3/11/2010 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The first female military pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol March 10.
Almost 70 years ago, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were disbanded with little fanfare, but this ceremony was a way to make things right for the trailblazers, said Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley.
"As a result of your conviction and your devotion to duty, from that time onward, women would forever be a part of United States military aviation," Secretary Donley said.
More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. The audience, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted was one of the largest ever in the Capitol and too large to fit into Emancipation Hall, also included their families, as well as the families of those who have since died or couldn't travel.
Military members from every branch of service served as escorts for the veterans. For 1st Lt. Sarah Reich, escorting WASP Janet Lee Hutchison to the ceremony was "one of the greatest experiences" of her life.
"The past couple of days with Janet have changed my life," said Lieutenant Reich, an Air National Guard communications officer. "She told me, 'I have never known fear; everything is an adventure,' and I'll take that lesson with me forever. Her story as a WASP is just amazing."
The process to approve the Congressional Gold Medal was introduced and approved in record time last year. The bipartisan effort was led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, as well as Rep. Susan Davis of California and Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. All four elected officials spoke at the event.
Deanie Parrish, associate director of Wings Across America, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the WASPs. Presenting the medal were Speaker Pelosi, Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader; Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader; and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.
Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female pilot in the Air Force's Air Demonstration Squadron was instrumental in shaping the bill to honor and recognize the WASPs. She was also one of the guest speakers at the ceremony.
"Today is the day when the WASPs will make history once again," Colonel Malachowski told the crowd. "If you spend any time at all talking to these wonderful women, you'll notice how humble and gracious and selfless they all are. Their motives for wanting to fly airplanes all those years ago wasn't for fame or glory or recognition. They simply had a passion to take what gifts they had and use them to help defend not only America, but the entire free world, from tyranny. And they let no one get in their way."
Of the more than 1,100 women who volunteered and flew every fighter, bomber, transport and trainer aircraft in the Air Force inventory 68 years ago, only about 300 are still alive.
Betty Wall Strohfus, a WASP from Minnesota, was one of the women who "just had to be here for this." She flew the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder bombers, as well as the P-39 Airacobra fighter.
"It's almost unbelievable, we never thought this day would come," she said. "We were all just so grateful to have the opportunity to fly. But this was just such a lovely ceremony and so nice for all these people to come out for us."
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award Congress can award to a civilian or group of civilians. Past honorees include the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000 and Tuskegee Airmen in 2006.
Each WASP received a smaller version of the medal to keep. The original medal will be donated to the Smithsonian Institution for display later this year with the "Women in Aviation" display at its Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.