The first female military pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol March 10.
Almost 70 years ago, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were disbanded with little fanfare, but this ceremony was a way to make things right for the trailblazers, said Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley.
More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. The audience, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted was one of the largest ever in the Capitol and too large to fit into Emancipation Hall, also included their families, as well as the families of those who have since died or couldn’t travel.
The process to approve the Congressional Gold Medal was introduced and approved in record time last year. The bipartisan effort was led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, as well as Rep. Susan Davis of California and Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
Of the more than 1,100 women who volunteered and flew every fighter, bomber, transport and trainer aircraft in the Air Force inventory 68 years ago, only about 300 are still alive.
Betty Wall Strohfus, a WASP from Minnesota, was one of the women who “just had to be here for this.” She flew the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder bombers, as well as the P-39 Airacobra fighter.
“It’s almost unbelievable, we never thought this day would come,” she said. “We were all just so grateful to have the opportunity to fly. But this was just such a lovely ceremony and so nice for all these people to come out for us.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award Congress can award to a civilian or group of civilians. Past honorees include the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000 and Tuskegee Airmen in 2006.
Each WASP received a smaller version of the medal to keep. The original medal will be donated to the Smithsonian Institution for display later this year with the “Women in Aviation” display at its Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.