Women in World War II Services - Gold Medal Winners

PHOTO Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a P-40 fighter plane, she was head of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). [Photos this page, public domain.]
PHOTO Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a P-40 fighter plane, she was head of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). [Photos this page, public domain.]

Great Adventures of a Generation

Reading Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and its sequels,The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections, and An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation, provides an idea of the sacrifices that Americans made through and after WWII.

It seems that almost everyone in the USA sacrificed in a number of ways in the 1940s. It is difficult to count all of the sacrifices and a large number will likely never be revealed. However, when discovered, it is important to share them.

America has retraced its history and uncovered several groups of people that have deserved acknowledgement of their sacrifices. It may be impossible to repay them all for their contributions to serving their country, or for their suffering because of it. Japanese descendants placed in interment camps are one such group. Native American code talkers have been recognized, and they included more groups than the majority Navajo in that service. The Tuskegee Airmen have been called up for honor as well. Related to this, one of my security guards at a former worksite was a US Navy crewman aboard a submarine during WWII. Because he was African American, he was required to have separate quarters; this was in a boiler room, but he said that other than that, he was treated equally.

The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000 and to the Tuskegee Airmen in 2006.

B-17s in the 1940s (US Air Force file photo).
B-17s in the 1940s (US Air Force file photo).

Competition and Jobs

World War II played a large role in bringing women out of the homes and into the workplace, After the war, many women in the US Armed Services, the war factories, and the rest of the working realm did not want to go back to the home and felt they could no longer be satisfied there. Returning servicemen found themselves in competition for jobs with women, and so a new dimension was added to the proverbial battle between the sexes and the overall equal rights debate.

Ohio WASP Ferried the B-17 Flying Fortress

Ohio WASP Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner, and Blanche Osborn are shown leaving their plane, the "Pistol Packin' Mama." They were trained at the school at Lockbourne Army Air Forces base in the south end of Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio WASP Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner, and Blanche Osborn are shown leaving their plane, the "Pistol Packin' Mama." They were trained at the school at Lockbourne Army Air Forces base in the south end of Columbus, Ohio.

International Women's Day Began in 1911

I first learned of International Women's Day when African colleagues alerted me to it a few years ago; I'd never heard of it before. To some, It's a bit like the Japanese holiday of Children's Day - parents say that every day is children's day in the US.

It is appropriate that the 2010 theme for International Women's Day was Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all. During the week of IWD (March 8), the 1,000 members of America's WWII paramilitary unit, the Womens Airforce Service Pilots or WASP were officially recognized for their work over 65 years previously, in 1942 and 1943.

Their records had at one point been classified and sealed and the general public knew nothing about these women. Some of them never told their children and grandchildren. The American government revealed their efforts as it had revealed the experiences of other groups that required recognition. Americans wonder what additional groups may be called forward in the future. These groups are all an important part of our history.

On March 9, 2010 a ceremony was conducted to lay a wreath at the Air Force Memorial to remember 38 Women Airforce Service Pilots killed in the line of duty from 1942 through 1944. A total of 1,000 - 2,000 women are reported to to have served as WASP - many reports list 1,000 and some report 2,000 women in total. Regardless, about 300 survived in 2010.


Two days after IWD, 300 living members of the WASP were called to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on March 10, 2010. Some 200 of them appeared before US Congress, some in wheelchairs and some in their original WASP uniforms that still fit - others in brand new uniforms provided by family membes. They were aged in the late 80s and early 90s at this point.

Hometown newspapers across the country dug into their archives, looking for information about women from their towns that served as WASP or nurses in any of the armed forces during WWII. Dozens of stories appeared, enough that Tom Brokaw might do well to write another book.

The living WASP in 2010 were all awarded bronze versions of the Congressional Gold Medal. The original was presented to WASP Deannie Parrish, age 88, who represented all surviving WASP. She was not only a WASP ferry pilot, but a gunner instructor during WWII. She and the WASP donated the Gold Medal to the Smithsonian Institute to remain as part of history.

WASP Elaine Harmon and Virginia Gough were among the honorees. Ms. Harmon reported to the Capital News Service a year previous to the ceremony that, "No one knew we even existed" and that they were hidden for 35 years. She said in the 1970s when the USAF Academy began accepting women, this announcement provoked surviving WASP to look for one another -- The new Academy women pilots would not be the first female pilots that served with the military as per the announcement. People needed to know about the WASP.

WASP records were sealed until 1977. Beginning in 1975, with help from Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General H.H. (Hap) Arnold, WASP lobbied Washington, DC for recognition as WWII vets, even though they'd been considered civilians (civil service emplyees) in uniform and has received no military benefits other than a wage. They'd even had to get themselves home after their service was up.

Senator Barry Goldwater helped as well, since he'd also been a ferry pilot and understood WASP contributions. Then, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that ensured that the WASP received full military status under the GI BIll. In 1984 WASP were given the World War II Victory Medal and those serving over a single year were awarded the American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medal. The Congressional Gold Medal in 2010 was their final victory. [References: USAF Museum, WPAFB; Fairfield OH].

Attendees at the medal award ceremony at the US Capital also included Tom Brokaw, and the first female pilot in the Air Force Thunderbirds, Lt. Colonel Nicole Malachowshki.

Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski

The LLt. Col. has served in  Operation Iraqi Freedom (Gulf War) and has been awarded membership in the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
The LLt. Col. has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Gulf War) and has been awarded membership in the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.

WASP Duties During WWII

These women did many things that the public still does not fully realize today. Their duties included:

  • Test pilot duties
  • Instructor pilots - Taught combat pilots
  • Towed targets for air-to-air gunnery practice (the men shot at the targets)
  • Performed ground-to-air practice
  • Ferried aircraft like the B-17
  • Transported cargo and personnel
  • Simulated strafing
  • Laid smoke as a cover for other airplanes and personnel
  • Did night tracking
  • Flew drones

WASPs, Romulus Michigan AAF, 1944.
WASPs, Romulus Michigan AAF, 1944. | Source

Misinformation Corrected

In the 1960s - 1970s, some middle and high schools taught about the "WAF", a non-existent Womens Air Force. I came away from high school incorrectly believing that these individuals were USAF women that sat at desks.

Historic Recognition

President Barack Obama signed S.614 on 07/01/2009 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP of 1942-3.  Some 300 were still alive at this time. Women shown are Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; WASP Elaine Danforth Harmon, Lorraine H. Rodgers and Ber
President Barack Obama signed S.614 on 07/01/2009 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP of 1942-3. Some 300 were still alive at this time. Women shown are Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; WASP Elaine Danforth Harmon, Lorraine H. Rodgers and Ber

The Originals

Sarah Byrn Rickman wrote The Originals, published in 2001, as an account of the women that became WASP in WWII. Although the United States Air Force would admit and train women pilots in the late 1970s and even usher them into the USAF Thunderbirds flying demonstration unit, WASP were the original women pilots.

Most were already airplane pilots at a time in history that few men were pilots, let alone women, who were less accepted and not encouraged at all to fly planes. Those that became WASP joined famous female stunt pilot, restaurateur, and dude ranch owner, Pancho Barnes, in making flying history during World War II.

Mary Reineberg Buchard, aged 94 in 2010, gave up a podiatry practice to become a WASP with her father’s blessings. She’s purchased a plane with a group of friends and had learned to fly. Her three children attended the Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony, the two woman wearing the silk flying scarves made from parachutes that their mother had worn as a WASP. Mrs. Buchard still tells the story of her train trip from York, Pennsylvania to training camp in Sweetwater, Texas. It was snowing in Sweetwater and some of the women had on high heels. When she had served her time in the WASP, her father had to wire her train fare to get home. But, she stills calls anyone that flies a plane she see in the air a “lucky stiff.”

The very first originals were the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. The WAFS, who became the WASP, included Aline Rhonie Hofheimer (also from York), who is remembered by the Warren Township NJ Historical Society. She is called a "pioneer aviatrix, socialite, company president, horsewoman, wartime pilot, and artist" and she lived until 1963. She was the first female to complete a solo flight from New York to Mexico City and back. She is also remembered for a fresco she produced for the Smithsonian Institution.

Role Models for Grades 6 - 9

Lillian Yonally

No one but her husband knew that she'd been a WASP until March 10, 2010. He only knew because he had shot her plane accidentally during target practice at Camp Irwin, California as her plane towed the target he and other men were shooting. What a way to meet a wife, right?

For the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, Lillian's (age 87) children ordered a new WASP uniform tailor made for her. Back in the WASP, the women had not received new uniforms, but were given those discarded by men, the smallest being a size 44 and much too large.

Lillian was one of the few WASP that took a camera onto her training base. She took color photos of the planes she flew and of her friends, then mailed the film to her father at home. Lillian and her daughter helped distribute Yankee Doodle Gals to schools nationwide to teach young people about the WASP and the role of women in the military. The new version of the story by the same title is part of National Geographic Children's Books and is written by Amy Nathan.

For realted references and Lillian's full story and slide show, with timeline and pictures of other WASP, see this NPR site: WASP: Women With Wings in World War II: NPR.

© 2010 Patty Inglish

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Comments 28 comments

david stillwagon 6 years ago

What a wonderful story and great pictures of American heroes.


Brigitte Thompson profile image

Brigitte Thompson 6 years ago from Austin, TX

Love this story, someone should make a movie

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Thanks david!

Brigitte - Good idea! - So many hometown stories came out, there's enough material. I'm looking fot Tom Brokaw's email address...

genrp profile image

genrp 6 years ago from North Hollywood, CA, USA

Great story and I enjoyed reading it.

artrush73 profile image

artrush73 6 years ago

wow! female pilots that's so cool :)

Faybe Bay profile image

Faybe Bay 6 years ago from Florida

Patty, I have tears in my eyes as I read this. I knew about WASP, but did not know these women never received any benefit. How horrible that they had to keep their heroism a secret for so long. I am so glad you brought this story to light.

My father was in the Navy and served in Korea. He passed away in 1970. He would have loved your tribute to these women. My mother and Grandmothers worked here at home for the Red Cross as volunteers, mostly rolling bandages, my mother said, during both wars.

Sage Williams profile image

Sage Williams 6 years ago

I admire you're terrific job researching this information. I have learned so much from reading. An amazing story and a beautiful tribute the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. Also a beautiful recognition to Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski. for her service in Iraq

The Women Heroes of the World!

Great Job!


samboiam profile image

samboiam 6 years ago from Texas

Wonderful hub. Thanks for bringing these women to our attention.

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

A great historical hub with lovely stories. Thank you for sharing.

sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

I really liked reading this. As others have said, I knew about these women but I thought they were better treated by the armed forces.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

samboiam - Happy that you visited and read the material.The vent had quite a bit of online news covereage, but not much on tv or radio, in my area at least.

Hello, hello - I was fortunate to find some Ohio photos and lucky that WFARB is not far away.

shelia b - We saw posters of WAVEs and WAFs when we were kids, but the pictures did not show any flying. At the Air Force Museum, I remember seeing mannequins of WWII-era women in uniform, but they were women's unforms and we could not tell what jobs the women did. One held a gas mask.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

What a great story. I knew women served in the military but they had gotten so little credit until now. I'm so glad you wrote this hub.

billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Very informative piece - thanks for sharing

stars439 profile image

stars439 6 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

good hub

vaneet2310 profile image

vaneet2310 6 years ago from Delhi

What a great informative hub...I really enjoyed reading this one. You must have done a lot of research for this awesome piece of information.

Great job...Thx again for sharing.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

It's wonderful that you have brought the story of these great women pilots to our attention, Patty. Their heroism has gone unrecognized long enough. Women pilots -- and all women -- made significant contributions to the war effort. It's about time their story was told. I may have mentioned elsewhere that my mother was a riveter at the Eastern Aircract factory in Tarrytown, N.Y., during World War II building airplanes. My mother often referred to herself as a "Rosie the Riveter." It was one of my mother's co=workers, Rose Hicker, who was made famous in her job riveting the wings of Grumman "Avenger" Bombers at the plant. Norman Rockwell's image of "Rosie" made her even more famous. Thanks, again.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Your mother made important history, William. Many people have no idea about this things. Thanks for posting.

maven101 profile image

maven101 6 years ago from Northern Arizona

Thank you Patty for this revealing and important historical Hub about women's crucial contributions to the final victory in WW2...As ferry pilots, they freed up significant numbers of men to fight the war on every front...No doubt, many would have volunteered for combat duty had the military needed their services as such...

My Mom, like William's above, was also a welder during WW2... She spot welded ships plates at Bethlehem Steel in Alameda, Calif., while my Dad flew the F4U Corsair as a Marine pilot...He taught her and me how to fly when he returned from the war...

This is great timing for this Hub celebrating women pilots of WW2 since many were mothers as well....Happy Mother's day to all Mothers around the world... Larry

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Wonderful information! Thank you Larry; you have such a rich history.

Happy Mother's Day!

mquee profile image

mquee 6 years ago from Columbia, SC

This is a great hub, but the shame lies in the fact that this part of our history should be taught in our schools. This country has a rich and diverse history, with all genders, races, and nationaliteis contributing.

I have never heard of these lady flyers before reading this article. I am glad that I ran across it, because I love to read about historic achievements, especially when it is a part of this country's history.

Very enjoyable and educational reading. Thanks.

Wingman64d profile image

Wingman64d 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Good article and it was really nice to see you mention that the WAFS, under direction of Nancy Harkness Love, preceeded the WASPs who were led by Jacquiline(sp) Cochran. While both women were skilled pilots and excellent organizers, Ms. Cochrane had better political pull and this led to the WAFS getting absorbed into the WASPs. In at least one story that I read, this led to some bad blood between Love and Cochrane.

badegg profile image

badegg 6 years ago from Southern Appalachians

Great story. We must never forget the women that gave their all both here and abroad.

Didn't the "Pistol Packin' Mama" go on to join the "Bloody 100th" in England?

limpet profile image

limpet 2 years ago from London England

I am currently working on the biography of a real life heroine who served in both the Second World war and the Malayan conflict. Beryl Roberta Gibbney volunteered for the Women's Auxilliary Air Force or the W.A.A.F. shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. Due to Miss Gibbney's maturity and high integrity she was offered and accepted as a commissioned officer. Her work consisted mainly of supervisory duties in the training of young service women away from home for the first time.. This is where she earned the unofficial callsign of the 'Redoubtable Miss Gibbney'. She also had a secondary role in the murky realm of clandestine operations even flying on tactical missions. There is a famous drinking song attributed to her which goes to the tune of 'Way down upon the Sawanee river.'

limpet profile image

limpet 2 years ago from London England

Though not actually aircrew there were some highly decorated Ladies who should be honoured for their devotion to duty. Constance Babbington-Smith joined the Women's Auxilliary Air Force and was allocated to the Photographic Reconaisance Unit as an air imagery interpreter. Conny to her friends, Ma'am to her subordinates had a natural stereoscopic vision enabling her to analyse maps without magnification. Fight Officer Babbington-Smith successfully located many enemy concealments from film taken on mainly spitfire or mosquito sorties. At the conclusion of hostilities, Miss Babbington-Smith was seconded to the U.S.A.A.F. on special duties with the corresponding rank of captain. A book on Constance Babbington -Smith is in the making.

Title; Tribute to an Air Spy is in the making.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 2 years ago from North America Author

Thanks for your contributions and writing about the women in the UK during WWII. They and all veterans of that war need remembrance.

limpet profile image

limpet 13 months ago from London England

Must mention all of the civilian women who were selected and trained with the Special Operations Executive to be 'dropped' behind the lines to organise clandestine resistance. They were however given 'honorary' rank as officers in the various services in case of capture. Violette Zsabo, Odette Churchill and Nancy Wake would be a good start for finding more. There is a memorial to all these women on the riverbank opposite the Houses of Parliament. London Borough of Lambeth in fact.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 13 months ago from North America Author

Thanks for that information, limpet. I wrote about Nancy Wake, in fact, and will read about the others. The stories of WWII are never-ending.

limpet profile image

limpet 13 months ago from London England

The Prime Minister has announced at a press conference that within a year. women will be deployed to battle zones, serve in submarines and be eligible for promotion to higher command. They will not be trained as crew in U.K.Armoured fighting vehicles as yet. But many Russian main battle tanks circa W.W.II had all female crews!

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