Published online and in print by Denton Live on June 9, 2017
“You don’t tell a WASP ‘no.’ You don’t tell their family ‘no.’”
So says Kimberly Johnson, director of special collections at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) about a special group of women warriors and their very unique challenges.
Decades before female pilots were officially allowed in the military, there were Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), civilians who left their homes and ordinary lives to serve their country during World War II, becoming the first women to fly for the United States military.
Because they were classified as civilians working with the United States Army Air Forces, the 38 women killed during their service received no proper military burials, nor were they honored for their courageous actions.
After the WASP program disbanded in December 1944, these pilots went unrecognized by the United States government. WASPs were not granted any benefits awarded to their counterpart servicemen, nor were they given medals acknowledging their combat duty.
In 1976, when the Air Force officially allowed women to join as pilots, the policy change for enlisting the nation’s supposed “very first” group of female military pilots was announced as “historic.” The former WASPs and their families realized that the government was still overlooking their combat service. They were fading from U.S. military history.
Now, TWU is honoring these women, promoting their achievements and preserving their stories in an extensive WASP archive. The collection includes more than one million photographs, documents, artifacts and uniforms from their time serving in World War II and their lives after it was over.
The WASP exhibit, housed in the TWU library, displays only a portion of the artifacts such as uniforms, photographs and a replica gold medal. The virtual collection on the TWU library website features nearly 15,000 scans of original documents, military records and additional artifacts. The rest of the collection is stored in the university’s archives, where visitors can request to see specific items. In total, TWU has the largest collection in the world of WASP memorabilia housed under one roof.
Still, the WASPs and their families never stopped fighting to be rightfully recognized as the first women pilots in United States military history and to be remembered and honored alongside other World War II veterans.
That acknowledgement finally came in 1977 when WASPs were officially recognized as military veterans by the United States government. But public acknowledgement of their wartime deeds wouldn’t come until more than 30 years later in 2009, when the Obama Administration awarded the WASPs Congress’ highest accolade of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions: the Congressional Gold Medal.
The WASP story and their ongoing struggles still live on today. In March 2015, their burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery, which was only granted to them in 2002, were rescinded.
Elaine Harmon’s final wish was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. When her family discovered that her burial rights were rescinded a month before her death, they resolved to get it changed back in order to fulfill her wish. Congressional review took more than a year after Elaine’s death before she was finally granted permission to be buried at Arlington. In September 2016, she was finally laid to rest with full military honors.
Out of the 1,074 women who became WASPs, only 84 are still alive. The youngest living WASP will be 93 years old, while the oldest is 101. The former oldest WASP member passed away in February 2017 at age 106.
The WASP collection found its home at TWU in 1992. Its archivists not only care for the documents, but also help bring awareness about these heroes. And it’s already working. In 2013, filmmaker Jill Bond produced an award-winning documentary on these brave ladies.
“We had to be advocates for their story, for why it’s so important that their story be told – and be the instrument to do that,” Kimberly says.
TWU’s collection for the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II takes you back in time and into the lives of these courageous women. It reminds us of how much these pilots did for our country at a time when women weren’t seen as capable enough to do a “man’s job.”
“When it comes to telling the story, it will never be done,” Kimberly says, “We’ll always have the next generation to tell the story to.”