Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For women pilots, fight for inclusion began after war

WASPs lobbied Congress for recognition of their stateside efforts in World War II

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Tom Roff⁄Special to The Gazette
At a Women’s History presentation on Sunday at Wheaton Library, Elaine Harmon discusses her experiences in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during World War II.
Elaine Harmon flew planes for the United States military 32 years before women were officially allowed to join the Air Force.

As a 24-year-old in 1944, Harmon joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) to become part of a select group of women who flew airplanes as part of the Army Air Corps during World War II. Though not officially a part of the military, they flew planes from factories to bases and as part of exercises for ground troops, where soldiers practiced firing at targets that trailed behind the planes while they were in flight.

‘‘We did everything there was to do in this country,” Harmon said, since the women were not allowed in combat. ‘‘We did a lot of jobs that men thought were boring.”

Harmon, 88, who has lived in Silver Spring for most of her life, spoke Sunday at Wheaton Library as part of the library’s Women’s History Month celebration and efforts to highlight historical events for the community.

‘‘American history and world history, it’s a big puzzle,” said librarian Jo Stallworth. ‘‘Every part of that puzzle put together helps us gain a better understanding of where we are today.

‘‘Everyone should be acknowledged for their accomplishments and their struggles,” she added. ‘‘That’s why Women’s History Month, Black History Month, they’re so important.”

Harmon recounted her own experience and the stories of the other women she met during her time with the WASPs.

‘‘We were guinea pigs,” Harmon said. ‘‘It opened a door to a lot of women who wouldn’t think of this as a vocation. It showed women could do more than what was expected of them.”

Harmon joined the WASPs when her husband was sent overseas during the war. She had taken flight lessons through the Civilian Pilot Training Program offered at the University of Maryland, where she went to college, and had enough flight hours to join.

The WASPs were civilians, though they trained the same way the male pilots did, since the WASPs were never actually integrated into the military. Proposed legislation for the group to become part of the military failed and the WASPs were disbanded Dec. 20, 1944. They went their separate ways, forgotten for more than 30 years.

‘‘It was a letdown,” Harmon said. ‘‘It was hard work but fun.”

Then in 1976, the Air Force let women join for the first time (the WASPs had flown for the Army, since there was no Air Force in World War II). The media at the time said these were the first women to fly for the military. When the WASPs heard that, they knew it was time to make themselves known.

They gathered in force, around 800 of more than 1,000 who originally served, and lobbied Congress. In 1977, the U.S. government recognized the women as veterans. Though the women did not receive all veterans benefits, ‘‘at least we got recognized,” Harmon said.

Today, members see each other at air shows and have reunions every two years. Harmon and Beth Black, two of the five WASPs from the area, still live in Silver Spring.

Black donated the book ‘‘Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of WWII,” to the library last year. Her donation was part of a program started by former WASP B.J. Williams, who planned to donate a copy of the book to every middle school library in the country.

‘‘I feel that it’s very important because many people have never heard of the WASPs,” Black said. ‘‘It’s important for the public to know that women did do those things during World War II and can do those things successfully and are doing them today.”

The book by Amy Nathan, published in 2001, tells the story of the WASPs, with pictures, highlights of specific women and a timeline. ‘‘We want people to know we exist,” Harmon said.

‘‘We did fly and I think we did we did a good job while we were there,” Black said.

The cover of the book features a WASP from Silver Spring, Jane Straughan, a graduate of the first class to complete training. Straughan died in January 2007 at age 93.

For information on the WASPs, visit www.wingsacrossamerica.us.