August 20, 2009
Sometimes you find the most interesting subjects through the weirdest connections! This week my husband and I were studying the wasps in our wasp trap on the deck. For some reason, I wondered if a song had ever been written about wasps. So naturally, I went straight to my online research library on the Internet, Google, and typed in "Wasp Songs."
Well! That's how I discovered a phenomenal group of spirited women from World War II, the first women in history to fly U.S. military aircraft, the Women Airforce Service Pilots -- and yes, their acronym is WASP. On On the fascinating website, Wings Across America, devoted to the WASPs, I found songs dedicated to these pioneering women (WASP Songs), and songs that they sang at the time, like Zoot Suits and Parachutes.
The website is a treasure trove: There are "Soundbytes of the WASPs," featuring clips of digital interviews with some of the surviving members of what was, at one time, a group of over 1,000 pilots. There are movies, sounds of some of the planes these adventurous, courageous women flew during World War II, and even songs of the time, played by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. There's also an online "virtual museum" with interactive scrapbooks and a digital photo bin.
Right now, there's a fantastic exhibit through April 2010 about these largely unknown and unsung women pilots, at the Gateway to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The exhibit was created by a mother-daughter team, Nancy Parrish -- who works in digital media and interactive video (and has made the website absolutely come alive) -- and her Mom, Deanie Parrish, who was a WASP in World War II. The exhibit is sponsored by Wings Across America at Baylor University in Texas.
The WASPs were not allowed to fly combat missions overseas. But they flew every type of mission, and every type of aircraft, within the U.S. In a cruel twist, it took the WASPs 33 years to win the legal battle to get their veteran's status; but they did, in 1977.
So there you have it -- I was studying wasps on my deck, and that led me to learn about a group of the most courageous, indomitable women ever! Eileen Collins, a NASA Astronaut, said, "The WASPs were, and still are, my role models." Mine, too -- now that I know about them!
Of the nearly 1,200 women who first flew U.S. military aircraft in World War II, fewer than 300 are living. Eugene resident Kathryn Miles, 88, is among them.
Miles and her fellow servicewomen compose a group called the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs, which will receive congressional honors after the Senate passed a bill last month to award the women the Congressional Gold Medal for their under-recognized service.
The women who joined the WASPs in 1942 and 1943 did so with the understanding that they would receive full military status and the benefits that came with it when they entered training. Under the direction of the U.S. Army Air Forces, they combined to fly more than 60 million miles on nearly every type of military aircraft and completed every type of mission except direct combat. Among their duties were ferrying new planes from factories to military airfields or towing targets used in anti-aircraft artillery practice.
However, they weren’t afforded active military status. The families of the 38 women who died in service had to pay to fly their bodies home.
“I just accepted that a lot of people had a prejudice against women,” Miles said.
WASPs weren’t acknowledged as a full-fledged military group until 1977, after which Miles struggled to obtain a Veterans Administration loan.
By the time she could have received the loan, she and her husband already had secured funds.
For Miles, the recognition from Congress is hardly too little, too late. The WASPs made a major contribution to generations of servicewomen, she said, and the honor is validation.
“It’s not just that we were successful, which we were, but we paved the way for the women who are in the armed services today,” she said. “It’s lovely that the Senate decided we should be recognized.”
Sen. Ron Wyden will visit Miles’ home on Tuesday to present her with a framed copy of the legislation awarding the medal to WASP members and a U.S. flag.
The awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., where the remaining women will receive their medals before Congress, hasn’t been scheduled yet, but Miles hopes it’s soon. When you get to be the age of the WASP women, you can’t count on how long you’ll be around, she said.
Two of Miles’ comrades — a close friend and one of her roommates from her service days — have died this year.
“It’s very painful when people die this close to the award,” she said.
Only one real medal will be made and it will be housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Miles said the women will receive individual bronze replicas.
Miles’ four children and some of her grandchildren also will attend the ceremony, she said.
After the war, Miles mostly retired from flying. She married in Alaska and moved to Eugene for the region’s natural beauty.
She worked as a teacher and counselor in the Bethel School District.
Miles has fostered friendships with a number of WASP members over the years. Of her winged sisters she said, “We all have a common purpose to inspire young people in aviation.”