Sunday, June 13, 2010

WASP Anita Mathew honored with the Congressional Gold Medal


Litchfield Bancorp customer Anita Matthew
receives Congressional Gold Medal

courtesy of Litchfield Bancorp
Anita Mathew during World War II
Anita Matthew can still recall the cover of that Life Magazine, the one showing a woman standing on the wing of a plane she flew for the Air Force during World War II. "I found it enchanting," said Matthew, a Litchfield Bancorp customer since 1976. "I loved to fly and I wanted to find out what this woman was doing.” A college sophomore at the time and an experienced pilot of small planes, Matthew read the magazine's story on the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, and decided to become one.
Style of plane flown by Anita Mathew during World War II
WASPs performed key duties during the war, flying military aircraft from factories to air bases on the East and West Coasts and testing planes. The contributions of the WASPs allowed the military to save male pilots for combat duty in Europe and the Pacific. About 1,100 women flew as WASPs before the program was disbanded in 1944*. Matthew, 88, is one of about 300 living WASPs.

In March, many of the women traveled to the U.S. Capitol to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors awarded. Matthew did not make the trip and is still waiting for her medal, although the wait is expected to end soon. Reggie Harrison, a Vietnam veteran from Morris, is working with U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy to locate Matthew's medal and set up a presentation for later in the spring or summer.

Congressional Gold Medal announcement with a vintage photo
There are five other living WASPs in Connecticut: Jane Tadeschi of Bethany, Ann Gleszner of Danbury, Gloria Heath of Greenwich, Jane Miller of Branford and Marcia Milner of Essex. Along with Matthew, the women showed valor and selfless service to their country, U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd said in presenting the Congressional Gold Medals. "These six women from Connecticut, along with hundreds of other women from across the country, bravely answered the call to service during World War II, at a time when female pilots were uncommon," Dodd said.

As a high school student in tiny Colfax, Wis., Matthew was taught to fly small Piper cubs by a family friend who had been a Navy pilot. "He came to my Dad and asked if we wanted to learn to fly," Matthew said of she and her brother, Dana. "My Dad asked us and I said sure. Dana wanted to but couldn't, because he was color blind."

Matthew was so taken by the Life Magazine story that she decided to drop out of college and apply for the WASP program. She was accepted and was sent to Dennison, Sweetwater,* Tex., for training. Accustomed to small planes, Matthew was shocked when she saw the size of the military aircraft she would be trained to fly. She started on the smaller PT-17s and worked her way up to larger planes, including Boeing and Lycoming models.

Following training, Matthew was stationed in Lubbock, Tex., for about five months before the WASP program was disbanded. "It didn't last long because the male pilots were beginning to come home from the war and we were no longer needed," Matthew said. "But it was probably still the most exciting time of my life."

WASPs were considered civilians but were paid as second lieutenants and eventually were granted veteran status.

After her stint as a WASP ended, Matthew returned to the University of Wisconsin and earned a degree in home economics. She also earned a commercial pilot license but couldn't land a job in a male-dominated business. "They didn't think women could fly, even though I had all of the qualifications," she said. "It was very chauvinistic." Instead, she was told consider work as a stewardess. But even that didn't pan out.

"I was 5-foot-10 and too tall to be a stewardess," she said. "I was over the height limit for the job."

So Matthew went to Washington, D.C., to live with a friend from college and while there worked 11 months as a typist in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's White House. It was in Washington that she met her husband, Mort. They were married in 1956 and lived in Norwalk before moving to Milton in 1975. Matthew and her husband relocated to Westleigh, a condominium community next to Litchfield Bancorp, in 1995. Mort Matthew died in 2000. They have a son, Kent.

Looking back, Matthew said her life has been a rewarding one. "For a girl from a town of 900 in Wisconsin, I think I turned out pretty well," she said.

Litchfield Bancorp is proud of its customers’ achievements and is a $200 million mutual savings bank with offices in Litchfield, Lakeville, Oakville, Torrington and Washington. The bank recently launched a campaign called Every Customer Counts, which highlights its dedication to customer service excellence. For more information, go to or call 860-567-9401.

*edited for accuracy