On this international women’s month, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Hazel Ying Lee who will forever be remembered as one of the first in her field to fly against all odds during times of racial and gender inequality. Her audacity and perseverance would inspire future generations to come.
Born and educated in Oregon, Lee was one of eight children from parent’s Yuet Lee and Ssiu Lan Wong, who owned a Chinese restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown. Always encouraging their children to strive for excellence; this sentiment drove Hazel Ying to become the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S military.
Hazel Ying Lee lived a very active life regardless of the widespread anti-Chinese bias during her time. Lee graduated from Commerce High School, now Cleveland High School, in 1929 to later on find a job as an elevator operator at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland. Not many career opportunities were given to Chinese-American women at the time, but Lee took this chance to save money for private flying lessons and pursue her dream. As a teenager, Lee enrolled in the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and from then, her passion towards the craft became part of her identity. Hazel Ying would go on to earn a pilot’s license on October 1932 and against all odds put in place for women during the time, she became one of the first Chinese-American female pilots to receive one, thus breaking the stereotype of “passive Chinese women”.
Signed Portrait of Hazel Ying Lee 1937
In 1932, the Japanese military forces invaded occupied Manchuria, China and refused withdrawal requests from The League of Nations. By 1933, Japan occupied the province of Jehol and influenced Chinese expats to join the Chinese Air Force. Lee was amongst these expats, but since she was a woman, the Republic of China Air Force did not accept her as a female pilot. Due to the limitations encountered in China, Lee would have to undertake a desk job and fly commercially on occasion. Eventually settling in Canton, Lee would remain in China during the Japanese invasion and would help her friends and neighbors find shelter during airstrikes, which killed hundreds of civilians, yet her humanitarian actions saved the lives of all those she sheltered.
In 1942, Lee returned to the United States to later apply for the Women’s Flying Detachment, WFTD. The WFTD would later become the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots or “WASPS” in 1943, under the command of aviator Jacqueline Cochran; it was here where Lee trained for six months learning how to fly a variety of military aircraft. Once graduated in 1943, Lee was stationed at the Air Transport Command’s 3rd Ferrying Squadron at the Romulus Army Air base in Michigan where she delivered military airplanes to points of embarkment for the European and Pacific war fronts.
Hazel Ying Lee with members of WASP class of 43'
Lee’s humor and ability to playfully cause trouble, made her a favorite amongst her fellow pilots. An AF.mil news article “Hazel Ying Lee: Showcased Asian American involvement in war effort” published on March 6, 2013, reports that Lee would often use her lipstick to inscribe Chinese characters on the tails of her plane and the planes of her fellow pilots for comfort and to honor her Asian ancestry. Lee was also known to introduce her fellow WASP members to her Chinese culture through cuisine, by either cooking or by venturing out to the local Chinese restaurant. Adventurous and fearless at heart, Lee only experienced two emergency forced landings in her career; one tells the story of how a farmer in Kansas chased her around her airplane with a pitch fork because he believed she was a Japanese invader. Lee’s gallant efforts at controlling the situation made the farm man stop the chase.
Portrait of Hazel Ying Lee- 1940's
Lee’s career came to an end on November 25th, 1944 when she died from burn injuries after a two plane collision in Great Falls, Montana. It wasn’t until three days after her death that Lee’s family received information that her brother, Victor, died in combat while serving the U.S Tank corps in France. Wanting to bury their children together, the Lee family would choose a burial site in a Portland cemetery to only be welcomed by animosity from the segregated status of 1940’s America. In true relentless fashion, the Lee family did not give up and prevailed against the cemetery policy that did not allow Asians to be buried in the “White section”. Both Hazel and Victor are now buried in Riverview Cemetery in Portland Oregon.
Photo of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots- 1940’s
Over a thousand women who joined the WASPs were paid less and did not receive the same military status as their male counterparts, and for the 38 who died in service, the U.S Air Force did not cover any funeral expenses. But in 1977 the U.S Congress approved the Public Law 95-202 which recognized the efforts of these brave women, and finally granted their military status and contribution to the advancement of the United States.
Hazel Yee Lee was the last of these women to have died while in service doing what she loved the most, flying for her country. Lee’s legacy was eventually recognized in 2004 when she was inducted into Oregon’s Aviation Hall of Honor for her historic contribution to aviation. The legacy of Hazel Ying Lee will be remembered through her actions of inclusivity, bravery, and adversity in times of cultural, racial, and gender inequality. We celebrate the great American hero, Hazel Ying Lee, as a pioneer of the skies.
Visit the one of a kind “WASP” tribute exhibit at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, NY
Founded by Jeff and Jacky Clyman to honor those who served and are serving to protect our freedom. Proudly sponsored by Cockpit USA!