Female World War II Pilots Receive Overdue Honors
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 2, 2009 President Barack Obama yesterday signed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II, the first women in American history to fly military aircraft.
President Barack Obama signs a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Air Force Service Pilots, established during World War II, in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009. From left, the pilots are: Bernice Falk Haydu, Elaine Danforth Harmon and Lorraine H. Rodgers. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is at far right. Behind the president are active duty Air Force pilots. White House photo by Pete Souza
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
More than 60 years ago, they piloted fighter, bomber, transport and training aircraft with the primary mission of flying noncombat military missions in the United States, thus freeing their male counterparts for combat missions. But their contribution went largely unrecognized for years; they were not even acknowledged with veteran status until 1977.
“The Women Air Force 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,” Obama said. “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.”
From 1942 to 1943, more than 1,000 women joined the unit, and 38 of them made the ultimate sacrifice in performing its mission. This legislation, which passed the Senate and House in recent months, confers proper recognition on the women’s achievements, its sponsors said.
“The Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II are trailblazers and true patriots,” U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, said. “They risked their lives in service to our nation, but for too long their contribution to the war effort has been undervalued or under recognized.”
After the Senate passed the bill May 20, Mikulski issued a news release hailing its successful journey on Capitol Hill. “I am so pleased both houses of Congress have now come together to right this wrong, and to finally give these courageous women the proper recognition they deserve,” she said in the release.
The female pilots faced overwhelming cultural and gender bias against women serving in nontraditional roles and overcame injustice to serve their country, the Senate bill states. Enduring through adversity, the bill continues, these pilots became a catalyst for revolutionary reform in the integration of women pilots into the U.S. military.
The Women Air Force Service Pilots, known collectively as WASPs, participated in instructor piloting, towing targets for air-to-air gunnery practice, ground-to-air anti-aircraft practice and transporting personnel and cargo, among other tasks. In total, the women flew more than 60 million miles on American missions.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill, said the legislation recognizes the women’s sacrifice.
“Today, this Congress has recognized their sacrifice and considers them all heroes because these trailblazers and true patriots served our country without question and with no expectations of recognition or praise,” she said following the June 16 House passage. “That is what being a true hero is all about.
“This bill honors mothers, grandmothers, teachers, office workers, nurses, business women, photographers, [and] dancers. One was even a nun,” she added. “But before that, they were pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.”
The groundbreaking steps taken by the WASP unit paved the way for hundreds of U.S. servicewomen to serve as combat pilots and fly fighter aircraft in recent conflicts, a White House news release states.