Women pilots known as WASPs served the country during World War II, many of them at Camp Davis in Holly Ridge.
Walking along Topsail Island’s beachfront is generally a peaceful experience, particularly during the off-season. It’s difficult to imagine a time when the sky was filled with war planes and the air rife with the staccato of antiaircraft artillery fire.
Yet that’s exactly what occurred almost 80 years ago during World War II. At that time, the island was largely uninhabited, providing the U.S. Army with the perfect location to train its antiaircraft artillery gunners. Between 1941 and 1945, in an effort to protect the North Carolina coast from potential enemy attack, the U.S. Army erected antiaircraft guns in the sand and learned how to accurately aim at moving airborne targets.
Women Enter the War Effort
As the war heated up and increasing numbers of American pilots were needed on the front lines, the government accepted Nancy Harkness Love’s request to open an experimental female pilot training program called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) as well as Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and WFTD programs merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
To say that women nationwide were excited about these opportunities is an understatement.
It is reported that 25,000 women applied to participate in the programs, and 1,830 were accepted. Each woman already possessed a civilian pilot’s license and then underwent seven months of ground school and basic training at Sweetwater Army Air Field (aka Avenger Field) in Texas before being assigned to 120 different Army Air Bases throughout the United States, including Camp Davis in Holly Ridge.
In the Line of Fire
According to literature from Topsail Beach’s Missiles and More Museum, WASPs flew 78 different types of aircraft (including the B-29). In addition to ferrying planes from base to base across the country, their orders also included the highly dangerous job of towing targets.
As Clifford Tyndall explains in his book Greetings from Camp Davis, “Most of the aerial antiaircraft targets were attached to tow planes with a 2,400-foot cable. The lengthy cable was necessary to ensure a margin of safety from the large caliber weaponry used by antiaircraft troops during these exercises.” WASPs also flew tow targets, which resembled wind socks, at night “to give searchlight crews practice picking up enemy raiders in the darkness.”
Amazingly, none of the women were shot down by the gunners at Topsail, although there were some close calls and at least one reported stray bullet strike.
Life for WASPs on Base
David Stallman, in his book Echoes of Topsail, offers a glimpse of what life was like for the female pilots stationed at Camp Davis: “For those first 30 or so WASPs, in an army base of 100,000 men, there was much ogling and male attention … [but] for the most part, the women were remembered as pretty aggressive and tough.”
They were also independent. Stallman quotes one WASP as saying, “Our Air Force had no Officer’s Club at Camp Davis and we were not very welcome at the Antiaircraft Officer’s Club, so we would fly to other bases for dinner and dancing.”
Utilized but Not Recognized
Women pilots followed the orders of military officers, lived on military bases, wore military uniforms and accepted life-threatening risks to participate in the top-secret WASPs program. Nevertheless, the WASPs officially remained civilian employees. This meant that although they received a salary ($150 per month during training and $250 after graduation), they nevertheless had to purchase their own food, uniforms, housing and transportation to training and back home again once their service ended.
According to additional literature from the Missiles and More Museum, the 38 WASPs who died nationwide while in service to our country, including three from Camp Davis, “received no recognition, no honors, no benefits, no gold stars, and no American flag was allowed to be draped over their coffins.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1979 that WASPs received official veteran’s status.
These brave and resourceful women served passionately and whole-heartedly until the U.S. Army Air Force disbanded the WASP program in 1945.
At that time, all the female pilots were sent home and replaced by the returning male pilots. Several of these women went on to work as civilian flight instructors, and some continued to fly planes recreationally. It wasn’t until 1982 that women were allowed to become U.S. Air Force pilots, and it wasn’t until 1993 that they were permitted to once again fly combat aircraft.
Want to learn more?
The Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach features an in-depth WASPs exhibit as well as displays about other local historical events. Check their website (missilesandmoremuseum.org) and Facebook page or call (910) 328-8663 for updates about opening days and times. The museum is located at 720 Channel Boulevard in Topsail Beach.
Photography by Shay Perna