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November 7, 2013

Female pilots of WWII set eyes on Rose Bowl float

WASHINGTON — A possibly apocryphal story about Dorothy "Dot" Lewis: When she was 13, in what would have been 1929 or 1930, she absconded from church with her Easter collection plate money and hightailed it to a nearby airstrip, where she demanded to learn to fly.

A definitely true story about Dorothy "Dot" Lewis: In 1942, she was one of 25,000 women to apply, one of 1,830 women to be accepted, and one of 1,102 women to earn her "silver wings" with the Women's Airforce Service Pilots. For two years as a WASP, she trained male fliers, flew the P-63, the B-26 and the P-40, and did a hell of a barrel roll.

Lewis died in September, a few weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her son, Albert "Chig" Lewis, a Washington lawyer, wants to put a float in the Rose Bowl parade, honoring his mother and all the other women who performed domestic operational missions during World War II — but who were unsummarily dismissed when male pilots came home.

His group has raised more than $100,000. He still needs $29,000. He is trying to do it in less than a week.

"The WASPs were relatively modest," Chig says. "The thing that got them going was that people didn't know their history, or that this had happened." The WASPs didn't get the attention of some other women's military divisions, in part because they were never awarded the military status they'd been promised at the start of the war.

"I taught school for 20 years," says Alyce Stevens Rohrer, a former WASP. "Nobody in the classes ever knew anything about us. We're not even mentioned in history books."

And so? A float. A float in a nationally broadcast parade with an estimated viewership of 15 million households. The members of Wingtip-to-Wingtip, the WASP nonprofit of which Chig is president, were inspired to this idea after seeing the African American Tuskegee Airmen ride in the Tournament of Roses parade in 2009. In early 2013, when the ban prohibiting military servicewomen from combat positions was lifted, Chig decided that the time for a WASP float had come.

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