Innovator Series: Hazel Ying Lee

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Hazel Ying Lee became the first Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license and fly for the U.S. military under the Army Air Corps.

Lee’s bravery and service record paved the way to secure military status for women pilots and echoed a legacy of equality and inclusion.

In her youth, Lee had a passion for becoming a pilot. After graduating from high school, she took a job as an elevator operator to earn money for flight lessons. At the age of 19, she joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland, took flying lessons and earned her pilot’s license.

In 1933, Lee went to China in the hopes of becoming a military pilot. The Chinese air force turned her down because women were not allowed to become pilots. Despite the adversity, she remained in China, working a military desk job and occasionally flying for a commercial airline. When the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, Lee again attempted to join the Chinese air force and was again rejected due to her gender.

Lee returned to the United States in 1938 and worked for the Chinese government in New York as a buyer of war materials.

In the fall of 1942, Lee applied for the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, which later merged with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron to become the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. She began her training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where she learned to fly a variety of military planes. As one of only two Chinese American pilots in the WASP program, Lee relished her role and ethnicity. She enjoyed teaching her fellow WASPs about her Chinese culture and Asian cuisine and even helped her classmates inscribe their nicknames in Chinese characters on their aircraft using red lipstick.

After training in Texas, Lee was stationed at the Air Transport Command’s Romulus Army Air Base, Michigan. While there, she flew in a Boeing-Stearman PT-17, a North American T-6 Texan and a Boeing C-47 transporting military passengers and cargo. For Lee, flying was a way for her to feel the freedom she didn’t have on the ground. Her passion for flight drove her to pursue a qualification in flying single-engine fighter aircraft, which she earned through a Pursuit School in Brownsville, Texas, in 1944. While there, she familiarized herself with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, North American P-51 Mustang and Bell P-63 King Cobra.

Although she achieved a pinnacle of flight prowess, Lee was still often mistakenly seen as a Japanese enemy due to her appearance. During an emergency landing on a Kansas farm, she was chased down by farmers with pitchforks as she was mistaken for a Japanese aggressor. Lee was able to settle the confusion but not before suffering anguish as a result of their prejudice.

In World War II, Lee and other pursuit pilots delivered more than 5,000 fighters to Great Falls, an essential link in supplying Russian allies with planes.

During a routine aircraft transport to Great Falls, Montana, a faulty communication between the air traffic controllers caused Lee’s P-63 to collide with another P-63. She was able to land her damaged and burning plane, but she was severely injured. On Nov. 25, 1944, she died of her injuries. A few days after her death, her family was informed her brother, Victor, was killed in action in France. The two siblings are buried at River View Cemetery in Portland.

River View Cemetery initially refused to bury the siblings alongside white Portlanders, but their sister wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the cemetery allowed it. Lee was denied military death benefits because the WASPs were considered civilians.

In 1977, after years of fighting for recognition, the WASPs were granted veteran status along with full benefits. In 2010, Lee and the other 1,073 women who served as WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Lee is now regarded as a local heroine in Portland and recognized by the Department of Defense as the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military.

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