By andrew Katz
WASHINGTON – Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski joined other members of Congress Wednesday in awarding the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The WASP were the first women to fly American military aircraft and, against their unconventional roles in the face of gender bias, paved the way for the integration of women pilots decades later.
“You answered the call of duty and you did it on your own dime,” said Mikulski. “You gave America your lives, your love and your devotion, and today, Congress will give you the gold.”
The medal is the “highest expression that we can bestow for courage, service and dedication,” she added. Mikulski was an original co-sponsor of Senate Bill 614 honoring the WASP, after Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced it a year ago. President Obama signed Public Law 111-40 into effect less than four months later on July 1.
“I’m so very proud to have co-sponsored this bill with my dear friend Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison because, you know, it’s not about partisanship, it’s about citizenship,” she said to applause. “It’s not about whether you’re from a red state or a blue state, we’ve got to start being the red, white and blue United States.”
The “long-overdue” celebration in the Capitol Visitor Center was originally planned for the Capitol Rotunda, but was moved to accommodate a larger crowd.
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Susan Davis, D-Calif., supported the bill and spoke at the ceremony, as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The medal reception marked the second major recognition in two days for the pilots in Washington. A wreath-laying remembrance service was held March 9 at the Air Force Memorial to honor the 38 WASP who died in the line of duty between 1942 and 1944.
“Today, because of your valor and your trailblazing, women are serving in the Air Force and the military,” said Mikulski, who then acknowledged the 14 WASP from Maryland.
Elaine Harmon and Virginia “Scotty” Gough, two surviving Maryland WASP, attended Wednesday’s ceremony.
“The reason I like doing this is because we were forgotten for 35 years,” said Harmon, of Silver Spring, in a March 2009 interview with Capital News Service. “No one knew we even existed.”
Harmon was one of the 1,074 trainees who completed weeks of flight training in Texas and, after graduating in September 1944, was stationed at one of 120 air bases across the country.
“The severe loss of male combat pilots made the necessity of utilizing women pilots to help in the war effort clear,” according to the law. “WASP assignments included test piloting, instructor piloting, towing targets for air-to-air gunnery practice, ground-to-air practice, ferrying, transporting personnel and cargo…simulated strafing, smoke laying, night tracking, and flying drones.”
Harmon, who learned to fly at the College Park Airfield with the civilian pilot training program, said it wasn’t until the 1970s and the announcement that the Air Force Academy would be opened up to women that she and other WASP began searching for each other.
“(The media said) these would be the first women to fly military aircraft,” she said. “When some of our women heard about that, they got upset.”
WASP who attended the ceremony received bronze replicas of the medal, which was awarded to WASP Deanie Parrish on behalf of the surviving women and will be donated to the Smithsonian Institute.
“So as the old Air Force song goes, ‘Off we go into the wild blue yonder, who fly high and into the sky,'” said Mikulski. “But today, instead of giving her the gun, we will give you the gold.”