By MAREN WRIGHT
Interview with Elaine Harmon, a former WWII Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) of Silver Spring. Interview/video by Maren Wright, Capital News Service.
COLLEGE PARK (March 29, 2009) - Florence Marston doesn't really want recognition for what she did as a Women Airforce Service Pilot.
"All I did was to fly a couple of airplanes," said the Clinton woman.
But others find what she and about 1,100 other women did during World War II a pretty amazing feat. The women risked their lives in the new field of flight—and broke gender barriers in the process—to train glider pilots and ferry military equipment.
Soon they may get their hard-won recognition—whether they sought it or not. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., with all female senators as co-sponsors, introduced a bill last week to award the WASP corps the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor they can offer civilians.
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II were trailblazers and true patriots," Mikulski said in her statement. "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."
Jane Tedeschi, 89, a WASP who grew up in Somerset, said this recognition wasn't expected but it serves as justification for the 38 women who died during their flight service.
"It wouldn't hurt to have more people know about what we did and how it helped other women to fly for the military," Tedeschi said from her home in Bethany, Conn.
WASP like Tedeschi and Marston, who declined to give her age, flew non-combat military missions, freeing the limited number of male pilots for combat. Trailblazing only begins to describe their contributions and character.
Elaine Harmon, an 89-year-old WASP, learned to fly at the College Park Airfield, where a museum now houses a World War II-era "Stearman" airplane like the one she flew 60 years ago.
"To fly airplanes, that was a man's world, not for women," said the Silver Spring woman.
Harmon and other women air corps members overcame obstacles not in place for male pilots, including obtaining her own flight training in order to qualify for the WASP.
In 1940, as the nation realized that it might need pilots for impending war, the civilian pilot training program ran an announcement in the University of Maryland's student newspaper, The Diamondback. The program paid for a physical exam, ground training, flight insurance and 35 hours of flight time, all for $40.
"If you were under 21, you had to have your parent's signature," Harmon recalled. "I couldn't send it to my home, or my mother would see it."
Harmon sent the forms to her father at his office, and shortly thereafter got the signed form and $40 back in the mail, and it was never discussed again.
Harmon quietly earned her private pilot's license at the College Park Airfield. She eventually accumulated enough flight hours to apply for WASP training.
Even with flight training, the program was highly selective. Of the 20,000 applicants, 1,830 were accepted. Harmon was one of 1,074 women who completed the flight program in Sweetwater, Texas, graduating in September of 1944.
Women paid their way to the training and paid their way home if they washed out. They paid for their flight suits and uniforms and lodging. When their service ended, there were no medical benefits, no pensions—not even a paid flight home.
"When we were deactivated, we were forgotten," Harmon said.
Their memory was revived, however, when the Air Force Academy began training women pilots in the 1970s.
"People thought they were the first," Harmon said.
After petitions to Congress, WASP were awarded veteran's benefits in 1977, but the corps still struggles to hold a place in history.
"I still meet people today that never heard of us," Harmon said, citing an occasional history buff who knows nothing of the women who flew in World War II.
Her motivation to remember the WASP program has never been about personal recognition, Harmon said. She wants to leave a message about their courage.
"They were so determined and ambitious and patriotic and dependable." Harmon said of her colleagues. "Whatever they were asked to do—they did it."
Though veterans' benefits and congressional recognition was late in coming to these women, the freedom afforded by flight was early payback for their service.
"I wanted to fly since I was 7 years old," Tedeschi said.
She studied pilot manuals after college and then sought out lessons. With fellow student pilots, she piled into gas-rationed cars to head to Frederick, where farmer Hank Stevens opened his fields to practice flights.
"When you got $6, it didn't have anything to do with lunch money or anything like that," Tedeschi said. "Six dollars was the price of an hour of flying."
Marston, too, just loved being in the air.
"It's a different feeling from being down on the Earth amid all the traffic and the congestion," Marston said. "I really loved it—I loved flying."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.