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News / Life / Clark County Life

“American Flygirl”: Camas author details Asian American aviator’s refusal to take no for an answer

‘Pilots were swashbuckling heroes of the day,’ Camas author Susan Tate Ankeny writes in a new book about Hazel Ying Lee

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 30, 2024, 6:05am
8 Photos
Hazel Ying Lee is second from right in this 1943 photo of a briefing for ferrying-pilot trainees at Avenger Field.
Hazel Ying Lee is second from right in this 1943 photo of a briefing for ferrying-pilot trainees at Avenger Field. (Texas Woman’s University Woman’s Collection) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — Perhaps the limitless possibilities of America inspired her Chinese-immigrant mother to include Ying, meaning “hero,” in Hazel Ying Lee’s name. Or perhaps it was the certainty that her child would have to fight hard against racial and sex discrimination in order to achieve her dreams.

Hazel Ying Lee was born in Portland’s Chinatown in August 1912, just weeks after a daredevil in a biplane launched from the roof of the Multnomah Hotel, flew north across the Columbia River and landed at Pearson Field Airport in Vancouver. Everybody in downtown Portland, almost certainly including Lee’s father, gawked in wonder as the adventurer took to the sky.

“Flying was one of the most dangerous pursuits in the world, and pilots were swashbuckling heroes of the day,” Camas author Susan Tate Ankeny writes in a new book about Hazel Ying Lee, a remarkable aviator whose story has been under-researched and not widely known.

“American Flygirl” traces how Lee became the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license and fly for the U.S. military, despite the U.S. military never officially welcoming her as one of its own.

“She saw her herself as completely American, but she was never treated that way,” Ankeny said.

Lee made it into the sky anyway, driven by her own irrepressible spirit and dogged refusal ever to take “no” for an answer — and by a handful of forward-thinking flight instructors and military officers who believed that women weren’t merely capable of flying, but tended to be the calmer, steadier, more responsible sex.

“American Flygirl” also traces how Lee, her cohort of Asian American and female pilots and their instructors and supporters, all struggled against the ingrained prejudices of their day. The book offers a fascinating window on little-known Portland history, like the establishment of a Chinese Flying School on Swan Island in the early 1930s. Supported by the local Chinese Benevolent Society, the training school aimed to supply Chinese-American pilots to their ancestral homeland, where they would defend against the invading Japanese.

But Lee, passionate about learning to fly since an early age, couldn’t sign up because she was female. Ankeny describes the young Lee as bright, motivated and capable — as well as bored and frustrated by her inability to work anywhere more exciting than her family’s restaurant. She was thrilled when Chinese Flying School operator Al Greenwood discreetly offered her private lessons.

Once they were in the air on Lee’s first training flight, Ankeny writes, Greenwood did start worrying about Lee but only because of her complete lack of fear.

“She was a singular person with a huge personality,” Ankeny said. “She was bold. She was charismatic. She did all the things women weren’t supposed to do.”

Flying fast

Ankeny, who relocated to Camas from Portland a few years ago, wrote a previous military-history book profiled in The Columbian in 2020: “The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France.” It’s a true adventure and espionage story that took her eight years to research and write, she said.

With “American Flygirl,” Ankeny had just eight months, she said. The speedy journey began when her editor at Kensington Publishing reached out with the seeds of the story and a remarkable photograph of the suave young Lee on Swan Island in 1932. She’s pictured pinching a cigarette between her fingers and bearing a big smile on her face while leaning against the wing of her training airplane, the Student Prince.

“Who is this amazing person?” Ankeny wondered. “I was drawn in. I was fascinated.”

This happened to be a tough time in Ankeny’s own life, she said. Buckling down on a book project about fearless women and meeting a quick deadline was inspirational for her.

“I am so lucky and so honored,” she said. “I was in a bad spot when this came to me. I thought about Hazel’s toughness and pushed through. I needed these women.”

Why the quick deadline? Because of good old publishing competition, she said. Lee’s story is not well known but not unknown. Fragments and photographs show up here and there, such as the portraits of her on display in the Oregon Historical Society museum and at Portland International Airport. A documentary film is stored at Evergreen State College, where few know about it or have ever seen it, Ankeny said. She had to travel there to view it.

Fortunately, Ankeny discovered unexpectedly rich troves of documentation. As Hazel Ying Lee and her cohorts graduated from flight school, relocated to China and trained as genuine fighter pilots there, local newspapers, such as The Oregonian, and even national magazines, such as Life, followed their exploits and lavished praise on them — sometimes genuine, sometimes condescending in a way that’s simply cringe-worthy today.

“Lipstick pilots” is what the papers called them, Ankeny writes. “The Air Force wants to get a little muscle on those pretty little arms,” one newsreel narrator said as the female pilot trainees were shown doing pushups in the sand.

“Miss Lee is now the flying Joan d’Arc in China,” The Oregonian wrote in 1935. But Ankeny notes that Lee and cohorts were not allowed to fly for the Chinese military either. That made two nations where, simply because they were women, their skills and talents were denied.

Ankeny’s research was also helped along by Hazel Ying Lee herself. The aviator was a prolific letter writer and a willing interviewee.

Hazel wrote for The Avenger, the base newspaper at Avenger Field in Texas, America’s first all-female military air base in the early 1940s. Lee and her cohorts doggedly trained there, always striving to avoid getting washed out of the program by maintaining extra-high standards for flying skill as well as ladylike behavior. But their ambition to become real warriors remained frustrated, as men in Congress and in high military positions blanched at making Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPS, bona fide members of the U.S. Army Air Force.

Instead, they were classified as civil servants helping the military. Many became “ferrying pilots,” delivering all sorts of military aircraft to airfields across the country. That demanding work required constant re-education and skill-sharpening as new technologies and new aircraft appeared, Ankeny writes. But it still fell short of flying into combat, which Lee trained for and always yearned to do.

Why?

World War II wasn’t even over when the same media that had hailed Lee and her cohorts for their skill and patriotism now turned against them. That was driven in large part by male pilots who didn’t want to lose jobs and prestige, Ankeny writes. Even though women pilots had better safety records than men, media screamed about their occasional mishaps, accidents and fatalities. The WASPS were eventually disbanded and sent home. Many looked for civilian flying jobs. Few found one.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that women were allowed to fly for the U.S. Air Force and that WASPS were officially, retroactively recognized for their service to the military, Ankeny writes.

“American Flygirl” has made more of a splash than Ankeny expected since its April publication, she said. The Smithsonian magazine ran an excerpt. Ankeny has given readings at bookstores all over the region and at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Most gratifying to Ankeny, though, has been hearing from young Asian American women who say they never heard of Hazel Ying Lee before and find the story inspiring.

“Look at all the obstacles she knocked down,” Ankeny said. “Look at all she accomplished. She always stayed on the path to get what she wanted. She never gave up. Whenever somebody said no, she always said, ‘Why?’ ”

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