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'Fly Girls' Exhibit Honors First Military Women Aviators

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 14, 2008 – On the same day the first woman was promoted to the rank of four-star general, the “Fly Girls of World War II” exhibit opened in honor of the first U.S. military-trained women aviators.

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Elaine D. Harmon, a former pilot of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, walks through the "Fly Girls of World War II" exhibit during the exhibit's opening Nov. 14, 2008, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
  

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Like Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASP, understood they were the first of their kind, but knew others would follow, said National Public Radio news analyst Cokie Roberts, who spoke at the exhibit’s grand opening here today at the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.

“Women have contributed to all of America’s Wars since the Revolutionary War,” Roberts said. “And it’s so beautiful to have these WASP here with us today.”

The WASP flew everything from bomber jets to ferry planes but most importantly, they paved the way for future generations of military women to serve, she said.

One such woman to follow in the WASP footsteps is Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski, who also spoke at the ceremony. She’s currently a White House Fellow but is an experienced fighter pilot with more than 180 hours of combat flight time. She was also the first woman to fly with the Air Force’s Thunderbird demonstration squadron.

“You didn’t fly and serve your country because your were women but, because you had to overcome some attitudes and restrictions at the time, you managed to served your country in spite of being women,” Malachowski said. “You had a dream; you followed that dream, and your legacy inspired my dream.”

Public attention and praise didn’t always come easily for the original fly girls. The WASP program only lasted for two years and was disbanded in December 1944 because Congress wouldn’t grant the women military status. They were considered civil service employees until the issue was brought up again in 1977 when they were finally recognized as military veterans. A few years later, the women were authorized to wear the World War II service and American Military campaign medals, said Mary Cox, who served as a WASP through the program’s duration.

Though the program was short-lived and the battle for recognition was long a one, the women still wear their wings with pride. Many of them look back on their days test-flying bomber jets and piloting transport planes as the best experience of their lives, Cox said.

“It was only a two-year program,” Cox said. “That’s all it lasted, but it was still quite an experience. For most of us girls who survived this long, it’s the main things in our life. No other experience compares except for having and raising children.”

Many of those children and their families were here for the exhibit’s opening, along with 27 WASPs. Initially, more than 25,000 women pilots applied for the program, while less than 1,900 were accepted. After training, 1,074 won their wings and were transferred to military posts across the U.S. Today, fewer than 300 are living.

About 150 guests and supporters were among the first to view the exhibit. Uniforms, pictures, training manuals, patches, pin-on wings and other artifacts line the entire left side of the 200-foot wall inside the Women In Military Service for America Memorial’s main corridor.

“We think it’s marvelous that people remember what we did,” said Scotty Gough, 86, who served with the WASP for only one year because she was one year too young when the program started. “I loved flying so much that if I had had the money, I would’ve paid the Air Force to let me fly.”

“For many, many years people knew nothing about us, and it’s important for generations to know what we did and what we were. We were the first ones to fly for the Army, and that’s why today’s women are flying jets and in the Air Force.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBee Haydu, a former pilot of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, walks through the "Fly Girls of World War II" exhibit during the exhibit's opening Nov. 14, 2008, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program share a laugh during the grand opening of the "Fly Girls of World War II" exhibit Nov. 14, 2008, at the Women in Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAmerican and World War II campaign medals are displayed in a glass case as part of the "Fly Girls of World War II" exhibit at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden   
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