August 2, 2013 - For all the stories being told as five former Women Airforce Service Pilots gathered at the EAA AirVenture Museum on Thursday, the biggest story was the empty chairs.
"The two empty chairs are for Dot Lewis and Dawn Seymour, who were with us here last year," said WASP Jean McCreery. "In the last six months, we have lost 25 WASPs. There are less than 200 of us left. In the next five years, we will all be gone. All I ask of you," she said as she glanced around the room, "is don't forget us."
If the crowd's reaction was any indication, they won't forget.
2013 is the 70th anniversary of the WASP program, and the 20th year these pioneering women aviators have come to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh to tell their stories.
But the group is aging. Florence Elion Mascott is the baby of the group at 88. McCreery is 89, Shutsy Reynolds is 90, Marty Wyall is 91, and Bernice "Bee" Haydu is 92 3/4.
Historian Kate Landdeck, who has worked with the WASP at AirVenture for 17 years, said the WASP's job was to tow targets and ferry planes and people domestically, freeing up male pilots to go overseas. WASP flew 57 million miles and had an accident rate comparable to the men before the program was deactivated on December 20, 1944.
Wyall was in the last WASP class in 1944. She had wanted to apply earlier, but her father insisted she finish school first.
But she soon questioned if her decision was the right one. "I got air sick and couldn't stay up for one hour," she recalled. "I started lessons in May, and one day in August my instructor said if I could stay up one hour, I could solo."
The very next day she stayed up one hour, only because her instructor forgot to bring his cigars with him. After 16 hours in dual instruction, she had finally figured out why she was getting sick.
"It was his cigars," she said. "It wasn't the flying at all."
Haydu had a brother who was a little older and smarter than she has. So he went to college, and she felt sorry for herself, she said.
But finally Haydu decided it was time to do something. So she took a night aviation course, preparing her to become a private pilot. When she heard about the WASP program, she applied.
"We had to pay our own way out there because the program was considered experimental; they didn't know if women could handle the big military airplanes. But we had to follow the military life."
Their military regimen included getting up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at 10 p.m. There were daily calisthenics and drills.
Haydu recalled being issued men's overalls in three sizes. "Large, larger, or largest," she said.
Reynolds declared to her parents when she was 7 that she was going to learn to fly. "By 18, I had my private pilot's license and figured I had reached all my life's ambitions. Then I joined the WASPs."
She remembered being the first to wear the Air Force blue uniforms; it included no rank, just insignia.
"We were stopped by the MPs for impersonating officers," she said. "We were stopped by civilians who wanted to know if we were replacing the doorman at the local hotel."
When traveling to Oklahoma as a group, people thought they were German prisoners of war on their way to prison camp. "But the next morning, our cover story was that we were a baseball team. People would come up to us at breakfast and say, 'It's nice you are enjoying yourself as a baseball player, but you do know a war is going on.'"
They were never formally militarized and it was 1977 before legislation was passed awarding the WASP veterans status. "For the 38 WASPs killed, their parents had to pay for the funeral," Wyall said. "We would take up a collection to send with the body to the home."
It was 2009 before President Obama signed legislation awarding the WASP the highest civilian honor - the Congressional Gold Medal. In March 2010, more than 250 surviving WASP were on hand for the ceremony, including Haydu, who had lobbied hard decades earlier to get the group veterans status.
She recalled: "I was first in line and was told President Obama would likely be sitting in his desk when the door opened," she says. "The door opened and it was the president. All I could say was, 'I know you!'"
The group is hoping for one more honor, however. They have been invited to participate in the Tournament of Roses parade and they've selected a float builder. Now they just need money to pay for it. To donate or learn more, go to www.WASPFloat.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.