It may have been 60 years overdue, but last week President Barack Obama bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on the courageous and long overlooked Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Unfortunately, most of the women who flew U.S. military aircraft for the first time during World War II aren’t around anymore.
“The WASPs are dropping like flies. There were only about 1,000 of us to begin with and I think there are only 300 of us left,” said Elizabeth “Betty” Pfister in an interview at her Aspen home this week.
Pfister, 88, and another Aspen resident, Ruth Brown, 88, are both receiving the congressional gold medal for their admirable service. Now that Obama has signed the measure into law, a medal ceremony will soon be scheduled in the nation’s capital to honor the WASPs.
But for decades, the women were left out of the history books. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, formed in 1942 to answer the call of the military’s aviation need in the United States, freeing up male war pilots to do battle overseas. After 16 months, the program was shut down at the end of 1944 with zero recognition from the government. After the war ended, the women went back to their daily lives without receiving any of the support given to men in the military.
The WASP records were sealed for more than 30 years until, in 1977, Congress elected to make WASPs eligible for veterans benefits. The women did not perform in combat but they were assigned to military bases where they flew drones, transported cargo, served as instructors, conducted night exercises, tested repaired aircraft, and other dangerous duties. Thirty-eight women were killed carrying out their work.
Pfister, whose brother was a navy pilot who was killed when he was 21, already knew how to fly — and she was quite good at it.
“I loved to fly, the war was on and it was a good combination,” she said.
She and Brown were two of the 25,000 women who applied for the WASP program. Fewer than 1,900 were accepted and only 1,074 completed the grueling training program at Avenger Field in Texas.
Pfister joined the ferrying division, transporting planes from one place to another, and testing repaired planes damaged in combat.
“We would test fly them and it was just a miracle if anything worked. We were expendable and the men were not,” said Pfister, whose division had a lower accident rate than their male counterparts.
Despite the tough assignments, Pfister said she had a lot of fun.
“We were able to check out all kinds of planes. One day it would be a little one, the next day it would be a big one,” she said. “I was able to fly a B-17 and that was really exciting for a 21-year-old.”
Brown learned how to fly in Denver so she could apply to become a WASP. Once enlisted, she flew planes for cadets to practice their bombardier training using a new instrument at the time, the Norden bomb sight, which allowed pilots to better zero in on targets.
Pfister, who has been named one of the 100 most influential women in the history of aviation, said she hopes to attend the medal ceremony in Washington, D.C., once its time and location are announced.
“I’m still vertical. I’m still able to travel at this point,” she said.
It appears less likely Brown will attend. But asked how it feels to receive the congressional gold medal, she answered: “Better late than never!”