Tags: Congressional Gold Medal, Jacqueline Cochran, Lidiya Litvyak, Sewall-Belmont House, WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots
The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) survivors yesterday. Later that evening at the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill (the former headquarters of the historic National Womenâ€™s Party), several of the WASPs were in attendance for a lecture and signing for Amy Goodpaster Strebeâ€™s book, Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II. This book is the first to take a comparative look at the Soviet and American women pilots who flew during the war, women who volunteered to break the gender barrier for the nationâ€™s defense.
As with many of the untraditional jobsAmerican women took on during World War II, the WASPs were allowed to become aviators out of necessity. The manpower shortage brought on by the war effort was a lucky break for these women who loved aviation and were eager to serve their country. But, they were not considered military personnel; rather, they were given civil servant status. And they were not allowed to fly into combat. The Soviet women pilots, however, had a different experience. They were allowed to fly combat missions throughout the war; some of them were nicknamed the â€śNight Witchesâ€ť by the Germans because of their success and agility in night missions.
Young and fearless, the women who were recruited for this program went through a condensed training program and were sent to the front to perform combat missions not unlike those of their male counterparts. One of the most well known was Lidiya Litvyak who earned the rare distinction of a double ace. She was the first woman to shoot down an enemy aircraft. On that day, September 13, 1942, during the intense Battle of Stalingrad, she felled two German fighters, including the German ace Erwin Maier. He was reportedly incredulous when, after being captured, he faced the pilot who had downed his plane.
Litvyak defied stereotypes: she was petite (she need pedal adjustments in her cockpit) and blonde and loved nature. Rumors are that she decorated her cockpit with wildflowers and painted a lily on the side of her plane. Unfortunately, she is believed to have been killed in action, her plane reportedly shot down in the Ukraine. Female remains were discovered in 1979, but without DNA, there is no conclusive proof the remains are hers. To add to the mystery, there are also rumors of POW sightings of Litvyak in Germany by several sources.
In the United States, aviation pioneer Jacqueline Cochran was making a name for herself long before the war broke out â€“ beating Howard Hughesâ€™ transcontinental record in 1937. She helped to convince Eleanor Roosevelt that women pilots were going to be an unpopular necessity in World War II and, in leading that successful fight, she became the first director of the WASP program. They were responsible for testing and ferrying war planes all over the U.S. They were also employed as instructors and test pilots. They did every job a male military aviator performed but flying in combat.
After the war, the WASP regiments and their Soviet counterparts were disbanded and dismissed from service. Cochran attempted to introduce legislation that would militarize the WASP program. But it was defeated. It was not until the 1970s that women in the United States started to play a major role in aviation again. The WASPs did not receive veteran status until 1977 and they did not have the right to have a flag on their coffins until after 2000. And, yesterday, about 300 surviving trailblazers finally received national recognition with the highest honor this nation bestows on a civilian. What took so long?