There are photos that give me chills when I see them. There is one theme in old photos that still makes my heart race, causes me to swell with pride, and even brings a tear to my eye out of the sheer passion it stands for. I’ve seen them hundreds of times before. You have too. They are black and white, displaying men and women in military uniforms. The style of hair, the dark lipstick, the time frame is clearly World War II.
I first saw these kinds of photos as a young girl, 7 or 8, as blown up cardboard cut outs displayed in an exhibit at the WWII Canteen Museum in North Platte, NE. My family went to the museum every summer. And even when I was that little, I remember thinking how beautiful the women were and how amazing it was that they were in military uniforms. I never personally met an actual female in the military until I was well into my teens. My father was in the Army National Guard, along with my older brother and all my uncles and I was proud of them. Fiercely proud of them. But I grew up wearing skirts to church and school, the men worked, the women stayed home, and behind every great man was a supportive, nameless woman. I didn’t mind it. It was romantic and noble in a way, but I couldn’t suppress the voice inside my head and my heart that told me, I was capable of something else. And if these women could do it, so long ago when circumstances were so much more difficult, then maybe I could too.
I will always remember the pounding in my chest as I gazed in awe at those photos in museums or in books. I didn’t know who they were. I barely knew Army from Navy, or even WWI from WWII at that age. All I knew was I wanted to be that when I grew up. I wanted to stand tall with that much pride radiating from my eyes. I imagined their life, their struggles, and how hard they must have worked to earn their place in history.
Today, 1,100 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. More than 800 women will receive the honor posthumously. They are the original Fly Girls. The first women in history to pilot military aircraft. Women who never had the opportunity to prove their capabilities suddenly had a chance. This chance wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter. They encountered skepticism and disbelief from nearly everyone in the country. Even the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry Arnold said he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather." He later ate those words. These women fought tooth and nail, sacrificing, working tirelessly, giving their time, and some their lives.
At that time in history, the military was not willing to train women pilots from scratch. Men could enter the military pilot program and be trained for free. These women scraped together every dime they earned, many right out of high school, to obtain their pilots license before applying to the very selective WASP program. Once in the program, they were not recognized as military although they flew military aircraft (B-26 and B-29 Bombers) and provided combat training exercises for the male soldiers. In 1944, when the program ended, there was no ceremony, no final salute, no “job well done.” And when 38 women died in service, there were no military honors at their funeral. Not even help to pay for their funeral. Not so much as an American flag authorized to be draped over their casket.
I am sorry, Ladies, that many of you are not here today to receive your long over-due honor. Your life, your service, your dedication, your willingness to break the mold, and your bravery has inspired millions. I am one. I know many others, women and men. When I told my husband I would write about this today, he said, “Good. They deserve it.” This is your magical, defining moment in history and I hope you savor it and feel the pride for yourselves that I, as a woman and Veteran am feeling for you. I am thinking about all of you today and thanking God this honor is now yours for all the world to know and see.
"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return." - Leonardo da Vinci
***This blog was inspired by the NPR article "Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls" by Susan Stamberg. To view the article go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123773525