In April 1944, my grandmother, Elaine Harmon, traveled to Sweetwater, Texas to begin her training as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. These 1,102 women pilots volunteered to fly military aircraft for the Army within the United States. By doing so, they freed up male pilots for the crucial role to fly combat missions overseas to maintain constant pressure from the sky against enemies in Europe and the Pacific. The mortality rate for combat aircraft crews was high.
Although they avoided enemy fire while flying within the United States, the WASP still lost 38 women who died in airplane accidents. Flying as test pilots, ferrying airplanes from factories to bases and providing a moving target for teenage ground gunners to learn the art of anti-aircraft fire still carried risks.
“We did something great that was needed for the war effort,” my grandmother used to say about her flying days for the United States Army in 1944. She volunteered because she loved her country and wanted to use her needed skill as a pilot to help out the war effort. Many women during that era did not even drive cars. Those women who could not enter the cockpits of Army planes, instead, built those planes and became known as “Rosie the Riveter,” the face of a famous wartime poster encouraging that, “We Can Do It!”
Roughly 12% of Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. The rest of the population, from small children to the elderly, found ways to pitch in too. Professional sports were suspended. People collected tires, bottles, cans and scrap metal. They submitted to government-induced rationing of many products from gasoline to meat.
I once told a friend who was praising the contributions of my grandmother that I may never do anything as trailblazing as what she had done, but if it meant that during my lifetime we did not have to suffer through another world war, I was content to be “normal.” Less than half a percent of Americans serve in the armed forces these days. While the United States, like other nations, has been at war for many years now and more than 7,000 servicemembers have died, the nature of these wars do not constitute a world war.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website defines a pandemic as, “a global outbreak of disease. Pandemics happen when a new virus emerges to infect people and can spread between people sustainably. Because there is little to no pre-existing immunity against the new virus, it spreads worldwide.” COVID-19 is the illness that manifests from the novel coronavirus that appeared in 2019 and is spreading globally. The CDC estimates that “most of the U.S. population will be exposed to this virus” over the next several months. There is currently no available vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.
Tragically, instead of a world war, we now have a pandemic whose possible death toll could far exceed the 405,000 American service members who died in World War II. More than 10,000 people worldwide have already died, at least 214 of those in the United States. The numbers are likely to rise exponentially as the virus spreads.
As during World War II, everyone can play a role in the success or failure of the efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus. Professional sports are suspended. Each day we learn new characteristics of this illness, one being that people who feel fine may be transmitting the virus. Accordingly, states are closing schools, reducing or eliminating business trading hours and asking everyone to move around town as little as possible and stay home. These emergency declarations and requests are done with the assumption that most people will eventually be exposed but the best way to reduce the accompanying number of deaths is to “flatten the curve” – not overwhelm hospitals all at once with patients exceeding their capacities of care.
Each of us has an opportunity right now to do “something great.” It doesn’t require spending our time from dusk until dawn sweating as we carry old tires to a rubber collection area or traversing town searching for bottles, cans, and scrap metal. All we have to do is stay at home.
Stay at home. Save the world.