Washington (CNN) -- Some 65 years after their service, a group of former civilian women pilots whose unheralded work was key to helping the U.S. effort in World War II were honored Wednesday with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Fewer than 300 Women Airforce Service Pilots are still alive. About 175 of them, along with thousands of family members, traveled to Washington for the ceremony at the Capitol.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the event had one of the largest crowds ever gathered inside the Capitol.
Deanie Parrish, a WASP who joined in 1943 at the age of 21, thanked members of Congress, those in attendance and members of the media.
"I believe this is the day that when the people of America no longer hesitate in answering, 'Do you know who the WASPs are?'" she said to the crowd filled with old and young alike. "It's because of the media that that will happen."
Parrish said that it "was both a privilege and an honor to serve our country during some of the darkest days of World War II."
The Women Airforce Service Pilots was born in 1942 to create a corps of female pilots able to fill all types of flying jobs at home, thus freeing male military pilots to travel to the front.
As part of the commemoration, the former pilots attended a wreath-laying ceremony Tuesday at the Air Force Memorial just outside Washington to remember their colleagues killed in the line of duty.
With only about a quarter of the former 1,102 WASPs surviving and all in their late 80s or older, Rep. Susan Davis, D-California; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland; and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, pushed a bill through Congress to honor these women by awarding them the medal, given as an expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, according to the House of Representatives' Office of the Clerk.
"Thank you for your remarkable service and soaring patriotism," Davis said. "Your love of flying and your desire to serve your country are testaments to your outstanding heroism."
Ros-Lehtinen added that the WASPs' recognition is long overdue.
"The WASPs served our country without hesitation and with no expectation of recognition," she said. "We would be remiss to not honor a cadre of women who paved the way for future generations of women in the military, including my daughter-in-law."
The congresswomen were flanked on stage by members of the House and Senate leadership, administration officials, as well as current military women.
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," spoke at the gathering, saying the women being honored "remind us today of all that is great within us."
Jane Tedeschi, who spoke to CNN last week, said being honored is "wonderful," and that it's especially meaningful because "so many of us are still alive to get this honor."
"I think that this is important. It is hopefully something that people will remember," Tedeschi said. "It is another thing to honor the women who lost their lives at that time and of course what it did to persuade people that women could do this."
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---SourceSome photos of the WASPsBecause I think we need some happiness for a change of pace.