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member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots Member of the United States Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) posed with her leg up on the wing of an airplane. The picture was taken in 1943. (Photo: Peter Stackpole/Life Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Forgotten Fliers Finally Honored

Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II receive Gold Medals from Congress

By Laura Leigh Davidson | null null , null
WASP member June Bent holds a portrait of a fellow pilot on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Images)
WASP member June Bent holds a portrait of a fellow pilot on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Images)

World War II pilots had an incredibly difficult and dangerous job. Flying fighter planes through horrible weather and dodging deadly gunfire were among their regular tasks. They risked their lives on a daily basis for the United States war effort.

Many World War II pilots received medals from the U.S. government for service to their country. Special ceremonies were held to celebrate the pilots' strength and bravery.

But one group of World War II high fliers was forgotten.

Known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP for short, they were the first women to fly U.S. military planes. They never received formal honors recognizing their service and sacrifice. The records of their wartime work were sealed for many years after World War II. Even after these records were opened to the public, their stories remained largely untold.

But now, more than 60 years later, these brave ladies are finally getting their due. The WASPs have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.

About 200 of the wartime pilots, most of whom are now in their late 80s or older, went to Washington, D.C., to accept their medals on March 10. WASP member Deanie Parrish accepted the award at the ceremony on Capitol Hill. She said she and her fellow aviators never expected to be thanked for their service.

"Over 65 years ago, we each served our country without any expectation of recognition or glory," Parrish said. “We did it because our country needed us."

Stepping Up for Service

During the early stages of World War II, there was a huge demand for pilots to fly combat missions overseas. The U.S. couldn't send all of their well-trained aviators to the warfront because some had to stay behind to train new pilots. To help ease the pilot shortage, leaders decided to train women to fly military aircraft. This way, women could serve as flight trainers at home in the U.S., and male pilots could fly combat missions overseas.

This was a shocking decision for the time, as many thought it was too dangerous for women to fly military aircraft. Military leaders weren't even sure women were physically strong enough to handle the heavy planes, especially in bad weather.

Hundreds of women stepped up to prove that they could be strong, safe pilots. More than 1,100 female aviators served in the WASP program. The lady pilots flew almost every type of military aircraft, including the hard-to-handle B-26 and B-29 bombers.

The WASP performed dangerous work that was key to the U.S. war effort. They tested newly built aircraft and ferried planes long distances from one base to another. They even towed targets so that ground and air gunners could practice shooting with live ammunition.

Thirty-eight members of the WASP died while flying their stateside missions.

But members of the WASP were considered civilians, meaning they were not officially part of the military. When one of them died during a mission, the military was not required to pay for their funeral.

As World War II started to wind down, there was less need for the services of the WASP. The program was officially canceled in December 1944, and the female fliers were sent home.

WASPs Gain Recognition

It wasn't until the 1970s that branches of the military started admitting women into their flying programs. The move inspired the lady pilots of World War II to unite and lobby Congress to grant the WASP program military status. They got their wish in 1977. This decision meant that WASP pilots could be buried with military honors, including having a flag draped over their coffin.

Recently, a group of female members of Congress decided it was time to officially honor these women for their service during World War II, and for paving the way for women to serve in today's military. The group of lawmakers said they awarded WASP members the Congressional Gold Medal as an expression of national appreciation.

Representative Susan Davis, Democrat of California, was one of the lawmakers who pushed for the WASP to be honored. "Thank you for your remarkable service and soaring patriotism," she said at the ceremony. "Your love of flying and your desire to serve your country are testaments to your outstanding heroism."

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