When I wrote about two World War II heroes a couple of years ago, I mentioned that America was losing approximately 1,000 World War II Veterans each and every day and that there were approximately two million of these brave men and women still alive then.
It may seem a consolation that, today -- according to recent Veterans Administrations statistics -- we are losing these veterans at the rate of "only" just over 600 a day. But in fact, this is no comfort because today the number of living World War II veterans is down to just over one million. By 2036, the Veterans Administration estimates that there will be fewer than 300 of the nearly 16 million World War II veterans left to recount their experiences -- left for us to honor, while still with us.
There is another group of members from that Greatest Generation -- all women -- who are also leaving us at an alarming rate.
I mentioned them two years ago, too, and wrote, "Too many of them [are] on their 'final approach.' We must cherish each one of them."
I was referring to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), that group of extraordinary, pioneering, patriotic women pilots who, for the first time in U.S. history, flew military aircraft during World War II and significantly contributed to bringing that war to a successful end.
At the time of that writing there were less than 300 WASP with us. Today, that number may be closer to 200.
That is perhaps why I wince every time I receive a message from Nancy Parrish -- associate director of Wings Across America -- with the sad news that yet another WASP has taken her "Final Flight."
It could also be because I had the good fortune and the privilege of getting to know one of these brave, beautiful ladies.
I met Millie Dalrymple only two years ago. Millie was 91 then and she was gracious and patient enough to share with me some of her experiences of almost seven decades ago as an intrepid young WASP.
I learned from Millie and others that she was one of 25,000 women who, starting in 1942, answered our country's call for women pilots to serve at home in order to free male pilots to fight the war overseas.
I also learned that Millie was one of 1,830 applicants who were accepted into the WASP program and one of the only 1,074 talented women to complete the program -- to become one of the first women in our history to fly military aircraft.
Millie told me that she had flown an amazing number and variety of military aircraft, including B-17s, C-45s, BT-13s, AT-6s and the venerable B-24 "Liberator" bomber, an aircraft Millie said, she "usually flew for four or five hours after repairs to make sure they were ready for combat service."
Millie climbing aboard her AT-6
I discovered that Millie and her fellow patriots had been stationed at 120 Army Air bases across the country, had flown sixty million miles in every kind of mission, but also that, for a long time, they received hardly any recognition for having participated in a vital, perilous program in which 38 WASP and WASP trainees made the ultimate sacrifice.
Finally, I was delighted to read that the efforts and sacrifices of Millie and her fellow WASP were finally recognized when, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation granting the WASP corps full military status for their service and that the WASP were finally honored when, in 2009, Congress was pressured into granting the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal -- legislation that President Obama signed on 1 July of that year.
Millie receiving the Congressional Gold Medal
I got to know Millie, but not well enough or long enough.
On November 14, 2012, almost exactly one very short year after I met her, Mildred Inks Davidson Dalrymple -- then 92 -- took her Final Flight.
No wonder, thus, that I feel a pang of sadness every time I read one of those "Final Flight" e-mails. It means that America has lost one more member of that very special, very precious and all-too-rapidly vanishing part of our Greatest Generation.
Thus far this year, Nancy Parrish -- whose mother, Deanie Parrish, was a member of the WASP and is still very active in recording the WASP history -- has memorialized 18 such "Final Flights."
Among some of the most recent Final Flights:
Barbara Jane 'BJ' Erickson London -- July 7, 2013. Barbara Jane was 93.
Esther Emma Rose Noffke -- June 28, 2013. Esther was 91.
V. Scotty Bradley Gough -- May 22, 2013. Scotty Bradley was 90.
Marguerite "Sis" Tuffin Bernhardt -- May 15, 2013. Marguerite was 93.
Volumes can be written about each and every one of these 1,074 amazing WASP.
Many of their stories can be read at WASP Final Flight, Wings Across America and WASP on the Web.
But, in my opinion, it will be difficult to find a writing that more touchingly and appropriately describes these heroes' Final Flights.
It is titled "Celestial Flight" and it was written by WASP Elizabeth MacKethan Magid in memory of her classmate and fellow pilot Marie Michell Robinson who was killed in a B-25 crash in October 1944.
She is not dead --
but only flying higher, higher than she's flown before
And earthly limitations will hinder her no more.
There is no service ceiling, or any fuel range,
And there is no anoxia, or need for engine change.
Thank God that now her flight can be to heights her eyes had scanned,
Where she can race with comets, and buzz the rainbow's span.
For she is universal like courage, love and hope,
and all free, sweet emotions of vast and Godly scope.
And understand a pilot's fate is not the thing she fears,
But rather sadness left behind, Your heartbreak and your tears.
So all you loved ones, dry your eyes,
Yes, it is wrong that you should grieve,
For she would love your courage more,
And she would want you to believe
She is not dead.
You should have known
That she is only flying higher,
Higher than she's ever flown.
Millie Dalrymple photographs: Courtesy Dalrymple family
WASP photographs: With permission from Wings Across America