As you close out celebrating Women’s History Month, we want to shine the spotlight on the impressive accomplishments of our own famous females from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While there are many to name, this year, we’re putting faces to our own Rosie the Riveters of the World War eras.
Fly girls from the Upper Peninsula
At this time, many women in the U.P. were serving as telephone operators (Hello Girls), growing victory gardens, maintaining a home while rationing and joining the workforce to fill the roles men left behind for 60% of the pay. There were also 1,074 women who answered the call to become pilots, freeing up male pilots to serve in the military. As part of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), they moved supplies and goods from factories to air bases, were test pilots for new plane flights over Lake Michigan and served in tow target squadrons for live ammunition practice shooting.
Four of these brave women were from the U.P.: Earlene Hays of Ishpeming, Mary Coon Walters of Baraga, Katherine Landry Steel of Marquette and Nancy Harkness Love of Houghton.
Hays was 5-feet tall, but she qualified for the WASP Program despite the minimum height requirement of 5 feet 2 inches. The key to passing? Strenuous exercising. It is documented that Coon Walters performed each of her duties diligently. Landry Steel, who went by Kaddy, was among the first in WASP to be selected for a tow target squadron.
Harkness Love received her pilots license at the impressive age of 16. Four years later, she earned her commercial license, qualified in every military aircraft available at the time. The Women’s Air Force Squadron was her brainchild, which eventually became part of the WASP program — she and Jackie Cochran were elected squadron commanders. Nancy was awarded the air medal and appointed a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948.
These women met the demand for less
Stepping up in these roles is celebrated today, but during this time, the women took on the role with less recognition. They were paid less than $100 each month without military recognition. This meant no honorable discharge or benefits, despite being held accountable to the same regulations as men. This also meant that when any of the WASP members died, the government didn’t ship remains to her family or pay for a funeral as they would have for male counterparts.
That recognition wasn’t reflected in official legislation until 1978. Congressional Gold Medal privileges weren’t granted until 2009 for women of WASP. All but Nancy Harkness Love were still alive at the time they were properly recognized the way they deserved.
Other U.P. female heroes of the war
Two religious sisters who were from the U.P. were part of a New York order of nuns that were kept in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines for three years, mistreated and starved. A daring American rescue saved those in the camp the same day the flag was raised at Iwo Jima. Their rescue and return was overshadowed in history.
Honoring the brave women of the U.P.
It is not lost on us that these women deserve more thanks than they were given, not only for what they did for our country, but for their representation of the U.P. in these chapters of history, too. You can learn more about their stories at the U.P. Military Museum at 1001 N. Lincoln Road, Escanaba.
In addition to conversations with U.P. Military Museum curator Ann Jousma Miller, we also referenced UPmatters.com and U.P. Supply Co. in telling the stories of the U.P. Fly Girls.