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The Nation

Chinese American WASP Losing Her Anonymity

Hazel Ying Lee was among the female pilots trained to ferry military aircraft in World War II. A PBS documentary will tell her story.

May 11, 2003|Gillian Flaccus | Associated Press Writer

If Lee was aware that she was making history as the first Chinese American female pilot, it never showed. She didn't talk about her ethnicity, and although many of her fly mates had never met a Chinese person before, they soon no longer noticed.

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

"I remember thinking here we are, so close to the end of the program," Clayton said. "I can't help but think she died doing what she really enjoyed doing."

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

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

"A Brief Flight" had its national premiere April 26 at Portland State University.

After the film, Starr -- who traveled from Moraga, Calif. -- put on her WASP uniform and visited her old friend's grave.

"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."

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