Although she lived during an era when the world told her that as a Chinese American female, the best she might hope for was a job as an elevator operator at a local department store, Hazel Ying Lee (1912–1944) had higher aspirations. Born in Portland, Oregon, she took her first airplane ride at age 20 and resolved to learn to fly. She joined a flying club and took lessons, earning her pilot’s license in 1932–becoming one of the first Chinese American women to enter the profession–in which more than 99% of aviators were male.
After Japan invaded China in 1931, Hazel offered her services to the Chinese government, but the authorities rejected the notion of a female aviator. For a time, she worked for a commercial airline, eventually returning to the U.S., where she set about acquiring war material for China. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a shortage of qualified pilots led to the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots or “WASPs,” in 1943. WASPs flew military aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases and transported cargo, freeing male pilots for combat. Hazel lost no time in applying, and when she was accepted into the fourth class (43-W-4), she became the first Chinese American woman to fly for the United States military.
Hazel flew the PT-19, BT-13, C-47, and P-63. The work was taxing and often quite dangerous, but she was described as “calm and fearless,” even in the face of several brushes with disaster. During a November 1944 mission to deliver a new P-63 aircraft to Great Falls, Montana, in bad weather, Hazel’s plane collided with another aircraft and crashed on the runway. She survived the accident, but later died of her injuries – the last of 38 WASP heroines to give her life in the service of her country. A pioneer in her field, Hazel Ying Lee proved that neither race nor gender need be a hindrance to realizing one’s dreams.
To find out more about Hazel Ying Lee, come to the National Museum of American History on Thursday, June 6 for an original performance by the National Constitution Center about the real–life experiences of a diverse group of seven Americans who bravely fought for equality, freedom, and justice overseas and at home during World War II. Click here to learn more about “Fighting for Democracy: Who is the “We” in “We the People”?”