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Breaking Barriers: WASPs open doors for future generations

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Not many people would be interested in piloting an aircraft known to be among the Air Force's most difficult to fly. Even fewer would desire to fly the twin-engine bomber while gunners practice firing live ammunition at a target being towed from the plane's tail. 

But, as a B-26 tow target Women Airforce Service Pilot, Deanie Parrish did exactly that - and she did it during a time when women were expected to stay in the kitchen.

Today, she confidently proclaims in her charming 94-year-old voice, "I thought if a guy could do it, so could I." In one word she passionately describes her first air-to-air tow target mission as "exciting!"

She took a few bullets to the tail on one of those missions. When she landed and got out of her plane, the petite blonde's feet never hit the ground as she marched right up to B-24 pilot Lt. Bill Parrish's face to voice her dissatisfaction with his gunnery. 

Ironically she went on to marry that lieutenant after the war despite his rather unusual method of capturing her attention.

Deanie is one of the 1,074 WASPs who graduated from the pilot training program out of 25,000 who applied. They flew 77 different aircraft 60,000,000 miles out of 126 bases across the U.S. during World War II. 

The brave pioneers proved they could fly almost any aircraft in America's Air Force. Their flights included far more than tow target missions. They ferried planes from factories to air bases and points of embarkation. Some became test and drone pilots. They also served as instrument instructors for the Eastern Flying Training Command. Their contributions freed up desperately needed male pilots to fly combat missions overseas.

Their training program was the same as that of male cadets. They served honorably without complaining even though their salaries, benefits and expense reimbursements were not equal to that of their male counterparts. They graciously accepted whatever living accommodations that were offered to them. A total of 38 courageous WASPs died in service - 11 in training and 27 during missions.

After WASPs were ceremoniously disbanded Dec. 20, 1944, their records were classified and kept sealed. For that reason they weren't widely written about in books, and the fact they were the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft was not well known. It seemed the country they served so faithfully in its' time of need had practically forgotten about them.

When the Air Force announced that it would begin to accept women for pilot training in the mid-1970s, some media outlets reported it as if this would be the first time women would fly military aircraft. The WASPs immediately rose up to demand their well-deserved recognition for their service.

"We were all furious," recalls Bernice Haydu, a WASP who flew personnel all over the country as a utility pilot during the war. She also flew test flights for recently repaired aircraft.  "So many people had never heard of us and didn't realize that there were women pilots in World War II," she said.

The women organized and went to Washington D.C. with Sen. Barry Goldwater, a World War II veteran who had commanded the WASPs in his squadron, and Bruce Arnold who was the son of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold. With the help of those two men, the long-overlooked trailblazers finally gained recognition when Congress approved that WASPs should be given Veteran status. The legislation was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on Nov. 23, 1977 - 33 years after the war had ended.

"It took a few years but it finally came to fruition, which was great," said Haydu. "We were all extremely proud."

In 2009 they received further recognition for their greatly needed service when President Barrack Obama signed legislation awarding WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. In March 2010, over 200 of the female aviators attended the signing ceremony on Capitol Hill.

The endeavor to ensure that the WASP legacy continues to inspire future generations carries on today. 

In 1996 Deanie's daughter Nancy Parrish launched the popular website "WASP on the WEB" using pages from her mom's scrapbook. The website now hosts more than 2,000 pages of information, videos, photos, games, records and resources. 

Nancy was also the visionary, creator and founding executive director of the national WASP World War II Museum, Inc. at Avenger Airfield, Sweetwater, Texas, which opened its doors May 2005. The museum seeks to educate and inspire others with the story of the WASP.

"Their story is not just about history or flying," Nancy explains. "It's about courage, honor, patriotism, determination and excellence," she continues. "They are women of great substance and character. When you meet one you are changed by them, you are inspired by them."