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The women who flew airplanes in WWII — yet whose contributions remain invisible to many historians — were finally honored today in D.C. with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
From the AP:
These aviators — all women — got long-overdue recognition on Wednesday. They received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
About 200 women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were on hand to receive the award. Now mostly in their late 80s and early 90s, some came in wheelchairs, many sported dark blue uniforms, and one, June Bent of Westboro, Mass., clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died.
As a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.
“Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the pilots went unrecognized for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the U.S. military.
In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, of Waco, Texas, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.
The WASPS were crucial to the war effort. From Wikipedia:
The WASP women pilots each already had a pilot’s license. They were trained to fly “the Army way” by the U.S. Army Air Forces at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP service, and less than 1,900 were accepted. After completing four months of military flight training, 1,078 of them earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. Except for the fact that the women were not training for combat, their course of instruction was essentially the same as that for aviation cadets. The WASPs thus received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and acrobatics, but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. The percentage of trainees who were eliminated during training compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.
After training, the WASPs were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. assuming numerous flight-related missions, relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew sixty million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II was also flown at some point by women in these roles. In addition, a few exceptionally qualified women were allowed to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets. Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Over fifty percent of the ferrying of combat aircraft within the United States during the war was carried out by WASP pilots.
Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war—11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be in the military under the existing guidelines, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be put on fallen WASP pilots’ coffins.