Monday, August 31, 2009

3 Florida WASP honored in Miami

3 female pilots honored for service during World War II



August 28, 2009

After decades of taking a back seat to their true legacy as skilled pilots and gender barrier pioneers, these female pilots finally received the recognition they deserved:

The Congressional Gold Medal.

``I'm just overwhelmed,'' said Frances Rohrer Sargent, 90. ``We didn't do it to get that. We just liked to fly.''

Sargent was joined by Ruth Shafer Fleisher, 87, at Saturday's ceremony at Wings Over Miami Air Museum in which U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen presented the three South Florida pilots with original copies of the bill honoring the WASPs signed by President Barack Obama this summer.

The third pilot, Helen Wyatt Snapp, 91, was recovering from an illness and did not attend the ceremony.

The women were part of the first group of female pilots ever to fly war planes. Although they flew non-combat missions, their service was deadly: 38 female pilots died while protecting U.S. coasts from enemy invasions.

Yet their patriotic contributions went largely unrecognized for decades. They weren't eligible for U.S. veterans' status until 1977 and they were never awarded full military status.


Only about 300 original WASPs are alive today, most of them well into their 80s.

Ros-Lehtinen, who along with other female lawmakers pushed the legislation forward, said the WASPs now join the ranks of the Navajo Code Talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen, who at the time of their service were discriminanted against because of their race.

``What's most inspiring is knowing that they never did it to break any barriers or change histroy,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``They just loved to fly and wanted to do so in defense of our country.''


Sargent and Fleisher didn't just like to fly, they were born to fly.

Fleisher, the daughter of an airplane mechanic who later managed an airport in Rochester, N.Y., started logging flights as early as age 13. She said she flew ``anything she could.''

During her service, Fleisher tested AT-6 warbirds. After the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, she got a commission to join the Air Force as second lieutenant and retired in the Air Force Reserve as a major. She later became one of the first women to work in a control tower at Philadelphia International Airport.

Sargent started piloting in her early 20s in her native Little Rock, Ark., but once she caught the flying bug she didn't stop until well into her 70s.

During the war, Sargent flew along North Carolina's shores, on the lookout for enemy ships, submarines and planes. She later joined the Air Force Reserves and spent 30 years teaching aviation at Miami Dade College.

One of her students, 68-year-old Judy Portnoy, called Sargent ``the most amazing person I know.''

Both Fleisher and Sargent moved to South Florida about four decades ago.

Fleisher manages a three-acre avocado grove in Homestead and Sargent lives in a retirement home in Old Cutler Bay.


They were both married and later widowed. Sargent has three children.

Growing up in a time when jobs for women were often limited to office jobs, nursing and teaching, Fleisher and Sargent are aware they were trailblazers.

``It was hard because people didn't think about women flying,'' said Sargent. ``But we didn't care, we did what we wanted to do.''

Fleisher agreed and said they proved all their doubters wrong.

``We, as some of the first women pilots, proved that we could fly military airplanes and do a good and decent job,'' Fleisher said.

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