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Badass Women of History: Hazel Ying Lee

Opinion | December 11, 2015

Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese-American woman to fly planes for the military. She was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912 to two Chinese immigrants who met and married in the US. The couple raised eight children at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was still prevalent and the ban on Chinese immigration resulting from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. The law came from concerns about Chinese laborers taking jobs from white citizens, as well as preserving “racial purity.”

Hazel was drawn to flying as a teenager. After graduating high school, she took a job as an elevator operator at a department store to save money for flying lessons. She later enrolled in the flying program sponsored by the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society, an organization dedicated to providing financial aid to struggling Chinese-Americans. She received her license in 1932 at the age of 19. At the time, less than 1 percent of licensed American pilots were women.

Following an increase of Japanese attacks in China in 1937, many Chinese-Americans went to China to enlist in the military. Hazel and her husband, fellow aviator Louie Yim-qun, went to China with the intent of serving in the Chinese Air Force. While her husband was accepted, Hazel was rejected for being a woman (because patriarchy). She managed to find a military desk job and did occasional commercial flights in Canton, where she lived before the Japanese invasion.

Hazel returned home in 1938. Five years later, in 1943, she heard of the newly created Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Part of the war effort, the organization was founded by famed racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran after a visit to England. There, she found a group of female pilots serving in auxiliary roles on the airfields, such as plane ferrying. Hazel was accepted into WASP’s six-week training program in Texas where she completed many cross-country flights and bonded with all sorts of other badass aviatrixes.

After completing the training, she was stationed at Romulus Army Air Base in Michigan and flew a wide variety of military planes around the country. She was also one of 138 women in the country who knew how to fly high-powered “pursuit” planes.

Hazel was known for her hard work, fearless demeanor and great Chinese cooking, which made her very popular among the other WASPs. Hazel only had two forced landings in her career. One took place in a Kansas wheat field. A farmer, convinced that she was a Japanese invader (because all Asians are the same, right?), chased her with a pitchfork until she convinced him that she was, in fact, neither Japanese nor an invader. Hazel was also remembered for her tradition of naming every plane she flew, inscribing Chinese characters in lipstick on the planes’ tails.

On November 10, 1944, she received orders to fly a plane from New York to Montana. However, because of a mistake on the part of the control tower, she collided with another plane. She died of burns sustained during the accident.

Hazel’s service was typical of women who served in the military. She was paid less than men and had to pay for her own accommodations and uniforms. They did not receive military benefits or funeral expenses. It was not until 1977 that WASPs were given veteran status. However, her loved ones say she loved her work. Her sister, Frances Tong, said in “A Brief Flight,” a documentary about Lee’s life, “[She] enjoyed the danger and doing something that was new [for] Chinese girls.”