Chinese American WASP Losing Her Anonymity
Frances Tong isn’t sure why she kept the letter from her older sister for all these years.
In the letter, now brown with age, a young and fearless Hazel Ying Lee asks about family members and talks about the dangers of her job ferrying fighter planes to North American airfields during World War II.
But the letter was nothing special and Tong kept it only because her sister’s even, rolling cursive was so beautiful. She’s glad she did.
The letter was the last one Lee wrote to her sister before she died in a fiery crash in Montana near the end of the war.
It is also a key document in a PBS special about Lee, the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military, which airs this month on affiliates nationwide.
“It so happened that Hazel got her pilot’s license right after the passing of our father. If dad had still been there, I don’t think she would have been able to get it,” Tong said as she recalled her sister’s flight lessons in 1932. “But she knew that’s what she wanted to do. She didn’t care if it was ladylike or not.”
The documentary, “A Brief Flight: Hazel Ying Lee and the Women Who Flew Pursuit,” is a belated tribute to Lee after nearly 60 years of virtual anonymity.
Born in Portland, Ore., in 1912, the feisty Lee was among the first women to enroll in a groundbreaking program that trained female pilots to ferry military aircraft from their manufacturer to airfields throughout North America.
She was also one of 132 female pilots trained to “fly pursuit,” meaning that she was qualified to pilot the super-fast and powerful fighters -- P-51s, P-47s and P-39s.
The program, called the Women Airforce Service Pilots, was created in 1943 when the U.S. military realized that it didn’t have enough male pilots for both the home front and overseas.
“It was fly, fly, fly,” said Sylvia Clayton, a former WASP and friend of Lee’s. “It was an opportunity to fly, and it was something that we felt was helping the war cause.”
Although female pilots didn’t fly on the front lines, their work was dangerous and unpredictable. The pilots were the first to fly planes straight off the assembly line -- and were also the first to discover malfunctions or shoddy manufacturing.
They kept arduous schedules, working six or seven days a week with only eight hours between shifts. They often were stuck in small towns for up to a week because of bad weather.
More than 1,000 women participated before the program was disbanded in December 1944. Thirty-eight died in accidents, including Lee.
Lee’s passion for flying started at age 19, when a friend let her ride with him at an air show.
Lee, who already had a reputation as a tomboy who played handball and ran races with boys, immediately began saving money for flight lessons.
She joined the Portland Flying Club -- one of only two girls -- and took lessons at an airfield on Swan Island, north of Portland.
A year later, she had her pilot’s license.
“There was nothing Mother could do,” said Tong, Lee’s younger sister, now 84. “She said, ‘You’re not afraid of the wind, you’re not afraid of the water,’ and that was that. I thought it was very typical of Hazel.”
Almost immediately, Lee traveled to China and volunteered to fight against the Japanese invasion as part of the Chinese Air Force.
But because she was a woman, Lee was forced to take a desk job with the Chinese military and flew only occasionally, for a commercial company operating out of Nanjing.
In 1938, after fleeing advancing Japanese troops and spending nearly a year as a war refugee in Hong Kong, Lee returned to the United States and took another desk job at an aviation company in New York City.
After years of frustration over not being able to fly, she jumped at the chance to join the military’s WASP program in 1943.
She was in the first group of women to complete a grueling six-month training program at Avenger Airfield in Sweetwater, Texas, where temperatures sometimes reached 130 degrees.
Other female pilots who met her in Sweetwater -- and later at her assigned air base in Romulus, Mich. -- remember Lee as a bubbly optimist with a mischievous streak and a taste for fried chicken.
“She was in our room more than she was in hers. She would come bouncing in, laughing, with the latest information or joke. She was always very jolly,” said A. J. Starr, a former WASP and one of Lee’s best friends.
Lee, who was nearly a decade older than many of her fly mates, emerged as a leader.
The pilots would often take off and land in large groups as they ferried whole shipments of new aircraft from one location to another.
Lee always focused on finding the best -- and sometimes the only -- Chinese restaurant in a lonely Midwestern town and educating her fly mates about the fare.
Starr still has cartoon sketches that she made of Lee ordering dishes in rapid-fire Cantonese while her friends listened in amazement.
If Lee was aware that she was making history as the first Chinese American female pilot, it never showed. She didn’t talk about her ethnicity, and although many of her fly mates had never met a Chinese person before, they soon no longer noticed.
“It seemed as if everyone she met was a friend,” Clayton said. “She didn’t think of herself as a trendsetter.”
The work began to take a toll on Lee, who wrote in a letter just before she died that she was exhausted from flying seven days a week and wondered what would happen to her, said Montgomery Hom, the film’s co-producer.
“What struck me was that in her diary and her letters, we found she almost had an eerie premonition of her death,” he said.
On Thanksgiving Day 1944, Lee was severely injured when she pulled up from an aborted landing in Great Falls, Mont., and slammed into the plane above her. She died a few days later from burns and fractures. She was 33.
The WASP program ended less than a month later, on Dec. 20, 1944.
Three days after Lee’s death, her family learned that younger brother Victor had been killed in battle in France.
“I remember thinking here we are, so close to the end of the program,” Clayton said. “I can’t help but think she died doing what she really enjoyed doing.”
Because the female pilots were never classified as military employees, Lee’s family paid out of their own pocket to bring her body to Portland and bury her. Her family had to fight cemetery rules barring nonwhites from its plots, Tong said.
Hom, the co-producer, is working with the Air Force Review Board to have Lee officially retired posthumously. The project, if it succeeds, could also apply to the 37 other female pilots killed on duty in World War II.
“A Brief Flight” had its national premiere April 26 at Portland State University.
After the film, Starr -- who traveled from Moraga, Calif. -- put on her WASP uniform and visited her old friend’s grave.
“It put a final cap on this whole thing for me. It was very sad,” said Starr, now 82. “I’m sure she would be some kind of a leader now. We enjoyed her so very much.”