An 85-year-old Palo Alto woman will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the White House announced on Wednesday, July 1.
Margaret Phelan Taylor, a World War II civilian pilot, will be honored, along with 300 women who flew for the military and still survive.
President Barack Obama signed the bill to award the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) the medal, which is the highest civilian award, equivalent to the Medal of Honor. It is the first time the women have been honored, 65 years after service.
Taylor never expected to receive recognition for her service. And she didn't take the commendation seriously until she received a letter from U.S. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. At first, she didn't even open it.
The medal will have to be designed and struck, and that could take some time. Taylor is thinking about traveling to Washington, D.C. to receive the medal.
"If I can shake Obama's hand," she said.
As civilian pilots, WASP were the first women to fly American military aircraft and opened the door for all women aviators, from commercial pilots to NASA astronauts.
Flying more than 60,000,000 miles between 1942 and 1944, WASP flew military aircraft on every type of assignment except combat. They ferried bombers from assembly line to base, flew tow targets for gunnery trainees on the ground and in the air and were test pilots, instructors and transport pilots.
Their service to the country freed male pilots for combat duty, according to the website for Wings Across America.
The women were paid $250 per month -- less than their male equivalent -- and received no military benefits or honors. Of the 25,000 women who applied to join, just 1,074 graduated with silver wings.
Taylor said she was committed to being a pilot for her country from the beginning of the war.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she returned home to Iowa from California to complete her training for a pilot's license. She had read about a program, which trained civilian women pilots to ferry military aircraft.
"If there was any way to do it, I was going to do it. I've always been patriotic. I love everything about the United States -- the geography, the people. No one loves this country more than I do.
"But it was the adventure. I wanted to fly. And it was the war. If you were at home you felt you were missing the whole thing," she said.
Taylor was 19 at the time, but the minimum age to join was 21. Determined, she began her own personal letter writing campaign.
"I figured I could fly a plane as well at 19 as I could at 21, and waiting two years wasn't going to help the country," she said.
When Taylor received word the age had been lowered, she passed an interview in Des Moines. Immediately after, she drove to Sioux City for a physical with several other women candidates and a chaperone.
But she faced another setback. Taylor was shorter than the 5-feet-2-inch height requirement. She tried everything she could to stretch herself, including hanging from a bar, she said.
The day she was measured, she was still just 5-feet-1 and three-quarter inches tall.
"Well, I wasn't about to fail the physical because of one lousy quarter inch. I asked the doctor if he would measure me again," she said.
Taylor pulled herself up as tall as possible and lifted her heels. She passed the physical.
As part of Class 44-W5, Taylor's six-month training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She learned to fly "the Army way," she said.
She was sent to Stockton Army Air Base where she flew the "Bamboo Bomber," Cessna's first twin-engine aircraft, the C-78, ferrying planes from the assembly line to Texas.
Perhaps her most harrowing experience occurred during a "graveyard flight" -- retiring a plane -- when she dropped the aircraft off in Texas, she said.
The only way back to California was on a troop train full of men with bunks stacked three high. It was a four-day trip, and she was the only woman on board. Fortunately, WASP pilots could ride in the officer's car.
Taylor was given a bunk in the front and assured no one would bother her. But she still had to walk a gauntlet to reach the food car, walking the length of the train accompanied by hundreds of wolf whistles.
"Well, I couldn't look left or right. I just looked straight ahead and kept going," she said.
The WASP pilots were decommissioned on December 20, 1944. By the end of the war, 38 women had died serving as pilots.
The remaining women hung up their parachutes and purchased their own ticket back home, with no fan fare and no "thank you," she said.
Taylor met her husband, Jim, in Long Beach and the couple moved to south Palo Alto, raising a family. She obtained a degree in education.
She lives in a modest bungalow, surrounded by books. A history buff, volumes fill every corner of her home, from tomes about the American Civil War to poetry.
Being nearly blind from macular degeneration doesn't stop her. She uses a magnifying machine to continue to read. And she always keeps moving, swimming or practicing yoga.
For more information about the WASP visit http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp.