27 FLYGIRLS OPEN WASP EXHIBIT NOV. 14:
Trailblazing Women Military Pilots Celebrate Inspiring Story
During World War II, 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) took flight as America’s first women to have flown for the US military. Their numbers were small but their service proved powerful as depicted in a temporary exhibit, FlyGirls of World War II, which was unveiled Nov. 14, 2008, at the Women's Memorial.
Twenty-seven of the estimated remaining 350 living WASP veterans traveled from across the country to the Memorial to open FlyGirls of World War II, a traveling exhibit dedicated to educating generations about the trail these famed women pilots blazed. The exhibit will remain at the Memorial through November 2009.
Emmy-award winning journalist and best-selling author Cokie Roberts opened the exhibit with remarks about how WASP veterans, and American women, have always been and continue to be “daring and dedicated” to our country.
"Women have contributed to all of America’s Wars since the Revolutionary War," Roberts said as she wove together women’s legacy of service. The WASP, she added, are a significant part of the nation’s military fabric. Roberts’ own mother, Ambassador Lindy Boggs, was identified in the crowd as someone who helped America recognize the contributions of its servicewomen when, as a Congresswoman in 1977, she led the final charge that gave WASP veterans US military veteran status more than 30 years after it was first promised.
The inspiration of the WASP story, recognized by Boggs and Congress, continues, noted guest speaker Maj. Nicole Malachowski, a woman fighter pilot. She was the first woman to fly with the USAF’s famed Thunderbirds.
"Your legacy inspired my dream," Maj. Malachowski told the exhibit crowd of 150. She explained that a Smithsonian Museum picture of WASP she saw as a girl convinced her that women could fly military planes, something not permitted when she was young. "I knew when I saw the picture that women could be ... pilots. These women were doing it" 50 years before the military allowed women into a fighter plane cockpit.
"Your service to our nation during a time of war is the stuff legends are made of," she added, noting that the legendary service carries on both in the FlyGirls exhibit and in the skies above. "You had a dream and you followed that dream," Maj. Malachowski said. "Your legacy inspired my dream and taught me that when you have dedication, commitment and desire to serve, you can overcome tremendous obstacles, [and] I know that your legacy rides in the cockpits" with today's women pilots.
The history depicted through FlyGirls of World War II was itself inspired by WASP stories told by one veteran, Deanie Parrish, to her daughters Nancy and Barbie. Together, they created the Wings Across America nonprofit organization, whose mission is to teach about the WASP. The FlyGirls exhibit is part of that mission, explained Nancy Parrish who introduced the exhibit and added that the Women's Memorial is the first stop on a nationwide tour.
The exhibit that Wings Across America created tells the story of women aviators who, as WASP, did the stateside service of male pilots, relieving more men to fly combat missions overseas during World War II. That work was hardly easy nor always safe, however.
"I towed targets and flew air-to-air gunnery missions [under fire of live ammunition from gunners in training]," remembered WASP Lillian Yonally, Allentown, PA, who joined her 26 WASP sisters in sharing stories of their flying days with the crowd. "I flew searchlight, radar tracking, personnel ferrying, and low altitude missions. I also did detached service tracking and towing, night searchlight missions, equiangular firing" and others ferried aircraft to bases across the country.
While WASP like Yonally gave a glimpse of the overall experience, others entertained with a specific story or two. For example, speaker Roberts shared a story told by attending WASP Millicent Young of Colorado Springs, CO, who recalled a young man who came to refuel her AT-6 in Carlsbad, CA. "When he saw the pilot was a woman, he glanced over and shouted, 'What are you doing in there?' The refueler said he should be flying the plane because 'I'm a man.' To which she replied, "Honey, if you were, I'd have noticed." Young added that the refueler "jumped off the wing and I never saw him again; someone else serviced the plane and I was off."
WASP faced such surprises and even prejudice, as they crossed the country, flying military aircraft seven days a week with little rest. Thirty-eight of them died in service.
Yet, as each WASP reminisced Nov. 14, it was evident they would all do it all over again if they could.
"I would have gladly paid the [Army Air Corps] to let me fly those wonderful planes," exclaimed Scotty Gough of Germantown, MD. "What a privilege it was to do what I loved best, flying and serving our country at the same time."
"Being a WASP … was the most wonderful time of my life," added Lorraine Rodgers of Arlington, VA. "[I was] doing exactly what I wanted to do—all alone up in the sky was positively fantastic."
You can read more about the WASP through memories shared by Rodgers in an online Oral History feature story, "With WASP Wings." And, you can learn more about the WASP in general through the Wings Across America Web site.