WASHINGTON: They flew US planes during World War II but were not considered “real” military pilots. No flags were draped over their coffins when they died on duty. And when their service ended, they had to pay their own bus fare home.
These US aviators – all women – got long-overdue recognition last Wednesday. They received the congressional gold medal, the highest civilian honour given by Congress, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
About 200 US 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, clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died.
As a military band played the national anthem, 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,” the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the US House of Representatives, said.
She said the pilots went unrecognised for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the US military.
In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly non-combat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.
“We did it because our country needed us,” Parrish said.
WASP Hughes Killen, 85, put it more simply: “We’re a bunch of tough old ladies,” she said in an interview.
Thirty-eight WASPS were killed in service in World War II. But they were long considered civilians, not members of the military, and thus were not entitled to the pay and benefits given to men.
They were only afforded veteran status in 1977 after a long fight. It is estimated that about 300 of the more than 1,000 WASPs are still alive.
A day earlier, the women participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the US Air Force Memorial with the knowledge that it may be one of the last times so many of them could gather.
Killen said it was the “gals who are watching from upstairs” she’s been thinking of.
“I really don’t care for publicity but what I really do care about is the 900 or more that are already dead and gone and have not had the cognizance and recognition that I feel they should have for their families,” Killen said.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican who helped lead the push to get the women recognised, noted at the ceremony that when the unit was disbanded in 1944, many of the women had to pay from their own bus fare home from an airfield in Texas. When some died on duty, it was fellow female aviators who helped pay their funeral expenses, she said.
Despite the danger and obstacles they faced, the women in interviews fondly recalled the camaraderie they shared.
“It was fun coming into a strange airport and having the mechanics say, ‘Where’s the pilot?’” Dorothy Eppstein, 92, said. – AP