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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. A Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington tomorrow honors more than 1,000 women for their service in World War II. The Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASP, tested and transported military planes in the United States. As civilians, their work freed male pilots for combat overseas.

Now, more than six decades later, the highest award given by Congress goes to most of them posthumously. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on recognition that was a long time coming.

SUSAN STAMBERG: December 1944, Avenger Fields, Sweetwater, Texas.

General HAP ARNOLD (Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces): I didn't know in 1941 whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.

STAMBERG: Hap Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, congratulates a very proud group of young women, the most recent group to complete training as military pilots.

Gen. ARNOLD: It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.

STAMBERG: The women sang their hearts out that day, but their hearts hurt, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...with the work 'round here with our silver wings.

STAMBERG: The WASP program was ending. They would have just two weeks of duty. For more than two years, young women had carried out various assignments in the U.S., ferrying planes from factories to military bases, testing repaired planes and, most dangerously, towing targets aloft so men could learn to shoot.

Professor KATE LANDDECK (History, Texas Women's University): So you'd have these planes that would fly past a row of gunners on the ground, and the gunners would practice with live ammunition to learn how to shoot at a moving object.

STAMBERG: Historian Kate Landdeck, of Texas Woman's University, has written a book about the WASP. She says no WASP was seriously hurt towing a target, but there were other close calls. Margaret Phelan had one ferrying an aircraft cross-country. Somewhere between Arizona and California, Margaret saw smoke in her cockpit. She was trained to bail out if anything went wrong.

Ms. MARGARET PHELAN TAYLOR (Former Air Force WASP): But the parachutes are way too big. You know, they weren't fitted to us. The force of the air and that speed and everything - why, that just rips stuff off of you.

STAMBERG: So that thing better fit well; otherwise, you're in trouble.

Ms. TAYLOR: Why, yes, that's right.

STAMBERG: So Margaret Phelan faced a defining moment.

Ms. TAYLOR: I thought: You know what? I'm not going until I see flame. When I see actual fire, why, then I'll jump.

STAMBERG: You weren't scared?

Ms. TAYLOR: Scared? No. I was never scared. My husband used to say, it's pretty hard to scare you.

STAMBERG: Like many of the 1,100 trained WASP - 25,000 applied - Margaret Phelan had moxie. An Iowa farm girl, in 1943, she was just out of college when a Life magazine cover story on the WASP caught her eye. Margaret's brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her?

Nineteen years old, she borrowed $500 and got a pilot's license. But there was a problem: Margaret was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2 requirement.

Ms. TAYLOR: And I just stood up on my tiptoes. And when I got to Sweetwater, Avenger Field, why, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.

STAMBERG: Short, tall, slim, wide - they were all civilian volunteers and, like Margaret, came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the women.

Prof. LANDDECK: They didn't want to bring in a bunch of girls who didn't know how to fly an airplane.

STAMBERG: Again, historian Kate Landdeck.

Prof. LANDDECK: So you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they have to learn how to fly so they could be a WASP.

STAMBERG: Thirty-eight of these eager young women died serving their country. One was 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Ms. PAM POHLY: I've always known of her as the family hero, the one we lost too soon, the one that everyone loved and wished was still around.

STAMBERG: Pam Pohly is Mabel Rawlinson's niece. After training, Mabel was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina. She was returning from a night training exercise with her male instructor when their plane crashed.

Pam Pohly reads a statement from a WASP who witnessed the accident.

Ms. POHLY: (Reading) We were in the dining room when we heard the siren that indicated a crash. We ran out on the field. We saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire, and we could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare.

STAMBERG: It's believed that Mabel's hatch malfunctioned, and she couldn't get out. Her instructor was thrown from the plane and survived.

Mabel Rawlinson was a civilian. The military was not required to pay for her funeral, or pay for her remains to be sent home. So - and this is a common story - her fellow pilots pitched in.

Ms. POHLY: They collected enough money to ship her remains home by train, and a couple of the fellow WASP accompanied her casket.

STAMBERG: And, because Mabel wasn't military, the American flag was not allowed to be draped over her coffin. But her family did it anyway.

The women expected to become part of the military. Instead, historian Kate Landdeck says, in 1944, the WASP program was threatened.

Prof. LANDDECK: It was a very controversial time for women flying aircraft. There was a lot of debate about whether they were needed any longer.

STAMBERG: By the summer of '44, the war seemed to be ending. Flight training programs were closing down, which meant that male civilian instructors were losing their jobs. They feared being drafted and lobbied for the women pilots' jobs.

Prof. LANDDECK: And it was unacceptable to have women replacing men. They could release men for duty that was patriotic but they couldn't replace men.

STAMBERG: And so, the WASP program was disbanded. Lillian Yonally graduated from one of the early WASP training classes. When she was dismissed from her piloting job in California, she says no one saluted; there was no ceremony.

Ms. LILLIAN YONALLY (Former WASP): Not a darn thing. It was told to us, we would be leaving the base. And we hopped airplanes to get back home.

STAMBERG: And once home, they went on with their lives. A few of them stayed in the air as airline stewardesses after the war. In those days, no major airline would hire these experienced women as pilots. Like many World War II veterans, most WASP never talked about their experiences and according to Margaret Phelan Taylor, they never expected anything, either.

Ms. TAYLOR: We were children of the Depression. It was root, hog or die. You had to take care of yourself. Nobody owed us anything.

STAMBERG: Still, some years later, the WASP began getting together and pushing for military status. Then, in 1976, historian Kate Landdeck says something happened that riled the whole WASP nest.

Prof. LANDDECK: The Air Force comes out and says they are going to admit women to their flying program, and that it is the first time that the Air Force has allowed women to fly their aircraft.

Ms. YONALLY: No. It was impossible for anybody to say that. That wasn't true.

STAMBERG: Lillian Yonally still gets upset about that, 30 years later.

Ms. YONALLY: We were the first ones.

STAMBERG: The fact that the WASP were forgotten, even by the Air Force, united the women. They lobbied Congress for military recognition. In 1977, they finally got it. But it took another 30 years for a really big honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Lillian Yonally is sad that fewer than 300 of her more than 1,100 fellow WASP are alive to receive it.

Ms. YONALLY: I'm sorry that so many girls have passed on. It's nice the families will receive it, but it doesn't make up for the gals who knew what they did and weren't honored that way.

STAMBERG: Tomorrow, Lillian Yonally and other surviving WASP will be attending the gold medal ceremony in Washington, and remembering those long-ago days when they served their country out of loyalty, patriotism and, says former WASP Margaret Phelan Taylor, something else.

Ms. TAYLOR: Actually, I did it for the fun. I mean, I was a young girl. Everybody had left and it was wartime, and you didn't want to get stuck in a hole in Iowa; you wanted to see what was going on.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can read essays and look at photos from WASP family members at NPR.org. You can also get an audio tour from one pilot, and check out her rare color photos from the 1940s.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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