Overlooked is a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This last opus is of “Beyond the Second World War that we know,” a Times series that documents lesser-known stories of the war.
They never met, but their early lives took a surprisingly similar course. They were both Chinese-American women who defied layers of prejudice and preconceptions to become WWII pilots. One died young, while transporting a fighter plane. The other lived to be 89 and became a scientist.
Their names were Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee, and they were WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots.
In 1942, when the Air Force faced a shortage of male pilots to support the war effort at home, the pilot Jacqueline Cochran persuaded the head of the US Army Air Force to recruit female pilots. More than 25,000 women applied. Only 1,830 were accepted for flight training. Among them, 1,074 have completed the training.
For two years, these pilots flew almost every type of aircraft. Their main job was to transport aircraft between bases. They also tested new planes, trained male pilots, and brought damaged planes back to base for repair. They traveled in bad weather and landed on unlit runways at night. Thirty-eight of the women died in service.
Gee, a third-generation Chinese-American, was born Gee Mei Gue on August 5, 1923, in Berkeley, California, one of six children. His mother was Jung An Yoke, whose parents moved to California from a village in Guangzhou, China in the 1870s. His grandfather, Jung Sun Choy, settled on the Monterey Peninsula south of San Francisco and became a pioneer in the abalone trade.
The family moved to Chinatown in San Francisco in 1906, then to Berkeley.
The year after Gee was born, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from Asia. The animosity towards the Chinese grew and feelings sometimes invaded Gee’s childhood.
She found refuge in the family’s Sunday outings to the Oakland airport to watch planes take off. “I loved how the vibrations resonated in my bones,” she told Marissa Moss, a children’s book author who wrote about Gee in “Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee(2009). “Just being there, being a part of it all, made me feel big and powerful.”
Gee scanned the skies for Amelia Earhart, who traveled frequently to Oakland. And once, Gee spotted her. “When I waved, she saw me and waved back,” Gee said.
In 1941, when she was 18, Gee enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley to study physics, but dropped out a few months later when the United States entered World War II to work at the Mare Island shipyard in Vallejo. California, near San Francisco. His mother was a welder there and Gee worked in the drafting department.
Aviation soon beckoned. Gee and two colleagues pooled their funds, bought a car for $25, and drove to Texas for six months of training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, 40 miles west of Abilene.
“I learned to parachute and do emergency landings,” Gee said. “We did the same intense work that the male riders had to do.”
Gee has sometimes been confused with the Japanese enemy. She knew she stood out. “I felt like an exhibit at the country fair, a two-headed cow, the incredible Chinese-American WASP,” she said.
The only other Chinese-American woman on the program was Lee.
Ah Ying Lee was born on August 25, 1912 in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Lee Yuet, was a businessman who owned an import-export business. His mother, Wong Sau Lan, was a housewife.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Lee got a job as an elevator operator at H. Liebes & Company, a department store in Portland, where she also worked in the warehouse.
She joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and in 1932 graduated from aviation school with her pilot’s license.
“I think for Hazel, flying an airplane symbolized not just flight, but a freedom that she didn’t have on the ground,” said Alan Rosenberg, a filmmaker who made “A Brief Flight” (2002), a documentary about Lee.
In Portland, while learning to fly, she met Louie Yen-chung, a Chinese student who was training as a cadet. Their romance spanned more than a decade, even with long stretches spent miles — sometimes continents — apart.
In 1933, in preparation for the Second Sino-Japanese War, Lee hoped to fly for the Chinese Air Force. But the Chinese government turned her down, saying women were too “unstable” to fly, her sister Frances Tong told the Portland Oregonian in 2003. Instead, Lee flew both commercial and private.
Lee returned to the United States in December 1938, living in New York. She graduated from the WASP training program in 1943 and was sent to Romulus, Michigan.
Because the WASPs were civil servants and not military personnel, they had to pay for their food and lodging. There were no flight suits for women, and Lee’s body, at 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds, was surpassed by even the smallest of male uniforms.
On October 9, 1943, she married Louie, whom she called “Cliff”, then a major in the Chinese Air Force. “KNOT TIED TODAY,” she wrote in a telegram to another pilot. “CAVU FOR CLIFF AND ME.” CAVU, an acronym used by pilots, stands for “Unlimited Ceiling and Visibility”.
After their marriage, Louie returned to China and Lee did not hear from her husband for six months. “She said she was sure he was either dead or captured,” Virginia Luttrell Krahn, another WASP, said in a 1997 oral history interview.
Glimpses of the racial lens through which Lee was viewed are dotted throughout the archives held at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas. Another pilot, for example, referred to Lee as “the little Chinese girl” in a letter she wrote to her family.
Like Gee, Lee has been confused with Japanese. In her 1997 interview, Krahn said Lee once flew to Texas when her engine failed and she landed in a field. When Lee got off the plane, “here’s this farmer coming at her with a pitchfork,” Krahn recounted.
“He said, ‘The Japs have landed, the Japs have landed.’ And Hazel said, “No, I’m an American, I’m an American,” Krahn said. “It was too much for these farmers. There was no way they were going to believe Hazel was Chinese, not just Chinese, but a Chinese woman pilot.
Recounting the incident that night at a dinner party in the dining room, Lee “had the whole line in hysteria,” Krahn added.
Lee was one of 132 pilots chosen to fly so-called “pursuit” planes, now known as fighter planes. One of his duties was to fly new Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters from Buffalo’s manufacturing plant in Great Falls, Montana, for eventual delivery to the Soviet Union.
In November 1944, Lee was on one such mission with a group of pilots on Thanksgiving Day, the first clear day in a long time.
Krahn, who also flew that day, recounted the chain of events.
“Shortly after takeoff, Jeff walked up to me, pointed to his headset and raised his hand,” she said, referring to fellow pilot Jeff Russell. “His radio was off.”
The crew stopped in Bismarck, ND, hoping to get Russell’s radio repaired, but since it was a holiday, they were unlucky; the group continued on to Montana.
“At that time, there were so many planes circling Great Falls ready to land,” Krahn said. “The air was just filled with P-63s.”
After landing safely, Krahn saw, to his horror, that at the end of the runway, two planes were too close to each other.
“When the tower saw what was happening, they said ‘shoot, shoot.’ And the only plane that could hear her was Hazel,” Krahn recalled. “And she stopped right at Jeff, who didn’t hear anything.”
Both aircraft caught fire over the runway.
Russell survived with minor injuries. Lee was stuck in her plane and suffered severe burns. She died two days later, on November 25, 1944. She was 32 years old.
“She was conscious the whole time,” Krahn said. “She never complained. The doctor said they had never seen anyone so brave.
It turned out that Lee’s husband was still alive. He died in 1999 in Taipei, Taiwan.
Lee was the 38th – and last – WASP to die in the line of duty.
The program was disbanded on December 20, 1944, in anticipation of the end of the war, and the pilots faded into the homemaking and child-rearing that defined the role of women in the 1950s.
Gee was an exception. She returned to Berkeley, earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, then worked on weapons systems at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“She was this generation of Chinese-American women who broke the boundaries of isolation in the community,” said Harvey Dong, associate professor of Asian-American and Asian diaspora studies at Berkeley.
Gee died on February 1, 2013. She was 89 years old. Warren Heckrottehis companion of almost 50 years, died in 2019.
In 1977, after years of struggling for recognition, the WASPs were granted veteran status with all the benefits. In 2010 about 200 of the surviving pilots were shown with the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama. Gee was one of them.