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Documentary honors Chinese-American woman who flew U.S. fighter planes

Documentary honors Chinese-American woman who flew U.S. fighter planes

Associated PressFrances Tong, sister of Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American female pilot working for the U.S. military, holds two photos of her sister in Portland, Ore., on April 28. A PBS special about Lee, who died in a fiery crash in Montana near the end of World War II, debuts this month. The 1932 photo at right shows Lee in pants and flight goggles in front of a plane at Portland’s Swan Island, and the undated photo at left shows Lee at pilot training base in Sweetwater, Texas.Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military, is shown in this 1940s photo. Lee was among the first women to enroll in a program that trained female pilots to ferry military aircraft across North America in 1943.

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Frances Tong isn't sure why she kept the letter from her older sister all these years.

In it, a young and fearless Hazel Ying Lee asks about family members and talks about the dangers of her job of ferrying fighter planes to North American airfields during World War II.

The letter was the last one Lee wrote to her sister before she died in a fiery crash in Montana. It's also a key document in "A Brief Flight: Hazel Ying Lee and The Women Who Flew Pursuit," a PBS special about Lee, the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military, that airs this month.

Born in Portland 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 across North America.

She also was one of 132 women trained to "fly pursuit," meaning she was qualified to pilot the super-fast and powerful fighters - P-51s, P-47s and P-39s.

The program, Women Airforce Service Pilots, was created in 1943 when the U.S. military realized it didn't have enough male pilots for both the home front and overseas.

Although the women weren't flying on the front lines, their work was dangerous and unpredictable. They were the first to fly planes straight off the assembly line - and the first to discover malfunctions or shoddy manufacturing.

More than 1,000 women participated before the program ended in December 1944. Thirty-eight died in accidents.

Lee's passion for flying started at age 19, when a friend let her ride with him at an air show.

"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. 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.

In 1938, after fleeing Japanese troops and spending nearly a year as a refugee in Hong Kong, Lee returned to the United States and took another desk job at an aviation company.

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 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.

If Lee was aware that she was making history as the first Chinese-American female pilot, it never showed.

"It seemed as if everyone she met was a friend," Starr 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 in 1944, Lee was severely injured when she pulled up from an aborted landing in Great Falls 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.

The female pilots were never classified as military employees, and as a result, Lee's family paid out of their own pocket to bring her body to Portland and bury her in a local cemetery. Her family had to fight cemetery rules barring nonwhites from its plots, Tong said.

Hom, the documentary's co-producer, is working with the Air Force Review Board to have Lee officially retired posthumously. The project, if it succeeds, also could apply to the 37 other female pilots killed on duty in World War II.

After the film, Starr put on her WASP uniform and visited her old friend's grave at the local cemetery.

"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."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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