Despite being born and raised in a time where Chinese immigration was banned in the U.S., and families like hers were subject to horrific discrimination, Hazel Ping Lee had a verve for life. She learned to drive in her hometown of Portland, OR—and soon after, she learned to fly an airplane. It was love at first sight. She felt free in the air, and she loved bucking the conventional idea of what a Chinese young woman was supposed to do.
When Japan invaded China in 1933, she went to her ancestral homeland, hoping to fight in the Chinese Air Force. Even though they needed all the pilot they could get, the government would not allow women to take combat roles. She took a desk job, but hated it, and eventually was able to fly for a private airline company—one of very few female pilots in the country. Japan’s 1937 invasion meant full-out war. She was a hero, sheltering friends and neighbors from bombing, but still was not able to join the Air Force. The following year, 1938, she returned to New York City to continue to support the Chinese cause.
When the Pearl Harbor attack pulled the U.S. into WWII, Pearl would finally get the chance to fly in combat. Needing all the help it could get, the U.S. Army Air Force reluctantly agreed to enlist Lee as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots.) Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese woman pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces, served valiantly. Tragically, she perished in a non-combat aviation accident, within days of her brother’s demise in the European theater.
It would not be until 1977 that the WASPs were granted full military status. In addition to this accolade, Hazel Ying Lee was also later inducted into Oregon's Aviation Hall of Honor for her legacy of bravery and service.