Eleanor Feeney Lawry as a Women Airforce Service Pilot, posing in front of the Avenger Field WASP...

Eleanor Feeley Lawry was about 5 years old when she set her heart on flying.

Two years after graduation from Danbury High School, she earned her private pilot's license, the first woman to do so at Danbury Airport.

In 1943, she was 21 and a Danbury State Teachers College graduate when she paid her way to Texas to train with about 1,000 other female pilots to help the war effort.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II were the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. They logged more than 60 million miles on noncombat military assignments in the U.S. so male pilots were freed for overseas combat missions.

Now, more than 65 years later, Lawry and her peers will receive the country's highest civilian honor for their war service, the Congressional Gold Medal.

"It's a very special honor," Lawry said from her Pennsylvania home. She left Danbury six years ago. "It's kind of late, but our grandchildren will have something special about their grandmothers."

President Barack Obama signed a bill July 1 at the White House to award the Gold Medal to the 1,114 women, including 11 who died in training before receiving their wings and 38 who were killed during duty.

About 305 of the women are alive. All are 85 or older.

"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," Obama said at the signing, according to the U.S. Air Force Web site.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest and most distinguished award Congress can give a civilian. Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for exceptional achievements and contributions.

In 2000 and 2006, Congress awarded the Gold Medal to the Navajo Code Talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen, respectively.

During their time in the war, the women pilots held civilian status. But in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill giving the WASPs veterans benefits.

"I paid my own way to Sweetwater, Texas, (Avenger Field) in April 1943," Lawry said. "We had no uniforms and paid our own way to everything. We had no insurance, but we did it anyway.

"When they said they didn't need us, we bought our tickets to our homes. They never promised us anything."

Lawry was raised in Danbury, the hometown of both her father and husband. She graduated from Danbury High School in 1938 and Danbury State Teachers College in 1942.

"Danbury was an excellent place for children to grow up," she said. "If you had any special talents, the whole town was behind you."

Still, it was hard to convince people that as a woman she should take flying lessons. But she persisted. She was the only woman in the Civilian Pilot Training Course, a course co-sponsored by the college and Sadler Aviation at Danbury Airport to give preliminary training to future military pilots.

Brandes Meeker was Lawry's flying instructor, and in 1940 she was the first woman to receive her private pilot's license at the airport. She learned at the time she was also the 100th woman pilot in Connecticut and the 1,000th in the country.

The WASP mission was terminated Dec. 20, 1944, and Lawry returned to Danbury and took a job as an airline hostess for TransWorld Airlines. She married Cas Lawry, an Air Force officer, in 1946, and they raised two sons and a daughter.

Nancy Parrish, who 13 years ago started a Web site for the WASPs called Wings Across America, was thrilled about the awarding of the medal, which still has to be designed.

"Every WASP knows it will happen and that the country is saying thank you," Parrish said. "Their job was to take over every kind of mission in the United States, from flying materials to administrative flights and towing gliders. It was an extraordinarily grand experiment."

She's found the WASPs to be special women.

"It's not just what they did, but the kind of people they are," Parrish said. "There is something about them that is larger than life. It lifts you up a little higher than you were before.

"It has to do with the honor and integrity of these women."

Their story has been hidden for 65 years, Parrish said. "Now it's on the national stage and it will go into the history books that they were awarded this honor."

Lawry said she had a great time as a WASP.

"We were different women from different parts of the country, but we all loved flying," Lawry said. "We thought it was a great opportunity. We just went about our business and loved every minute."

Contact Eileen FitzGerald

at eileenf@newstimes.com

or at 203-731-3333.

About Eleanor Lawry n Age 88. n Will receive Congressional Gold Medal from Congress for her service in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. n Danbury High School graduate, 1938. n Danbury State Teachers College graduate, 1942. n Served as a member of the WASPs from April 1943 to December 1944