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Obama awards WWII-era women pilots congressional medal

  • Story Highlights
  • "Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered country's call," Obama said
  • Honor comes 60 years after WASPs were first women to fly U.S. military aircraft
  • In 1977, Congress voted to make the WASPs eligible for veterans benefits
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama on Wednesday signed a measure awarding the 300 surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots from World War II the Congressional Gold Medal.

Women Airforce Service Pilot Elizabeth L. Gardner prepares for takeoff at a Texas airfield.

Jane Tedeschi when she was in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. The WASPs were formed in 1942.

The bill passed by both chambers of Congress bestows one of the nation's highest civilian honors on the group known as WASPs more than 60 years after they were the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft.

"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since," Obama said in a statement. "Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve."

The Women Airforce Service Pilots was formed in 1942 to create a corps of female pilots able to fill all types of flying jobs at home, freeing male military pilots to travel to the war front.

The 1,100 members had to pay their own way to Texas for months of rigorous training.

Once assigned to military bases, they did everything from participating in ground-to-air anti-aircraft practice; to towing targets for air-to-air gunnery practice with live ammunition; to flying drones; to conducting night exercises; to testing repaired aircraft before they were used in cadet training; to serving as instructors and transporting cargo and male pilots to embarkation points.

Overall, they flew more than 60 million miles in every type of aircraft -- from the PT-17 and AT-6 trainers, to fast attack planes like the A-24 and A-25 and heavy bombers such as B-17 and B-29s.

Paid $250 a month, the women were not officially part of the military -- receiving no benefits, no honors.

Jane Tedeschi, who graduated in May 1944, was sent to a Selma, Alabama, base that did engineering work.

"We did whatever they asked us," she recalled in a CNN interview. "You knew enough about flying you could adapt. ... Sometimes it was a little tougher."

While the work was technically noncombat, it could be dangerous. Thirty-eight of the women pilots were killed.

As the war was winding down in December 1944, the program was closed with no recognition from the government and not much help for the women who served.

They went off to restart their prewar lives, but without getting any of the help received by male veterans.

Several of the women, however, have said they were not bitter since the only reason they had signed up was to do their part for the country.

They noted they were just like the thousands of other women who also learned new skills and went to work in the factories to replace male workers sent off to war.

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"We were proud of what we did, and the war was over. It was time to get on," Tedeschi said. Video Watch Tedeschi recall WWII »

But many Americans were not aware of their efforts. The WASP records were sealed for more than 30 years. In 1977, Congress voted to make the WASPs eligible for veterans benefits.

All About World War IIBoeing B-29 SuperfortressSelma (Alabama)

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