Winning Gold At Last

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On March 10 hundreds of  active-duty female U.S. Air Force pilots accompanied more than 200 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) into the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center’s 580,000-square-foot marble and glass Emancipation Hall for a long-overdue ceremony. Many of the WASP veterans had donned their original World War II navy blue uniforms without letting out a seam. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked these women, now in their 80s and 90s, to stand up and be recognized for their role as a homefront Army auxiliary—and as the first women to fly military planes. Each surviving WASP, nearly a quarter of the original group of 1,074 women who graduated from the program, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest honor for distinguished achievement.

When these women talk about their service during World War II, it is the fighter planes and bombers, cross-country ferrying missions, and test piloting of experimental models that they most readily recall. Breaking a glass ceiling or trailblazing—those were motivations far from their minds when they joined up. But during two days of ceremonies, it was the role of these pilots in the emancipation of American women—especially military women—that came into sharp relief.

“Their story helped write my story,” said 36-year-old Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, a U.S. Air Force officer and the first female pilot selected to fly as part of the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds. “I came in on their shoulders.” She vividly remembers seeing photographs of these women in their open-cockpit, single-propeller planes when she was 12: “I saw that my dreams weren’t wrong.” A champion of the cause to win the Congressional Medal for the WASPs, Malachowski wrote the first draft of the legislation. Senate Bill 614 not only cites their “pioneering military service” but also underscores how their “exemplary” performance “forged revolutionary reform in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Between 1942 to 1944, the WASPs graduated from the training program at Avenger Field in Houston, then fanned out to 120 air bases where they logged 60 million miles. Thirty-eight died in performance of their duties.

Lacking official military status, WASPs were denied the financial benefits accorded to their male counterparts until 1977, when Congress granted them veteran status. (See “Flight of  the WASP” in American Heritage, Spring 2009, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 62–68.)