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GUY RAZ, host:

One of the military's most extraordinary pilots is Air Force Major Nicole Malachowski. She'd have to be.

In 2006, Major Malachowski became the first woman to become part of the elite flying force known as the Thunderbirds. The Air Force calls them the best of the best.

(Soundbite of a jet plane)

We asked Nicole Malachowski into our studios this week to talk about her heroes: the Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew in this country during World War II. They were better known as the WASP.

And, Major Malachowski, it was a big week for the 300 or so surviving members of the WASP and you have some news for us.

Major NICOLE MALACHOWSKI (Pilot, U.S. Air Force): Absolutely, it's a great moment here for America. Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to my heroes, the WASP from World War II.

RAZ: Wow. Well, tell us about these women.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: They were the vanguards, if you will, for the integration of women into the military. They flew trainers and bombers in fighter aircraft. And lot of people don't realize we had women doing that back then. They were test pilots and instructor pilot.

RAZ: Wow.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: And the things they did, you know, were simply amazing.

RAZ: How many women were involved in this program during the Second World War?

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Basically, about 1,100 ended up getting their wings. We had 38 of these wonderful heroes who gave their lives in service to this country.

RAZ: Hmm.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: And what's interesting about that is they were never afforded military honors or a military burial. In fact, the WASP classmates of them would pool their money to ship the bodies back to their parents. There was no American flag allowed on their coffins and their families weren't allowed the Gold Star in the windows.

RAZ: So they were considered civilians, essentially.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: They were. But what's interesting is these women were on military basis, they reported to the military chain of command, they wore uniforms, they were the instructor pilots for the men who were going to fly over in combat. So...

RAZ: Which we should make clear that they were not flying any combat missions. They were only flying here in the U.S.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Right, they stayed stateside during the war. But what they did is they freed up the men to go fight the war, and overseas and in combat.

RAZ: Now, we should mention, Major Malachowski, that you are not flying this year. You're a White House fellow, which is a great honor for you. But I understand you had something to do with this honor that these women will soon receive.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: This is true. I did create the presentations and created the initial draft of the bill. And I was able to get the ball rolling for them.

RAZ: And I'm sure many of these surviving women are probably pretty proud to see that they blazed a trail for you to be a Thunderbird pilot. And we actually asked one of your heroes to join us in this conversation.

Deanie Parrish, are you with us?

Ms. DEANIE PARRIS (Member, Women Airforce Service Pilots; Associate Director, Wings Across America): I am.

RAZ: And you are in Waco, Texas. And we're with Nicole Malachowski, who you know, as well.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Hello, Deanie, and congratulations.

Ms. PARRISH: Thank you, Nicole. What a joy. What an honor to be on the same program with you. Hello to you. And hello, America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Tell us the story of how you came to join the WASP back in the 1940s.

Ms. PARRISH: Oh, my goodness. Well, I had already started flying because that was one of the requirements. And in order to become a WASP is that you had to be a private pilot already. But this - I started flying before the WASP wherever even thought of. And when I was - the day I was 21, I sent in my application. I didn't realize then, my mother had taught me, you don't lie. And later, I found that some of the girls fudged a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I didn't. I waited until the day I was 21 and sent in my application, because everybody was doing something. We had women, this was war.

RAZ: Hmm.

Ms. PARRISH: And women were, they were driving fire trucks. They were driving all kind of things. They were working in aircraft factories, doing things they had never realized was possible before. And I wanted to do something and I knew, I believed I was a good pilot. So I felt like that that was the best thing that I could do to help my country.

RAZ: Hmm. Of course...

Ms. PARRISH: And now, what is important now is the fact that they sealed our records after we were disbanded and filed them away for 33 years. So when the historians were writing the history of World War II, they didn't know we existed. So now, to me, it's not the medal that's important. It's to get young people to learn what really this country is built on.

RAZ: Now, of course, some of these missions were dangerous. Thirty eight WASP flyers actually died in accidents during this time. Tell me about the kinds of missions you flew.

Ms. PARRISH: Well, they absolutely were. When I first graduated, I went to Greenville Army Airfield and I became a test pilot, which meant that if an aircraft had cracked up or if it needed major repairs, it had to be repaired. And then it had to be test flown before the cadets and instructors could fly it. So that was my job.

But I was only there a very short time when I got orders to go down to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and train to become a Martin Marauder B-26 pilot to train gunners for combat, as an air-to-air tow target pilot.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: That means she would tow something behind her plane and let the pilot shoot live bullets at it for practice.

Ms. PARRISH: Live ammunition. They were using color-coded bullets because that's how they could tell once we dropped that target on the ground.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Then the instructors would look at it and they would know which gunners had been accurate.

RAZ: Yeah.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: And I know what it's like to be shot at. But to voluntarily go out there and let other people shoot at you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Wow. And Ms. Parrish, were any of these male pilots ever sort of, you know, did they ever object to being trained by women pilots?

Ms. PARRISH: Oh, I'm sure some of them did, but I didn't really encounter that. I just did my job. And I think by keeping my mouth shut, I let them find out how efficient I could be. And I think then they had a lot of respect, at least a lot of them did. I know one in particular because I married him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Major Malachowski, you spent a lot of time looking into the history of these women. Why did the military classify and seal all of these records in 1944?

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Well, you have to - let's put ourselves back there, 65 years ago. I mean, clearly, the idea of - it was in my lifetime while I was in college that they finally lifted the ban on women flying fighter and bomber aircraft. When you just heard, Deanie Parrish was flying a B-26 bomber 65 years ago. So culturally, at the time, I think it was tough for America, certainly tough within the armed forces.

When they were unceremoniously disbanded, General Hap Arnold actually went to Congress and asked, hey, I want to go ahead and, you know, militarize these ladies and give them veterans status and all the things that they had earned, and Congress vetoed it.

And so I think it was just a contentious thing. And instead of doing the right thing, which would have been tougher, they just did the easy thing, which was to seal those records away and they got lost until 1977.

RAZ: And, Major Malachowski, we actually have a cut of tape from General Henry Hap Arnold speaking at a graduation ceremony for the last class of the WASP.

This is from 1944.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

General HENRY HAP ARNOLD (U.S. Air Force): Frankly, I didn't know in 1941 whether a slip of a girl would fight the controls of B-17s in heavy weather. Now, in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: And his last words are, We will never forget you.

RAZ: But they did forget you, Deanie Parrish.

Ms. PARRISH: They did, but now, they won't.

RAZ: Well, Deanie Parrish, congratulations to you and to all the WASP flyers out there.

Ms. PARRISH: Oh, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much.

RAZ: And Major Nicole Malachowski, thanks for helping them get this recognition and for coming into the studio and joining us.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: It's been my pleasure. You know, the entire Air Force and our military is so proud of these WASP. And what's great is now, all of America can be proud of these WASP.

RAZ: Happy Fourth.

Ms. PARRISH: Happy Fourth to you...

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Happy Fourth.

Ms. PARRISH: ...and to all our troops.

Maj. MALACHOWSKI: Yes, ma'am.

Ms. PARRISH: God bless them all.

RAZ: Deanie Parrish and her daughter, Nancy, run the organization Wings Across America.

Major Nicole Malachowski is a combat pilot for the Air Force and currently a White House fellow. Together, they promoted a bill signed this week by President Obama to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.

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