Sarah Byrn Rickman. Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2014. 352 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57441-576-6.
Reviewed by Brad Gladman
Published on H-War (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The story of Nancy Harkness Love is one that deserves to be told, not just for her individual accomplishments as a pioneering female pilot but also for the legacy she left. As a chronicle of Nancy Love’s individual accomplishments, Sarah Byrn Rickman’s Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II is a useful source. It is a well-researched and engagingly written story of the course of Love’s life, using a range of sources from her high school report card through to the more typical archival sources one would expect to find. But while the chronicle is interesting, ultimately what matters more is the exploration of the legacy of Nancy Love, her bureaucratic struggles with Jackie Cochrane and the role of General “Hap” Arnold in what became of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Ferry Pilots, and how she paved the way for future female pilots. It is here that the reader is left feeling a bit unsatisfied by Rickman’s work.
Rickman chronicles Nancy Harkness’s early passion for flying, and how at the age of sixteen she took her first flight, paying a penny a pound. She, like many young aspiring pilots, was immediately hooked by the sheer exhilaration of the experience, returning later for an aerobatic flight. She quickly earned her pilot’s license, opening the vast country to exploration from the air. She was not the only one to do so and perhaps not on the leading edge when compared with Amelia Earhart’s “daring and dangerous” solo flight from Hawaii to the mainland, but Rickman places Harkness’s story in an appropriate context. Her initial job, working for her future husband Robert Love, saw Nancy Harkness demonstrating how easy airplanes were to fly. The general prediction was that like the family car, the private plane would be indispensable as a means of future family transportation. In contrast to the reality of aviation, which makes no distinction for gender or improper technique, many believed that if women could fly, then anyone could.
Nancy Harkness Love’s lasting accomplishments would come during the Second World War, where she came to command the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) at the age of twenty-eight. By this time, she had been in the air for almost half of her life. Her eagerness to show how women pilots could help the Allied effort is outlined, as is the overshadowing of those efforts by Jacqueline Cochran. Again, Rickman is challenged in determining Love’s real views of Jackie Cochran, as she did not keep a diary and failed to write a memoir after the war. Love was, in short, an intensely private person, something that makes the historian’s task all the more difficult. Thus, while Rickman sides with Love in the various battles with Cochran, a detailed picture of her views of Cochran (and indeed of Hap Arnold) is missing. It is known, however, that Cochran was close to US president Franklin Delano and his wife, Eleanor, and that her ambition and personality were larger than life. Cochran wanted to develop a national program for commercial, transport, and ferry flying to free men for combat duty. With General Arnold’s approval, she traveled to England to study the British Air Transport Auxiliary establishment. While she was there the United States was finally forced into the war by Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the United States. Without sufficient pilots, Arnold approved the formation of the WAFS, a non-military organization, under Love’s direction to ferry aircraft immediately to ports of embarkation to bring them into the war.
The WAFS were quickly in Cochran’s sights following her return from England, and Rickman does not explore General Arnold’s role in the battles that followed in sufficient detail, although there is sufficient scholarship and archival evidence with which to do so. While she does chronicle the establishment of the WASP organization and notes that Arnold chose Cochran to take control of both efforts, subordinating Love’s Ferrying Division to the WASP, she does not explore Arnold’s motivations and attitudes towards the two figures individually and towards women pilots in general. This is a crucial element in determining how well Love did in these bureaucratic battles, and thus her legacy, but Rickman does not deal directly with this topic. Instead, she hints that Arnold did not want women flying aircraft into war zones when he stopped Love and Betty Gillies’s flight of a B-17 across the Atlantic in 1943, and leaves it there. But there is certainly more to it than that. It is these details that Nancy Harkness Love’s story needs for an accurate assessment of her legacy to future generations of female pilots.
In the final stages of the war in Europe, male pilots returning home were demanding the jobs previously done by the WASPs, and again Arnold agreed. Though still suffering from a shortage of trained ferry pilots, the WASP program was disbanded in the fall of 1944. Rickman provides little detail on Love’s engagement on this key issue with Cochran and the other senior officers with whom she had a close working relationship. Instead, and in the social history tradition that drives this narrative, it is the admittedly fascinating account of Love’s experience in India as the first American woman to fly a C-54 over the risky Himalayan supply route (known as flying “the Hump”) and the Crescent supply route upon which Rickman focuses.
Rickman’s account of Nancy Love’s life ends unhappily with her return to the domestic routine and quiet family life where, despite her obvious love for her children, she was insufficiently challenged and struggled with alcoholism. Her death in 1976 of breast cancer at the age of only sixty-two brings the story to a tragic end, rather than to one where the reader can fully appreciate the legacy of a life lived by a woman who helped pioneer women’s entry into aviation and in a larger sense championed the rights of women. It is here that the full description of her role in the bureaucratic battles against Cochran and Hap Arnold would have added some closure to the story. With that said, those familiar with the WASP story will find Rickman’s work of value, as will those more inclined to the social history tradition.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Brad Gladman. Review of Rickman, Sarah Byrn, Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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