Monday, June 22, 2009

Recognition at last for female WWII Pilots

Texas' Hutchison among lawmakers pushing for Congressional Gold Medal for WASP.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Susie Bain found her place in the sky when she was 21.

The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and Bain had left college because it was too expensive. She enrolled in clerical school, but when a friend told her about a chance to fly as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she signed up.

She'd ridden in a plane only once before.

"It was just absolutely gorgeous just being up there," Bain, 86, said. "We had what we thought was so much power behind us."

Bain, who lives in North Austin, is one of 300 living WASP members soon to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The bill to recognize the women was introduced by U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and the Senate passed it in May. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, brought it up in the House, which approved the honor Tuesday. It now awaits the president's signature.

If the measure is approved, the U.S. Mint will design and create individual gold medals to honor the accomplishments of the WASP. The medals will be given to all the pilots and to the families of those who have died.

"I think it's about time people learned about us," said 86-year-old Dorothy Lucas of San Antonio, a former WASP. Of more than 1,000 women in the group, which started in Houston in 1942, more than three-quarters have died.

The women held stateside flying assignments left vacant by men who were on combat duty, according to Air Force records. The WASP towed targets for Air Force pilots' shooting practice, transported cargo and flew planes from hangar to hangar for the Air Force. They also trained men who would later fly combat missions.

Deanie Parish, a Waco resident originally from Avon Park, Fla., said she became a WASP because she wanted to feel like she was contributing to the war effort.

"Everybody was doing something. I knew girls who were driving firetrucks and working in factories because the men were going off to war. At that point, I felt that (flying) was what I could do best."

About 25,000 women applied for the program, and 1,830 were accepted. Women were required to be at least 21 years old and 5 feet 1 inch tall.

Lucas said she planned to become a WASP with a close friend. But at the last minute, her friend backed out, and Lucas ended up traveling alone from her hometown of Washington to the West Texas town of Sweetwater, where the training was held.

While she was training for her wings, Lucas said, her brother died in a plane crash.

"My mother thought I should come home because she was afraid for me. I said, 'Mama, I just can't,' " Lucas said.

Lucas remembers flying a pilot from Randolph Field in Universal City, outside San Antonio, to Moore Field in the South Texas town of Mission, where he was stationed. She said he was scared to fly with a woman pilot, but they made the commute without incident.

Though the WASP were not in combat roles, they often faced danger: 38 women died while serving.

Bain, originally from Markham, about 90 miles southeast of Houston, said the WASP lost some of its best pilots — and others, herself included, had close calls.

She made an emergency landing in a Shreveport, La., rice field while flying from Texas to New York in a storm that she said "just came blistering through."

The program was disbanded in December 1944 as men returned from the war and the need for female pilots decreased.

"When they disbanded, it was all of a sudden because the guys started coming home from Europe," Bain said. "We didn't think it was fair at the time because we even had to pay our way back home."

When they returned home, they worked to re-establish their lives. But the reality they faced on the ground was much different than the life they knew in the skies. Few could get pilot jobs.

"Back then, women were supposed to only change diapers and cook for the men and not think about flying airplanes," Bain said. "I never thought about it even being that unusual a situation. I had always done what I thought I could do."

In 1977, Congress passed a bill that made the women pilots eligible for veterans benefits.

Waco resident Nancy Parrish started Wings Across America — an interactive project that preserves the stories of the WASP through video, pictures and other records — based on mother Deanie Parrish's experience.

Nancy Parrish helped create the National WASP World War II Museum in Sweetwater. Parrish said she lobbied for years for a bill to recognize WASP contributions but had little success until this year.

When she made calls to congressional offices, few people knew who the WASP were or what they'd accomplished, Parrish said.

"The fact that people don't know means we're doing the right thing," she said.

Some of the other women said that while the recognition is nice, their concern isn't the medal. It's promoting the WASP story, which had gone unnoticed.

"Americans will hear about this and they will be curious enough to try and find out who those women were," Deanie Parrish said. "Don't go to the history books, because it wasn't there."; 445-3851