Veterans of the US Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) have been honoured for the first time since WWII by being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honour.
Some 200 former WASPs received long-overdue recognition as ”real” pilots. During the war they were classified as civilians despite flying military aircraft, along with all the risks that entailed. If they died on duty, Associated Press reports, no flags were draped over their coffins, and when their service ended, they had to find their own way home.
At a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, the mostly 80 and 90-year-olds were told by the first House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi:
Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly.
Pelosi said the WASPs had gone unrecognised for too long and emphasised that their service had blazed a trail for women in the US military.
The woman pilots’ mission was to fly non-combat flights, such as ”ferrying” aircraft from the factory to airfields, in order to free up men for combat flying overseas. Deanie Parrish, 88, explained the reason they did the job:
We did it because our country needed us.
Thirty-eight of the women were killed during their WWII service. However, as civilians, they were not entitled to pay or veteran’s benefits, nor to military burial. However, after a long struggle, they were granted veteran status in 1977. Out of the original 1,000 WASPs, some 300 are estimated to still be alive.
A former WASP, Ty Hughes Killen, 85, describing the group, said:
We're a bunch of tough old ladies.
Earlier, the veterans had taken part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the US Air Force Memorial. Killen said she was thinking of the:
Gals who are watching from upstairs.
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.
The report said the women unanimously recalled their service fondly. Dorothy Eppstein, 92, said:
It was fun coming into a strange airport and having the mechanics say, 'Where's the pilot?'
The Congressional Gold Medal has been used before to honour unrecognised groups of American service members. In 2000, it was awarded to the Native American ”Code Talkers” who used their unique Navajo language to prevent their Japanese opponents working out their code, and in 2006 to the Tuskegee Airmen, who were not recognised as the equals of their white counterparts because they were black.