Friday, April 29, 2011
Texas Gov. Ann Richards once said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only she did it backward and in high heels.
That sentiment certainly resonates with Nancy Parrish, whose mother, Deanie Parrish, was a member of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots. These female aviators flew noncombat missions within the United States during World War II, freeing male pilots to fight the war. And they did it without the benefits their male counterparts enjoyed.
Nancy, a former Public Broadcasting Service producer/director, was the guest speaker at the Operational Test Command Women's History Month observance Thursday, bringing her mother along as a special guest. Hosted by Operational Test Command's Aviation Test Directorate, the WASP program was the brainchild of Ronni Parsons, a test directorate operational research systems analyst.
"It was a very different time in America before World War II," Nancy said. "American women weren't expected to be leaders; they were expected to be mothers, housewives, maybe secretaries.
"If they went to college, they didn't take classes in avionics, politics or debate. They took typing and stenography."
But Dec. 7, 1941, (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) changed everything, Nancy said.
"Our innocence was shattered, and for the first time in our country's history, women were invited to help in the fight," she said. "And the campaign in North Africa cost us a lot of pilots."
All the services started recruiting women, Nancy said, and it wasn't long before America's foremost female aviator, Jacqueline Cochran, had the idea that women could be trained to fly weather, ferrying, target-towing, flight training and cargo transport missions. Cochran was able to convince Gen. Hap Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander, that her idea would work, and the program got under way at the Houston airport in 1942.
Twenty-five thousand women applied, but only 1,830 were accepted into the program. They came from all walks of life, Parrish said, and they did it because they wanted to serve their country and they loved flying. By the time the last class graduated in 1944, she said, WASP had flown more than 60 million miles.
"These women went through the same flight training as the men," she said. "They flew dilapidated planes; they flew every kind of aircraft, and they flew every kind of mission except combat. Initially, they had to provide their own uniforms.
"When the WASP disbanded, these women had to pay their way back home," Nancy said. "Thirty-eight of them were killed, but because they had no benefits, the women had to take up collections to get their bodies back home to their families."
WASP military records were sealed, stamped "classified" and filed in government archives for 33 years, and it wasn't until 1977 that Congress voted to give WASP veteran status.
"They were the best-kept secret of World War II," Nancy said. "They weren't even invited to the bill signing and received no official thank you from then-President Carter."
Finally, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tx. and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., sponsored bipartisan legislation in 2009 to grant Congressional gold medals to WASP. At the ceremony in 2010, Deanie Parrish was among the 175 WASPs who received the honon (and accepted the award on behalf of all the WASP).
"For me it was both an honor and a privilege," Deanie said. "I have always believed that with God, all things are possible."
Presenting commander's coins to both women, Brig. Gen. Don MacWillie, Operational Test Command's commanding general, said he was at a loss for words. "I can't imagine what kind of human being it takes who looked at all the challenges and said, 'I'm going to overcome that.'"
More information about WASP is available at www.wingsacrossamerica.us .
More on Deanie Parrish
More on Nancy Parrish
"WASP In Their Own Words, an Illustrated History," by Nancy Parrish