1. Richard, thanks for the catch. I was aware of that fact…you are correct the Air Force was a part of the U.S. Army until it split off as a separate military branch in 1947. In the previous article I wrote on World War II pilot, “Wild Bill” Crump, I documented that he was a part of the USAAF in World War II, and later a part of the U.S. Air Force a couple of years later when he flew in the Berlin Airlift. My bad on that oversight in this article.

  6. The WASPS have long fascinated me. For the most part, their contribution to the war and the military was underappreciated. A wonderful novel to make their story come alive is GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead.

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