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Veterans on the Homefront: A Wasp Born to Fly

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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.

Comments (9)

  1. What a great story, and kind of amazing to hear that her first instructor took her on so quickly! I appreciate hearing the emotion in Violet’s voice when she talks of being honored as a veteran, and the gasp from one of the people in the room is also poignant.

  2. Fascinating story about a wonderful woman

  3. I never had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Cowden. But I wager she was an excellent pilot. Background on me:my last flying assignment was “driving” a B747 for a major air line, before that I was an F4 pilot during the Nam era. But I got my Private License and basic skills from a former WASP located in the Washington DC area known as Velta Benn. Ms. Benn taught me much, particularly how to finesse an aircraft. I could land a Heavy without waking your Grandmother due to Velta’s instruction. I am fortunate and proud to have known a WASP.

  4. Response from Megan Harris, author of the blog post:

    Thanks for reading and your comment, Mr. Funderburk! We’re glad the post sparked memories of Ms. Benn. As your reminiscences illustrate, the WASPs were an inimitable group of individuals, and we’re honored to house many of their stories within the Veterans History Project archives. If you’d be interested in sharing an account of your own service, please let us know at [email protected]. Thank you again!

  5. I also had the privilege and honor of knowing Velta Ben.She was my check-ride pilot for all my ratings.Including commercial,instrument,multi-eng,flight instructor. She was an extraordinary pilot and a great person. She told the story, how she used to hang by her feet,to stretch, in order to make the height requirement to be accepted by the WASP’s. She used to spend a lot of her time at PG Airport, (Friendly Airport) in Ft Washington Md.

  6. Response from Megan Harris:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Ms. Benn, Mr. Kertesz! I’m glad that WASPS like Violet Cowden and Velta Benn are still fondly remembered, and that their legacy lives on in pilots such as yourself. Thank you again!

  7. I am adding my thoughts to Mr. Kertesz’s. I learned to fly at W-28, PG Airpark in my time flying there, and got to know Velta Benn. She was a remarkable person, and I appreciate very much seeing her signature on my instrument check ride log entry when I riffle through the pages periodically. Velta and I would talk about airplanes hanging around the airfield. I don’t think I realized her place in aviation history, and wish that I had asked a lot more questions about her experiences.

  8. love this cight

  9. Thanks for sharing your memories of Ms. Benn, Mr. Kertesz! I’m glad that WASPS like Violet Cowden and Velta Benn are still fondly remembered, and that their legacy lives on in pilots such as yourself. Thank you again!

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