Thursday, March 17, 2011
by Frederick Gomez
Almost 70 years after they distinguished themselves as true American heroes during World War II, an elite group of civilian women pilots -- whose efforts were all but ignored and unsung --were finally given their due, almost a year ago today, at the nation's Capitol. Sadly, many never lived to see the day -- their overdue moment in America's spotlight. Less than 300 WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) are alive today so it was a bittersweet moment when survivors were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, before one of the largest crowds every assembled inside the nation's Capitol. One can only imagine what went through the collective hearts and minds of these unheralded patriot survivors, knowing that many of their sisters-in-arms were not there to share this prestigious honor. Many WASP had not lived long enough, but then again, the near-70 year wait was too long in the first place. (Please note: WASP is the correct term, never WASPs, as WASP is, in itself, a plural form.)
According to the Washington Bureau (Tom McIlroy, 3/10/10) only about 170 women WASP survivors were able to make it to the steps of the Capitol building, all of them now in their 80s and 90s. Some in wheelchairs.
Not many are left out of the original 1,830 WASP program. WASP survivor Betty Berkstresser was there -- after seven decades of historical neglect -- and she was in full uniform. Berkstresser was once a young girl in that WASP uniform; a pioneer aviator with stardust in her eyes, and a spring in her step. She is now 90 years old, walks slower, and may not look much like a war hero. But she is, rightfully so, then and now. She finally held her Congressional Gold Medal, signed into legislation by President Barack Obama, and bestowed to her (each WASP was given a replica) by both houses of the United States Congress. Berkstresser, once again, must have had stardust in her eyes, as she once did as a young girl in WASP uniform, when she flew the skies -- free from all the male discrimination she had to endure, during those early years. It was a long time coming, and she must have cradled the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest possible civilian award given by Congress -- close to her, as if it were a long lost child.
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