Veterans on the Homefront: A Wasp Born to Fly

This is a guest post by Megan Harris, a librarian with the Veterans History Project. It is one of four profiles that make up “Veterans on the Homefront,” published in the November–December 2017 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. This profile recounts the way in which Violet Clara Thurn Cowden was affected by her time in uniform.

Violet Cowden aboard her plane.

As a farm girl growing up in South Dakota, Violet Cowden watched hawks soaring high in the sky and yearned to do the same. By the time World War II was declared, she had already obtained her private pilot’s license, so the decision to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program was easy.

As she said in her 2003 Veterans History Project oral history interview, “I thought, ‘Well, what better way to serve my country than to fly and do the thing that I love most, and I didn’t have to pay for the gas.’”

Established in 1943, the WASP program employed female pilots to fly domestically in order to liberate men for service overseas, and Cowden was determined to take part. Both underweight and under height, she gorged on bananas and put a wrap in her hair in order to pass the physical examination.

Her determination paid off. Cowden beat the odds to be accepted into the program: Out of 25,000 applicants, only about a thousand received their wings. Serving as a pursuit pilot, Cowden was tasked with retrieving planes from the factory and flying them to the point of debarkation. She loved the visceral experience of flying the P-51, the fastest plane made at the time: She said it felt like an extension of her body, as if she had been given actual wings.

The WASP program was disbanded late in the war, as male pilots began to trickle home from combat tours and the need for pilots was no longer so dire. Considered civil servants rather than veterans, Cowden and her fellow WASPs found themselves without veterans benefits and passed over for jobs in commercial cockpits in favor of their male counterparts. It would take decades of persistent advocacy on their part before their military service was recognized as such: They were designated as veterans in 1977.

In reflecting on her time as a WASP, Cowden said, “I certainly didn’t think I was a pioneer. I was doing a job.” The Women Airforce Service Pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama in 2010. Violet Cowden passed away in 2011 at the age of 94.

Inquiring Minds: Raising a Curtain on Amy Beach, Musical Pioneer

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Amy Beach (1867–1944), whose musical accomplishments changed the way Americans understood the possibilities for women in music. Born in New Hampshire to a prominent New England family, Beach was a child prodigy: by age four, she was composing simple waltzes; at seven, she began giving […]

Update on the Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress

In 2010, the Library of Congress announced an exciting and groundbreaking acquisition—a gift from Twitter of the entire archive of public tweet text beginning with the first tweets of 2006 through 2010, and continuing with all public tweet text going forward. The Library took this step for the same reason it collects other materials – […]

Featured Item: Let’s Go Sledding!

To celebrate the season, we’re highlighting a historical advertisement for Star Toboggans on our home page this month. The colorful sledding scene is part of the Library’s Popular Graphic Arts Collection, which contains more than 15,000 historical prints published between 1700 and 1900. The prints depict images from everyday life, historical events, celebrities, popular destinations […]

Trending: Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?

Thomas Edison, inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During Christmas 1880, strands of lights were strung outside his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, giving railroad passengers traveling by their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost 40 years for electric […]

Rare Book of the Month: Caldecott for Christmas

This is a guest post by digital library specialist Elizabeth Gettins. This December, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division is revisiting the lively and whimsical illustrations of Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886), who customarily published works at Christmastime, giving his young readership a special holiday treat. This tradition started as the result of a lucky circumstance […]

This Day in History: Wright Brothers Take Flight

On a dark and windy morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 114 years ago this Sunday, Orville Wright took flight in a tiny airplane he and his brother Wilbur had painstakingly constructed. The 605-pound craft flew all of 120 feet and remained airborne only 12 seconds. After Orville’s first success, Wilbur set the […]

Free to Use and Reuse: Selections from the National Film Registry

The Library of Congress is offering film lovers a special gift during the holiday season: Sixty-four motion pictures, named to the Library’s National Film Registry, are now available online. The collection, “Selections from the National Film Registry,” is also available on YouTube. These films are among hundreds of titles that have been tapped for preservation because of […]