Fly Girls: The Daring American Women Pilots Who Helped Win WWII

Fly Girls: The Daring American Women Pilots Who Helped Win WWII
by P. O’Connell Pearson (Author)

Booktalk: 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.

Snippet: Advertising, books and magazines, even radio and television shows, told women they should devote themselves to being full-time mothers and homemakers. Everywhere anyone looked were pictures and film of women happily cooking, cleaning, smiling at their children, and wanting nothing outside that role. Companies like Westinghouse and General electric had pushed the image of the glowing homemaker at the World’s Fair before the war, and now they were doing it again.

Dishwashers and clothes dryers were great, no doubt about it. So were frozen foods and all the rest. But while Betty Gillies, BJ Erickson, and many other former Wasps wouldn’t have given up their families for anything, their hearts simply weren’t in the kitchen or the laundry room. They were in the sky.

Guest Post by P. O’Connell Pearson

Patricia O’Connell Pearson is a former history teacher with a master’s degree in education from George Mason University. She has contributed to and edited history textbooks and published articles in magazines and newspapers including The Washington Post. Always enthusiastic about sharing the stories of history, she earned her MFA in writing for young people from Lesley University and now writes both historical fiction and nonfiction. When she is not writing about history, she can often be found talking about history as a volunteer with the National Park Service in Washington, DC. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Q. Describe your writing process.
A. When I’m writing narrative history–nonfiction, the topic comes first. There are unlimited historical stories, but not all will work as a book for middle grade readers. First, I look for stories that matter to me and, I hope, will matter to younger readers. I’m always drawn to seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things or who stand up for what’s right. Second, I explore the topic to see if there’s enough information available for a whole book. I search for adult books on the topic and for good online sources and then look at the primary sources the authors used. Third, I consider whether there’s a way to make the topic interesting and accessible to middle grade readers. Then the real work begins.

Online sources can make research easier than it used to be. But online material has its own challenges. I read authors’ credentials and look for their bibliographies and notes. Finding a doctoral dissertation as a starting point is great. I look at university and museum websites and the Library of Congress. I also read about the time period in which the story takes place. I look for pictures and keep a few in front of me as a reminder of place, clothing, food, transportation, etc. And I take notes. Lots of notes–many by hand and others in a notebook program. If there are recorded interviews with the people I’m researching, I listen and look for transcripts. Documentaries are a great source, too.

Next, I organize. I look for a logical sequence of chapters and order my notes by those subtopics. If that sounds like instructions for a high school research paper, it is. I taught for many years and I’m a huge fan of outlines. They work. The great part of the overall outline, and later the individual chapter outlines, is that they highlight the gaps in my research. I then go back to my sources or look for additional sources on very specific things.

All along, I hear snippets of chapter openers and scenes in my head. So, when I get down to writing, it goes pretty smoothly. That’s not to say I don’t revise. I revise every day. Then my editor asks for more revisions and I see that she’s right. Finally, it’s done! Or as done as it can be. Like most writers, when I read the published copy, I find things I’d like to nudge. But the thrill of seeing my work in a bookstore is enormous–the best.

Q. Tell us about your debut book.
A. When I first read about the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII, I felt chagrined. I’d taught American history for years but knew nothing of the WASP. I’d never seen these women mentioned in textbooks, or in the many academic and popular histories I’d read over the years. The WACs, WAVES, nurse corps, and the women in factories during WWII were in those books. Why not the WASP? I started doing research.

It didn’t take long to realize that the WASP story would be great for young readers. Here were 1,102 women who volunteered to fly military planes in the U.S. during the war. All of the women had pilots’ licenses, and some had tremendous experience. Once they finished military training, they ferried aircraft from factory to base, or from one base to another. They towed targets for anti-aircraft training, did maintenance test flights, and more. Altogether, they flew seventy-eight different kinds of planes and logged over sixty million miles in the air. It was hard, dangerous work, and the women faced doubt, discrimination, and even hostility. They were paid less than men doing the same jobs and, as civilians, they had no military benefits–not even burial expenses for the thirty-eight WASP who died in action.

I couldn’t write about all 1,102 women flyers. So I tried to find individuals who represented the group and who had written or spoken about their experiences. I then wove their personal stories into the narrative. And because some readers will know a lot about World War II before they start the book and others won’t have studied it at all, I wanted to find a balance between including enough background or setting and including too much. I chose to use sidebars that allow me to insert pertinent information that isn’t a direct part of the WASP story without interrupting the flow of the book.

In the end, I want the reader to feel something about these women as I did when I learned about them. So when several people told me they cried here and there as they read the book, I have to admit it made me very happy.

Thanks for sharing your new book, Patricia!

Nonfiction Monday

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