Hazel Ying Lee was one of two Chinese Americans in the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) and the first Chinese American female aviator in the U.S. military.
Lee was born in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 24, 1912, and joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland where she took flying lessons at the age of 19, according to her profile at the Federal Aviation Administration.
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She received her pilot’s license in October 1932 and traveled to China in the hopes of becoming a military pilot in 1933. However, she was turned down twice and received a desk job at the military and occasionally had a chance to fly for a commercial airline.
Lee returned to the U.S. in 1938 to work for the Chinese government in New York buying war materials. She then applied for the Women’s Flying Training Detachment in 1942, later known as WASP after merging with the Women Airforce Ferrying Squadron.
She learned to fly various military planes during her training at the Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in February 1943. Lee was stationed in Air Transport Command’s Romulus Army Air Base in Michigan after her training where she flew Boeing-Stearman PT17s, North American T-6 Texans, and the Boeing C-47.
Then, in 1944, Lee attended the Pursuit School in Brownsville, Texas, where she became one of the few women who qualified to pilot several high-powered fighter aircrafts such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, North American P-51 Mustang and the Bell P-63 Kingcobra.
Becoming a female pilot at the time was not easy, according to Sandra Edwards Spears, a member of the Board of Directors of the National WASP WWII Museum.
“A lot of people believed that women shouldn’t be flying at all. But they freed up the men who used to fly those planes so that they would be able to go to combat,” Spears told NBC News in 2017.
“The main purpose was to free up [male] pilots. [Female pilots] would ferry airplanes to [male] pilots wherever they were and would tow targets to gunners,” she explained. “They wouldn’t allow them to fly abroad. [The WASP] would have liked to, but it wasn’t permitted.”
Spears added that those who were at WASP faced hurdles on their way to becoming a pilot as they were not considered members of the military during that time. They had to pay for everything, including their room, board and uniforms. On top of that, they also had to be American, Spears said.
Lee met a tragic end when the P-63 she was flying crashed into a plane of the same model in Great Falls while landing. They were able to pull her body from the flaming wreckage, but she died from her injuries two days later on Nov. 25, 1944.
Lee was joined by fellow pilot Margaret “Maggie” Gee as one of the two Chinese American female pilots in WASP. The latter was reportedly only a few classes behind Lee during training.