For Westborough WWII pilot, a long-awaited award
Ninety-six-year-old June Bent had to wait nearly 70 years to be recognized for her contribution to her country's defense during wartime.
Bent, who lives at The Willows of Westborough, was one of the first 1,047 women to fly aircraft for the military as a member of Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs. They ferried combat aircraft, including bombers and fighters, from factories to embarkation points around the country. They also flew in training missions.
On July 1, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill awarding Bent and other WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.
Though they were technically considered civilian pilots, Bent said their training was as harrowing as their male counterparts. Even a routine mission could pose problems, Bent recalled.
"We were flying through Texas and it was a beautiful night, the stars were all out," she said of one such time. "All of a sudden my windscreen was covered in oil, so I had to land with my head stuck out the side of the canopy."
The bill lauds the valor of the all-female regiment.
"The Women Air Force Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since," said Obama.
Bent, who did not attend the ceremony, was pleased with the honor and thinks it is deserved.
"I'm glad it happened, and I understand why it did," she said.
Their numbers are growing smaller.
"There are only about 400 of us still around," she said.
Despite her role as a woman in the military, Bent was careful to explain that she and her female compatriots were considered to be civilians throughout World War II, and were not recognized as military personnel until 1977.
"Some of us were saluted like the rest of the people in uniforms," she said, though this treatment varied depending on where the WASPs were stationed.
The Congressional Gold Medal comes 60 years after the fact, and stands in stark contrast to how the women performed a mostly thankless job.
"WASP started in 1942 and disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, when they didn't need us anymore. They didn't even pay our way home," Bent said.
Bent attributes much of the success of the pilots to the progressive women who strove to prove themselves, especially Jacqueline Cochran, the founder and director of the WASPs.
"She was a tough cookie," Bent said. "She thought women could be taught to fly just like men."
During her service, Bent also tested planes used by cadets to see if anything was wrong with the aircrafts.
Challenges were not the only thing Bent encountered during her time in the military - she also met her husband, a fellow pilot.
"He came up at lunch with his tray and said, 'Can I sit here?' Two-and-a-half months later we were married," she said.
John "Jack" Bent, an avid photographer who worked for the Eastman Kodak Company following his military service, died in 2005.
Bent believes that the biggest accomplishment of the WASPs was to demonstrate that women could serve their country.
"We proved that women could fly as well as men," she said.
Bent felt that the WASPs' lessons could be instructive to today's women as well.
"I'm 96 years old. I'm bound to say something that matters," she said.