On November 10th, 1944, pilot Hazel Ying Lee reported to Bell Aircraft factory at Niagara Falls, New York. She was given orders to pick up a new P-63 fighter and fly it to Great Falls, Montana.
As one of 132 female pilots trained to “fly pursuit,” Lee was qualified to pilot the super-fast and powerful fighters of the era, including the P-51s, P-47s and P-39s.
Lee and other pilots delivered over 5,000 fighters to Great Falls as part of the United States link in supplying Russian allies with planes during World War II. From Great Falls, male pilots flew the fighters on to Alaska, where Russian pilots waited to fly the planes home.
For Lee, keeping arduous schedules, working six or seven days a week with only eight hours between shifts was common practice. Pilots like her were often stuck in small towns for up to a week because of bad weather.
And on this mission, weather problems would force Lee to stop in Fargo on her way to Great Falls. It took until the morning of November 23, 1944 for her to arrive in Great Falls.
LEARNING TO FLY
Born in Portland, Oregon, on August 24, 1912. Lee was the daughter of Chinese parents who had raised eight children during a time of widespread Anti-Chinese bias.
Following graduation from High School in 1929, Lee found a job as an elevator operator at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland. It was one of the few jobs a Chinese-American woman was allowed to hold at that time.
In 1932, after a friend let her ride with him at an air show, Lee, was hooked on flying. She already had a reputation as a tomboy, growing up playing handball and running races with the boys, and immediately began saving money for private flight lessons. Despite opposition from her mother, she just “had to fly,” even though at that time, less than one percent of pilots in the U.S. were women.
The allure of flying was too powerful for Lee to ignore. She was known to love and enjoy danger — and doing something that was new to a Chinese girl at that time was exciting. And so she began her pursuit of the dream of flying.
Lee eventually enrolled in a flying program sponsored by the Chinese Benevolent Society and joined the Portland Flying Club. She took flying lessons with famed aviator Al Greenwood.
By October 1932, Lee had become one of the first Chinese-American women to earn a pilot’s license. She became one of only a handful of other Chinese-American women pilots.
At the time, flying was considered a relatively new daredevil sport dominated mostly by men. Lee was seen as a rebel for breaking the stereotype of the passive Chinese woman and was acting in a manner that was “unladylike.”
Soon after, Lee traveled to China and volunteered to fight against the Japanese invasion as part of the Chinese Air Force. But because she was a woman, Lee was forced to take a desk job with the Chinese military and flew only occasionally, for a commercial company operating out of Nanjing.
In 1938, after fleeing advancing Japanese troops and spending nearly a year as a war refugee in Hong Kong, Lee returned to the United States and worked in New York for the Chinese government as a buyer of war materials for besieged China.
JOINING THE WASP
After several years of frustration over not being able to fly, Lee jumped at the chance to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in 1943 when the U.S. military finally realized it didn’t have enough male pilots for both the home front and overseas.
Members of the WASP reported to Avenger Field, in wind swept Sweetwater, Texas for an arduous six-month training program. Lee was accepted into the 4th class, 43 W 4. At that time, she became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the United States military.
The groundbreaking WASP program trained female pilots to ferry military aircraft from their manufacturer to airfields across North America. Although women pilots like Lee weren’t flying on the front lines during World War II, their work was dangerous and unpredictable. The pilots were the first to fly planes straight off the assembly line – ” and were usually the first to discover malfunctions or shoddy manufacturing.
During training, Lee was forced to make an emergency landing in a farmer’s field after her aircraft developed engine problems. The farmer mistook her for a Japanese pilot and held her at pitchfork point, believing he was being invaded. His son called Avenger Field and let them know one of the WASP trainees had made a forced landing at their farm, and soon she was back at the base with a story to tell.
Lee, who was nearly a decade older than most of the other pilots, emerged as a leader during her training. The pilots would often take off and land in large groups as they ferried whole shipments of new aircraft from one location to another.
Known for her fun-loving, mischievous nature, Lee would go out of her way to find Chinese restaurants, even in a lonely Midwest town, and educate other pilots about the food. Former WASP members still have cartoon sketches of Lee ordering dishes in rapid-fire Cantonese while her friends listened in amazement.
But if Lee was aware that she was making history as the first Chinese-American female pilot, it never showed. She didn’t talk about her ethnicity, and although many of the other pilots had never met a Chinese person before, they soon no longer noticed.
Lee completed training on August 7, 1944 and was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron at Romulus Army Air Base, Mich. She primarily flew trainer and liaison type aircraft until April 1944 when she was sent to instrument school as part of an upgrade program designed to prepare her for flying advanced aircrafts.
After completing instrument pilot school, she attended Officer Candidate School in June because of the belief that the WASPs would soon be militarized and commissioned as Lieutenants in the Army. She completed her training by attending Pursuit School in September 1944.
Pursuit School qualified her to fly all the Army’s single-engine fighter aircraft, including P-39, P-40, P-47, P-51 and P-63. She graduated on October 2, 1944 (with six other WASPs and 27 men) and returned to the 3rd Ferrying Group to resume deliveries of aircraft. She was prepared for almost anything and worked hard to keep up with her schedule.
But the work began to take a toll on Lee, who wrote in letters home that she was exhausted from flying seven days a week and wondered what would happen to her.
On the morning of November 23, 1944, the weather cleared and Lee was finally able to fly her P-63 from Fargo to Great Falls. A little after 2 P.M., she was cleared to land. But a large number of P-63’s approached the airport at the same time.
One male pilot, also flying a P-63, had a malfunctioning radio and was unable to contact the control tower for landing instructions by radio, so landing control lights were used.
Lee was cleared to land by the control tower radio operators at the same time the other P-63 pilot was cleared to land using the light system. As both planes were attempting to land on the same runway at the same time, the control tower radioed for the pilots to pull-up and go around without landing to avoid a collision.
Unfortunately, Lee’s aircraft was slightly in front of and below the other aircraft with the malfunctioning radio. When she pulled up and the other aircraft didn’t, the two planes collided and crashed onto the runway.
Although Lee survived the crash, she sustained severe burns and trauma in the resulting fire. She was pulled from her burning aircraft and rushed to a local hospital, but later died from her injuries on November 25, 1944. She was 33.
The WASP program ended less than a month later, on December 20, 1944. More than a 1,000 women participated in the program. Thirty-eight women pilots died in accidents, including Lee.
Three days after Lee’s tragic death, her family learned that her younger brother Victor, serving with the US Tank Corp., was killed in a battle in France.
As the Lee family prepared to bury Hazel and Victor, after picking out a burial site in a Portland, Oregon cemetery, they were immediately refused permission to bury the bodies in the chosen spot, citing cemetery policy that did not allow Asians to be buried “in the White section.”
But after a lengthy legal battle, the Lee family prevailed. Hazel Ying Lee was laid to rest in a non-military funeral, and buried alongside her brother, on a sloping hill, overlooking the Columbia River.
Hazel Ying Lee never got to fly for China in World War II during the seizure of Northeastern China by the Japanese and their creation of “Manchukuo.” But she did succeed in helping free China through the very Russian plane delivery program she died while participating in.
Although, the P-63s that were sent through Great Falls arrived in Russia too late to see much action in Europe, they were used at Konigsberg — and in the final drive on Berlin at the end of the war. The planes were also main assets in the USSR’s “Operation August Storm,” also referred to as “The Battle of Manchuria,” in 1945, when the Soviet’s liberated Northeastern China. It was a fitting close to the circle of Hazel Ying Lee’s brief, but heroic life.
Despite flying under military command, Lee and the other women pilots of the WASP were classified as civilians during World War II. They were paid through the civil service. No military benefits were offered. Even if killed in the line of duty, no military funerals were allowed.
For over three decades, members of the WASP and their supporters attempted to secure military status for the women pilots. In March of 1979, following United States Congressional approval of Public Law 95-202, the efforts of the Women Airforce Service pilots were finally recognized and military status was finally granted.
In 2002, filmmaker Alan Rosenberg created the documentary, A Brief Flight: Hazel Ying Lee and The Women Who Flew Pursuit, as a belated tribute to Lee after nearly 60 years of virtual anonymity.
Few women of color served in the WASP. There were two Chinese-Americans, Hazel Ying Lee and Margaret “Maggie” Gee, and one Native American, but no African Americans were allowed to serve as WASP.
Margaret “Maggie” Gee, a 1941 graduate of Berkeley High School, started the war as a mechanical draftsman at Mare Island, California. However, her dream was to fly and as soon as she had saved enough money, she took flying lessons. Gee accumulated 50 hours of flight time and qualified for acceptance into the WASP.
After graduating from the training program, Gee was assigned a training position. She took military pilots up for qualifying flights to renew their instrument ratings and co-piloted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers through mock dogfights staged to train bomber gunners.
Family and friends of Hazel Ying Lee are currently rallying support to have her honored with a National Postage Stamp. Please Send a letter of support to: USPS Stamp Development, 1735 N. Lynn St., Suite 5013 Arlington, VA 22209 Attention: Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee A salute to Hazel Ying Lee and other Asian American women who fought for their country will take place in Winter 2007 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Additional Info: www.museumofflight.org
For more information on the life of Hazel Ying Lee or to order the documentary video, please visit the website at: www.hazelyinglee.com.
Lee’s remarkable story is also featured in the inaugural exhibition “Fighting For Democracy” in the new National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. Exhibition specifics can be found at www.ncdemocracy.org
Edmund Moy is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and Center for Asian American Media. His writing has appeared in Asian Week, Asiance, Asian American Film, 13 Minutes, Monolid and Woman International.