By Harlis Brend
The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Southern California Wing held a special event on May 9, 2009, to honor local Ventura County women who supported the World War II effort. Women served in important roles that ranged from “Rosie the Riveter” in the factories to delivering aircraft as members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organization.
The event began at the CAF Camarillo Airport facility with a luncheon co-sponsored by many local businesses and organizations. The afternoon program featured Cmdr. Valerie Overstreet, VAW-117 Hawkeye Squadron, Point Mugu NAS.
Her presentation was a tribute to the honorees who helped pave the way for her career. Additional speakers Sarah DeBree and Avril Roy-Smith were introduced by CAF volunteer Ceci Stratford along with other honored guests. Stratford thanked everyone for coming to this very special and historic event, saying that there has never been a gathering of Ventura County women who participated in WWII.
Stratford continued, “Today, we honor the women who participated in WWII. Their contributions to preserving our freedom haven’t been recognized as much as they should have been, and that is why we are having this event. They took jobs to allow the boys to go to war. They also opened doors for later generations, doing heroic jobs like combat nurses (two are present). Others courageously survived the bombing in England (three present). Most branches of the services are represented today, and many of the ladies were ‘Rosie the Riveters,’ building aircraft and other war equipment. Others contributed to the war effort in offices, government agencies and bases throughout the United States.”
Camarillo Mayor Don Wauch welcomed the group. “It seems like throughout civilization at one time or another, we have been at war somewhere. If you read your history books, you will always find instances of women serving in the Armed Forces or supporting the troops.”
Sarah DeBree, Camarillo CAF museum director, presented a historical overview of women’s efforts during WWII. A total of 351,000 women served in the military services.
The WASP received applications from 25,000 women. The requirements were very stiff, and they had to pay for their own food, uniforms and lodging during training. Of the 1,830 applications accepted between 1942 and 1944, only 1,102 WASP graduated from training in Texas and went on to fly non-combat military missions, logging 60 million miles flying across the U.S. During their seven months of military flight training, they trained on 23 types of aircraft and accumulated more than 210 hours of flight time. The WASP flew every airplane that the Army Air Corps flew, but they were still considered civil servants, not members of the military.
WASP director and founder Jacqueline Cochran led the training section. Nancy Hankness Love oversaw the ferrying section. Other early, well-known WASP were Betty Gillies, first woman to fly the P-47 and B-17, and Cornelia Fort, one of “The Originals” and the first woman to die while flying for the WASP (38 would lose their lives in service). The WASP were finally fully recognized in 1977 by a bill signed by President Carter. They did not receive veteran status until 1979.
In June 2009, legislation honoring the WASP with the Congressional Gold Medal was passed in both chambers of Congress and sent to the President for final approval. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, Texas) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.) introduced the legislation to honor these women pilots. The House version of the bill was sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, Fla.).
“I am so pleased that my colleagues from both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress have come together to award the Women Airforce Service Pilots this long overdue honor. Their service and sacrifice has earned them a place of distinction in American history, and this medal will serve as a small token of our nation’s gratitude,” said Sen. Hutchison.
“The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II are trailblazers and true patriots. They risked their lives in service to our nation, but for too long their contribution to the war effort has been undervalued or under-recognized,” Sen. Mikulski said. “I am so pleased both houses of Congress have now come together to right this wrong and to finally give these courageous women the proper recognition they deserve.”
Nancy Parrish, director of Wings Across America, said, “Thank you to Sen. Hutchison, Sen. Mikulski, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and those members of Congress who have made this possible . Although they never expected or asked for this extraordinary honor, I do know they are grateful, as are all of us who follow in their footsteps.”
This bill shines a national spotlight on the inspirational history and values of the WASP: honor, service, faith, determination, commitment, integrity, courage and a devout sense of patriotism.
The Congressional Gold Medal awarded by Congress is the highest and most distinguished honor a civilian may receive. The award is bestowed for exceptional acts of service to the United States or for lifetime achievement. Congressional Gold Medals will be awarded to all 1,102 pilots and/or their surviving family members. About 300 WASP are living today.
Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm joined Women Army Corps (WAC) in 1942 and was a driving force behind expanding the role of women in the Air Force until her retirement in 1975. Other leaders in the WAC were director Oveta Cullp Hoppy and Lt. Col. Charity Adams. Some WAC jobs included weather observer, cartographer, chemical laboratory assistant, model maker and photographer.
Women also served in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR) and the Navy WAVES, supporting the Marine Air Squadron through functions such as air traffic control and parachute rigging. Army nurses also served with distinction throughout the world.
Two selections from Cornelia Fort’s writings “At Twilight’s Last Gleaming” and “Remember Me” were read by Avril Roy-Smith. On the home front, posters promoted war jobs for women with slogans such as “Get a War Job,” “We Can Do It!” and “We Can’t Win Without Them.” Not all women of that era worked directly in the U.S. war efforts—some were literally victims of the war, living in wartime internment camps and migrant farm worker camps.
Cmdr. Valerie Overstreet, first woman commander at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, now flies E2C Hawkeyes in VAW-117 airborne warning and control service for the USS Nimitz strike group. She has more than 3,800 flight hours, including 385 carrier-arrested landings.
Overstreet reminisced about the path to obtaining her “wings of gold” in 1994 and about her career as a Navy carrier pilot and commander. To conclude she said, “It is an absolute honor and privilege to look into the eyes of women who made my dreams as a four-year-old little girl an actual reality. Nobody ever told me, ‘No.’ Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, and then it wasn’t out of the ordinary.”
For more information about its work to preserve military history, visit the Commemorative Air Force Southern California Wing at [http://www.orgsites.com/ca/caf-socal]