Saturday, March 20, 2010

Congressional Gold -- Sen. Hutchison's Speech

Women Service Pilots of World War II Finally Get Their Gold
By Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
March 12, 2010

This March, as our nation celebrates Women’s History Month, a special group of women gathered in Washington, filling the massive Emancipation Hall of the new Capitol Visitors Center to receive long overdue recognition for their pioneering service to our nation during World War II. These inspiring heroines were the first women to fly military aircraft and blazed a trail in the sky that opened the door for today’s women military pilots. In a moving ceremony, the 300 surviving members of the WASP received the highest civilian honor Congress can give – the Congressional Gold Medal – in front of the largest crowd to ever attend an event inside the Capitol.

These exceptional women did not receive the recognition they deserved during World War II and not even for decades later. But on this beautiful day in our nation’s capital, in front of their families, members of Congress and the servicemen and women who have followed in their patriotic footsteps, they finally heard the words they have waited so long to hear: “On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service.”

All these women volunteered to serve their country in wartime. They paid their own way to Texas, where they trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater. When the war ended and the WASP program was unceremoniously ended, they had to pay their own way back home. Of the more than 1000 WASP, 38 were killed in the line of duty. They were not allowed to have the American flag draped on their coffins. Their families had to pay for all their burial expenses and the WASP would often have to take up collections from among their own ranks to help the families of their fallen comrades pay for transporting them home.

The women were recruited to fly non-combat missions to free male pilots for combat. Throughout World War II, these courageous women flew more than 60 million miles, in every type of aircraft and on every type of mission flown by male pilots, except direct combat missions. The WASP flight-tested bombers and fighters; ferried equipment and personnel; flew radar tracking missions; trained male cadets; and towed targets - freeing male pilots for combat deployment overseas.

The WASP pilots were never commissioned; they were never afforded active duty status; and they were not granted veteran status until 1977—more than 30 years after they had served this nation. Despite their patriotic impact, the WASP were never formally recognized by Congress for their wartime military service—until now.

To right this wrong and to acknowledge our nation’s debt to these great women patriots, I introduced legislation to honor the WASP with the Congressional Gold Medal and the bill passed Congress in record time.

I wrote about the WASP in my book, American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country. Thanks to the fearlessness of the WASP, women today serve as pilots in every branch of the military and fly every type of aircraft, from combat fighter aircraft to the space shuttle.

The Congressional Gold Medal was our nation’s ‘Thank You’ to these members of the “Greatest Generation” who answered the call of duty when their country needed them. Just as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers had to wait years to receive the recognition of their service to our nation, the WASP will now be remembered by generations to come for the tremendous contribution they made to America’s victory in World War II.

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