29 September 2008

In the company of heroes

Wow. There's just no other word for it.

I just got back last night from the coolest TDY (temporary duty) in the history of the world. I went to the final organized reunion of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Their membership is down since many of them have passed on, or have simply gotten too old or too sick to attend reunions. The youngest WASP is 83 years old and receiving chemo treatments and is in a wheel chair. She was there this weekend, by the way.

What's that? You don't know who the WASP are? I'm so glad you asked. You know, women fly airplanes. They are perfectly capable and some women can do it a lot better than men. This is really not ground breaking news, but it used to be. In the early months of World War II, there was a massive shortage of military combat pilots. In time, the most well known American female pilot, Jackie Cochran, along with another accomplished female aviator, Nancy Harkness Love, was able to convince General Hap Arnold to train women to fly military aircraft. They argued that women were already licensed to fly, and if they got the same military training as men, they could fly military aircraft just as well. And since there was such a dearth of pilots, well, it just made sense. In 1942, their proposal was approved and in November of that same year the first class of WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) entered training in Houston, Texas. The training eventually moved to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The last class of WASP graduated in December of 1944 and the WASP were disbanded 13 days after that last class graduated.

These women did everything but fly into combat. They towed targets for gunnery practice, they ferried aircraft, they flight-tested all the aircraft types in the inventory, instrument instructed, transported personnel and cargo, laid smoke, trained navigators and bombardiers, they flew drones, and the B26 and B29 to prove to the men that the aircraft were safe to fly.

Here's the thing, they were never considered military members. They were civilians. They didn't get any military benefits, or recognition, and their parents were denied a gold star in their windows. They weren't entitled to drape an American flag on their coffin. 38 of them died while serving their country and the government wouldn't even bring their bodies home. Their classmates took up collections to pay for bringing their bodies home and for their funerals and tombstones. Some still don't have headstones. That is just criminal. These women just wanted to fly, and they wanted to serve their country, and they didn't take "No" for an answer. General Arnold petitioned Congress to militarize the WASP but they denied his request. That's alright, though, the story gets better. Remember, these ladies wouldn't take "No" for an answer.

Finally in the late 1970's when the military aviation world was opened up to women again, lawmakers saw the contradiction in that situation....women were going to fly again, how could they deny veterans' status to those who paved the way? From 1944 until 1977, no woman set foot in a military cockpit. When the boys came home from war, they wanted their jobs back. To add insult to injury, when the WASP were granted military status, they were not invited to the signing ceremony. After that, it took seven years for their medals to arrive. They arrived in the mail. No recognition, no fanfare, no ceremony.

These women shared, and still share, a sisterhood that transcended time and distance. The bond of sisters (and brothers) in uniform is a strong one, and one you may not completely understand if you've never been in uniform yourself. It's even stronger for these ladies, for the challenges that they faced, and overcame, together. They get together every two years, and they come from all over the country. They hug and kiss, call each other sweetheart and they remember the details of their flights as if they happened last week instead of over 60 years ago. They love to talk with the female flyers of today and if you've ever listened to pilots talk, it's like they are in their own world.

I'm not a pilot. I don't really want to be one. I've tried learning to fly and I just do not have it in me. But I am a woman in uniform, and I used to wear the flight suit. I don't know what it was like for these ladies in the 1940's as they showed the guys, at every turn, that they had the right stuff. But I do know what it's like to be a girl in a flight suit, and to have the guys think you aren't as good as they are, on account of missing a Y chromosome. I met and had a chance to spend time with some of these awesome, awesome ladies and listen to some of their stories. It is truly inspiring to just sit at the same table as someone who did what they did, and the great thing about them is they don't want to be seen as heroes or pioneers. They were just some girls who loved to fly, wanted to serve their country, and wouldn't take "No" for an answer. Being with them made me want to go out and conquer the world, and it made think that I could.

And I have a couple of new friends, one a great gal who is nearly 90 years old and flew the B17 and the B24, among many others, in WWII. She invited me along with a good friend of mine, to visit her in the Pacific Northwest, anytime. My other new friend is this lady's loyal friend and companion. They said they'd take us for a walk around the lake by their house, and then we'd go to flight museum nearby. How cool is that?

Better late than never, they are finally getting some attention and some recognition. Some other women who won't take "No" for an answer are making sure that the legacy of the WASP does not just disappear. So many people still don't even know who they are or what they did. Hopefully that is changing, and will continue to change. There is a fabulous WASP archive at Texas Women University in Denton, Texas, and a traveling WASP exhibit will debut in November of this year, at the WIMSA (Women in Military Service for America) memorial in Washington DC.

Check out WASP on the Web and Wings Across America at www.wingsacrossamerica.org

I'm humbled and I'm awed by the things that they did, to open the door for me and millions of women like me, so that we too could wear the uniform, and fly in the service of our country. I was honored to stand up and salute them. My husband says I sound like a kid with a bad case of hero worship.

Yeah, I guess I do.


sarah said...

how cool. I thought of you this weekend. We were at a gun show and they had some vintage war fighter pilot helmets.

Jenn said...

I enjoyed reading this...how cool to be able to get to meet these heroes!

Some Suburban Mom said...

That sounds really cool Sarah. I love seeing those types of things. I love how people want to take care of them and preserve them.

Some Suburban Mom said...

Thanks Jenn :) It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. I want to post a few pics in the blog, once I figure out how :)