Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s featured fall exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.
“Chinese girls only get the invisible jobs. I want to be a pilot!”
Hazel Ying Lee was born on August 24, 1912, in Portland, Oregon, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Growing up in the 1920s, Hazel was drawn to a life that few women were given opportunity to even dream about. She wanted to fly airplanes. And when the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs, were formed in 1943 she was one of the first in line.
Hazel took her first airplane ride in 1932 and joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland, one of two women in the class. In October of that year, she became one of the first Chinese American women to earn a pilot’s license. Flying was her true love and passion and despite some opposition from her family she was determined to be more than an elevator operator (one of the only jobs available to Chinese American women at the time).
As a WASP, Hazel reported to famed woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran. She trained for six months and upon graduation was assigned to the 3rd Ferrying Group based out of Romulus, Michigan. Their job was important to th war effort: They were to fly newly built aircrafts from the factory to the shipping ports where they would be sent to the European and Pacific fronts.
Among the other WASPs Hazel was a favorite. She had a great sense of humor and mischief and often entertained her fellow pilots on overnight trips with her stories and drawings. Fellow WASP Sylvia Dahmes Clayton said, “Hazel provided me with an opportunity to learn about a different culture at a time when I did not know anything else. She expanded my world and my outlook on life.”
Despite achieving her dream to fly, Hazel and the women pilots of the WASP still dealt with discrimination because of their gender. They were often assigned the least desirable missions, and even though they were under military command they were classified as civilians. This meant no military benefits were offered.
Thirty-eight pilots of the WASP were killed serving their country, no military funerals were held. It would take over three decades for Hazel Ying Lee and the members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots to be recognized and granted full military status. Hazel’s legacy continues to live on as her story continues to be told and as more and more women are given the equal and honorable treatment they have long earned.
To learn more about Hazel Ying Lee, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We The People’? opening today at the National Constitution Center.
Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.