Hazel Lee, WASP pilot during WWII

Hazel Ying Lee loved to have fun. She liked playing pranks, and some described her as hilarious. She was also adventurous and athletic, enjoying swimming and playing handball. But maybe most of all, Hazel was courageous and loved flying planes. About Hazel’s love for flying, her sister said she “enjoyed the danger and doing something that was new to Chinese girls.”

Black-and-white photograph of Hazel Lee standing in front of an airplane. She is wearing a pilot's uniform with a buttoned shirt, tie, belted trousers, and tall leather boots. Her headgear includes a leather aviator cap with goggles pushed up on her forehead, and she has a confident smile.
Hazel Lee, 1932

Hazel was born to Chinese-American immigrant parents in Portland, Oregon, in 1912. At nineteen, Hazel watched a friend fly. That experience marked the beginning of her lifelong love. Determined to pursue this newfound passion, she saved money and, with the financial help of the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society, earned her pilot’s license, making her the first Chinese-American woman to earn one.

Wanting to put her aviation skills to good use, Hazel accepted an invitation to become a Women Airforce Service Pilot for the U.S. during World War II. The program had been created to add more pilots for the U.S. in the war effort, though these female pilots were non-combat, focusing their efforts on testing and ferrying aircraft and training pilots. They were also not officially considered part of the military and thus received no military benefits. Hazel joined as the first Chinese-American pilot.

Hazel’s attitude towards the work was described well by a fellow pilot — “I’ll take and deliver anything.” “Calm and fearless,” she had a great attitude and brought her sense of humor to the job. After an incident in which her plane went down in a farm field and a person on the ground mistook her for an enemy Japanese combatant, Hazel shared the story with her fellow pilots to exuberant laughter and continued her work proudly supporting the U.S. war effort.

Sadly, however, on November 23rd, 1944, while flying in bad weather conditions in North Dakota, the plane she was piloting collided with another aircraft upon landing. She suffered severe burns, and two days later, she passed away. Hazel was buried next to her brother, a U.S. soldier who was killed while fighting in France three days after Hazel’s passing.

Of the 38 female pilots to die during WWII, Hazel was the last one.

Notes

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  • To cite: “Hazel Lee, WASP pilot during WWII.” Published by Historical Snapshots. https://historicalsnaps.com/2018/02/12/hazel-lee-wasp-pilot-wwii/
  • Story updated on January 9, 2023.

Sources