By Libby Casey
More than a thousand skilled aviators who served the United States during World War II didn’t receive military benefits, weren’t commissioned, and for decades after the war weren’t viewed as veterans. The reason? They were women.
This week the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, received formal recognition when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Three Alaskans are among their ranks, and one journeyed from Juneau to Washington for Wednesday’s ceremony.
Ellen Campbell was about 20 years old when World War II broke out. She had a calling to fly, and dreamed of perhaps being a stewardess. But then she found out about the elite WASP program, in which women were pilots.
I was called the test pilot. Not the glamorous kind of experimental planes, but new planes had to have a certain amount of time on them, planes that had been damaged in accidents and so forth had to have a certain amount of time on them.
Before she got that assignment, Campbell’s first stop was Sweetwater, Texas for training. Her male instructor wanted to be overseas fighting, and didn’t like teaching “girls.” Rather than drawing traffic patterns on the blackboard he’d throw chalk at them. Campbell was afraid of washing out, and got up the nerve to request a new instructor.
So that was my lowest moment. I sat on the flight line and said am I gonna wash myself out, or am I gonna be washed out. And then I looked at all those girls going by, and I said if they can do it, I can do it too. And that was when the die went a different direction.
After earning her wings Campbell was stationed in Jackson, Mississippi – she requested a twin engine base, because she liked powerful planes.
I just always thought it would be exciting to keep on going, although my favorite plane was the AT6, and that one we had in advanced flight training when we got our wings. And it was an exciting plane because all of the sudden the horse power was increased. And that was both exciting and somewhat intimidating.
That was 65 years ago. Ellen Campbell went on to marry, raise children, and move with her husband to Juneau. She volunteers at her church, and helps women in prison.
For years there was minimal – if any – recognition of her service with the WASP. In fact, when the Air Force selected a handful of women for pilot training in the 1970s it mistakenly touted them as the first. Campbell is now 88 years old. And her service is being recognized.
Today we are gathered here in Emancipation Hall to honor the courageous patriotism of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, to honor them with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow.
That’s U-S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Wednesday’s ceremony in the Capitol drew one of the biggest crowds ever for such an event. About 200 WASP made the journey to Washington of the 1-thousand-and 74 who served.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a sponsor of the legislation to get them the gold medal, says during the war they flew over 60-million miles – doing everything men did, except combat.
All these women volunteered to serve our country in wartime. They paid their own way to Texas for training, and when the war ended, the program ended, they paid their own way back home. And those killed in action they were buried by their families, often with contributions taken by the WASPS.
The 38 women killed in action did not have the American flag draped over their caskets. Hutchison says Wednesday’s ceremony tried to right some of those wrongs.
We are closing a circle today of unrecognized achievement that began with the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Code talkers, and today the WASP.
Tom Brokaw, TV anchorman and author of the book, The Greatest Generation, says the WASP helped change American history.
I think that we should all take just a moment, and savor this moment for what these women represent not just to us now, but think about the lives that they have lead, the history that they have seen, the difficulties they have helped this nation overcome.
During Wednesday’s ceremony, Ellen Campbell reconnected with old friends. 6 decades ago when they were pilots, Campbell says some were single, some had husbands serving overseas, and some were young war widows, using that time for their vigil of grief. She says all bonded together for a greater purpose. And she says now it is sweet to be recognized.
It was immeasurably inspiring and exciting, and deeply meaningful.
Today over 64-thousand women serve in the Air Force, and dozens of them were in the audience. Presenters used words to describe the WASPs like fearless, formidable, spunk, and moxy. But Ellen Campbell has another legacy she strives for.
I more than anything, I would like to inspire people in goodness, and helpfulness, and joy of life. Joie de vivre, that’s where it is, it’s there for us, each one!
Two other Alaskan women served with the WASP: Fairbanksans Ginny Wood and Nancy Baker will be honored by Senator Lisa Murkowski next month when she travels north.