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Posts Tagged ‘Hazel Ying Lee’

Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944) broke through ethnic and gender boundaries to serve the US effort in WWII as a pilot in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program becoming one of the first Chinese American women to fly for the U.S. military, and was killed in action.
Hazel Ying Lee was born in 1912 in Portland, Oregon into a merchant family who had immigrated from Canton, China, in 1911. Her father became a partner in a restaurant. She grew up with seven siblings, and had a reputation as a tomboy, playing cards, running races with the boys, and learning to drive. After graduating from high school in 1929, Lee found a job in downtown Portland as an elevator operator in a department store, one of the few jobs available to a Chinese-American woman at the time. A couple of years later, a ride at an air show captivated Lee, and she began saving money for private flight lessons. At that time, flying was considered a daredevil sport for men, and only a tiny percentage of pilots in the U.S. were women. Lee joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland, took flying lessons, and by October 1932, she had become one of the first Chinese-American women to earn a pilot’s license. Some sources indicate that in 1943 Lee married another member of the Flying Club, “Clifford” Louie Yim-Qun, who later had a distinguished military career. At some point in the 1930s, Lee lived in China, and when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1934, Lee volunteered to fly for the Chinese Air Force. Because she was a woman, she was not accepted by the military, and flew only occasionally, for a commercial private airline. She remained in China until about 1938 when she left to work in New York.
A shortage of male pilots motivated the military to establish the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, (WASP), in 1943. The WASPs ferried planes across the country, towed targets for shooting practice, and moved war materials. Often the WASPs would be the first to fly planes just off the assembly line, and hence the first to learn if there were malfunctions or shoddy manufacturing. Accepted into the 4th training class, Hazel Ying Lee became one of the first Chinese American women to fly for the United States military.
Completing training on August 7, 1944, Lee was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron at Romulus Army Air Base, Michigan. In April 1944 she went to instrument school, followed by intensive training at Pursuit School in September 1944, where she became one of the 134 women pilots who were qualified to fly all the Army’s single-engine fighter aircraft, including P-39, P-40, P-47, P-51 and P-63.
On November 23, 1944, Lee flew a P-63 to Great Falls, Montana. Several P-63s were in their approach to the airport at the same moment. Lee was cleared to land by the control tower radio operators, but another P-63 pilot had been cleared to land using the light system, because his radio was malfunctioning. The control tower radioed both planes to pull up rather than land, as they were attempting to land on the same runway at the same time. The plane with the useless radio did not receive the message, so when Lee pulled up and the other aircraft didn’t, the two planes collided and crashed onto the runway. Lee survived the crash, but suffered severe burns and trauma, and died two days later from her injuries.
The Lee family chose a burial site in a Portland, Oregon, cemetery, but were refused permission to bury the Hazel in the chosen place, because cemetery policy did not allow Asians to be buried there. The Lee family successfully challenged the policy, and Hazel Ying Lee was laid to rest in a non-military funeral, and buried alongside her younger brother Victor, who had also been killed in action.
As many as 25,000 women signed up for the WASP program in 1942, but only 1,074 completed the training. These successful and dedicated WASPs have been credited with opening the door for women aviators and, later, astronauts. As a WASP, Hazel Ying Lee represents a role model for gender equality; as one of the two Chinese-American WASPs, Lee also represents a role model for racial equality. For decades, members of the WASP and their supporters fought for military status for the women pilots, who, despite flying under military command, were classified as civilians. In March of 1979, after Congressional approval of Public Law 95-202, military status was granted.
Further Reading
Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: the Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Drawing upon military documents, congressional records, and interviews, Merryman looks at the WASP wartime experiences and the eventual success of their efforts to gain military status and receive veterans’ benefits.
Hodgson, Marion Stegeman. Winning My Wings: a Woman Airforce Service Pilot in World War II. Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2004. An engaging story told through the letters Hodgson wrote at the time, some of them describing the crashes that killed 38 of the WASPs.
Gott, Kay. Hazel Ah Ying Lee, Women AirForce Service Pilot, World War II : a Portrait, McKinleyville, California: Kay Gott, 1996. One of several books fellow WASP Lois Kay Gott Chaffey has written, this generously illustrated book collects friends’ memories of Hazel Ying Lee.
Strebe, Amy Goodpaster. Flying for Her Country: the American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2009. An accessible account, describing the WASP’s skillful flying, their loyalty to their country, and their grace, both in the sky and on the ground.

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