Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum
WASP pilots walk along a row of B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum
Radio Diaries documentarian Joe Richman.
"When you think about what radio does best, it's the characters and the intimacy of people telling their stories ... Radio's good when you hear them whispering directly into your ear."
That's documentarian Joe Richman, talking about the audio art form that he plies and for which he named his production company: Radio Diaries. This week on All Things Considered, Richman and Radio Diaries present the documentary The WASPs: Women Pilots of WWII.
The half-hour documentary begins in the early 1940s when the Army Air Force faced a dilemma: It needed thousands of newly assembled airplanes delivered to military bases, but most of America's pilots were overseas fighting the war. To solve the problem, the government launched an experimental program to train new pilots -– the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. Drawn from more than 25 hours of interviews and archival tape, the documentary The WASPs presents an oral history of the pioneering program and pilots.
The WASPs is only one of more than 25 radio documentaries Richman has produced –- many of them "radio diaries" where the subjects turn the mikes on themselves and record their own aural journal entries. Critics praise the technique, and Richman's use of it. "Mr. Richman's recorded 'Diaries' are sometimes eerily intimate," says one, "with the audience entering into a closer bond with the person on tape than is possible perhaps in any other medium, including documentary film." And another commends Richman as "a radio Boswell, a biographer who stands aside and lets his subjects do the talking."
Exclusively for npr.org, Richman tells the stories behind the making of the documentary The WASPs.
npr.org: What planted the seed for a project on World War II women aviators?
Richman: It's always strange how stories begin. Usually we go out looking for stories, but sometimes the stories come looking for you. That was the case with the WASPs. Teal Krech, who I work with at Radio Diaries, came to work one day with a page from her high school alumni magazine. She had ripped out a small profile of a woman who had graduated from this high school 60 years earlier. There was a photo from 1943 that showed a tough and beautiful woman in a leather bomber jacket leaning against a huge plane — it was a B-25 — and there was a look in her eyes. The photo told all you needed to know about the WASPs.
How many of these WASPs were there at the height of their service, about how many of them are still alive today — and how did you go about finding them?
The Air Force was looking for pilots to do some of the domestic jobs — ferrying airplanes, testing airplanes, towing targets for anti-aircraft practice — and to take the place of men who were going to combat. In 1941 there were about 3,000 women who had a private flying license. So that's where the Air Force started to look. By the end of the two-year WASP experiment, 25,000 women had applied for the program, 1,800 or so had gone through basic training, and 1,074 graduated.
Of the graduates there are, I think, about 600 still alive. And judging from the 50 or so that we met (about half of whom we interviewed), they are all strong-willed, independent, wonderful, kick-ass women.
When we started to research the story, we found out that in about two weeks, many of the women were going to be meeting in Tucson for a reunion. So our timing was very lucky. We met most of the women we interviewed at the reunion, but also did more interviews with WASPs around the country in the months that followed.
We had to do so many interviews because the documentary has no reporter or narrator (the style we usually work in). The story is told entirely in the voices of the women who flew in World War ll. In the end, we had about 30 hours of interviews, plus tons of wonderful archive newsreel recordings. The newsreels are wonderful and cheesy. It seems that each time Fox Movietone or whoever came to do a story about the WASPs in WWll, there had to be a scene where the women pilots relax in their bathing suits.
What sort of experiences did your interview subjects share about being women in a distinctly male domain?
Well, they all have different views on this. Most of them say it was pretty tough, that some of the men didn't like the idea of women pilots — especially if the women were getting some of the "good" jobs. But all the women talk about their WASP experience as a magical bubble — a lucky accident of history — that allowed them to fly planes that women otherwise would not fly until 1976. That was the year the Air Force finally let women in.
I think it's a classic WWll story for many of these women: The war gave them experience and training that they would not have had otherwise. But when the men came back, the women were expected to leave the factories — and airfields — and return home. As one of the WASPs, Kaddy Steele, said, they didn't want to return to housekeeping or the Junior League. But after the war there weren't many jobs for women pilots.
What's your favorite close-call story from these interviews?
There are so many amazing stories — and of course, like any documentary, so many that never get into the final piece.
Dora Strother tells the story of being one of two women to fly the B-29. It was a brand new plane, the bomber that would later drop the bomb on Japan. But at the time, it was getting a bad reputation at the training bases because of engine fires, and the men didn't want to fly it. So combat test pilot Paul Tibbets had the idea to train two women to fly the B-29 to show the men "how easy it was." (Tibbets subsequently led the crew of the Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.)
Many of the women had interesting close call stories. And, of course, there were some who were killed — engine failure, collisions, etc. Over the two years of the WASPs, 38 women were killed — flying back then was a pretty dangerous thing to do.
Tell us about the WASP you met who's still flying, and your outing with her.
The documentary starts and ends with Elizabeth Eyre Taylor from Massachusetts, who still flies at the age of 79. When we heard that some of the women still fly, well, we knew it had to go in the story. So we went up with her.
It was amazing. And a bit scary. Those small planes are pretty skittish — or was that me? Taylor doesn't fly much anymore, but she also says she has no plans to stop, ever. She's been flying an airplane for 60 years — so I guess we were in good hands.
The documentary The WASPs was produced by Joe Richman, Teal Krech and Shelley Preston. Editors were Ben Shapiro and Deborah George.