Monday, July 6, 2009

Female pilot during WWII receives 'long overdue' award in Hillsborough ceremony

by Tiffani N. Garlic/For The Star-Ledger

Monday July 06, 2009, 6:53 PM

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance shares a laugh with Genevieve Rausch, 93, last week at the Emeritus Assisted Living Center In Hillsborough. Rausch, 93, was honored for her time with the Women Air Service Pilots of World War II. Looking on are Hillsborough Mayor Frank Delcore and Somerset County Freeholder Jack Ciattarelli, right.

HILLSBOROUGH -- The wind rushed into her face as she flew high over the Army base. She navigated the cockpit controls with the same skill of male pilots, while sitting in a uniform that carried none of the prestige.

She, like many other female aviators had given up lives as teachers, homemakers and nurses to make history as the first women to fly with the U.S. Army.

As the machinery rumbled around her the only thing louder than the engine was the heavy artillery screaming toward the target she was towing just 25 feet behind her. But for Genevieve Landman, it was just another day of target practice.

Now Genevieve Rausch, the 93-year-old sat tall last week in her navy blue uniform with several wings adorning her lapels. She clasped her petite hands in her lap and waited patiently for the recognition that had been more than 60 years in the making.

Rausch was honored for her service in the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II by local and state officials at the Emeritus Senior Living Center in Hillsborough.

Though she has changed quite a bit from the black-and-white photos of her 28-year-old self circulating around the room, it was clear two things had not changed - her smile and her passion for flying.

When she graduated high school Rausch, originally from Danville, Ill, became a civil service secretary and stenographer for the Air Training Command Head Quarters at Chanute Army Air Base. After hearing famed aviator Amelia Earhart speak, she was inspired to earn her private pilot's license in 1944 and applied to the WASP program.

"I was very surprised to find that I could become a pilot," she said. "I decided to let them have me for a student and when they said a certain number of us weren't going to make it, I thought I might as well be one of those ... But I made it. "

Of the 25,000 women who initially applied, 1,830 were accepted. Of that group 1,074 graduated from the grueling 200-hour training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

From 1942 to 1944, the women took over non-combat military missions across the U.S. - test-flying planes, teaching male pilots, and towing targets for artillery practice - so that male pilots could be deployed for combat. The pilots were skilled in the areas of navigation, meteorology, Morse code, and firearms.

The WASP was disbanded in 1944. However, Rausch continued making history as one of the first female aviation writers for "Skyways" magazine in New York. "That was a wonderful experience because I still got to fly and then write about it. What more could I ask for?" she said.

On a visit to Danville in the early 1950s, she met and married John Rausch, president of the WASH Company, a manufacturer of specialty nails. From Danville, the couple moved to Florida, where she lived for over 30 years improving her golf game and becoming active with the Sarasota County area Meals on Wheels. In 2007, she moved to Hillsborough to be near her nephew, Robert Ellwood.

Though the WASP program lasted just 16 months, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) said their service was invaluable to the war effort, noting that the pilots flew every kind of military aircraft and logged 60 million miles on missions across the U.S. Though they were never awarded full military status and were not eligible for officer status, the WASP were finally granted veterans' status in 1977.

Today, only 300 WASP members have lived to see President Barack Obama sign legislation acknowledging and awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal - Congress' highest honor.

Pilot Lynn O'Donnell of Hillsborough talks about being inspired by the WASP.

"It is long overdue for Genevieve Rausch of Hillsborough to receive this distinguished award," Lance said at Thursday's ceremony. "... It is fitting that we honor Genevieve Rausch as a brave American. Her hard work, dedication and selfless sacrifice is deeply appreciated by all Americans. I have great respect and admiration for her and she makes all the residents of Hillsborough proud."

One such resident, Lynn O'Donnell, learned to fly 35 years ago and said her time in the sky was particularly inspired by pilots like Rausch. "I became a pilot because these rabble-rousers had the foresight to demand recognition," she said. "They made it known that women were capable and competent and had served their country. I owe these ladies my career."

O'Donnell has piloted planes for Eastern, Pan American World Airways as well as United Airways. A member of the Ninety-Nines, a female pilot association founded by Earhart, O'Donnell recently finished working on a display at the Aviation Hall of Fame in Teterboro, dedicated to the WASP. "These women deserve every bit of kudos they get," she said.

"We are so proud to have Hillsborough represented in such a way, being a female pioneer in the country at that time is a tremendous accomplishment," said Hillsborough Mayor Frank DelCore. DelCore said plans to honor Rausch at an upcoming township committee meeting.

Rausch was humbled by the honor. "I always wondered what I would do, because I would watch other people receive an afternoon like this and I tell you, my heart is in my feet," she said.

Somerset County Freeholder Jack Ciattarelli, joined several others who had no knowledge of the WASP. "As a student of history it embarrasses me that I never knew of the WASP, but I am not embarrassed to learn so on my next trip to the library I intend to," he said. He presented Rausch with a citation from the county for her service and called her a "National Treasure."

After the ceremony Rausch's nephew helped her show off all of the documents she'd saved from her military service. Yellowed and slightly tattered, the pages told the story of her countless flights around the country.

Looking at the old letters Ellwood felt the day was bittersweet. "This is long overdue, but I've met so many men and women who will never get recognized for things like this," he said.

A little uncomfortable to be in the spotlight on her own, Rausch made sure include her fellow aviators. "We all came from little towns and little places, my story is all of our stories," she said. "I'm just glad it's being shared."

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