Senator Collins' weekly column:
Memorial Day is our most solemn national observance. It is a day of gratitude and remembrance. It is the day when America pays tribute to those who have given their lives in the defense of freedom.
Throughout our nation’s history, brave patriots have answered the call to duty when freedom is threatened. From large cities and small towns, they left the comfort and security of home not to seek personal glory but to serve our country. With quiet courage, devotion to duty, and compassion, they have written a noble and inspiring history.
One of the most inspiring and little-known chapters in this history was written more than six decades ago by volunteers who stepped forward during World War II to serve as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. This remarkable band of sisters filled a crucial role during our nation’s darkest hour. More than 1,100 women – homemakers, teachers, nurses, office workers, even a nun – served in the WASPs. Among them was Patricia Chadwick Ericson, a native of Houlton who now lives in Florida. Thirty-eight WASPs gave their lives in that service.
In the early days of World War II, America faced a severe shortage of combat pilots. That, in turn, led to a severe shortage of pilots to ferry aircraft from factories to training airfields and then to the front lines. Women pilots from across America paid their own way to Texas to undergo training and to earn their wings. They went on to fly more than 60 million miles in carrying out this vital mission.
In addition to their ferrying operations, the WASPs performed invaluable service as test pilots. In early 1943, many combat pilots were refusing to fly the new B-26 Marauder, designed to be a fast and highly maneuverable medium bomber. High accident rates, especially during takeoff, had earned this aircraft the nickname “Widowmaker.” Twenty-five WASPs volunteered for training to fly the B-26 and to prove its airworthiness. As a result of their efforts, the B-26, although always a challenging plane to fly, went on to achieve one of the lowest loss rates of any American aircraft during the war.
The WASPs’ service was unprecedented, courageous, and largely unnoticed. Although they received the same training as male combat pilots, these female pilots were denied full military status and were treated instead as civilian government employees. When the WASPs were disbanded in late 1944, they were sent home just as they came – at their own expense. Their service records were classified and sealed, and they received little acknowledgement of their service. The 38 who made the ultimate sacrifice were sent home in plain pine coffins at their families’ expenses. There were no gold stars for the grieving households.
The legacy of the WASPs goes beyond their wartime contributions. After the war, their service and sacrifice were crucial to the successful effort by Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith to secure full military status for women serving in uniform. In the late 1970s, more than 30 years after the WASPS made such a great contribution, women were finally permitted to receive combat pilot training in United States armed forces. Today, women fly every type of aircraft and mission, from fighter jets in combat to the space shuttle. The WASPs helped open the doors to women in the American military, allowing them to serve in nearly every capacity.
I am proud to be a cosponsor of legislation to award the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian award. It is essential that we remember the achievements of these brave women and honor their service.
In one sense, the story of the WASPs is unique. In a larger sense, it is story that runs throughout our nation’s history, the story of ordinary citizens – men and women – answering the call to duty, defending our freedom, and extending the blessings of freedom to others around the world. We remember them with our deepest gratitude.