ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 08.14.2009
At 89, former warplane pilot Sylvia Clayton is still a regular at happy hour at her senior citizens home. Now she has one more tale to tell over shots of Southern Comfort.
Sixty-six years after Clayton became one of the first women ever to fly U.S. military aircraft, she and her fellow aviatrixes from the World War II era are being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
Clayton, of Tucson, is one of 300 or so surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASP, who took to the skies despite the gender discrimination of their day and helped paved the way for future generations of female military fliers.
The WASP program ran for two years, 1943 and 1944, and the women weren't allowed to fly overseas.
Instead, they were trained for domestic missions — flying warplanes from factories to military bases or towing targets through the air for shooting practice — thus freeing up male pilots for overseas duty.
Clayton flew or co-piloted no fewer than six different fighters and bombers, from the P-51 Mustang to the B-24 Liberator.
The female pilots, about 1,000 of them at the time, were poorly treated by today's standards.
They had to pay their own way to their training bases and find their own way home when the program ended. Nearly 40 died during their tours of duty, but the government wouldn't pay to ship their bodies home for burial.
Clayton still recalls donating money to transport the remains of deceased colleagues, a memory that stings even decades later.
"We had to pass the hat," she recalled in an interview. "We were on our own."
She was 24 when the program ended. After working briefly in aircraft engine maintenance, the Minnesota native married her sweetheart, Harry Clayton, who worked for Hughes Aircraft. Her late husband was transferred to Tucson in 1961, and the family has been here ever since.
It wasn't until 1977, more than 30 years after the WASP program ended, that the women were given status as military veterans.
In a bid to atone for past wrongs, President Obama signed a bill on July 1 bestowing the highest civilian honor given by Congress.
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need," Obama said in remarks quoted on the Air Force Web site.
"Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."
The medal will be presented in the near future to Clayton and other survivors, who each will get a bronze replica. No date has been set yet, but Clayton said she plans to attend the ceremony "if I'm still above ground and walking around."
Despite the hardships, Clayton said, the women enjoyed their work and take great pride in having broken down barriers for today's female military pilots.
"We opened the door for them," she said. "I think most of us feel very proud of that."
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.