Like the WWII POW nurses I wrote about in PURE GRIT, the nearly two-thousand Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) did not receive formal recognition for their courageous wartime service while they were alive. It took nearly 70-years and an act of Congress to get them a medal and formal thanks from the U.S. government.
In 1942 when America's pilots were desperately needed in combat zones, there were not enough men to cover the bases at home. Up stepped 25-thousand young women pilots, eager to take to the skies and serve their country. Less than 2000 were accepted.
"Here I was, a girl of 22, given a million-dollar airplane and told, "Go fly!" One said.
They were not trained for combat, but flew fighter planes, bombers and every other kind of aircraft the U.S. Army had in World War II. The daring young WASPs not only transported cargo and flew planes from the factories to training bases and points of embarkation. They towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions.
The WASPs' story is told in the newly re-issued YANKEE DOODLE GALS, by Amy Nathan. She explains: Some were teenagers, right out of high school or just starting college. Others were teachers, librarians, flight instructors, or offices workers. They stopped what they were doing for the chance to fly fantastic planes and help their country win the war. These 1,102 women weren't allowed to fly in combat, but for two glorious years they put their lives on the line every day flying important, and often risky, stateside missions. They flew well and proved that a woman's place could very well be inside a military cockpit.
In 1944 the war was going better for the U.S. and the Army decided it didn't need the women anymore and disbanded the program. Though the women flew dangerous missions for two years and 38 of the pilots died in accidents, they were never considered official members of the military. All records of their service were classified and sealed for 35-years. Little remembered of the women pilots' contribution to the war effort.
Finally in 2009, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Three of the roughly 300 surviving pilots were there for the honor.
During the ceremony President Obama said, "The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."
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