During World War II more than 1,000 of them flew military planes a total of more than 60 million miles. They ferried fighter and bomber planes to points of embarkation, towed targets for combat pilots to fire at and helped train other pilots. Thirty-eight of them were killed while on active duty.
They were all women and they belonged to the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Though they were subject to military discipline and lived in military barracks, they got smaller travel allowances than men doing the same job. They had been promised military commissions, but were abruptly disbanded after the war so that they would not take jobs away from men.
Even now they are not eligible for military benefits.
"We just didn't question things that much" during the war, Margaret Boylan, a former WASP who is now a branch chief for the Federal Aviation Administration, said recently. "We were so young, and we expected to be made part of the military all along."
"We were so pleased, so delighted, to have this chance to fly these aircraft," she said.
Now times have changed and the collective consciousness of the WASP has been raised. Boylan and many among the estimated 850 WASPs still living are lobbying Congress for veterans' benefits.
Their leading champion on Capitol Hill is Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who flew with WASP ferry pilots during the war. He says their performance was equal to or better than that of their male counterparts.
Goldwater is sponsoring legislation in the Senate that would entitle the women to veterans' benefits from the date of enactment. Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) and Rep. James Quillen (R-Tenn.) have introduced similar bills in the House.
The Veterans Administration and some veterans' groups have opposed past efforts to extend benefits to WASP alumnae, on the grounds that they would then have to grant similar privileges to other civilian groups who served under military jurisdiction during war time, such as the Merchant Marine.
The WASPs feel that their case is unique, and this year, better prepared than ever, they feel optimistic about their ability to convince Congress.
In an office on I Street NW not far from the White House, WASPs, aided informally by the son of the general who organized them in 1942, are collecting paper ammunition for their mission. This includes documentation for their claims that they operated under military discipline, rules and regulations, lived in military barracks and ate Army food, went through officers training, got low military-type pay and no insurance, and earned military decorations - all with the understanding that they would be militarized and commissioned as second lieutenants.
During the WASP's brief existence, between September, 1942, and December, 1944, some 25,000 women applied for fewer than 2,000 slots as WASP trainees. Those who were accepted earned $150 a month during training, and the 1,074 who graduated earned $250 a month thereafter. Out of this they paid for, among other things, their room and board.
Wearing baggy men's GI uniforms, which they called "zoot suits," they ferried fighters to points of embarkation in the U.S. and Canada and flight-tested aircraft and performed other duties in order to free male pilots for combat.
They plan to show Congress that when a male and female pilot were killed in the same air crash, the male received full military honors and benefits, while the female copilot and her family received nothing.
Penny Houghton, a former WASP, now the mother of three and a court reporter in the District Superior Court, recalls that once after a classmate was killed in a crash during training, "the other girls had to pass the hat to collect money to ship the body home."
As an 18-year-old WASP, Houghton was an engineering test pilot for training craft.
"Some of the girls were so little that they had to put pillows behind them to reach the pedals," she recalled recently.
Penny Houghton's current WASP duties include alerting members in other states to come here for the Congressional hearings when the dates are set. WASP alumnae include lawyers, scientists, employees of aircraft companies and housewives, many of them grandmothers.
So far, the more military rhetoric associated with recent women's rights issues has not been a part of the WASP style. They favor a softer "sting."
"Oh, it was (sex) discrimination, but we're going to try not to hit at that point. It's used so much," said Mrs. Joseph Haydu of Palm Beach Gardens, mother of three and current president of the WASP alumnae.
A WASP ferry pilot, she recalled that the daily travel expense allowances were $7 for males and $6 for females delivering aircraft. "Did we get our meals for less? Did we pay less for our rooms? It's little things like that show discrimination."
The FAA's Boylan was 21 when she entered the WASP in 1942. She ferried planes, mostly fighters, to bases in the U.S. and Canada. "We worked seven days a week, sun-up to sun-down."
In some instances, the women were used as psychological goads for the men, she said. "Some men were refusing to fly certain planes - P-39s, B-26s - because they said they had a lot of bugs and were killing people. They had us fly the planes and that way they shamed the men into flying them."
The unfamiliar sight of female pilots created a stir sometimes. For instance, Boylan recalled, "Sometimes we'd get on a commercial flight (returning from a ferry run) with our uniforms and our parachutes on and othr passengers would start getting off. They wanted to know, 'Why don't WE have parachutes?'"
Congress first denied the WASP military status in 1944, when the House defeated by 19 votes a bill that had been approved by the Armed Services (then called Military Affairs) committee and endorsed by the Secretary of War, the Army chief of staff and the commander of the Army air forces.
The bill failed largely because of pressure from civilian male pilots who had, as one WASP put it, "sat out the war in higher paying jobs training pilots for the military; as those of jobs were phased out, they were afraid they would be drafted as foot soldiers. They wanted our flying jobs in order to avoid that."
Gen H. H. (Hap) Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army air forces and organizer of the WASP, told the women when they were disbanded: "You have freed male pilots for other work . . . The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing, instead of releasing, our young men."
Almost three decades later, 1972, some of the WASP alumnae held a reunion of Avenger Field, in Sweetwater, Tex., the old Wasp training field. This and subsequent get-togethers put the women, as Boylan said, "back in touch and in action."
They had invited Col. Bruce Arnold (U.S. Air Force, retired), son of their late "founder," to that 1972 reunion.
"There was a parade, and a lots of drinking and hell-raising." Arnold said, "and in a weak moment, after three martinis, I volunteered" to help them take on the Congress.
"Seriously, I felt responsible, in a way," he added. "I wanted to finish up some 30-year-old business my old man didn't have a chance to finish."
Now his I Street office has become a base of operations for the WASP, the worktables and some floor space littered with newspaper articles from several states, collected to show public interest in the WASP cause, and with other WASP documents. Arnold emphasizes that he is just an "unpaid, concerned citizen."
Since the WASP re-activated their Capitoll Hill crusade, several attempts to pass legislation in their behalf have failed. The group credits Goldwater with securing the Congressional commitment to hold hearings on the matter.
Goldwater is "very hopeful of the success of the bill," according to his legislative aide. "The ladies will make tremendous witnesses."
A spokesman for the Veterans Administration did not rule out the possibility that, with the change of administration, the agency might soften in its opposition to extending benefits to the WASP members, but he said there would be no comment either way until the hearings.
Meanwhile, Arnold said, "The women do a lot of 'Hanger-flying' when they get together, tell each other lies about what they did during the war, just like men do. Only I think they do it better than men."