March 10, 2010 — They’ve had to wait a long time. More than 60 years, in fact. But today, the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASP, finally received the recognition and honor they deserved.
The World War II women pilots, who were the first to fly military aircraft under the direction of the United States Army Air Forces, received a Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol.
Although the WASP never flew in combat, they did everything else. They ferried fighters, bombers, transport and training aircraft, and performed other missions in the United States to held defend America’s freedom.
"By 1942, we were in a tough spot in the war, we needed all the personnel that we could get flying," WASP historian Kate Landette told CBS News. "The Air Force was fighting desperately to keep pilots in the sky."
American pilots were flying into German territory and going down almost as fast as they could be trained.
"So you bring women into the job," Landette said. "Just as we brought Rosie the Riveter into work in the factories riveting the airplanes together, you bring women in to fly the planes so the men can go fly combat overseas."
Except Rosie the Riveter became a national icon, while everyone forgot about the WASP, except women like Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, who became the first female member of the Air Force Thunderbirds.
"When I made the decision to become an Air Force pilot, a lot of people told me that's not something you can do. But I was able to look to the story of the WASP and realize that women can do it," Malachowski told CBS News.
After Malachowski was asked to speak at a WASP convention, she took on the project of starting the legislation so the WASP could be honored, the Seattle Times reported. She enlisted the support of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and in June 2009, Congress approved the bill.
Although the WASP’s actions were heroic, they were not granted military status until 1977. The women pilots had to pay their own way to training, set up collections to help send a fallen WASP home, and after the war, paid their own way home.
Today, fewer than 300 of the original 1,100 WASP survive.
The largest crowd to ever appear in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda attended the WASP Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on March 10. Photo by Chris Hibben
Dorothy Olsen, 94, tries on her old pilot's uniform from World War II as she stands with a painting of herself as one of a thousand WASPs, Women Air Force Service Pilots, in 1943 and 1944. She was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal on March 10. Photo credit: Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times
Mary Helen Foster traveled to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for her service with the WASPs. Photo credit: Michelle Lepianka Carter / Tuscaloosa News