WASHINGTON — Macie Jo Wheelis, 91, has had a colorful life. A pioneering female aviator, she was one of the 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II. She was an avid golfer who played with the legendary Byron Nelson, a Dallas bowling champion and, for years, a West Texas racehorse breeder and owner.
Wheelis, who's now in a wheelchair and a little hard of hearing, has lost none of her spunk. One of 300 surviving WASPs, she proudly participated in a ceremony Wednesday at the Capitol that honored the women with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.
"This tops it off," the Weatherford, Texas, resident said of getting the award and the long-overdue recognition. "I wonder why it took so long."
The ceremony had to be moved from the Capitol Rotunda to the much larger Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, because so many WASPs and their families attended.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that more than 2,000 people were in the hall at what was "one of the largest crowds ever gathered in the Capitol."
"We acknowledge that for too long the proud service of the WASPs was not recognized in word or in deed," Pelosi said. "Today, we honor you as the heroes that you are."
Pelosi brought titters from the women when she mentioned a WASP song that said, "If you have a daughter, teach her to fly."
"We are all your daughters," Pelosi told the WASPs.
All in their 80s and 90s now, the women, a sea of gray and white hair, held their heads proudly, many in their blue WASP uniforms and some wearing the uniform berets. They joined in when an Air Force vocalist started singing the Air Force anthem: "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder."
The leadership of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the secretary of the Air Force and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, the author of "The Greatest Generation," a book about World War II, spoke about the women's remarkable lives and how much succeeding generations owe them.
Last summer, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced a bill to recognize the WASPs.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, one of the bill's sponsors, said, "They blazed a trail in the sky, opening the doors for women in aviation today."
The WASP program, born out of necessity because all the male pilots were needed for combat and transport duty, was made possible by the nation's love affair at the time with flying. Young female aviators, with flying opportunities limited to barnstorming and noncommercial service, suddenly were flying every type of military aircraft even as they rolled off the assembly lines, such as B-24 Liberator bombers, built in Fort Worth, Texas, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, made in Seattle, and B-29 Superfortresses, built in Renton, Wash., Wichita, Kan., and Marietta, Ga. They flew all 78 types of Army Air Corps aircraft. Thirty-eight of them died while flying.
The WASPs delivered the planes to military bases in the U.S. and Canada.
Although they were skilled fliers in many different aircraft, the women weren't always appreciated, nor welcome, for their efforts.
At some military bases, commanders resentful of the women — who were civilians — would give them poor accommodations and treat them as inferiors. Some WASPs said that the fueling staff sometimes would put sugar in their fuel tanks or leave them with tanks half empty, to watch them struggle back to base.
When the women were dismissed from service in 1944, their records were classified and sealed — denying them recognition for their accomplishments — in what many thought was an effort to obliterate them from history. It wasn't until the 1970s that their story re-emerged, when the Air Force announced in 1976 that the women who were graduating from the first co-ed class at the U.S. Air Force Academy would be the first American women to fly military aircraft.
Suddenly, the original "fly girls" came out of the woodwork, reminding a forgetful nation that they'd been there first.
The women, who had flying experience before their WASP training, did more than deliver military aircraft to bases. Some flew planes with targets trailing behind to give soldiers experience with anti-aircraft guns — these planes were known as "widow-makers" because of the number of deaths due to accidents — while others ferried supplies and did domestic flying for the military in order to free the male pilots for combat duty. They also conducted test flights on new bombers and checked out planes that had been in combat to make sure they were still airworthy.
In late 1944, however, when the war was nearing an end and their services no longer were needed, the women — who'd been forced to pay their own way to Sweetwater, Texas, for training — had to pay their own way home. Contract employees, they didn't receive any veterans benefits until 1977. The 38 WASPs who died in the line of duty weren't buried with military honors, and their fellow fliers had to take up collections for their funerals.
Still, they aren't a bitter bunch.
"All we ever ask is that our overlooked history be a missing chapter in the history of the Air Force, in the history of World War II and, most of all, in the history of America," said Deanie Parrish of Waco, Texas, who was chosen to speak for the WASPs at the ceremony and to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of all the female fliers.
The gold medal will be on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution; all the WASPs and their survivors received bronze replicas Wednesday. The U.S. Mint also will sell replicas as of March 26 at http://www.usmint.gov/catalog.
Starting with President George Washington, Congress has awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to 163 individuals or groups for their contributions to the country.
"We are having a great reunion," said Captola Johnson of Fair Oaks, Calif. She met two members of her graduating class from 1943. Johnson, 89, flew planes to Canada as a WASP.
Barbara Kennedy of Sacramento, Calif., had her own share of adventures during her service, including landing a plane that was on fire.
"Everybody was a patriot back then," Kennedy said. "We didn't do it for women's benefits."
(Sananda Sahoo contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington