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Realizing a dream: The legacy of Hazel Ying Lee

Graphic created highlighting Betty Gillies, the first Chinese-American woman aviator.

Graphic created highlighting Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American woman aviator. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --

As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the Malmstrom Air Force Base museum will be unveiling an exhibit honoring Hazel Ying Lee on May 27. 

At only 19 years old, Hazel Ying Lee realized her dream of becoming a pilot. She took her first flight in 1932 and became the first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s license and forge a new path that wasn’t previously available. Her passion drove her to seek out opportunities to fly whenever and wherever she could. She even moved to China and volunteered to serve in the Chinese Air Force, but because they refused to let a woman fly, she returned to the United States.

Once back in America, Lee joined the Women Air Force Service Pilot program as the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military. During her service, she was one of only two Chinese-Americans in the WASP program at a time when less than one percent of all U.S. pilots were women. Her efforts contributed to delivering more than five thousand fighters to United State’s allies – an endeavor that seemed to be an uphill battle against Nazi forces during World War II.

On Nov. 10, 1944, Lee received orders to fly a new P-63 King Cobra pursuit aircraft from the Bell Aircraft factory in Niagara Falls, New York, to Great Falls, Montana, for delivery to Great Falls Army Air Base. Bad weather grounded the mission in Fargo, North Dakota, but on Nov. 23, 1944, wich was Thanksgiving morning, the weather cleared and the pilots continued their flight to Great Falls.

During the flight the radio on another aircraft failed and miscommunication from the control tower resulted in Lee’s aircraft colliding with that aircraft and crashing to the ground. Two days later, on Nov. 25, 1944, Lee succumbed to burns she received in the accident. She was one of 38 pilots in the WASP program who died while in service to their country during World War II.

In March 1977, the Women Air Force Service Pilots’s efforts were recognized with U.S. Congressional approval of Public Law 95-202. Veteran status had been afforded to the WASPs for their service during World War II. To further honor the WASPs, bill S.614 was signed into law in the Oval Office, July 1, 2009, awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal for their sacrifices. The medals were officially presented in a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol March 10, 2010. Nearly 200 of the aviatrix were present.

Hazel Ying Lee’s legacy will be honored not only as an aviator, but also as a trailblazer for women and Asian-Americans throughout American history.

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