|Virginia Wise will be honored in Washington, D.C. as one |
of the surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Tallahassee, Florida - They had to pay their own way to Texas to take training. They received no military benefits and were trained with secondhand equipment. Thirty-eight of them lost their lives - and their fellow pilots had to take up collections to ship their bodies home. It took 35 years for the U.S. government to officially recognize their service to the nation.
PHOTO GALLERY: Pictures of Virginia Wise, WWII woman pilot
But none of that bothered Tallahassee resident Virginia Wise. She loved being a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a civilian women's pilot organization that ferried planes to military bases, test-flew repaired planes and trained male aviation combat troops during World War II.
Wise is one of 150 surviving WASPs who will receive the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
"I was grateful for every minute," said Wise, 88. "I very much was interested in helping during the war."
The WASPs were the first U.S. females to fly military planes - though their service was initiated grudgingly in late 1942 to free up more male pilots for combat duty. In 1979, U.S. Senator and former World War II pilot Barry Goldwater pushed through legislation that granted WASPs military veteran status. In 1984, WASPs received the World War II Victory Medal.
More than 25,000 women applied to be WASPs, which was founded and directed by famed female aviator Jackie Cochran. A total of 1,803 women were accepted with 1,074 graduating. Assigned to 134 bases in the U.S., they served until the program was discontinued Dec. 20, 1944.
Wise was one of three eventual Tallahassee residents to become WASPs. The other two, Connie Reynolds and Liz Bane, are deceased. Only an estimated 300 WASPs are still alive.
"I don't think they've gotten the credit they deserve," said Joan Denman, archivist with Florida State University's Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. "They had a very low accident rate and very low death rate, proportionately lower than the male pilots. They were just outstanding women who wanted to fly and wanted to help.
Wise took up flying as a teenager growing up in West Virginia, where her father was an airport manager. A nurse the first two years of the war, she joined the WASPs in March, 1944, in Sweetwater, Texas. On the crowded train to Texas, she met a young male pilot from Ohio also heading to military flight training, Warren Wise. The two soon became engaged and were married in 1946.
Graduating in October 1944, Wise spent the last three months of the WASP program at what is now Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. She flew B-17 bombers to train male military gunners, who shot at targets dragged by female pilots in accompanying planes. She had several "adventures, landing once when a landing gear malfunctioned and narrowly avoiding a train station during another landing.
But she adored flying: She and Warren Wise spent their honeymoon ferrying private planes to California. After the war, her application to be a commercial airline pilot was turned down, but she flew private planes into the 1950s.
"There is nothing like the experience of flying," she said. "Especially when you're up there alone."
Wise and her husband moved to Tallahassee in 1955 and in 1960 founded Wise Realty. Virginia Wise started the state's first multiple listing service and won numerous awards before retiring from real estate in 1977. Driven by the same energy that led her to the WASPs - "I'm not a stay-at-home person" - Wise was an avid traveler, who traveled all over Asia, Africa, South America and twice visited Antarctica.
Her husband died in 1989. Their son, John Wise, operates the family real estate company - and followed in his parents flying footsteps. He took up flying at age 14 and flew his own plane for more than 30 years.
"I've always been very proud of her," said John Wise, who will accompany his mother to Washington. "They were all amazing women."