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Laramie Movie Scope: Women of Courage

The story of women pilots in WWII

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 17, 2024 – I picked up this PBS documentary (at a thrift store, on a VHS tape, of all things) focused mainly on the 1,100 Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) who flew military aircraft during World War Two, because I am interested in aviation of this era, and in the WASP program.

This video tape utilizes interviews with surviving WASP pilots, along with historical film clips, photos and some audio recorded from former WASP pilots and others, to paint a picture of what it was like to serve as a WASP during the war. It provides a unique perspective on this little known military service

The story begins with Jacqueline Cochran, an outstanding pilot (she was the first woman to break the sound barrier) who conceived of a way for American women to help the military ferry planes in 1939. She contacted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and later was introduced to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, who requested she fly a bomber to England to generate publicity for the idea. In England, women were already flying war planes for the Air Transport Command (ATC) to aid in the war effort.

Cochrane volunteered for the ATC and requested other American women follow her lead. Planes flown by women ATC pilots sometimes came under fire from German aircraft. Cochrane would eventually lead the U.S. Army Air Force's 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), while Nancy Harkness Love headed up the related Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The two groups were later merged to form the WASP organization.

Interviews in the documentary indicate that while the women received good training, they were not well paid, received no military benefits, little recognition, no family death benefits and were subject to stricter standards than male pilots. Even so, they loved to fly. This was the greatest adventure of their lives. They flew all the latest military aircraft. Everything from Piper Cubs to B-29 bombers.

From the interviews, it is also evident that these women took great pride in their skill and accomplishments. In addition to flying planes all over the United States and in U.S. territories, they also performed even more dangerous duties, such as towing artillery targets during live fire antiaircraft artillery training, and testing new and repaired planes for airworthiness. A total of 39 women died during the war. The WASPs flew over 60 million miles on thousands of missions.

One pilot recounted a harrowing experience while flight testing a plane because some of its flight controls had been mistakenly assembled backwards. Another said the planes towing artillery targets were sometimes damaged by ground fire. One woman pilot said she had to take the controls from her instructor after he put the plane into an almost urecoverable spin. One woman WASP pilot died in a crash after another plane, piloted by a man, struck the plane she was flying.

WASP pilots were strictly prohibited from romantic relationships with men while on military bases, but pilots interviewed said this kind of thing happened anyway. According to the documentary, when word got out about a lot of attractive young women pilots were training at an air force base, over 100 male pilots very quickly experienced “emergencies” forcing them to land at that base.

The WASP program suddenly ended on December 20, 1944. According to those interviewed, the WASP pilots were heartbroken. Some offered to continue to work for nothing, but their offers were rejected. Some caught military flights back home. Others had to find their own way home. Military recognition, and medals, would not come for the WASPs until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed a G.I. Improvement Bill.

Since this documentary is on low speed VHS tape, and it relies on a wide variety of archival images and video sources, the video quality is very uneven. The sound quality, however, is pretty consistent throughout. It is an informative and entertaining documentary. It rates a B.

“Women of Courage — The Story of the women Pilots of World War II,” (60 minutes, 1993) is directed and produced by Ken Magid and co-produced by Ann Ranke. It is co-produced and edited by Michael Banowetz. It aired, and was sold by PBS station KRMA, Denver. It has also been featured on the Turner Classic Movies channel. It is a production of K.M. Productions Inc., of Lakewood, CO, which is not far from where I live. The production received some funding from the Coors brewing company in Golden, CO. The VHS tape is still for sale at Amazon, and I found what appears to be a fairly complete copy of it on the Jimmymac YouTube channel.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2024 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]