Davis, Dorothy Hilliard (1917–1994)

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Davis, Dorothy Hilliard (1917–1994)

American pilot, member of the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, who played a crucial role in the campaign to gain official government recognition for the WASPs as military veterans, which was successfully achieved in 1977. Born Dorothy Hilliard Davis in 1917; died in San Francisco, California, on May 25, 1994; daughter of Oscar Harris Davis and "Dottie" Davis; graduated in 1944 from Class 44-W-10, the last group of WASPs to graduate before the organization was deactivated.

One of the most serious problems of military aviation during World War II was the loss of trained pilots in combat and the immense difficulties of replacing this highly skilled "manpower" pool. As early as 1939, Jacqueline Cochran had interested Eleanor Roosevelt in the possibility of using women in the U.S. military services in the event of war, in order to release all male pilots for combat duty. By the late 1930s, with about 3,000 American women licensed to fly, there could be little doubt that a previously unused corps of skilled pilots was available. After Pearl Harbor, two relatively independent programs for women pilots emerged. One, created in September 1942 and headed by Nancy Love , was the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), an experimental squadron of experienced women pilots assigned to the task of ferrying aircraft for the Air Transport Command. The other unit, headed by the noted aviator Jacqueline Cochran and launched in November 1942, was the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), essentially a training program established to provide pilots for the squadron. Although both of these organizations were organized under civil service rules and were not regarded as part of the military, Cochran's goal was that they be upgraded as quickly as possible to full military status including commissions for its graduates.

In August 1943, the two organizations were merged to form the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Both Love and Cochran were disappointed when initially WASP pilots, many of them with long years of prewar flying experience, found themselves restricted to daytime flights in liaison aircraft and primary trainers. Nancy Love broke the barrier by receiving permission to check out in B-17s and P-51 Mustangs. Jacqueline Cochran made her contribution to expanding the duties of WASP pilots by receiving official clearance from General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), for her graduates to tow targets as well as ferry aircraft. At the anti-aircraft training base of Camp Davis, North Carolina, WASP volunteers flew old and dangerous A-24 and A-25 dive bombers, freeing male pilots for other duties, including combat. Engine failure cost the lives of two WASPs at Camp Davis and several others barely survived when their planes were hit by friendly fire from the ground.

With the barriers down, WASPs soon were flying every first-line fighter, bomber, trainer and transport plane in the USAAF. By the end of 1944, fully half of Ferrying Division's fighter pilots were WASPs. By this time, they were making three out of four domestic fighter deliveries, and with a lower accident rate than that of male pilots. In its first year of existence, WASP pilots set a new safety record in military aviation, flying the equivalent of 3,000,000 miles for each fatal accident, a rate equal to.05 fatal accidents for each 1,000 hours of flying time (the overall USAAF fatality rate during this period was significantly higher at.07). WASP pilots quickly earned reputations among male pilots in the USAAF of being highly competent and professional under many different flight conditions and challenges. They were particularly impressive in handling the B-26 Marauder, generally regarded at the time to be an aircraft that was difficult and even dangerous to fly. WASPs outperformed their male counterparts both on the ground in flight school and in the air when many of them flew B-26s on tow-target missions to train aerial gunners.

Often WASP pilots, not being members of the military, were able to cut through red tape because of their skills and courage. One such instance was when Ann Baumgartner , assigned to Wright Field as a consultant on new flying equipment, persuaded top brass at the base to let her fly some of the planes on hand. Soon she was flying P-51s, P-47 Thunderbolts, and a rare captured Japanese Zero. Ann Baumgartner made history when clearance came through for her to fly the experimental Bell YP-59A jet pursuit plane, thus becoming the only American female jet pilot of World War II. Baumgartner would remain the only American woman with military jet flying credentials for almost a decade.

On December 20, 1944, with victory in World War II in sight and with the demand for combat pilots matched by the supply, the WASPs were officially deactivated. In its 28 months of existence, the WASP and its precursor units had drawn more than 25,000 applications for flight training. Of these, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 won their wings. These women, from all walks of life, ferried more than 12,000 aircraft of 78 different types, flying millions of miles. Not part of the military services, their pay was only two-thirds that of the male civilian ferry pilots they had replaced. Despite the obvious discrimination, many offered to continue their work ferrying aircraft for a dollar a year.

At the graduation of the last class of WASP cadets at Sweetwater, Texas, on December 7, 1944, General "Hap" Arnold commented:

Frankly, I didn't know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in the heavy weather they would naturally encounter in operational flying. Those of us who had been flying for 20 or 30 years knew that flying an airplane is something you do not learn overnight. … Well, now in 1944, more than two years since WASPs first started flying with the Air Forces, we can come to only one conclusion—the entire operation has been a success. It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.

Told they were no longer needed, the women pilots now searched for new roles. Some returned to their prewar lives, but others hoped to build new careers in the military. They were deeply disappointed when legislation on their behalf failed to secure passage in Congress because of strong lobbying from male flight instructors. Now eligible for the draft when their government-contract flight schools shut down, the men coveted the flight assignments that had previously been held by WASPs.

Dorothy Davis, "Dottie" to her many friends, had graduated a WASP in Class 44-W-10, the last class to receive diplomas before the WASPs became a part of American history in December 1944. Raised in Virginia, she eventually moved to San Francisco where she worked as a claims adjudicator for the Veterans Administration. Like almost all WASPs, she retained warm memories of her wartime experiences, but they began to seem like "ancient history" with the passage of time. Many veterans traveled to Sweetwater, Texas, in 1972 for a stirring reunion. Few regretted having served in wartime despite the unequal status that had defined their terms of service. Some remained bitter because since 1945 they had been denied the disability and health benefits available to all male pilot veterans of the war. In 1976, Dorothy Davis and her fellow-WASPs became deeply angered when the Pentagon, after having decided to train women for military flying operations, issued a statement describing the prospective female pilots as "the first women to fly for the military."

Remembering how they had been paid less, often ignored, and were now being turned into virtual nonpersons, Davis and others set about to achieve justice once and for all. They recruited "Hap" Arnold's son, Colonel Bruce Arnold, who fully agreed with his father's wishes, namely that the WASPs be militarized in recognition of their services. A strong ally was found in Senator Barry Goldwater, who had respected WASPs since World War II, having witnessed their flying skills when he was a Ferry Command pilot. Powerful groups organized to lobby against the WASPs. The American Legion and the Veterans Administration argued that militarizing the WASP organization would serve as a precedent for doing the same for every civilian body of World War II—the Civil Air Patrol, the Merchant Marines, etc.—and that the financial obligations resulting from such a redefinition would simply be too large a drain on the Federal treasury.

As one of the most enthusiastic activists among the WASP veterans, Dorothy Davis joined the campaign for Congressional lobbying, using all her spare hours to gather petitions. At first her successes were slight. Many Americans had never heard of the WASPs. She devised a fact sheet to hand out; few took the time to read it. Undaunted, Davis found the strategic moment to make her case: the opening in San Francisco of the film Star Wars. With long lines stretching around the blocks of local theaters, she had a captive audience. Rain or shine, she would be there, wearing her old WASP uniform. The fact sheet gave moviegoers something to read while waiting in line. Furthermore, Davis was happy to explain details and even tell about her own personal part in the story of the WASPs. These efforts paid off with thousands of signatures that were sent to Washington. Energized, other organizers throughout the country were able to gather support for their petitions. The mood throughout America was changing as a new, all-volunteer military force was being created. Increasingly aware of the need to recruit women as well as men into the armed services, the Pentagon supported the WASPs in their efforts to gain belated military status.

Baumgartner, Ann (c. 1923—)

American aviator. Born around 1923; formerly a journalist.

In October 1944, at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, 21-year-old Ann Baumgartner flew a YP-59A, America's first experimental jet, reaching 350 miles per hour and an altitude of 35,000 feet.

Success for Dorothy Davis and her fellow WASPs came in 1977 when Congress passed the G.I. Improvement Act and President Jimmy Carter recognized these aging proud veterans retroactively as having once been on active military service. They did not receive retroactive pay or death insurance, but symbolically these remarkable women were now accepted as part of the great family of World War II veterans. Although they had not seen combat, WASPs had risked their lives every day while on duty. Thirty-eight of them had died while flying for their country during World War II (seeCornelia Fort ), and now, more than three decades later, they were receiving recognition for their courage, devotion to duty, and a job well done. Dorothy Davis was deeply mourned by a dwindling band of WASPs when she died in San Francisco on May 25, 1994.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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