Wednesday, July 15, 2009

World War II's female pilots to be honored

World War II's female pilots to be honored

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Kansas City Star

She tucks a tiny white curl back into her once-a-week hairdo, folds her hands just so and tells of her adventures during World War II.

"We did maneuvers on the new planes when they first rolled them out of the factory. We made sure they worked right before they went into the war," said Marjorie Ellfeldt Rees, 87. "We put them through loops and chandelles — that's a steep incline and you bank it just before it stalls."

Her hand becomes a tiny airplane, swooshing in the air.

"We did spins, too. On a spin you take it until it does stall," she said.

She giggles, and for a second she is 22 again, graduating from cadet school in 1944 as one of the first women trained to fly American military aircraft.

This week, President Obama signed a bill honoring Rees, of Prairie Village, and the other female pilots who flew for the military between 1942 and 1944. They were known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

The surviving WASPs soon will receive Congressional Gold Medals in a ceremony in Washington — about a generation overdue, supporters say.

Rees and her sister pilots flew every type of airplane that male pilots flew, doing the same jobs, with one big exception — they were forbidden from flying combat missions.

But their flying was still dangerous.

The WASPs flew airplanes that had never flown before. They also flew old, worn planes. They flew planes towing targets on steel cables so that male gunners could practice with live rounds — sometimes accidentally riddling their planes with bullets.

"We took over every domestic flying job there was.... Some men didn't like that," Rees said.

Rees fell in love with flying before she graduated from the University of Kansas City. Her boyfriend was a pilot, and so was his mother.

When she graduated in 1942, her grandfather gave her $1,000. Rees used it all to buy 100 hours of flight lessons at the old Kansas City Municipal Airport.

Her uncle saw a newspaper article that said the military was searching for female pilots. He gave the telephone number to his niece.

But because she weighed only 100 pounds — the minimum was 108 — it took her two tries to pass the physical. For her second weigh-in, she hid fishing sinkers in her hair, her bobby socks and her bra. Even with all that lead, she made it by only half a pound.

After a long bus ride to Texas (the first time this only child had been away from home) and six months of cadet school, she earned her wings.

Of the 25,000 women who applied to become WASPs, 1,800 were accepted into the program, and 1,074 graduated. But after the war, the WASPs were grounded, their service largely forgotten.

Thirty-eight of the women died while flying. They received no military honors — they were civilians working for the military. Their mothers weren't allowed to display gold stars, nor were they allowed to drape a flag on their caskets. Their families had to pay to get their bodies home.

The government locked away records of the WASPs' service because the war was still going on.

Rees went back to Kansas City, married, raised a family, worked, volunteered and returned to school to earn a master's degree and a doctorate. She is still active, competing in ballroom dance competitions.

But she never flew an airplane again.

In the 1970s, the government decided to allow women to enter U.S. service academies. The Air Force Academy announced that its new female cadets would become the first women to fly military aircraft.

"They were just wrong," says Nancy Parrish, a documentary producer and the daughter of a WASP.

Parrish and other women lobbied Congress to declassify the WASP documents, and they found WASPs to testify.

"It wasn't so much about money or the GI Bill. It was about setting the record straight for these women," Parrish said from her home in Waco, Texas.

She founded Wings Across America in 1996. The group's Web site documents WASP stories with interviews, photos, timelines and anything else Parrish can find.

"History forgot about them because historians didn't know about them," she said.

WASPs now are eligible for veterans' benefits. But fewer than 300 of them are still alive.

Rees has mixed feelings about being honored now.

"It's a sad thing, sort of, because other WASPs who aren't alive. I wish they could have done something sooner," she said.

But, she added, she and her fellow WASPs are thrilled it's finally happening.

"We didn't resent that we were ignored so long. We've thought for years how very lucky we were to fly those wonderful airplanes," she said.

"... I want people to know that women can fly like the men."

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