I remember the first time I saw a female airline pilot. I was excited and told her how proud I was to meet her. Female pilots are still a minority, but not uncommon. Surprisingly, during WWII, there were many women pilots serving the military, but it took decades to honor the Women Air Force Service Pilots, as veterans.
In 1942, there were not enough men to move the planes rolling off the assembly line to the air bases. More than 25,000 women volunteered for this duty, and 1,800 were accepted for training. Those pioneering women had the same rigorous training as men, but since they were legally only civilians, were paid a fraction of the wages.
They flew over 60 million miles and transported every type of military aircraft, towed targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice, simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo. Thirty-eight members lost their lives in accidents, eleven died during training, and twenty-seven were killed on missions. Those who were killed were sent home only at family expense, so if the family couldn’t afford it, a hat was passed.
“Traditional military honors or note of heroism, such as allowing the U.S. flag to be placed on the coffin or displaying a service flag in a window, were not allowed.” (West Texas Stories, Glenn Dromgoole).
The WASPS were quietly disbanded in 1944, but in 1977 they were reclassified as military veterans. And, in 2009, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award in the U.S.
They led the way for the 60,000 women now in the USAF and thousands more in Navy, Army, and Marine aviation. The surviving WASPS feel it was the best time of their lives, and they are proud of the female pilots and astronauts that now serve and are recognized as full-fledged veterans.