This is a true story about a group of people who nearly had their history stolen from them.
These people were organized in 1943 after a four-star general, a record-setting aviator, a first lady, and a test pilot/air racer joined together to help win World War II. These people had the idea that about 50% of the U.S. population was being underutilized in the war effort. To this end, 1,078 pilots were assembled in Sweetwater, Texas. All 1,078 were there of their own volition and at their own expense. These pilots volunteered to ferry airplanes, pull targets for live ammunition target practice, train other pilots, deliver cargo, and fly simulated strafing missions. Before the war was over, the cadre begun in Texas had been stationed at 120 bases, had flown 60,000,000 miles, and had delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Then they were unceremoniously dumped by the government they had so ably served.
The group? The WASPs; the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. These pilots were called service pilots but they were not treated the same as their male service pilot counterparts. The women paid their own way to their training base. They received no status as active duty service members. When one of their number died stateside in the performance of their duties, the U.S. government would not arrange to have the body returned to the next of kin and it certainly would not pay for a funeral or pay a death benefit to the family. In the event of a fatality while serving their county (and there were 38 of them), the remaining women at the base would take up a collection to ship their fallen comrade home.
By 1944, the demand for pilots had greatly diminished and the WASPs were disbanded and left to find their own way home. There they sat, unrecognized, unrewarded, but unbowed. No GI Bill for them. No veterans’ benefits. No thanks of a grateful nation with a crisply folded flag at a somber gravesite. No Taps. Nothing. The records of their service were sealed for over 30 years. The records might have stayed sealed if the United States Air Force hadn’t rubbed salt in their wounds and catapulted them into action.
In 1975, the Air Force came forth with what it described as a trail-blazing announcement and what the WASPs described as an enormous error. The Air Force glibly stated that females could now, for the first time, train to fly military aircraft. That was the final straw for the women who knew this was not only inaccurate, but also entirely unfair. They had flown military aircraft, seventy-eight different kinds of military aircraft, 30 years earlier. Those WASPs that remained began the fight to be recognized as veterans and to have the records of their service unsealed.
In their corner was Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, himself a veteran of the Army Air Forces (formerly Army Air Corps) Ferry Command. He campaigned to have the WASPs recognized, to have their service designated with full military status, and to bestow upon them the honored (and fully earned) title of U.S. military veteran. Finally, in 1977, the WASP records were unsealed. President Jimmy Carter signed the bill granting WASPs full military status for their service. For many of the WASPs, 33 years after being kicked to the curb, it was too late. They hadn’t lived long enough to get their due.
But for the rest of them, an encore was in store. On July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the group. On March 10, 2010, 200 of the surviving WASPs traveled to Washington, D.C. to be present in the U.S. Capitol to accept Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation. The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States.
However, just to prove irony did not die the day Le Duc Tho won the Nobel Peace Prize, another indignity awaited the WASPs. In 2015, a WASP’s right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery was revoked by Army Secretary John McHugh. A male veteran’s wife could be buried at Arlington, but a WASP, a military veteran herself, a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, could not be. The group had to fight this fight as well and eventually regained their right to spend eternity in the hallowed ground of Arlington.
Fewer than thirty WASPs are alive today. To meet one of these remarkable women is to have a chance to relive a moment of enduring change. If you are lucky enough to get that opportunity, be sure to thank her for her service.
Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for Miami Valley Today, an AIM Media Midwest publication.