​Remembering the WASPs: Women who were aviation trailblazers

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day the Allies invaded Normandy and opened a Western front in World War II. Chances are the troops would have faced an even tougher fight if not for the special pilots who'd been spreading their wings in the run-up to the attack. Stephanie Riggs has their story:

On June 6th, 1944, as Allied troops fought and died on the beaches of Normandy, high in the skies above the fray, thousands of U.S. warplanes lent vital support.

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CBS News
And those planes were there, in part, thanks to the efforts of a little-known band of brave women far from the front lines. Women like Lucille Wise (left), who last flew in December 1944: "It was hard to give up. I loved to fly!"

At 93, Wise is one of the few left to tell their stories.

"I loved to fly, [and] I also wanted to help in the war effort," she told Riggs. "Everyone was so patriotic."

In 1942 the U.S. built thousands of planes in war factories each month. Those planes needed to be delivered to air bases, but pilots were in short supply.

And so in the summer of 1943, a call went out for women to do the flying.

Wise was accepted in May 1943 (one of the earlier classes) and trained in Sweetwater, Texas.

Twenty-five thousand women applied, and 1,100 were chosen as Women Airforce Service Pilots - WASPs.

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During World War II, Dr. Dora Dougherty Strother (top), a member of the WASPs, flew a wide variety of missions, including reliability tests of the B-29 Superfortress bomber.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

"We were trained the military way, just like the male cadets were trained," said Wise. "We lived in barracks, we slept on metal cots, and we learned to march, and we were under military discipline, under demerits -- we had to make our beds a certain way, and we had inspections. It was very stressful because we had to meet the requirements."

Wise said the women proved they could fly those planes just as well as the men could, "and we were really proud women."

The WASPs proved themselves again and again, logging more than 60 million miles in more than 12,000 aircraft: the B-17s, B-24s, and P-51 Mustangs that helped win the war.

But while other women involved in the war effort -- the "Rosie the Riveters" and their like -- lived on in our popular culture, after the war the WASPs were largely forgotten.

"I think every American should be aware of what these women sacrificed and did during World War II," said filmmaker Jill Bond. "It was during a time when women were not able to have careers and do things outside of their traditional roles, and this was an opportunity to be adventurous, to serve their country, and they did it in such a graceful and beautiful way."

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