Hazel Ying Lee
|Hazel Ying Lee
|Born||August 24, 1912
|Died||November 25, 1944
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Unit||Women Airforce Service Pilots|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
Lee was born in Portland, Oregon. Her father was a merchant. Her mother devoted her energy to raising 8 children and helping with the family business. Despite the widespread Anti-Chinese bias of her time, Lee led a full and active life. Lee swam, played handball, loved to play cards and in her teenage years, learned how to drive.
Following graduation from high school in 1929, Lee found a job as an elevator operator at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland. This was one of the few jobs that a Chinese American woman could hold during this time period.
In 1932, Lee took her first airplane ride. At a time when less than 1% of pilots in the US were women, Lee joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and took flying lessons with famed aviator Al Greenwood. Despite opposition from her mother, Lee “had to fly.” In discussing Lee’s love of flying, her sister Frances said, “It was the thought of doing something she loved. Lee enjoyed the danger and doing something that was new to Chinese girls.”
In October 1932, Lee became one of the first Chinese American women to earn a pilot’s license. In speaking of Lee and the handful of other Chinese American women pilots of that time, author Judy Yung has written “Although few in number, these first Chinese American aviators, in their attempt to participate in a daring sport, broke the stereotype of the passive Chinese women and demonstrated the ability of Chinese American women to compete in a male dominated field.” While in Portland Lee met her future husband 'Clifford' Louie Yim-Qun.
Time in China
In response to Japanese invasion of China (Western-part) in 1933, Lee journeyed to China with the goal of joining the Chinese Air Force. Despite the need for pilots, the Chinese Air Force would not accept a woman pilot. Frustrated, Lee instead settled in Canton and spent the next few years flying for a private airline. She was one of a very small number of women pilots in China.
In 1937, Japan invaded China. Lee remained in China despite the war and was in Canton when hundreds of civilians were killed in Japanese air attacks. Friends speak of Lee's calm while bombs fell all around and remember Lee's effort to find shelter for friends, neighbors and family. Thanks to Lee, all survived the bombing attacks. Following another unsuccessful effort to join the Chinese Air Force, Lee escaped to Hong Kong and returned to the USA in 1938. In New York, Lee worked for the Chinese government as a buyer of war materials for besieged China.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was drawn into World War II. As the War claimed the time and lives of American pilots, it became clear that there were not enough male pilots to sustain the War effort at home. With the ambivalent support of Army Air Force Commander Henry “Hap” Arnold, the Women Airforce Service Pilots or “WASP,” was created in 1943, under the command of famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran.
Experienced women pilots, like Lee, were eager to join the WASP, and responded to interview requests by Cochran. Members of the WASP reported to Avenger Field, in wind swept Sweetwater, Texas for an arduous 6-month training program. Lee was accepted into the 4th class, 43 W 4. Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the United States military.
Although flying under military command, the women pilots of the WASP were classified as civilians. They were paid through the civil service. No military benefits were offered. Even if killed in the line of duty, no military funerals were allowed. The WASPs were often assigned the least desirable missions, such as winter trips in open cockpit airplanes. Commanding officers were reluctant to give women any flying deliveries. It took an order from the head of the Air Transport Command to improve the situation.
Upon graduation, Lee was assigned to the third Ferrying Group at Romulus, Michigan. Their assignment was critical to the war effort; Deliver aircraft, pouring out of converted automobile factories, to points of embarkation, where they would then be shipped to the European and Pacific War fronts. In a letter to her sister, Lee described Romulus as “a 7-day workweek, with little time off.” When asked to describe Lee's attitude, a fellow member of the WASP summed it up in Lee's own words, “I’ll take and deliver anything.”
Described by her fellow pilots as “calm and fearless,” Lee had two forced landings. One landing took place in a Kansas wheat field. A farmer, pitchfork in hand, chased her around the plane while shouting to his neighbors that the Japanese had invaded Kansas. Alternately running and ducking under her wing, Lee finally stood her ground. She told the farmer who she was and demanded that he put the pitchfork down. He complied.
Lee was a favorite with just about all of her fellow pilots. She had a great sense of humor and a marvelous sense of mischief. Lee used her lipstick to inscribe Chinese characters on the tail of her plane and the planes of her fellow pilots. One lucky fellow who happened to be a bit on the chubby side, had his plane dubbed (unknown to him) “Fat Ass.”
Lee was in demand when a mission was RON (Remaining Overnight) In a big city or in a small country town, she could always find a Chinese restaurant, supervise the menu, and often cook the food herself. She was a great cook. Fellow WASP pilot Sylvia Dahmes Clayton observed that “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.”
In September 1944, Lee was sent to Pursuit School at Brownsville, Texas for intensive training. She was part of Class 44-18 Flight B and went on to be among the 134 women pilots who flew “Pursuit,” that is faster, high powered fighters such as the P-63 Kingcobra, P-51 Mustang and P-39 Airacobra. Lee's favorite was the Mustang.
Lee and the others were the first women to pilot fighter aircraft for the United States military.
On November 10, 1944, Lee received orders to go to the Bell Aircraft factory at Niagara Falls and pick up a P-63 and deliver the plane to Great Falls, Montana. (A side note: During the War, Lee and the other Pursuit Pilots delivered over 5,000 Fighters to Great Falls. Great Falls was the link in supplying Russian allies with planes. From there, male pilots flew the fighters on to Alaska, where Russian pilots waited to fly the planes home.)
Bad weather delayed the mission at Fargo, North Dakota. On Thanksgiving morning, the weather cleared and Lee was able to leave Fargo. A little after 2 P.M., Lee was cleared to land in Great Falls. A large number of P-63’s approached the airport at the same time. There was confusion on the part of the control tower. Upon landing, Lee's plane and another P-63 collided, and were engulfed in flames. Lee was pulled from the burning wreckage of her airplane, her flight jacket still smoldering.
Two days later, on November 25, 1944, Lee died from the burns she received in the accident. Only 3 days after learning of Lee's death, the Lee family received another telegram. Lee's brother, Victor, serving with the US Tank Corps, had been killed in combat in France. As they prepared to bury Lee and Victor, the family picked out a burial site in a Portland, Oregon cemetery.
The cemetery refused to allow the family to bury Lee and Victor in the chosen spot, citing cemetery policy that did not allow Asians to be buried “in the White section.” After a lengthy battle, the Lee family prevailed. Lee was laid to rest in a non-military funeral, and buried alongside her brother, on a sloping hill in River View Cemetery, overlooking the Willamette River.
For over three decades, members of the WASP and their supporters attempted to secure military status for the women pilots. In March 1979, following United States Congressional approval of Public Law 95-202, the efforts of the Women Airforce Service pilots were finally recognized and military status was finally granted.
Thirty-eight pilots of the WASP died while in service to their country during the difficult years of World War II. Lee was the last to die.
- "Hazel Ying Lee: Showcased Asian-American involvement in war effort". Air Force ISR Agency. 2013-03-06.
- "Hazel Lee : World War II Database". Retrieved 2014-07-01.
- "Women Airforce Service Pilots: Hazel Ah Ying Lee". Texas Women's University.
- "Hazel Ying Lee: Fighting for Gender Equality". National Center for the Preservation of Democracy.