By Austin Walsh
SANTA CRUZ -- Nearly 70 years after she flew with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, Violet Wierzbicki of Santa Cruz will get the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow on a civilian, recognizing her service to the country.
During World War II, female pilots including Wierzbicki enlisted in the WASP to fill the Air Force's need for pilots to carry out service missions so male pilots could fly in combat. The exclusive group of 1,102 women flew planes like the SBD, A-24 and P-47s and logged more than 60 million miles flying missions across the United States.
Between 1942 and 1943, when she was 25, Wierzbicki towed targets behind her plane so fellow pilots could practice their sharpshooting skills. She was also responsible for ferrying planes from factories to Army Air Force bases and performing test flights.
"I felt so proud to be a flying military aircraft and doing something for my country," said Wierzbicki, who expects to get her medal once it is minted.
Wierzbicki, a native of Flint, Mich., took her first flight when she was 24 to overcome her fear of flying. She was hooked and earned her private pilot's license when she was 25.
"I got curious and wanted to know what it would feel like to fly by the seat of my pants," Wierzbicki said. "So I took one lesson and then I wanted to continue, to solo and then got a private pilot's license."
After returning home from war, Wierzbicki attempted to get a job as a pilot at a small commercial airline in Flint, but was told that she looked too young and people would not want to fly with her because she was a woman. She eventually worked as a secretary for GM and U.S. Steel.
It wasn't until this year that Wierzbicki and her fellow pilots were formally honored for their service. On July 1, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding all former WASP pilots or their surviving family members the medal to commemorate the women's daring and service. WASP pilots had never gained formal or public recognition for their service.
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II were trailblazers and true patriots. They risked their lives in service to our nation, but for too long their contribution to the war effort has been undervalued or under-recognized," Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland wrote in the bill she co-sponsored with all 16 other female members of the Senate.
According to Mikulski, WASP pilots had no benefits and no insurance during their time spent flying. And the families of female pilots who died in flight had to pay to have the bodies of their loved ones shipped home.
Though WASP members were promised military benefits when they were enlisted, they had to wait until 1977 for Congress to grant them.
Wierzbicki and fellow WASP pilots will join the ranks of other Congressional Gold Medal winners such as Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela and the Wright brothers.
Today, former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson will speak at a party at Dominican Oaks retirement home in Santa Cruz, where Wierzbicki lives, to celebrate her military flying career.
She and fellow pilots will be invited to Washington, D.C., for a formal presentation of the medals once its design has been finalized and cast. After the presentation, the original medal will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute. Wierzbicki hopes to fly to Washington, D.C., for the presentation.
"It's a great honor to all of us," Wierzbicki said.
reposted from the Mercury News