Female WWII Aviators Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
Known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, they were the first women to fly U.S. military planes.
About 200 of these women aviators, mostly in their late 80s and early 90s and some in wheelchairs, came to the Capitol to accept the medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
In thanking them for their service, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said these women pilots went unrecognized for too long.
"Women Air Force Service Pilots, we are all your daughters, you taught us how to fly," Pelosi said.
In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish said the women had volunteered to fly the planes without expectation that they would ever be thanked. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.
"Over 65 years ago we each served our country without any expectation of recognition or glory and we did it without compromising the values that we were taught growing up ... We did it because our country needed us," Parrish said.
Thirty-eight WASPS were killed in service. But they were long considered civilians, not members of the military, and thus were not entitled to the pay and benefits given to the men. When their unit was disbanded in 1944, many even had to pay their own bus fare home from a Texas airfield.
They were afforded veteran status in 1977 after a long fight.
It's estimated that about 300 WASP aviators are still alive.
Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., along with Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Susan Davis, D-Calif., led the push in Congress to get the women recognized.
The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded in 2000 to the Navajo Code Talkers and in 2006 to the Tuskegee Airmen.