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Wartime pilots get gold

The forgotten military pilots were finally remembered when a Congressional gold medal was given to the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II on March 10.

On hand to receive it were about 200 women who served. They are now mostly in their late 80s and early 90s.

Some came in wheelchairs and many sported dark blue uniforms. As a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,’’ one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.

“Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly,’’ said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the pilots went unrecognized for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the U.S. military.

In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, of Waco, Texas, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.

“We did it because our country needed us,’’ Parrish said.

WASP Ty Hughes Killen, 85, of Lancaster, Calif., put it more simply: “We’re a bunch of tough old ladies,’’ she said in an interview.

Thirty-eight WASPS were killed in service in World War II. But they were long considered civilians, not members of the military.

They were only afforded veteran status in 1977 after a long fight. It’s estimated that about 300 of the more than 1,000 WASPs are still alive.

The gold medals were presented at a special ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C A day earlier, the women participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Memorial.

Collectors could buy 3-inch and 1.5-inch bronze reproductions of the medal for $38 and $3.75, respectively, starting March 26, on the U.S. Mint Web site at www.usmint.gov/catalog.

They can also be ordered by telephoning (800) USA-MINT (872-6468).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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