Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for Hazel Ying Lee - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challege

Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944)
Hazel Ying Lee grew up in a large family with seven brothers and sisters in Portland, Oregon. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, to dream of flying an airplane was an unrealistic goal. For one, she was Chinese-American, and two, she was a girl. But dream she did, and when a friend treated her at 19 to a ride at an airshow, it seemed she might fly after all.

Saving her money for flight lessons, Hazel started training at an airfield on nearby Swan Island and joined the Portland Flying Club (one of two girls). Her mother was opposed to the lessons, but according to a sister, Hazel "enjoyed the danger and doing something that was new to Chinese girls." One year later (1932), Hazel became one of the first Chinese-American women to earn a pilot's license and was eager to put her flying skills to work.

With the Japanese invasion of northern China (1932-1933), Hazel joined other Chinese-Americans in the fight. Thinking she would join the Chinese Air Force, she was promptly turned down (twice) in 1933. Female pilots were not allowed. Instead, she accepted an office job with the military and briefly flew for a private airline. [An interesting aside is Korean Kwon Ki-ok's experience in 1925 as China's first female pilot; see K post]. In 1938, the Japanese launched a full scale attack, and after witnessing the deaths of hundreds of civilians, Hazel was forced to return to the United States.  

World War II and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the playing field for female pilots in the U.S. The demand for male pilots was impossible to meet, and although support by the military command and the media was mixed (opposition was high), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (known as WASP) was formed in 1943. Hazel was among the recruits accepted and became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military. More than one-thousand women would join the WASP. Although under military command in every way, the WASP were classified as civilians and did not receive military benefits. That said, military assignments were less than desirable. Their missions as transport pilots often meant flying in open cockpits in bad weather.
Hazel (on rt) with other WASP receiving training. 
She flew P-51s, P-47s and P-39s, one of 132
female pilots, selected to "fly pursuit."
Hazel was assigned to the third Ferrying Group at Romulus, Michigan. Automobile factories had been converted into full scale aircraft factories and it was her group's job to deliver new aircraft to designated sites for shipping to war fronts in Europe and the Pacific. Work schedules were full, a "7-day workweek, with little time off," Hazel's sister later described in an interview.

Lifelong friendships were forged. Hazel was known for her sense of humor.
Proud to serve. Fellow pilots described her as "calm and fearless."
One story told was of Hazel's forced landing in a Kansas wheat field.
A farmer was certain the Japanese had landed. Frightened,
he held a pitchfork in hand and yelled for his neighbors. Hazel calmly convinced him she was not the enemy.

 Older than most of the WASP, Hazel was considered a leader

Unfortunately, a second forced landing November 1944 in Great Falls, Montana took Hazel's life. More than 5000 fighters had been delivered to the Great Falls airfield at that juncture in time. It was not an unfamiliar setting. Hazel was in the process of delivering a P-63 (a large group had also arrived to land), but due to radio failure in a second P-63, the control tower directed both planes to land on the same runway simultaneously. The planes collided and Hazel died from burns in the collision two days later.  

Thirty-eight women would die before 
the disbanding of WASP in December 1944. 
Hazel, the first Chinese-American woman 
to fly for the U.S. military, was the last to die. 


Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. Is there any memorial to these women who fought and died serving their country? They may have been here and not seen actual combat but they still contributed and she met such a horrible death. What a shame

    1. Yes, there is much honoring these women, and the military eventually gave official recognition. Found this online: "in fall of 1977, both the House and the Senate voted to grant the WASPs military status and to make the women pilots eligible for veterans benefits." Better late than never I guess. Interesting about Ying Lee, is not only did she not receive a military burial, the funeral home initially said she could not be buried next to whites! Her family fought it and won, and so they should have!! Thanks Birgit for reading. Loved all your comments :)

  2. A great bit of history! Thanks for sharing.

    Yvonne V

  3. Thanks Yvonne for reading! I really should have shared my comment above to Birgit. What happened to Chinese-Americans and other immigrants really wasn't that long ago. We need to remember this!

  4. Wow, flying is dangerous. I could never be a pilot. While I love Hazel's story, I'm sad to hear the WASPs never got benefits and probably received little appreciation. It's been that way for women for far too long...

    1. I have to agree and I am nervous flying over mountains especially. Sad but true, the WASP and other women. But progress has been made!

  5. Another great pioneering story. I agree with Lexa re no military benefits for women. Not right. Anyway, Hazel and her fellow WASPs now have some more well deserved recognition.

    Incidentally, this weekend in my neck of the woods, NSW South Coast there is a big air show called Wings Over Illawarra. Here's the link if you're interested

    1. I should forward link to hubby. He is a huge airshow fan, I have seen so many over the years I can only watch so many. Ha-ha. Hazards of being a pilot's wife.

  6. So many early pilots' story are sad...

    1. Wow, thanks Sarah for still reading. I've been so exhausted I haven't posted anything in two weeks!!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.