Today, one of the two highest awards in the country, the Congressional Gold Medal, is being given collectively to the surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASPs were civilian pilots who served on the home front during WWII helping to train and support male combat pilots. It was an era when everyone wanted to serve, but some pilots could not go into combat because they were women. They could be shot at with live ammunition towing targets for USAF target practice, just not actual combat. Though Jacqueline Cochran, the founder of the program, agitated to have the WASP militarized, thus making them eligible for veterans' benefits, the Air Force did not do so, and the thirty-eight women killed in service did not receive military funerals or benefits. In 1977, Congress gave them veterans' benefits, and today, 2010, sixty-five years after they were disbanded, the WASPs are finally receiving full recognition.
I first heard about the WASP program not in a history class, but in high school through my Literature By Women course. We were allowed to select one book independent of the syllabus, and I chose Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers, a book that made a deep impression on me at the time and remains one of my favorite books to this day. It's a large, sprawling book that tells the stories of ten characters during WWII, most of whom are civilians or other noncombatants. There are Jewish refugees to the United States, a member of the French Resistance, a codebreaker for OSS, a war correspondent . . . and a woman who breaks free of her father's control to become a pilot in the WASP program, finally able to live her life as an adult woman because of her service.
I know exactly why I didn't learn about the WASPs in my history class -- it was a slow-moving class, and we barely got through the Depression when the school year ended. But I have absolutely no doubt that, had we not spent quite so much time on the Teapot Dome Scandal, we would have learned about WWII, and that we would have heard nothing at all about the WASPs. It took a class specifically on women's issues to teach me that.
I remember being very impressed by the story of Bernice, the fictional WASP in Gone To Soldiers. I loved how she went ahead and seized every opportunity that came her way, fighting as much for her own freedom as for her country. I was thrilled years later to see old documentary footage of the real WASPs and to know that they were real, that Marge Piercy hadn't just invented them, that these brave women actually did exist. And now I am overjoyed to see the last 300 WASPs, old women with enormous, beautiful smiles and the memories of truly dedicated service, receive the highest thanks the country can bestow.
Thank you, WASPs! To serve your country and your gender in one act is a deed that very few can hope to equal.