Women Gold Medal Winners of World War II
America has retraced its history and uncovered several groups of people that have deserved acknowledgement of their sacrifices.
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 work-site 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.
Ohio WASP Ferried the B-17 Flying Fortress
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.
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.
Because of a lack of publicity, i had never heard of it before. To some, It's a bit like the Japanese holiday of Children's Day: American parents say that every day is children's day in the US. Many American;s feel that because of equality of rights emerging, that every day is women's day.
It is appropriate that the 2010 theme and motto 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 Women's 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 of these courageous women survived in 2010.
Congressional Gold Medal
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, some in their original WASP uniforms that still fit, and others in brand new uniforms provided by family members. They were aged in the late 80s and early 90s.
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.
Secreted Records Unsealed
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 employees) 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.
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
In the 1960s and 1970s, some middle- and high schools in my state and others taught about the "WAF", a non-existent "Women's Air Force."
I came away from high school incorrectly believing that these individuals were USAF women that sat at desks. They did very little sitting except in a cockpit!
Women Fight Today: Lt. Col. Nicole MalachowskiClick thumbnail to view full-size
Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski became the first female USAF Thunderbirds pilot from 2005 through 2007.
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.
No one but her husband knew that she'd been a WASP until March 10, 2010.
Her husband 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.
- A WASP Among Eagles Archives - This Day in Aviation
- WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds
WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds by Sarah Byrn Rickman book review. Click to read the full review of WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds in New York Journal of Books. Review written by Thomas McClung.
- WASP Museum
- Women Airforce Service Pilots - Remembered By Those Who Knew Them.
Dedicated To The Women Airforce Service Pilots Of WWII As Remembered By Those Who Knew Them Then And Now. Come In And Enjoy The Memories Just As We Do!
© 2010 Patty Inglish MS