Unforgotten: Stories of Oregon’s Women Veterans – Hazel Ying Lee

Hazel Ying Lee, World War II

In 1943, Portland native Hazel Ying Lee made aviation history as the first Chinese-American woman to fly a military plane. Lee was one of more than 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) to serve their nation during World War II.

Lee fell in love with flying at a time when less than 1 percent of American pilots were women. After obtaining her pilot’s license in 1932, she wanted to fly for the Chinese military against Japan. Unable to join the Chinese Air Force, Lee remained in China until 1938 and contributed to that nation’s war effort in a number of ways.

After returning to the United States, Lee learned about an opportunity to fly military aircraft through the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).  During training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, she made an emergency landing in a farmer’s field. Mistaking her for a Japanese pilot, the farmer held her at “pitchfork point” until the farmer’s son realized who Lee was and assisted her.

Graduating as a WASP on Aug. 7, 1943, Lee joined the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron and began ferrying trainer and liaison type aircraft. After completing Pursuit School, Lee began to ferry advanced fighter aircraft.

In late November 1944, she flew a new aircraft to Great Falls, Mont.—a Bell P-63 King Cobra. While landing at Great Falls on Nov. 23, her aircraft was struck by another P-63. She survived the fiery crash, but succumbed to her injuries two days later.

In her lifetime, Lee flew more than 70 different aircraft and died doing what she loved: flying.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs will spend this week recognizing a handful of the countless brave Oregonians who have served our nation during war and stood guard over our peace.