Washington (CNN) -- Some 65 years after their service, a group of former civilian women pilots whose unheralded work was key to helping the U.S. effort in World War II were honored Wednesday with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Fewer than 300 Women Airforce Service Pilots are still alive. About 175 of them, along with thousands of family members, traveled to Washington for the ceremony at the Capitol.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the event had one of the largest crowds ever gathered inside the Capitol.
Deanie Parrish, a WASP who joined in 1943 at the age of 21, thanked members of Congress, those in attendance and members of the media.
"I believe this is the day that when the people of America no longer hesitate in answering, 'Do you know who the WASPs are?'" she said to the crowd filled with old and young alike. "It's because of the media that that will happen."
Parrish said that it "was both a privilege and an honor to serve our country during some of the darkest days of World War II."
The Women Airforce Service Pilots was born in 1942 to create a corps of female pilots able to fill all types of flying jobs at home, thus freeing male military pilots to travel to the front.
As part of the commemoration, the former pilots attended a wreath-laying ceremony Tuesday at the Air Force Memorial just outside Washington to remember their colleagues killed in the line of duty.
With only about a quarter of the former 1,102 WASPs surviving and all in their late 80s or older, Rep. Susan Davis, D-California; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland; and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, pushed a bill through Congress to honor these women by awarding them the medal, given as an expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, according to the House of Representatives' Office of the Clerk.
"Thank you for your remarkable service and soaring patriotism," Davis said. "Your love of flying and your desire to serve your country are testaments to your outstanding heroism."
Ros-Lehtinen added that the WASPs' recognition is long overdue.
"The WASPs served our country without hesitation and with no expectation of recognition," she said. "We would be remiss to not honor a cadre of women who paved the way for future generations of women in the military, including my daughter-in-law."
The congresswomen were flanked on stage by members of the House and Senate leadership, administration officials, as well as current military women.
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," spoke at the gathering, saying the women being honored "remind us today of all that is great within us."
Jane Tedeschi, who spoke to CNN last week, said being honored is "wonderful," and that it's especially meaningful because "so many of us are still alive to get this honor."
"I think that this is important. It is hopefully something that people will remember," Tedeschi said. "It is another thing to honor the women who lost their lives at that time and of course what it did to persuade people that women could do this."
Longtime dream of flight
From the time she was about 8, Tedeschi wanted to fly.
"[Charles] Lindbergh was flying across the Atlantic, and a lot of other people were flying air races and things like that." she said, "It was very romantic."
Flight was still relatively new in the 1920s and 1930s, and female pilots were few. But Tedeschi was determined.
In 1941, she found a childhood friend who taught flying and started taking lessons. After the friend was sent off to war and the airport near her home in Bethesda, Maryland, was closed to private flying, she traveled about 40 miles to Frederick and spent nights on the floor of a farmhouse to continue her lessons.
Around the same time, Parrish was working in a bank in Avon Park, Florida, and kept seeing aviation students who were attending a flying school there.
"I asked an instructor 'Why can't I learn to fly?' and he didn't have an answer ... so I decided to find out for myself," she told CNN in an earlier interview.
She found an instructor and started taking lessons.
These two women were not only fulfilling a personal dream. Along with 1,100 other women, they would become an instrumental part of the war effort during World War II, becoming the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft.
In the days after the outbreak of the war, Jacqueline Cochran, one of the country's leading female pilots at the time, went to a key general to argue that women would be just as capable pilots as men if they were given the same training.
She won the argument, and the program was launched.
"Everybody was doing something," Parrish said. "I wanted to do something for my country."
Some 25,000 women pilots applied, and 1,830 were accepted. They had to pay their own way to Texas for 21 to 27 weeks of rigorous training, for which they received less pay than the male cadets in the same program, Parrish said.
Just short of requirements
Candidates had to be at least 21 and at least 5 feet, one-half inch tall.
When Tedeschi underwent a physical, she was told her height was only 5 feet.
"I frowned," she recalled. "I said 'I need that half-inch,' so he wrote it down." She was in.
Eventually the women who completed the program were assigned to one of 120 bases across the country to start their missions.
Depending on the base, they participated in a range of activities:
• Ground-to-air anti-aircraft practice.
• Towing targets for air-to-air gunnery practice with live ammunition.
• Flying drones and conducting night exercises.
• Testing repaired aircraft before they were used in cadet training.
• Serving as instructors.
• Transporting cargo and male pilots to embarkation points.
"We were still civilians. All of our training was to make [Army] Air Corps pilots," Tedeschi said.
They flew more than 60 million miles in every type of aircraft -- from the PT-17 and AT-6 trainers, the fastest attack planes such as the A-24 and A-25 or heavy bombers such as B-17s or B-29s.
Paid $250 a month, the women were not officially part of the military. They received no benefits, no honors.
Eventually, Parrish was sent to Florida, where she flew a B-26 bomber for air-to-air target practice, training gunners for combat.
Tedeschi, who graduated in May 1944, was sent to a Selma, Alabama, base that did more 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."
For instance, she would take planes up after repair. That could involve acrobatic work, "which, of course, we liked to do." She could also be called to do night flying.
While the work was technically noncombat, it could be dangerous.
Thirty-eight of the pilots were killed. Parrish recalled the military would not allow the flag to be put on a colleague's coffin.
"It still bothers me," she told CNN.
End of the program
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.
"You got home the best way you could," Parrish said. "I paid my own way home."
Several of the women, however, said they were not bitter since the only reason they had signed up was to do their part for the country, pointing out that 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.
"We were proud of what we did, and the war was over. It was time to get on," Tedeschi said.
But many Americans were not aware of their efforts, and that has bothered them. The WASP records were sealed for more than 30 years. In 1977, Congress voted to make them eligible for veterans' benefits.
"I didn't care for veteran status, but now I could have a flag on my coffin ... that is important to me," Parrish said.
Parrish married a pilot after the war. She and her daughter, Nancy, for over a decade have documented the work of the WASPs and worked to gain national attention for their work. Read more about the WASPs at the Wings Across America Web site.
While some of the WASPs say the medal itself is a nice gesture, they hope the publicity will teach younger generations about their accomplishments and remind some still skeptical men just how capable women are.
"Millions of Americans will learn about the history of these women. I think that is so important," Parrish said.