Violet Cowden grew up in a sod house on a farm in South Dakota and dreamed of flying since the age of 6. Before she ever had a driver’s license, she would ride her bike six miles to the airport for flying lessons in the morning, teach first grade during the day, and attend ground school at night.
Cowden became a Women Airforce Service Pilot in March 1943. She did her training in Sweetwater, Texas. Although she didn’t reach the weight requirement to pass her physical, she would not let that stop her. Cowden gained eight pounds in a week in order to reach the 100-pound weight requirement to serve.
She became a pursuit pilot assigned to the Air Transport Command. More than 25,000 women applied and only 1,074 received their wings. Cowden flew planes from factories to the east or west coast from which they debarked for military use.
The WASP program disbanded in 1944 to give the returning male pilots jobs when they came back from combat missions. Cowden went on to work in New York behind a ticket counter for Trans World Airlines. She said in an interview that if the military or commercial airlines would accept female pilots, she would have continued flying.
WASP Veterans achieved Veteran status in 1977. Cowden wrote to Congress, visited the White House, and lobbied for Veteran status and benefits. She stated that being considered a Veteran didn’t really matter to her as much as the opportunity to fly and serve her country.
A month after the WASPs received their retroactive Veteran status, they held a reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, with an air show. After watching the parachute group give the American flag to President Jimmy Carter, Cowden said, “Then I knew I was a Veteran. It was amazing.”
On March 10, 2010, WASP pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Cowden was one of the surviving 300 women present to receive the honor. She was also the subject of a 2010 documentary film called Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story.
At age 92, she flew in her favorite plane – a P-51 Mustang – modified to fit two pilots.
Cowden passed away on April 10, 2011 in Newport Beach, California at the age of 94.
We honor her service!
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Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Writer: Heather Martin