In honor of the women who flew fighter planes as Women Airforce Service Pilots, here’s a story I wrote about a WASP that died in training that has not gotten published yet. Rather than keeping it tucked away in my “manuscripts” file on my computer, I’d like to share this picture book biography of Hazel Ying Lee with you on Veterans Day.
Fly, Fighting Bird, Fly!
Hazel Ying Lee: First Chinese-American
Woman Airforce Service Pilot of W.W.II
Copyright by Natasha Wing
Hazel Ying Lee was like a bird in a cage, longing to fly.
She lived in a small village surrounded by a big city in a place called Chinatown. People hardly ever left Chinatown. To them, everything they needed was right there.
Neighbors spoke Cantonese and read Chinese newspapers.
Children were taught how to write Chinese characters.
Families passed down traditions.
If it was up to her community, Hazel would have no need for America.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from being American.
She learned English at public schools.
She wore American fashions. She danced and listened to American music.
She even got her driver’s license!
If it was up to her mother, Hazel had pushed her limits far enough.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from reaching for the sky.
In 1930, when Hazel was 19, an air show came to town. Aviation was a new craze in America.
Hazel was captivated by the planes roaring overhead, performing tricks.
When a friend invited her to fly in his plane, she gladly hopped in. Away they flew high above the city. With the wind in her face, she felt exhilarated and free.
Hazel knew then what she wanted to do more than anything – fly!
She started saving for lessons. But times were tough, and what little money was leftover from her job, went to support her family.
If it was up to the Great Depression, she might never get a chance to learn to fly.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from dreaming.
Opportunity knocked in the name of war.
In 1931, Japan bombed China.
Chinese around the world rallied to save their homeland.
People picketed against sending scrap metal to Japan to make bullets. Ladies refused to wear stockings made of Japanese silk. They put on “Bowl of Rice” fashion shows to raise war money.
When the call went out for fighter pilots – with the training fully paid for- Hazel jumped at the chance.
People in Chinatown were aghast! A girl flyer?
If it was up to them, girls from good families would stay home and raise children. Not go to war.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from signing up.
Her mother said flying was far too dangerous. Still, she was proud of her daughter’s patriotism. She told Hazel, “You have no fear of the wind, no fear of the water.”
Hazel convinced her friend, Virginia Wong, to sign up with her.
When they reported to the airport, there were only two women in the class. Less than one percent of pilots throughout the world were women – only eight of them were Chinese.
Hazel set her sites on becoming the ninth.
She practiced takeoffs and landings. She stalled the engine. Banked turns. And threw the plane into a tailspin, pulling out before crashing. Skills she’d need in combat.
For five months, Hazel studied and flew planes.
If it was up to the oddsmakers, Hazel would fail.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from passing with flying colors.
In 1932, soon after she turned 20, Hazel got her pilot’s license. She had “grown wings” and was ready to be a “fighting bird woman.”
A newspaper story read, “If all the Chinese in China would catch the spirit of pretty Hazel Ying Lee and other young Chinese in America now flooding homeward for defense of their homeland, Japan’s attempt at forcible conquest of Chinese territory would soon end.”
If it was up to Hazel and Virginia, they would show Chinese women that becoming a combat pilot wasn’t just a dream.
But the Chinese government stopped them.
Hazel was downhearted when she was told no girl fliers were allowed in the Chinese army. “We felt as if we had cheated China out of two good fighters.”
Hazel was assigned to work in the aeronautical library. While her fellow male pilots fought bravely in battle, shooting down Japanese planes, Hazel could only listen to their stories.
If it was up to Virginia, Hazel would leave the army.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from losing hope.
She begged the army to let her fly again.
Finally, the army said yes. She could fly. But not fighter planes. Instead, she was given a job as a flight instructor for passenger planes.
How was that serving the country?
Frustrated, she returned to America.
If it was up to discrimination, she’d never fly war planes.
Luckily, America gave women the go-ahead.
On December 7,1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Now China and the United States shared a common enemy. With a war on, airplane factories were in full swing.
The United States Army Air Forces soon announced a new training program for female pilots.
Hazel easily qualified. But to Americans, she looked like the enemy.
Americans were afraid of Asians. Some even hated them for threatening their country.
If it was up to prejudice, Hazel would be turned down from the program.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from applying.
She was Chinese, not Japanese. Most importantly, she was American ready to serve her country.
Of the more than 25,000 women who applied for the chance to become Women Airforce Service Pilots – housewives, mothers, students, secretaries, and beauticians – only 1,857 were accepted. Including one Chinese.
Hazel was assigned to the fourth training class at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. In the remote dusty desert, classmates trained from 6:15 in the morning until 10 at night, seven days a week.
Hazel had only six months to prove that she could handle fighter planes. The training was so tough that many “washed out” or failed.
Yet nothing stopped Hazel from forging on.
On August 7, 1943, Hazel the fighting bird earned her second pair of wings.
She hoisted herself into the open cockpit, checked her instruments, and positioned her goggles. She called the tower for weather clearance. A-okay.
With a roar, Hazel took to the sky.
Nothing could stop her now!
Hazel Ying Lee End Notes
Hazel Ying Lee was one of the first women of Chinese nationality in the world to get her pilot’s license. This was an amazing feat considering that at the time, only one percent of the licensed pilots were women, and less than ten of those women were Chinese.
Hazel got her license through the Portland Flying Club. When Japan bombed China in 1931, the Chinese community in Portland raised $20,000 and formed the Portland Flying Club to train fighter pilots. Hazel went through the training program at Swan Island Airport and was instructed by Allan Greenwood. She and her friend, Virginia Wong, were the only women in the class with 34 men (one of whom would become her future husband).
Hazel passed with honors and received her license on October 24, 1932. It is believed that Hazel and Virginia were the only women to go to China as trained fighter pilots.
Women were not allowed to fight in the Chinese army so Hazel was assigned a job at the aeronautical library. She begged to fly and was given a job as a flight instructor for a commercial airline in China. She quit that job and joined her family when her mother, sister and brothers moved to Canton during the Depression. Hazel met her half-sister, Ngan Don, who lived in Canton and had stayed behind when their father moved to America.
On Easter day in 1938, the Japanese bombed Canton and Hazel’s family fled to Hong Kong. (During this exodus, personal belongings such as scrapbooks were left behind, which is why few photos of Hazel and her family exist.) Hazel continued to help with the war effort by visiting a refugee camp for women with babies.
After five years in war-torn China, she returned to the United States in 1938. Portland’s Chinatown greeted her as a heroine, but Hazel downplayed her part in the war effort because she was disappointed she couldn’t fly. Instead she asked that food, clothing and medicine be sent to the refugee camp. She moved to New York and lived with her sister, Rose, while working to get weapons for combat planes in China.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the United States entered World War II, flying ace Jacqueline Cochran convinced the government that women fliers would be useful to the army. Women weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they could relieve male pilots in the United States so the men could go into battle overseas.
The Women Airforce Service Pilot program was experimental and the women who agreed to be part of it were classified as civilians and weren’t officially in the military. Yet the program offered women a chance to fly and serve their country. They were paid $250 a month.
Hazel was in the fourth class (W-43-4) that trained in Sweetwater, Texas at Avenger Field. She was the first Chinese-American to become a WASP. Hazel completed further training and became a ferrying pilot. She tested brand new planes right off the assembly line and flew them from factories to bases. The planes were then taken apart and shipped overseas to be flown in World War II. Ferrying pilots also flew battle-worn planes back to factories to be repaired or put out of service.
Hazel loved to fly so much that even after fellow Portland Flying Club pilot Clifford Louie came back to the United States and married her, she didn’t return with him to China. Instead she wanted to stay with the WASP until the war was over.
Sadly, Hazel died before then. While ferrying a plane on Thanksgiving Day in 1944, she was hit by another plane and crashed. She died of burns two days later, one of 38 WASP who died in the line of duty.
Hazel Ying Lee Louie is buried in Portland, Oregon near her brother, Victor Lee, who also died proudly for our country in W.W.II.
Thirty-three years after Hazel’s crash, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law “officially declaring the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots as having served on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
The WASP program opened the door for future female pilots to fly in combat as military personnel. In 2007, there were 588 female pilots in the United States Air Force, 65 of them trained fighter pilots.
On July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama signed bill S.614 awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP.
“Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17…Well, now in 1944 we can come to only one conclusion — the entire operation has been a success. It is on record that women can fly as well as men…Every WASP has filled a vital and necessary place in the jigsaw pattern of victory.”
– General Hap Arnold, Commander of Army Air Forces, 1944