By J.J. Huggins
May 07, 2009 12:02 am
METHUEN — There's legislation in Congress that, if passed, will bestow the highest civilian honor on Methuen's Sara Payne Hayden. The 89-year-old city resident served in the 1940s as one of the 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots —
known as WASP — the first female pilots in the U.S. military.
photo: Sara Hayden at the Fly Girls of WWII Opening, Mayborn Museum, Baylor University, 2007
There are two bills in Congress — Senate Bill 614 and House Bill 2014 — that would give the Congressional Gold Medal to Hayden and the other 300 or so surviving WASP. The bills recognize the women for helping to fill a shortage of pilots during World War II, and for facing "overwhelming cultural and gender bias against women." "It was introduced less than two weeks ago and there are already 178 cosponsors," U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said during a phone interview, referring to the House bill. "So I think it's on a very good path." Tsongas said she doesn't know when the legislation may be passed, but she said, "My guess is it will move along very smoothly."
In the meantime, local officials praised Hayden at Monday night's City Council meeting. City councilors and Mayor William Manzi issued a proclamation saying she is a "role model for all of Methuen." State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, gave Hayden a similar proclamation from the state House of Representatives. Campbell also is a veteran — she was a paratrooper, intelligence officer and captain in the Army. "On behalf of all the women that served in the military, we thank you for your leadership," she told Hayden.
City resident Kathleen Corey Rahme represented Tsongas' office and read a citation praising Hayden as "a
trailblazer and a role model for all."
Hayden test flew previously damaged planes to make sure they were safe to fly into combat. "All I can say here is, great balls of fire," said Campbell, referring to how dangerous the planes were.
Hayden said thanks for the kind words, but she didn't know how to act in the spotlight. "I don't know how to behave like a celebrity," she said.
Three WASP died within the last week, Hayden said during an interview. Rahme urged people to contact Tsongas' office in support of giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP before it's too late for more pilots to bask in the glory.
"Time is of the essence," Rahme said.
The WASP were the first women in history to fly military bomber, transport, fighter and training aircraft. They are hailed as catalysts for the integration of female pilots into the armed services, according to the council's proclamation. The women flew 60 million miles and suffered the loss of 38 comrades during their duties, which included towing targets, air-to-air gunnery practice, ground-to-air anti-aircraft practice, ferrying, and transporting personnel and cargo — including parts of the atomic bomb. It was not until 1977 that the WASP received military status from Congress, the proclamation said.
"I know I'm history," Hayden joked, "wrinkles and all."
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Thank you to the Eagle Tribune for this great article! Photos courtesy Wings Across America