By Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal, Defense Media Activity Hawaii
Kathryn Miles, former Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), visited areas of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and met aspiring women pilots during a tour June 6 that was hosted by the 747th Communications Squadron Spouses Group.
More than 70 years ago, Miles was studying to become a teacher like her parents, but the sky above was too enticing for her to ignore.
“I was offered a job in teaching typing in some little western town,” Miles said. “I said, ‘Thank you very much but no thank you.’ I think my poor mother and dad must have shriveled up because I didn’t have a job. I turned it down because I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to fly.”
The WASP program consisted of civilian volunteers trained to fly a variety of aircraft during WWII. They performed non-combat missions to enable male pilots to fill combat roles in the war effort.
Out of 25,000 applicants for the WASP program, only 2,000 women were accepted for training. Miles was one of them. She traveled to Avenger Field, located in Sweetwater, Texas, and began her journey as a cadet where she became one of 1,078 women to earn their wings in this endeavor.
“My first Army plane was a Stearman PT-17 and that’s a biplane open cockpit,” Miles said. “We did our primary training in that and it was really exciting.”
After qualifying in the PT-17, Miles flew a variety of other aircraft including co-piloting the B-17 bomber to flying the P-40 Flying Tiger during missions focused on towing targets for training to the instruction of new pilots.
“I had a pupil and this young man came to the airplane and said, ‘Are you my instructor?’” Miles said. “‘Yes I am,’ I said. Then he said, ‘Well I’m not flying with any woman,’ and he looked around and stalked off.”
Miles simply shrugged at the cadet and decided to speak to her chain of command.
“I went back to the commanding officer and reported what had happened and he said, ‘You go back tomorrow and he’ll be there,’” Miles said.
“I went back and the same student came up and didn’t say a word, got in the plane, and we flew for the lesson. We came back and he got out of the plane, turned around and said, ‘Well, I’ll say one thing. You’re the best pilot I ever flew with.’”
Miles served as a WASP from Dec. 6, 1943 until the disbanding of the program on Dec. 20, 1944. With the increase of male pilot availability and political pressures, the need for these female service pilots were thought to be unnecessary and they were released from service. They were granted no benefits.
“We had to pay everything,” Miles said. “Thirty-eight of the girls died flying in the WASP and because we weren’t militarized, they wouldn’t pay to send the bodies home. Sometimes their families didn’t have the money to send the bodies home, so we took up collections to do that but we always sent a WASP with the body.”
In 1977, more than 30 years after the program was disbanded, the WASPs were granted military status and became eligible for veterans benefits.
Miles was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal as a member of the WASP on March 10, 2010, honoring her service as one of the first women to fly military aircraft for the armed forces.
Having paid for her own uniform items and travel expenses, to dealing with inequalities as a woman during her time of service, Miles is pleased to see the opportunities women receive today.
“What I have noticed most and am most thrilled about is women are able to go in and become pilots now,” Miles said.”They’re now accepted, and I have the greatest respect for these women pilots today who work hard. They had to be the best or they couldn’t have done it.”
Her tour of Pearl Harbor gave Miles a chance to commemorate those who serve in the armed forces.
“I’ve been to Pearl Harbor many times and, to me, it’s an honor every time I go,” Miles said. “I like to remember and show my respect, admiration and sorrow for those who died there.”
As Miles stepped off the tour boat to show her respects at the Arizona Memorial, Cathy Macatangay, a Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots Diamond DA40 pilot, and Kathy Custer, an R22 Robinson helicopter pilot in training, introduced themselves and thanked Miles personally for paving the way.
“I didn’t even realize that they had women pilots back then and so to come here today and see someone who flew 400 hours as a target for target practice is a real inspiration,” Custer said. “She is amazing.”
“If it wasn’t for her and all the other female pilots that flew at that time, who knows if we would be flying today,” Macatangay added. “They practically paved the way to allow women to be allowed to become pilots. It was very inspiring to meet her.”
When Miles meets young women who are interested in flying or joining the armed forces, she has one piece of advice that she always encourages them with.
“If you have a goal and want to do it badly enough, it’s my theory that you can do that but you have to give everything to it and try,” Miles said. “Don’t think your dreams are inaccessible because they’re not.”