Thursday, March 19, 2009
S.614 FLOOR SPEECH -- TO AWARD WASP CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL
SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI'S FLOOR SPEECH
AS WRITTEN TO BE DELIVERED MARCH 17, 2009
Sen. Barbara Mikulski [D-MD]: Mr. President, I rise today as an original cosponsor of a bipartisan bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots--the WASP. We are introducing this bill in March, which is Women's History Month. It is time to honor and recognize women who have made a difference in our Nation's history. It is a time to honor women who serve as role models. That is exactly what this legislation does.
The WASP were women pilots from across the Nation who volunteered to serve in World War II. They flew America's military aircraft during the war, risking their lives in the service of their nation. They came from all walks of life, but they came together to serve our country as the first women trained to fly American military aircraft. They faced overwhelming cultural and gender bias, received unequal pay, did not have full military status, and were barred from becoming military officers, even though their male counterparts performing similar duties all received officer rank.
In 1943, General Arnold combined two women flying organizations and formed the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Within months, these women paid their own way to Texas to enter training. Each woman was already a licensed pilot, a requirement not imposed on men to apply to flight school. The WASP were still required to learn to fly "the Army way."
The WASP were assured they would be militarized and become part of the Army. These promises were not kept. The WASP took the same oath of office, they marched, but as pilots, they received less pay than men. They did not receive benefits. No VA benefits, no GI bill, no burial rights for the 38 WASP who were killed in service to our Nation. Fellow WASP had to "take the nickels out of the Coke machine" to help send their bodies home.
Over 25,000 women applied to be part of the war effort in the WASP. Many volunteers received a telegram asking for their service. Ultimately, 1102 women earned their wings as pilots. Thirteen of these brave women were from Maryland: women like Barbara Shoemaker, who joined from the Women's Auxiliary Flying Squadron; Elaine Harmon, who as a WASP trained male pilots in instrument flying; Iola Magruder, who flew the B-18 "Bolo"; Jane Tedeschi, who stretched all night before joining the WASP so she could meet the minimum height requirement; and Florence Marston, who flew the B-26 "Widowmaker," notorious for its number of early accidents.
These brave women flew over 60 million miles in 2 years. They flew every type of aircraft and every type of mission as the men, except combat missions. They towed aerial targets while being shot at with live ammunition. They transported cargo. They tested repaired aircraft. They ferried aircraft from factories like Fairchild in Hagerstown, MD, to points across the country. They were stationed at 120 air bases throughout the country.
The WASP were not established to be a replacement for the men; instead, they enabled men to fly the combat missions. They found and fulfilled the service they could. These women were committed and they believed they could do what our country needed at the time we needed it.
The WASP were disbanded in December 1944, when they were told they were "no longer needed." Just as they paid for transport to training, they paid their own way home. For 33 years their military records were classified. For 33 years, their contributions were hidden from historians and textbooks. For 33 years, these brave women were denied veterans benefits.
These women were trailblazers. They displayed honor and courage and flew the most complex aircraft of the age. They are patriots. They are an inspiration to today's women in aviation. They opened the door for today's women to fly in the military in aircraft ranging from cargo and trainers, to fighters and bombers, and even the space shuttle. They inspire young girls to pursue technical fields and aviation. They are role models who deserve to be honored. We owe the WASP our "thank you"--not in words, but in deeds. For their courage, service and dedication to our Nation, they deserve the most distinguished honor Congress can give: the Congressional Gold Medal.