Asian American Aviatrix: Hazel Ying Lee

In the early 1930s, when Oregon-born Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944) dreamed of becoming a pilot, her mother advised her, “It’s not ladylike to fly.” Hazel disagreed. To save money for flying lessons, she worked as a department store elevator operator—one of few jobs opened to Chinese women in America. The Portland Chinese Benevolent Society sponsored Hazel’s flying program and the young pilot took to the sky by age 19.

A proud WASP during WWII, Hazel became the first Asian American woman to fly for the U.S. military. She served as one of two Asian American WASPs alongside California’s Margaret “Maggie” Gee. Hazel’s story has a Michigan connection: She ferried PT-17s, T-6 Texans, and C-47s with the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron at Romulus Army Air Base. 

When she made a forced landing in a Kansas crop, Hazel found herself mistaken for a Japanese pilot and chased by a farmer—armed with a pitchfork—until she’d proven her American citizenship. One of the 38 WASPs to die during service, Hazel lost her life to a runway collision. Discrimination followed her even after her passing when a military cemetery refused her burial due to her Chinese heritage. 

We applaud Hazel’s skill, ambition, and service to her country, and feel honored by the chance to acknowledge her contributions and those of others who have faced discrimination and oppression and despite it, made air and space history. Our new, exclusive Women in Air and Space Interactive Timeline exhibition, debuting this summer, serves as an example of the Air Zoo’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Through stories like Hazel’s on our exhibit floor, we seek to nurture an understanding of and respect for the wide array of contributors to our aerospace heritage. 

Posted by Nikki Statler at 2:00 PM
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