They were the Women Airforce Service Pilots. WASPs.
Their job during World War II was to ferry aircraft, test planes and tow targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice, freeing up male pilots for combat overseas.
Bradenton resident Leonora “Nonie” Anderson was one of those WASPs.
“I had a feeling all along they were going to need women pilots,” she told the Bradenton Herald in 2002.
There are an estimated 300 survivors of the original 1,830 WASPs, and they were invited to Washington on Wednesday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the WASPs, now in their late 80s and early 90s, they have gone unrecognized for too long.
“We are all your daughters,” she said at the ceremony. “You taught us how to fly.”
The WASPs were disbanded in 1944, had to pay their bus fare home and didn’t receive GI benefits.
They were finally given veteran status in 1977.
“We each served our country without any expectations of recognition or glory,” WASP Deanie Parrish told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “We did it because our country needed us.”
Anderson was studying to be a doctor before the war, but took flying lessons on weekends.
Nearly 25,000 women applied to be WASPs, but only 1,830 made it.
Anderson remembers going to her first training class in Sweetwater, Texas, and being asked if she was lost.
“Gentlemen, I have just joined your group,” she said.
Anderson’s first assignment was in Merced, Calif., flying planes reconditioned from combat damage.
“It took one hour to test a plane and I flew 10 hours a day,” she said. “I did everything I could to tear off the wings.”
After the WASPs disbanded, Anderson became an aviation writer.
She also retired as an Air Force lieutenant colonel after 28 years in the reserves.
Recalling her days as a WASP test pilot, Anderson said, “I never had a man fly with me more than once.
“One said to me after we landed, ‘Ma’am, my altimeter read below ground level.’ ”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at (941) 745-7055.