Friday, July 17, 2009

Patriotic women earn medals after decades of no recognition

The two South Florida women are among the more than 1,100 who joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, from 1942 to 1943 during World War II. Their primary mission: to protect U.S. coasts, freeing up America's men to fight in combat missions abroad.

This wasn't make-work. It was deadly. Thirty-eight women pilots died in service to their country.

Fleisher, who tested AT-6 warbirds, recalls losing ''a couple of buddies who were in my class'' in plane crashes.

Sargent flew North Carolina's shores, looking for enemy intrusion from ships, submarines and planes. ''We went up and down, every day'' she told me. ``We made sure we didn't have anybody come into our country.''

Yet these patriotic women's contributions went largely unrecognized for decades. They weren't even eligible for U.S. veterans' status until 1977. They were never awarded full military status nor eligible for officer status during the war.

The women's selflessness was finally honored Wednesday when President Barack Obama signed a law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to about 300 WASPs still living, mostly in their 80s -- and to the families whose mothers, aunts and sisters didn't live long enough to have their service acknowledged.

''It's wonderful that they're doing this after all these years,'' Sargent said.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attended the White House ceremony. The Miami Republican was among a bipartisan cadre of women lawmakers who pushed for the medal. ''Though they never sought this attention and focus. If anyone has ever earned the Congressional Gold Medal, it is this group of women who served their nation in a time of war expecting nothing in return,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``What heroines they all turned out to be.''


Humble heroines, at that.

WASPs logged 60 million miles flying missions from coast to coast. They were to new generations of women what the Tuskegee Airmen, who exhibited their skill and courage during World War II, have been to African Americans.

As then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt noted in 1942 about the need to tap into women's valuable contributions in defense of this country: ``This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.''

Both Fleisher, 87, and Sargent, 89, went on to serve in the Air Force reserves. Both moved to South Florida about four decades ago, married and were widowed. Fleisher never had children; Sargent has two sons and a daughter in Florida.

Time and distance has muddled some of their memories, but Fleisher and Sargent haven't forgotten the pride they felt. After all, this was a time when women were expected to stay home and have babies. Career opportunities were narrowly defined: mostly, as secretaries, nurses and teachers.

''Damn impressive,'' Fleisher chuckled when asked about the WASP's work during the war.


Fleisher has flying in her blood. She grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where her father was a pilot who later managed an airport. After the war, she would get a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and retired in the reserves as a major. She met her husband, Maurice T. Fleisher, an Air Force major, in Philadelphia, where she worked in the control tower and he was a reserve pilot.

Today Fleisher manages an avocado grove on her three acres near Homestead. She still drives her car and shares stories with a ''nice neighbor,'' a younger woman who retired as an Air Force colonel.

Fleisher quit flying just a couple years ago: ``I'm not as speedy as I used to be.''

Sargent grew up in Little Rock, moved to Atlanta and later settled in Miami. After the war she married Floyd Sargent, an Air Force mechanic. Just shy of her 90th birthday, she stopped driving only recently, though ``it's only been about seven years since I last flew a plane.''

Sargent, who keeps busy in a retirement community in Cutler Bay, spent 30 years at Miami-Dade Community College, speaking to students about her pilot years and the war.

``I still hear from them.''

Fleisher's military service in Alabama carried its own culture shock for a gal from New York. 'I can remember the bus driver getting up and saying, `Lady, you can't sit there. You gotta move up.' I didn't realize that down south you didn't sit at the back of the bus.''

But in many ways these women were handed a backseat to their true legacy as trailblazers -- pilots piercing the sky and shattering gender barriers with their courage and love of country

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