It was an elite unit in World War II. Only 1 in 25 applicants passed the rigorous training to become a WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots. Over the course of the war, they flew millions of miles on the homefront. Most of these miles were flown ferrying planes from factories to training or shipping areas. However, there were a variety of duties including cargo transport, towing targets for practice missions, and even training male pilots.
While they weren't combat missions, flying World War II-era craft was inherently risky. In 2010, NPR talked with Margaret Phelan Taylor about her experience flying a plane cross country. When the plane started to smoke, she stuck with it fearing her parachute, sized for a man, was too big to do the job properly.
When asked whether she was scared, she said, "No. I was never scared. My husband used to say, "It's pretty hard to scare you.'" The smoke was coming from a burned out instrument and eventually cleared allowing her to complete the flight.
While Taylor survived her ordeal, 38 pilots gave their lives serving the WASPs. Sadly, their contributions weren't properly recognized for many years. Congress and the military debated about whether women in the program should be formally inducted into the military. Eventually, the program was shut down and records were sealed for decades.
Finally, in 1977, the WASPs were recognized by Congress as veterans and awarded the World War II Victory Medal for their contributions. In 2009, Congress and the President awarded WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal and recognized 300 surviving members at a Capitol Hill ceremony.
In the past, our nation has struggled to recognize the significant achievements of women and minority members of the military. It is important that we do not forget the incredible contributions of Americans who were sadly ignored by the military of their day. Where we can, we should work to correct past injustices.
One hundred and fifty years ago, our nation was embroiled in a civil war that was fundamentally about whether slavery should be allowed in the United States. Despite the lofty words of our founding documents, some men and women were treated far from equal. They were treated as property and regarded as not worthy of constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Sadly, even when African Americans proved their worth fighting for Union forces, their contributions were minimized and they were denied promotions and awards.
Milton Holland was a free African American from Ohio. While he tried to enlist at the beginning of the war in 1861, he was turned away along with many other minority men who wanted to serve. By 1863, the Union army started to allow African Americans to serve and Holland joined the Fifth U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment.
In 1864, at Chapin's Farm outside Petersburg, Virginia, his unit fought a brutal battle. All the white officers were wounded or killed and Holland took over command of the company.
He led the company to victory. A feat that would be recognized with the Medal of Honor and with a battlefield promotion to captain. But, when the U.S. War Department discovered that an African American had been promoted to an officer, they rescinded the promotion.
Clearly, Holland had proved that he could lead men, but prejudicial regulations, enforced by men far from the battlefield, denied the truth. He was retired from the Army as a first sergeant. At first he resumed his trade as a shoemaker, but he was destined for more.
He became a clerk at the U.S. Treasury, received a law degree from Harvard, and practiced in Washington, D.C. Despite his heroic service and achievements, he had to fight to get his military pension.
I recently offered my support to a bipartisan bill that would restore the captain's commission that Holland justifiably earned. It is sad that it has taken nearly 150 years to correct this wrong.
As we mark Veterans Day this year, I hope we think about the many Americans whose contributions were overlooked in their own day. We can't change the past, but we can correct the record and make sure future generations of Americans don't forget important veterans.