Hazel Ying Lee
Hazel Ying Lee
Hazel Ying Lee
|Died||November 25, 1944 (aged 32)|
Great Falls, Montana, U.S.
|Cause of death||Airplane accident|
|Burial place||River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon|
|Era||World War II|
|Organization||Women Airforce Service Pilots|
Lee was born in Portland, Oregon. Her parents were Yuet Lee and Ssiu Lan Wong from Taishan, Guangdong. Her father was a merchant. Her mother devoted her energy to raising eight 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 Commerce High School in 1929, Lee found a job as an elevator operator at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland. It was one of the few jobs that a Chinese-American woman could hold during this time.
In 1932, Lee took her first airplane ride with a friend at an air show. 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, who was also a Chinese pilot.
Time in China
In response to Japanese invasion of China in 1933, Lee journeyed to China with the goal of joining the Chinese Air Force. Despite the need for pilots the Republic of China 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. At the time Lee was one of a very small number of women pilots in China. In 1937, Japan invaded China. Lee remained in the country 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 United States in 1938. In New York City, 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 Sweetwater, Texas for an arduous six-month training program. Lee was accepted into the 4th class, 43 W 4. She was the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the United States military. During Lee's training, it was reported that she fell from the aircraft she was riding in when the instructor made an unexpected loop. Her seat belt wasn't fastened correctly, at the time, and she saved herself by using her parachute. Lee landed in a field and walked back to the base dragging the parachute behind her.
Although flying under military command the women pilots of the WASP were classified as civilians and were paid through the civil service. No military benefits were offered and if a WASP member died 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. They delivered aircraft, being manufactured in large numbers in 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." Lee was described by her fellow pilots as "calm and fearless" even during forced landings. One emergency landing took place at a wheat field in Kansas. A farmer, armed with a pitchfork, chased Lee around her plane as he was shouting to his neighbors that the Japanese had invaded Kansas. Evading his attack, Lee told the farmer who she was and demanded he stop which he did. Lee was a favorite with her fellow pilots, known for a great sense of humor and being mischievous. 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."
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 with Lee's favorite being 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, New York where she was to fly a P-63 Kingcobra aircraft to Great Falls, Montana. During the war Lee and the other Pursuit pilots delivered over 5,000 fighters to Great Falls which was a link in supplying Soviet allies with planes under the Lend-Lease program. From there male pilots flew the fighters on to Alaska, where Soviet pilots waited to fly the planes to their home bases. Bad weather delayed the mission at Fargo, North Dakota and on Thanksgiving morning the weather cleared allowing Lee to leave Fargo. A little after 2 p.m. Lee was cleared to land in Great Falls with a large number of P-63's approached the airport at the same time. There was confusion on the part of the control tower and Lee's plane and another P-63 collided. The aircraft were engulfed in flames and Lee was pulled from the burning wreckage of her airplane with her flight jacket still smoldering.
Two days later, on November 25, 1944, Lee died from the burns she received in the accident. Only three days after learning of Lee's death the Lee family received another telegram informing them that Lee's brother Victor, who was serving with the U.S. Tank Corps, had been killed in combat in France. As they prepared to bury Hazel and Victor, the family picked out a burial site in a Portland, Oregon cemetery. The cemetery refused to allow the family to bury Hazel 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 1977, 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 and Lee was the last to die during the program. In 2004 Hazel Ying Lee was inducted into Oregon's Aviation Hall of Honor.
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