FEBRUARY 28, 2010
Waco-based groups seek funds to pay for medals for WWII flyers
The female pilots who served during World War II had to pay their own way to enter training. When a fellow “fly girl” died, their only option was to take up a collection to cover burial expenses. And when the group was disbanded, they didn’t get any military benefits and even had to pay for their own travel home.
Now, unless people donate money, some of the Women Airforce Service Pilots may also have to pay to get replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal that is being awarded to them.
A Waco-based organization dedicated to preserving the group’s history and telling its story doesn’t want to see that happen. So it is assisting with a fundraising campaign that organizers hope will secure enough money to cover the nearly $56,000 needed to buy a medal for all 1,114 WASPs, as well as celebratory activities planned before and after the award ceremony.
“It’s an opportunity to step up and help,” Nancy Parrish, executive director of the organization, called Wings Across America, said of the campaign. “What we’re trying to do is say thank you to the WASPs.”
The hope is that a replica medal can be purchased for each WASP. It will either go to the women themselves or their family members, if the pilot has already died, Parrish said.Congress passed legislation awarding the medals to the female pilots this summer. As is typical, the government is covering the cost of creating the gold medal, which will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display. But no money is allocated to cover the cost of replica medals, which are made of bronze.
At least 125 of the approximately 300 surviving WASPs plan to attend the ceremony, Parrish said.
Scheduled for March 10 in Washington, D.C., it will be hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attended by numerous other Congressional leaders. President Barack Obama is expected to be there as well.
The groups raising money for the celebration are putting the first dollars donated toward buying medals for WASPs who attend the ceremony or are represented there by family members.
But they still need funds to pay for events being held in conjunction with the ceremony, as well as medals for WASPs who won’t be represented at the ceremony.
Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women In Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, which is heading up the celebration, said fundraising has been difficult.
Not only is the economy suffering, but organizers had relatively little lead time. The date of the ceremony was announced in late January, she said.
The events planned in conjunction with the ceremony include a reception afterward; a gathering at the women’s memorial, which is at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery; and a wreath-laying ceremony at the National World War II Memorial, she said.Vaught said the foundation has approached all of its usual contributors. But donations have been slow to come in, she said.
“We can be very proud of these women,” Vaught said. “They were doing something for their country. It’s a great story about what women are willing to do and that they can do things that people haven’t thought they could do.”
The WASP was organized in 1942 as an experimental training program after a group of female pilots led by Jacqueline Cochran appealed to U.S. Army officials.
Although they were not allowed in combat, the female pilots flew every kind of stateside mission that male pilots did, freeing them for the war effort. Among other things, they tested planes after repairs and helped train gunners for combat.
Thirty-eight WASPs died in the line of duty.
The group was disbanded in December 1944. They received no service-related honors or benefits.
In fact, the women’s records were sealed for more than three decades, until the Air Force started touting newly trained female pilots as the first women to fly American military aircraft. That caused WASPs to speak out about their service, and in 1977, they were finally awarded veteran status.
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, said the group’s valuable contributions have been neglected for too long.
“The Women Airforce Service Pilots are aviation pioneers as the first women in history to fly American military aircraft,” Edwards said in a statement. “Their efforts during World War II, and the work of Waco’s Wings Across America to support them and chronicle their story, are important to the history of America and the history of women in our military. They deserve our nation’s respect and full support.”
The group has always had a Waco connection, since some WASPs were stationed at Waco’s Army airfield. One even died there during a test flight.
That connection got a lot stronger in 1998, though, when Parrish started Wings Across America. Her mother, Deanie Parrish, also of Waco, was a WASP. The two women plan to attend next month’s ceremony together.
Obviously, getting the medals will be thrilling for the WASPs, Parrish said. But for pilots like her mother, the medal itself is not the best part. It’s the fact that the WASPs are finally getting more of the recognition they deserve, she said.
“It puts the WASPs on the national stage,” Parrish said. “It lets their stories be told.”
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who co-sponsored the medal legislation, said the medal “will serve as a small token of our nation’s gratitude.”
The Heart of Texas chapter of the Military Officers Association of America is facilitating the donations. Contributions can be made online at www.flygirls.org or by mail.
Mailed contributions can be sent to HOT Chapter, MOAA-WASP, c/o Harold Rafuse, 111 Laurel Oaks Lane, Crawford 76638.
What is the Congressional Gold Medal?
A Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by Congress. It is the nation’s highest civilian award, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The medal is awarded for “distinguished achievements and contributions.” Each medal honors a particular person, institution or event.
The first recipients included participants in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.
But Congress has broadened it to include authors, athletes, entertainers, scientists, humanitarians and public servants, among others.
Source: Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives