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Cheers for WWII women pilots honored at Rose Parade

It's been 70 years since these women served and today they were honored with a float in the Rose Parade. NBC's Joe Fryer reports.

By Joe Fryer, Correspondent, NBC News

They were the nation’s first female military pilots and 70 years after their World War II service, the Rose Parade honored the aviation pioneers with a float in the 2014 New Year’s Day parade.

Texas Woman's University

Flora Belle Reece

The float featured eight original members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots – or WASP – a group of female fliers who helped fill the void at home when male pilots were called to combat overseas.  

One of the women, Flora Belle Reece, grew up on a farm during the Great Depression.  As a child she would stare at the sky, dreaming that she would someday soar like the birds.

“It looked like some fun,” the 89-year-old said.  

Yet, her father remained skeptical.

“He would always shake his head and say, ‘Flora Belle, that is not something women usually do.  But if you can figure out how, more power to you,’” Reece said.  “So I was never discouraged.”

Her dream became a reality during World War II.  About 25,000 women applied to join the WASP. More than 1,800 were accepted, but slightly more than 1,000 women passed the training and joined.

“We were trailblazers because we got in to where no women had ever been in before,” said 92-year-old Margot De Moss, who attended months of training in Sweetwater, Texas before earning her wings. 

Texas Woman's University

Margot De Moss

 

But the flying forerunners discovered that attitudes were tough to change during that era.

“The pilots that were training us at first were very cold to us,” De Moss said.  “Finally, they realized that we were patriotic -- that we were good pilots.”  

For two years, the women flew military aircraft across the United States, ferrying planes from factories to military bases and pulling targets through the sky for shooting practice.  

It was a dream came true for most of the women, but the dream ended with little warning. 

“They just came in and said, ‘Girls, the men are coming back and want their jobs back.  You’ve got to leave,’” De Moss said.  

De Moss said she did not even receive money so she could travel from Texas to her home in the Northeast United States.  It was up to her to figure out her own way home, hitching rides with anyone who could help her out.  

In the years that followed, the women’s service remained largely unrecognized.  It wasn’t until 1977 that the women were granted veteran status.

In 2009, 65 years after their service ended, members of the WASP received the Congressional Gold Medal.  

“The Women Air Force Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since,” President Obama said during a ceremony for the WASP.

Fewer than 300 of the women were alive to receive the medal.  

“It was a long time in coming,” Reece said.

WASP paved the way for modern-day female military pilots like Capt. Linda Stanfield.  

“If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now,” Stanfield said.  

Their inspiration is why several currently active female pilots joined the trailblazers at the Rose Parade Wednesday morning. Hundreds of beautiful roses surrounded the women, who posed for pictures before boarding a float decorated with a giant spinning display. It also showcased iconic images of the women  onboard – including a LIFE Magazine cover photo.  

From their seats, Reece, De Moss and six other WASPs waved to parade attendees, while modern-day female pilots marched alongside the float as it wound its way through the streets of Pasadena.  

It was a giant thank you to the women who never stopped reaching for the sky.