WASHINGTON - Macie Jo Wheelis, 91, has had a colorful life. A pioneering female aviator, she was one of the 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II. She played golf with the legendary Byron Nelson, was a Dallas bowling champ, and a West Texas racehorse breeder and owner.
Ms. Wheelis, who uses a wheelchair and is a little hard of hearing, has lost none of her spunk. One of 300 surviving WASPs, she proudly participated in a ceremony yesterday at the Capitol that honored the women with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.
"This tops it off," the Weatherford, Texas, resident said of getting the award. "I wonder why it took so long."
The ceremony had to be moved from the Capitol Rotunda to the much larger Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, because so many WASPs and their families attended.
"We acknowledge that for too long the proud service of the WASPs was not recognized in word or in deed," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said. "Today, we honor you as the heroes that you are."
All in their 80s and 90s now, the women, a sea of gray and white hair, held their heads proudly, many in their blue WASP uniforms and some wearing the uniform berets.
As a military band played "The
Star-Spangled Banner," 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.
The leadership of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the secretary of the Air Force, and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, the author of The Greatest Generation, a book about World War II, spoke about the women's remarkable lives and how much succeeding generations owe them.
The WASP program, born out of necessity because all the male pilots were needed for combat and transport duty, was made possible by the nation's love affair at the time with flying. Young female aviators, with flying opportunities limited to barnstorming and noncommercial service, suddenly were flying every type of military aircraft even as they rolled off the assembly lines.
The WASPs delivered the planes to military bases in the U.S. and Canada. Some flew planes with targets trailing behind to give soldiers experience with anti-aircraft guns, while others ferried supplies. They also conducted test flights on new bombers and checked out planes that had been in combat to make sure they were still airworthy.
Although they were skilled fliers in many aircraft, the women weren't always appreciated, nor welcome, for their efforts.
At some military bases, commanders resentful of the women - who were civilians - would give them poor accommodations and treat them as inferiors.
The 38 WASPs who died in the line of duty weren't buried with military honors, and their fellow fliers had to take up collections for their funerals.
But 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?'•" said Dorothy Eppstein, 92, of Kalamazoo, Mich.
When the women were dismissed from service in 1944, their records were classified and sealed - denying them recognition for their accomplishments - in what many thought was an effort to obliterate them from history. It wasn't until the 1970s that their story re-emerged, when the Air Force announced in 1976 that the women who were graduating from the first co-ed class at the U.S. Air Force Academy would be the first American women to fly military aircraft.
Suddenly, the original "fly girls" came out of the woodwork, reminding a forgetful nation that they had been there first.
Still, they aren't a bitter bunch.
"All we ever ask is that our overlooked history not be a missing chapter in the history of the Air Force, in the history of World War II, and, most of all, in the history of America," said Deanie Parrish of Texas, who was chosen to speak for the WASPs at the ceremony and to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of all the female fliers.
The gold medal will be on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution; all the WASPs and their survivors received bronze replicas yesterday.38.89037 -77.03196
Macie Jo Wheelis, 91, has had a colorful life. A pioneering female aviator, she was one of the 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II. She played golf with the legendary Byron Nelson, was a Dallas bowling champ, and a West Texas racehorse breeder and owner.