SIXTY-FIVE years is a long time to wait for recognition of wartime service and sacrifice, but the women aviators of World War II took it in stride. Like the thousands of women who went to work in factories when male workers went off to war, the first women to fly U.S. military planes were just proud to do their unheralded duty, pay their own way home, and disappear from the pages of history.
Until now. The extraordinary achievements of the women pilots, who would become an instrumental part of the war effort, are finally being acknowledged by their country. The surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, were recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill.
During the war, a group of 1,102 female civilians, flying under the direction of the U.S. Air Force, transported military personnel, towed targets for gunnery practice, and tested planes that were newly repaired or overhauled. They flew more than 60 million miles in 78 types of aircraft - from Piper Cubs to B-29 bombers - and undertook every type of mission except combat.
Thirty-eight of the pilots were killed, but there were no flags or military honors at their funerals. For years, the military denied benefits to surviving WASP veterans.
Today, fewer than 300 WASPs are alive. All are in their late 80s or older.
For them, the medal is a wonderful, albeit belated, gesture of national appreciation.
Some WASPs also hope that their newfound recognition will allow younger generations, at long last, to learn of their contributions and accomplishments and, said one, to remind some still-skeptical men just how capable women are.