Wreath-Laying Honors First Female Naval Aviators

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fifteen (HM-15) celebrated Women's History Month, March 3, with a wreath laying ceremony at the Naval Aviation Monument Park in Virginia Beach, Va.   The event, sponsored by the HM-15 Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Mess, commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first female naval aviators.   "[Chief Petty Officers] are the ones who remember when we did things and why we did things," said Cmdr. Mark Leavitt, commanding officer of HM-15. "They are the ones that archive the history of this great Navy. This event in aviation is a part of our heritage that we need to hold on to and build on the importance of that date."   Members of HM-15, also known as the Blackhawks, were in attendance during the ceremony. These members included division officers, chief petty officers, first class petty officers of the squadron, and civilian friends and family. All attendees celebrated the accomplishments of women in naval aviation.   "This organization [Navy] has realized the benefit and value of diversity," said Leavitt. "Women in aviation make us a more diverse organization."  

During World War II, a group of women pilots were pioneers, heroes and role models. They were the Women Airforce Service Pilots, otherwise known as WASPs. They were the first women in history to be trained to fly American military aircraft in the United States. The women were trained to fly non-combat missions in order to free up male pilots to fly combat missions overseas.

 From 1942-1944, 1,079 women successfully completed training to ferry aircraft, test planes, instruct male pilots and tow targets for anti-artillery practice. These women covered a wide spectrum of social and economic back grounds. They were nurses, teachers, secretaries, factory workers, waitresses, students, house wives, debutants, actresses, and there was even a chorus girl. But despite their different backgrounds, they were patriotic, strong in spirit and had a passion for flying.   During the ceremony, the guest speaker, Navy Lt. Rachel M. Barton, aircraft commander and helicopter pilot assigned to HM-15, quoted Doris Tanner, an original WASP.   "The myth of flying was 'a glamorous, long white scarf flying in the wind; the breeze in your face.' It was just that - a myth. The routine was back-breaking, hard, dirty work. It strained every ounce of endurance and courage we could muster. The dust and sand ground into our clothes, the sun burned our skin to leathery brown and our hair to dry straw. There were days when we wondered, why not quit and go home? Why didn't we? Not a question that is easy to answer! Love of flying, love of a never ending challenge, and the pride of having a vital part in the defense of our nation. The desire to release the men for combat and thus ending the war and bring a loved husband or brother home, taking part in defeating the monster Hitler and liberate Europe. None of us knew exactly why, but every one of us loved the excitement and were determined to make it through and win those silver wings."

The WASP program was deactivated Dec. 20, 1944, having flown about 60 million miles in operations. Thirty-eight WASPs were killed during the life of the program, including some in training.   Thirty years later, the Navy became the first service to graduate a female pilot. Lt. Barbara Allen Rainey was the first woman to receive the wings of gold Feb. 22, 1974.   Today, more than 54,000 women are on active duty and more than 10,000 females serve in the Reserves. In 2012; 873 women earned their wings of gold and women now comprise 10 percent of the naval aviation community.   The "Blackhawks" of HM-15 reached a milestone in female aviation, June 22, 2012. Barton was a part of the first all-female mine-countermeasure flight that took place in Bahrain. This event was significant, not only because the flight crew was all-female; but also because the maintenance crew was all-female, including the maintenance safe-for-flight chief. This was the first time there were enough qualified females in the same location to comprise a "female-only" mine-countermeasure flight.   "Today, women serving in active duty billets have become so accepted that most of us don't stop to think about it as we go about our daily lives," said Barton. "It has become something that is accepted as normal. But on days like today, it is nice to take a few moments to stop and think about those who have served before us - the opportunities we now have due to their legacy, and the role that we now play in paving the way for future generations. In order to truly appreciate the life we have today, it's important to know our past and how far we've come."

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