Honoring WWII's "Fly Girls"

Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII. They are set to receive a Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday, March 10, 2010.
When old war pilots get together, somebody always calls it a gathering of eagles. Not today. This is a gathering of wasps.

That's WASP as in Women's Air Force Service Pilots, the first women to fly military aircraft, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

"I flew the B-17, The Fortress," said Dawn Seymour. "Can you imagine? Wonderful."

That's B-17, as in the plane that bombed Germany to its knees.

Seymour was one of 1,100 women who volunteered to fly during World War II. They never saw combat, but they few just about every other kind of mission.

"I flew gunners on their training missions to learn how to fire the 50-caliber machine guns from a moving platform to a moving target," Seymour said.

Now they are finally getting their moment in the sun.

On Wednesday, the women will receive the Congressional Gold Medal for stepping forward at what WASP historian Kate Landette says was a desperate time.

"By 1942, we were in a tough spot in the war, we needed all the personnel that we could get flying," Landette said. "The Air Force was fighting desperately to keep pilots in the sky."

Air crews were flying into the teeth of German defenses and going down almost as fast as they could be trained.

"So you bring women into the job," Landette said. "Just as we brought Rosie the Riveter into work in the factories riveting the airplanes together, you bring women in to fly the planes so the men can go fly combat overseas."

Except Rosie the Riveter became a national icon, while everyone forgot about the WASPs, except women like Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, who became the first female member of the Air Force Thunderbirds.

"When I made the decision to become an Air Force pilot, a lot of people told me that's not something you can do. But I was able to look to the story of the WASPs and realize that women can do it," Malachowski said.

The years have whittled them down to just a fragile few hundred, but talk to Dolores Lamb and you know she had the right stuff.

"I loved to fly and I was 18 and I just couldn't stand not being able to fly a military airplane," Lamb said.

But 38 of them were killed in crashes. Now we know who they were and what they did.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.