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Military’s First Flying Women Honored for WWII Service

March 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Former Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service during World War II. Kwame Holman reports from Wednesday's ceremony.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: honoring the military’s first flying women.

Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: They were the fly girls of World War II, covering 60 million miles of operation flights in 78 different types of military aircraft, from the fastest fighters to the heaviest bombers.

And, today, more than six decades later, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, WASP for short, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. It’s the nation’s highest civilian award given by the Congress.

Deanie Parrish of Waco, Texas, was chosen to receive the medal on behalf of all WASPs.

DEANIE PARRISH, Women Airforce Service Pilots: Every single one of these ladies deserves to be standing where I am standing. Over 65 years ago, we each served our country without any expectations of recognition or glory. And we did it without comprising values that we were taught as we grew up: honor, integrity, patriotism, service, faith, and commitment.

KWAME HOLMAN: The legislation to honor the WASP was co-sponsored by Susan Davis and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the House, and Barbara Mikulski and Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Senate.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI D-Md.: The greatest generation that saved democracy and Western civilization wasn’t limited to one gender.

You gave all that you could to save the United States of America and the world, who was at war.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, R-Texas: Today, we right a wrong and acknowledge our debt to these great patriots, women who are so worthy of this award and this recognition.

KWAME HOLMAN: Of 1,102 women who served as WASPs during World War II, fewer than 300 are alive today. The feeling among those present at this morning’s ceremony inside the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall was that the honor was worth the wait.

Eighty-seven-year-old Shirley Kruse of Pompano Beach, Florida, was stationed at Bainbridge, Georgia, during the war.

SHIRLEY KRUSE, Women Airforce Service Pilots: I think it was the tribute to what we have done.

And I think, when we were — we were serving as WASPs, we were never in it for the glory. We were never, ever thinking that it would turn out to be as wonderful as it is. To receive such an honor is just unimaginable. So, for me, it’s been one of the highlights of my life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ninety-year-old Dawn Seymour of Rochester, New York, was one of a small number of WASPs who completed training on the four-engine B-17 bomber. She participated in yesterday’s wreath-laying ceremony at the Air Force Memorial to honor the 38 WASPs who died during service.

DAWN SEYMOUR, Women Airforce Service Pilots: Oh, I’m feeling — I’m feeling happiness. I’m feeling loss of dear friends who passed on early who aren’t here today, and to the 38 whose service, of course, we recognized yesterday. So, we have — we’re closing a circle of history. And I — I think we’re in good hands.

KWAME HOLMAN: Eighty-seven-year-old Maggie Gee of Berkeley, California, was one of only two Chinese-American women to enter the flight training program.

MAGGIE GEE, Women Airforce Service Pilots: This award is something at the end of our lives. How can we ask for anything nicer, though? You know, all of us have — we — when we were young, we were flyers. Then we went on and had our different phases of life.

I, fortunately, became a scientist, and had a very exciting life there. So — but just to get together again, and to see so many of us, it’s — it’s the whipping cream on top of ice cream.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, while it wasn’t until 1977 that the WASP were granted military status, and another 33 years to get to this day, there were no hard feelings over the delayed recognition.

DAWN SEYMOUR: No, this is right. The time is right. And the day was perfect, as you know. And my heart is — is happy. I am — I am pleased that this has happened in my lifetime and I’m alive to enjoy it.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, for some, the fact that more Americans finally will learn about the WASP matters as much as the award itself.

DEANIE PARRISH: That’s all I ever wanted. The medal is fine, but this is so much more important than getting a medal: educating America.

KWAME HOLMAN: A history lesson and a Congressional Gold Medal that both were a long time coming.