On July 1, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots recognizing their contributions to World War II. About 1,102 WASP pilots will be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow on a person.
During World War II, when there was was shortage of male fighter pilots, WASP pilots became the first group of women to fly military aircraft. The WASP program was started in 1942 by Jacqueline Cochran, a leading female pilot who had suggested to military officials that given the same training as male pilots, women would be equally capable of flying warplanes stateside. Although it was not considered an official military program, WASP was designed to free up Army pilots for combat duty, according to Wings Across America, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the program.
Nicknamed “flygirls” the women pilots flew 60 million miles in every type of aircraft in the Army fleet, including fighters and bombers, according to Wings Across America. The women faced “overwhelming cultural and gender bias against women in nontraditional roles and overcame multiple injustices and inequities in order to serve their country” according to the legislation granting WASP pilots the Congressional Gold Medal.
About 25,000 young women applied to become WASP pilots, yet only 1,830 were accepted. The WASP program was disbanded in 1944, just before the end of the war. According to Wings Across America, 38 WASP pilots and trainees were killed flying in the program. They received no recognition, honors or benefits. Unlike with other military deaths, their coffins could not be covered with an American flag. Often, classmates and friends took up collections to help pay for burials.
Records of the program were classified and sealed. Historians were not given access to the files and as time went by, the WASP program became “a missing chapter in the history of the Air Force” according to the legislation. But in 1977, at the urging of WASP supporters, Congress passed a law giving the pilots veteran status. The women were awarded medals and given permission to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery as enlisted military, according to Wings Across America. Supporters continued to urge lawmakers to further recognize the contributions WASP pilots made to the country, and in March, 2009, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) introduced the bill recommending a Congressional Gold Medal for the women. The Senate version of the bill had 76 cosponsors and the House version had 335 cosponsors.
Kay Baily Hutchinson congressional Web site, http://hutchison.senate.gov/WASP.html, Oct. 20, 2009
Wings Across America Web site, www.wingsacrossamerica.us, Oct. 20, 2009