Film Celebrates World War II's Women Pilots

By: Debra Lawless

In an era when many women did not possess a driver’s license, over 1,000 women became Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), flying with the U.S. military for two years during World War II.

In 1999, when these women’s stories were still little known, award-winning filmmaker Laurel Ladevich wrote and directed the fascinating one-hour documentary “Fly Girls” about WASP. The film is in the PBS series American Experience.

“Women were part of the early pioneers in aviation,” Ladevich said last week during a telephone interview from her home in San Anselmo, Calif. “Women were always attracted to flying. There was a tremendous romance to flying. That is part of the attraction for me, too.”

“Fly Girls” will be shown on Sept. 21 at the Chatham Orpheum Theater as a benefit for the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center (CMMC). Currently on display at the CMMC is a WASP exhibit “Breaking Barriers: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II,” which touches on the roles of women in the uniformed services during the war. Ladevich will introduce her film and then respond to questions after the screening. During her three-day visit to Chatham she will also show parts of the film to students at Monomoy Regional High School and the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School and talk about her professional experiences and potential careers in filmmaking.

Ladevich has earned an impressive string of film credentials. She was a sound editor for blockbuster movies such as “Jurassic Park,” “Mosquito Coast” and “Return of the Jedi.” In 1985 she was nominated for a prestigious BAFTA Film Award for her work in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Ladevich first became interested in WASP in 1993 when a colleague brought the group to her attention. She was intrigued, but also knew that telling the women’s stories would require deep research.

She located several dozen ex-WASP, most then in their early 80s. From this group she chose six to appear in the film. “I selected these as particularly good examples,” she says, adding, “I fell in love with all the WASP.” (In the nearly 20 years since the interviews, all WASP have died.) From her raw footage of up to two hours per interview, Ladevich used about five minutes. The complete interview footage is archived in the Texas Woman’s University in Denton—the official WASP archive.

It is important to remember that aviation was still young during WWII. As WASP Dora Dougherty Strother said in the film, pilots were the heroes of the day. Every Sunday afternoon her family drove to a local airport to admire the airplanes. Amelia Earhart spoke at the school of another WASP, making an enormous impression on her.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, airplane production increased dramatically, and WASP’s initial job was to ferry airplanes from the factories where they were built to military bases. By using female pilots, the military did not have to pull male pilots from combat. While the military at first worried that women could never fly military airplanes, WASP excelled at their jobs to the point that they eventually instructed other pilots, test-piloted airplanes and logged 60 million miles in the air. Aside from combat, the Fly Girls did everything.

“They ended up flying all the aircraft, because all the aircraft had to be moved,” Ladevich says. “They’d get in a plane and figure it out.”

Thirty-eight WASP were killed. One died when a male pilot clipped her plane’s wing in mid-air; another burned to death on the ground. Because the military did not formally recognize them, their families received no benefits, no flags, no gold stars. No provisions were made to return their bodies to their families—WASP themselves took up collections more than once to ship a body home. In December 1944, as the war wound down, Fly Girls were summarily dismissed and male pilots took their jobs. Post-war life “didn’t include mom going off to fly military planes,” as one historian summed it up in the film.

WASP’s contributions were forgotten for many decades. Over 30 years after WWII ended, WASP were finally granted veteran status in 1977; in 2009 President Barack Obama gave WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. Ladevich is now working to develop “Fly Girls” into a cable television series.

Ladevich has shown her film to groups of male WWII veterans, and finds it stimulates their memories of the war. “Men had great admiration for the WASP and saw them in a very collegial way,” she says. As well as interviews with WASP, “Fly Girls” contains historic footage.

“Fly Girls” will be shown at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, 637 Main St., on Thursday, Sept. 21. A reception will begin at 7 p.m. with complimentary coffee and desserts. A cash bar will be open. At 7:45 p.m. Ladevich will make introductory remarks followed by the film at 8 p.m. A question and answer session with Ladevich will follow the film. Tickets are $25 with proceeds benefiting CMMC’s exhibits and education programs. Tickets are available at the Orpheum box office and online at chathamorpheum.org.