WWII Women Pilot Corps Honored With Congressional Gold Medal
by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) -- More than 1,000 civilians and servicemembers watched as World War II Women Airforce Service Pilot corps remembered their sisters-in-arms during a wreath-laying ceremony March 9 at the Air Force Memorial here.
Several WASPs, many clad in their World War II-era service uniform, placed roses next to the wreath in memory of those who died during the war.
The audience included their families and as well as the families of those who have since died or couldn't travel.
"Today's event, held at this most beautiful and prestigious Air Force Memorial, pays tribute and honor to the 38 WASP who made the ultimate sacrifice to their nation in a time of war," said retired Brig. Gen. Linda McTague, the first woman to command an Air National Guard wing, who emceed the ceremony.
Pilots and aviators from all services took part in honoring the WASPs as well. Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Vivien Crea thanked the WASPs for "their great sense of duty." Navy Cmdr. Heidi Fleming and Marine Corps Capt. Katherine Horner read the names of those who died while on duty.
As part of the ceremony, Army Col. Laura Richardson read a poem titled "Celestial Flight". The poem was written in honor of Marie Michell Robinson, a 19-year-old WASP who died during a training flight aboard a B-25 Mitchell bomber Oct. 2, 1944, over California's Mojave Desert. Just two weeks earlier she had married Army Maj. (Dr.) Hampton Robinson. In attendance was her niece and namesake, Cheryl Marie Michell Van Riper.
"I'm so very proud to be here to honor my aunt," Ms. Van Riper said. "She's always been such an inspiration to me. Today is a happy ending to a sad story."
Following the somber event, a mix of Airmen past and present met at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. There, several WASPs reminisced about their flying days along with their contemporaries, including retired Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, and Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female pilot in the U.S. Air Force's Air Demonstration Squadron.
Colonel Collins commanded STS-93 Columbia on its July 23-27, 1999, mission. Colonel Malachowski flew No. 3 (right wing) for the Thunderbirds from November 2005 to 2007.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz also attended the event, and addressed the women pioneers who, the general noted, not only blazed a trail to the military cockpit, but a path for women to have greater roles in society.
"From those marvelous machines of the past to the highest performance aircraft of today, you helped to break barriers and shape modern American society," said General Schwartz.
The result, the general said, is that "the daughters and granddaughters of America's 'greatest generation' have traveled far along the trail that the WASP helped to blaze."
Thirty-three years after the WASP were disbanded, Congress voted to grant veteran status to the WASPs just as the U.S. Air Force Academy's first female cadets worked through their sophomore year, the general said.
It has been nearly another 33 years, he said, to recognize their importance with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest honor.
During this time, the general noted, the "nation's transformation is even more substantial and our gratitude for the WASPs ever more sincere."
Betty Wall Strohfus, who flew in from Minnesota, said she was "tremendously overjoyed at the outpouring of love and support," she and her fellow WASP received at the event.
"It just means so much to all be here together for this," she said. "It was simply wonderful to see so many friends, and it's just been a thrill."
The records of WASP accomplishments had been sealed for decades after their unit was disbanded and the women were sent home. They weren't recognized as veterans until 1977. 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.