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Fantasy Of Flight Honors The Courageous Women Of WWII

WASP -- Women Airforce Service Pilots -- and Real-Life "Dimpler" Make Rare Appearance at Guest Symposium In March

While the women of WWII are credited as being the first to shatter the glass ceiling, it wasn't an easy ride. Barry Smith and other women of her time recall that although they were eager to serve, the men in the military weren't quite as ready for the change.

On March 4 and 5, in honor of Women's History Month, the public will have the rare opportunity to meet and hear firsthand from some of these women who during WWII took jobs traditionally held by men and the unique consequences that today would be unheard of.  The two-day forum, called "Breaking all Barriers," will feature two of the original WASP--Women Airforce Service Pilots--the first women to pilot U.S. military aircraft, as well as a real-life "Rosie the Riveter," who took a grueling factory job to support the war effort overseas.
 
One of the only attractions in the country to bring together legendary WWII heroes to share their firsthand accounts, Fantasy of Flight recently expanded on its highly popular "Living History Symposium Series" that has introduced aviation heroes to Fantasy of Flight guests for the past two years. "Legends & Legacies" combines WWII aviation heroes, such as the WASP - who offer a glimpse of what it was like to fly in the heyday of aviation as they protected their country - with their families, who have their own unique insights to share. The series also includes heroes from WWII who served on the ground protecting and supporting the men and women in flight. Each symposium features several open-forum/question-and-answer sessions, followed by meet-and-greet/autograph signing sessions.


Betty "Wall" Strofus, USAF Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz

WASP Barry Vincent Smith, returning to Fantasy of Flight for a second time, and Elizabeth "Betty" Wall Strohfus, making her first Fantasy of Flight appearance, will recount what it was like to leave their homes and jobs at the height of WWII to serve their country as the first American women to fly for the U.S. military. When every available American male pilot was absorbed into combat overseas, dangerous non-combat flight duty still required pilots stateside for ferrying, testing, dragging targets and liaison - tasks hardly suited for the inexperienced or the faint of heart. The WASP bravely stepped forward to fill that void and aid in the war effort.
 
Last year, hundreds of the original WASP met on Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award a civilian can receive from the United States Congress, which is bestowed only upon those who have performed an outstanding act of service for their country. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in July 2009 to grant the WASP this great honor.
 


WASP Congressional Gold Medal

Only 1,830 of the 25,000 applicants were accepted into the WASP program, and 1,074 of those women earned their silver WASP wings. Their indomitable founder, Jackie Cochran, became the first civilian to receive the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal for her vision and leadership of the WASP program.
 
"Breaking all Barriers" will also feature Opal Campbell, who worked a factory job as a "dimpler" to support the war effort. The dainty and diminutive Campbell was one of thousands of women who left the comfort of their homes to take on tough jobs in factories that produced munitions and war supplies. This social movement was largely driven by "Rosie the Riveter," a 1942 song which was later made into a propaganda campaign by the U.S. Government to encourage women to join the workforce. It is estimated that by 1944, 20 million women were working, a 57 percent increase from 1940.
 
The symposium will bring to life the experiences of Smith, Strohfus and Campbell through open-forum/question-and-answer sessions as well as permanent and semi-permanent exhibits and real aircraft. Fantasy of Flight's WASP exhibition, which includes aircraft as well as four separate bays that feature historical, anecdotal, and inspirational newsreel footage, original photos, and storytelling panels from the 1940s and today, will serve as the backdrop for historic appearances from the real pilots.
 
"Talk about shattering the glass ceiling!" said Kermit Weeks, founder and creator of Fantasy of Flight. "When these brave women stepped forward to become pilots and work outside their homes, they gave women for generations to come the permission to dream big."

Barry Vincent Smith was 21 years old, living with her parents in Chittenango, N.Y., when her brother, who had recently enlisted in the Air Force, wrote her a letter telling her she'd "better learn to fly" because women would soon get a chance to pilot military aircraft. Smith went out the next day and found a flight instructor, whom she paid $14.50 per one hour lesson, more than half of her weekly salary at the phone company. After logging the 35 required hours of flight time necessary to apply for WASP, the small town girl took a train to New York City, by herself, for her interview and was accepted into the WASP program. She had to wait six months, until Jan.1, 1944, to start her training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where she flew day and night, dual and solo, piloting aircraft such as the AT-6, BT-13 and Stearman.
 
The former pilot hopes that symposium attendees will be inspired by her story. "I think they should know what it was like during those times. For example, how much money we were making, what things cost and how it made it harder to do what we wanted. If I had gone through college it would have been easier but I hadn't done that yet..." said Smith. "We had to get 35 hours of fly time before interviewing to be a WASP. Lessons were $14.50 an hour, it took me about eight weeks to complete and (I) sometimes had to walk four miles to get where I was going."

Elizabeth "Betty" Wall Strohfus had graduated from high school, been bitten by the aviation bug and was taking flying lessons when she first heard about the WASP program. Just shy of 5'3", the tiny pilot needed extra socks to help her meet the minimum height requirement, but she graduated among the first WASP class of 1944, the ninth WASP class overall. While most graduates went on to assignments ferrying aircraft, Strohfus volunteered to fly pursuit aircraft, towing targets behind a B-26 for fighter target practice, and diving at bombers in pursuit aircraft and at infantry in the AT-6 for gunnery and anti-aircraft target practice. During her year of WASP service, she flew eight different aircraft including the B-17, B-26, P-39, and her favorite, the AT-6, often sitting on cushions to be able to reach the controls. Strohfus also received her instructor certification to teach instrument flight to male cadets, who were always shocked to find out their instructor was a woman. Twice she was forced to choose between a relationship and her WASP career. Twice, she chose flying. Of her one-time fiancé, Strohfus recalled, "It was between him and the AT-6, and I chose the AT-6."  Strohfus served as a WASP from 1943 until WASP were disbanded in December 1944. Although the cancellation of the program left her and other WASP with "broken hearts," Strohfus said, "I have no regrets. I just feel lucky that I got to fly."
 
In later years, Strohfus was central in lobbying congress for the recognition of WASP as veterans. The law was passed and signed in 1977 that allowed the Secretary of Defense to declare in 1979 that service in the WASP was active military service and those serving were veterans. She is a member of the Ninety Nines, Confederate Air Force and in 2001 was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. 

FMI: www.fantasyofflight.com

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