'If you have a daughter, teach her to fly'

March 10, 2010

The medal presented to the WASP“If you have a daughter, teach her to fly,” the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II sang at times to build morale. On March 10, Congress gave the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, acknowledging these women’s service to their country and the role they played in paving the way for future generations of women pilots.

The song was referenced at the Capitol, filled to the brim with WASP, family and friends of deceased WASP, and other notables at the presentation ceremony. Presenting the award were original bill sponsors Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Reps. Susan Davis and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Sen Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award the United States Congress can bestow on a civilian.

More than 1,100 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served in World War II, and more than 23,000 other women applied for the opportunity to do the same. Facing perceptions of gender inequality and the designation of non-military personnel, as well as financial difficulties, these women would become the first women to fly military aircraft for the United States.

The WASP group was started in the 1940s to release male pilots for combat duty. These women paid their way to Texas for training, and were sent on missions to help supply and train combat pilots for the war effort. They did not have combat training, but they walked away with high-level flying skills.

WASP flew every type of aircraft during that time, including bombers, fighters, and transport aircraft. In total, they flew more than 60 million miles.

Unfortunately, once the war was over, the WASP also had to pay their way back home; 38 of their colleagues lost their lives, and none of them were allowed to drape the flag reserved for military honors at their funerals and memorials.

The recognition these women deserved has come to them slowly: In 1977, the WASP received World War II veterans status, and were awarded the World War II Victory Medal in 1984.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Secretary of the Air Force, and notable broadcaster and chronicler of that generation Tom Brokaw attended the event to honor the WASP.