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Friday Harbor woman among female military pilots honored by Congress

A Friday Harbor woman who flew military planes in World War II was honored posthumously by the U.S. Congress March 10.

Penelope Peirce Garrett (1922-2002), who graduated from the Women Airforce Service Pilots class on Nov. 8, 1944, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. U.S. Navy Midshipman Caitlin Ness of Friday Harbor attended the ceremony on behalf of the Garrett family. Garrett is the mother of Gail Garrett of Friday Harbor.

Journal Reporter Scott Rasmussen is writing a feature story for the March 17 Journal and SanJuanJournal.com

At the ceremony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, "demonstrated courage and patriotism and excellence and competence. Their bravery inspires and awes us; their success allowed the success of generations since and generations to come.

“Today, the accomplishments of the WASPs will be writ large in our nation’s history. But as others have said, we know that this day comes too late for some. Let us remember the WASPs who have left us before they could receive this honor."

Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Republican Leader John Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and other members of Congress hosted the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the Capitol. Here is a transcript of Pelosi's remarks:

“It is a great honor to join the leadership of the Congress — Leader Reid and Leader McConnell, my colleague in the House, Leader Boehner, representatives of the Administration, the Secretary of the Air Force. We’re honored by your presence, Tom Brokaw, the greatest chronicler of ‘The Greatest Generation’ to bear witness to what is happening here today. Colonel Malachowski, how proud we are of her and how eloquent she spoke of the shoulders that she is standing on. I want to pay special tribute also to the four sponsors of the legislation — Congresswoman Susan Davis and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Barbara Mikulski and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Thank you. [Applause.]

“Another woman, a WASP, Jean Hascall Cole, a WASP from class 44-W-2 once said, ‘Once you have flown an airplane, your world is never the same again.’ Once the WASPs took to the sky, the world was never the same for many of us.

“Answering our country’s call, the WASPs demonstrated courage and patriotism and excellence and competence. Their bravery inspires and awes us; their success allowed the success of generations since and generations to come.

“Today, the accomplishments of the WASPs will be writ large in our nation’s history. But as others have said, we know that this day comes too late for some. Let us remember the WASPs who have left us before they could receive this honor.

“We acknowledge that for too long the proud service of the WASPs was not recognized — in word, or in deed. As the resolution says today: ‘There were no honors, no benefits, and very few thank yous.’

“Barbara, not to be in a contest or anything, but in California, we have nearly 80 WASPs living there. [Laughter.] So we have known over time the great contribution they’ve made. And I want to acknowledge Margaret Gee from Berkeley, an Asian American WASP, who taught us all so much. [Applause.] For decades, she’s been teaching us — just imagine the courage, imagine the courage to leave home, to get the training and go to the air.

“Today, we honor you as the heroes that you are. I hope it is some source of satisfaction to you that this is one of the largest crowds ever gathered inside the Capitol of the United States. The leaders and other guests have spoken about the statistics, the distances traveled, the cargo carried, the number of people and all the rest. But I want you to know that we had to turn hundreds of people away because we didn’t have a room big enough to contain the admiration that we all have for you. Hopefully, they will see it through the media.

“On behalf of the entire Congress of the United States, our leaders have spoken, but many Members of Congress are here and all of us send you our gratitude for your service, for your patriotism, and for your boundless optimism that the sky is not even the limit anymore for the women of our nation.

“The patriotism of the WASPs blazed a trail — others have used the term trailblazer — for the women that came after — in flight, in the field of battle, and even in the Congress of the United States.

“I’ve been told that there is a WASP song that was used as an encouragement during training at Sweetwater. Maybe some of you remember it, maybe you’ll sing it for us, and part of it says: ‘If you have a daughter, teach her to fly.’

“Women Airforce Service Pilots: we are all your daughters. You taught us how to fly. We thank you for that and for what you did in flying to make us the ‘home of the brave and the land of the free.’

“Thank you.”

— ONLINE: The Seattle Times' Jan. 22 story, "Pioneering women pilots of WWII get a belated honor."

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