Today in Asian American Pacific Islander Transportation History – May 11: Hazel Ying Lee

The Los Angeles Times highlighted an important but increasingly overlooked aviation pioneer from the World War II era. Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese-American woman to fly in support of U.S. military efforts, and the article in the Los Angeles Times focused on a 1944 letter from her to one of her still-surviving relatives.

“Frances Tong isn’t sure why she kept the letter from her older sister all these years,” reported the article. “In this letter, now brown with age, a young and fearless Hazel Ying Lee asks about family members and talks about the dangers of her job ferrying fighter planes to North American airfields during World War II.”

Hazel Ying Lee was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1912. Her parents were Chinese immigrants who raised a total of eight children. Despite widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in Portland at the time, Hazel Ying Lee lived life to the fullest and kept busy with an array of activities. She enjoyed playing both cards and handball, for example, and ran races and swam extensively.

After Lee took her first plane ride while attending an air show at the age of 19, she developed a strong interest in flying. She joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland. In addition, Lee took flight lessons from renowned aviator Al Greenwood. In 1932, she became one of the first Chinese-American women to receive a pilot’s license. “It so happened that Hazel got her pilot’s license right after the passing of our father,” recalled her sister Frances Tong nearly seven decades later. “If dad had still been there, I don’t think she would have been able to get it.” Tong added, “But she knew that’s what she wanted to do.”

Lee, who married a Seattle-born pilot named “Clifford” Louie Yim-qun, sought to use her aviation skills in her ancestral homeland. Along with many other Chinese-Americans during the early 1930s, she made her way to northern China to help fight invading Japanese military forces there. The Republic of China Air Force, however, did not accept women pilots. Consequently, Lee instead spent her time in China working in a military desk job and occasionally flying for a private airline. She returned to the United States in 1938.

Lee’s next effort to fly on behalf of a military cause proved to be considerably more successful. In the fall of 1942 – several months after the U.S. entry in World War II – Lee learned about a group called the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and applied for it. She was accepted into the group, receiving instruction on how to fly a variety of fighter planes. Lee completed this training in 1943; shortly thereafter, WFTD became part of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

As with her various other endeavors throughout her life, Lee made the most of her time as a WASP flier as well as the first Chinese-American female to take to the skies as a pilot in a support role for the U.S. military. “It was fly, fly, fly,” said Sylvia Clayton, a fellow WASP member and one of Lee’s friends. “It was an opportunity to fly, and it was something that we felt was helping the war cause.”

In flying fighter planes straight off assembly lines and to airfields throughout North America, Lee earned a great deal of respect for her formidable aviation abilities. She also emerged as a leader among her fellow WASP fliers. Tragically, however, Lee died in the fall of 1944 as the result of injuries sustained when her plane collided with another one on a runway in Great Falls, Montana. The fatal accident was due to miscommunications from the control tower there. Lee was only 32 at the time.

The letter that figured prominently in the 2003 Los Angeles Times article was the last one ever written by Lee. “It seemed as if everyone she met was a friend,” noted Clayton during her interview with the Los Angeles Times. “She didn’t think of herself as a trendsetter.”

For more information on Hazel Ling Lee, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazel_Ying_Lee and https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/lee_hazel_ying/#.WvXaNUxFzcs.

The 11 May 2003 Los Angeles Times article “Chinese American WASP Losing Her Anonymity” is available at http://articles.latimes.com/2003/may/11/news/adna-pilot11.

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