A group of women who fought to become America's first military pilots, and who were later barred from military and commercial cockpits, Wednesday received the highest civilian tribute bestowed by Congress.
About 200 veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, including two from Long Island, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Eleanor Faust, 86, a member of the original class of WASP cadets, said the award was a long-overdue recognition of the impact the group made in ending prohibitions against women.
"It was something we all hoped for, that we would get this one day," said Faust, of Orient. "Nobody knew who we were or what we did. It was a pioneering thing, the first women who ever flew military aircraft. It eventually led to the women in the Air Force that we have now."
The Women Airforce Service Pilots was organized in 1943, when a shortage of male pilots persuaded the Army to create a civilian unit of women to handle non-combat flight missions. They ferried aircraft from factories to military airfields and towed practice drones.
Although 38 unit members were killed in service, they were not considered part of the military, and were denied pay and benefits given men. When their unit was disbanded in 1944, many even had to pay their own bus fare home from Texas. They were granted veteran status in 1977.
"They were called the guinea pigs because so much hinged on their performance," said Julia Lauria-Blum, who attended the ceremony representing WASP pilot Marjorie M. Gray. Gray, 95, died two years ago at a Stony Brook nursing home.
Blum is the curator of an exhibit commemorating the WASPs at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale. Blum said of the 1,100 women who were members of the WASPs, 250 are still alive. They include Long Islanders Faust and Margaret Gilman, of Garden City, who also traveled to Washington to attend.
Sass Levine, 57, of Old Westbury, attended the ceremony in memory of her mother, Frances Laraway, who died in 1990. She said her mother would have been humbled by the honor. "I think these women were similar in that they were brave, bold and cocky, but they were also humble," Levine said. "She just felt she had done the job she had chosen to do, and she did it with pride."