Women Pilots, Who Flew During World War II, Denied Rest at Arlington National Cemetery
The official reason is pure bureaucratese
First Lt. Elaine Danforth Harmon, a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot, or WASP, was one of many women who served their country when it needed them the most. More than 70 years after Harmon flew military aircraft, her family wants to place her ashes at Arlington National Cemetery.
Harmon, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, died in April 2015 at the age of 95. Her daughter, Terry Harmon, sought to fulfill her mother’s wish to be inurned at Arlington’s Columbarium. However, she received a call from the cemetery telling her that former WASPs were ineligible for inurnment, a fact she argues contradicts an earlier decision.
“I said something must be wrong, but, at the time they offered me the option to appeal,” Harmon told War Is Boring in a phone interview. “I said I don’t think this needs to be appealed, I think there is something wrong here. They are eligible.”
The result is a new chapter in a long-running fight — wrapped inside a bureaucratic rigmarole — over resting privileges for America’s World War II-era women pilots.
The WASPs emerged during a period of rapid change and progress for the U.S. military. As the shadows of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan loomed, two female aviators, Nancy Harkness Love and Jacqueline Cochrane, proposed two separate plans to train female pilots in the event of American entry into the war.
In Europe, wartime necessities prompted Allied nations to enlist the service of female pilots. In Britain, Air Transport Auxiliary women ferried planes around the nation — with some American women joining the fray. Soviet women in 1942 became the first to fly combat missions.
Yet, back in the United States, Cochrane and Love struggled to get their programs off the ground, finally receiving permission to start recruiting in September 1942.
Above — from left, WASP pilots Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn at Lockbourne Army Airfield. Air Force photo. At top — Helen Snapp pilots an A-25 Shrike dive-bomber in June 1944. Air Force photo
Love’s first group included 28 female pilots and became the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. Cochrane’s squadron soon followed, comprising 30 women. This group would later become the WASPs. They helped alleviate manpower shortages by taking on jobs in the home front, allowing the men to fight overseas.
In her last report to Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Cochrane noted 1,074 pilots made it into the WASPs’ tough training program, out of the 25,000 who applied.
Among these women was Elaine Harmon. The adventurous Maryland native of Class 44-W-9 began flying in college. “All the WASPs had to have at least a private pilots license when they went in,” she explained in a 2004 interview. “The first women who went in with Nancy Harkness Love’s group had to have 500 hours and a commercial license.”
Harmon explained that Cochrane’s first group required 200 flying hours but these prerequisites were lowered as the Army realized women could fly military aircraft “and do it very well.” When she joined, Harmon had 40 hours flying time, which all started at the University of Maryland. As a senior she decided to apply for the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
“They allowed one girl into the program for every 10 men and I was one of the lucky girls who got in,” she said. Harmon earned her pilot’s license, allowing her to later join the WASPs. But first she needed parental permission and $40.
“My mother wouldn’t approve of it, I knew, so I sent the forms to my father at his office and he sent it back again with the $40. That was great.”
Like most WASPs, Harmon traveled on her own dime to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to begin her military training. Though the military at the time considered the women to be civilian contractors, they underwent military training like all other enlisted personnel.
After flying in the hot Texas weather, the women shared a small sink and only two showers. The only uniform the Army gave to the WASPs at the beginning was fatigue coveralls and an A-2 leather flight jacket. Harmon referred to the coveralls as “zoot suits,” after the oversized suits in style at the time.
“[The coveralls] were made for men and they came in sizes large, large and excessively large,” Harmon joked. “We had to roll up the sleeves and legs and tie them in tightly.”
Harmon and her fellow WASPs underwent countless hours of training both in the air and on the base. Ground school complemented the trainees’ flight knowledge with more in depth education on navigation, weather, communications, Morse code and aircraft mechanics. WASPs flew PT-19s, BT-13 Valiants and AT-6 Texan trainers.
Harmon herself flew BT-13s, Texans and the PT-17. Aside from flying trainers, Harmon co-piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress. Only 13 women flew the behemoth.
Following her time at Avenger Field, Harmon went to Nellis Air Force Base where her missions included flying planes while airmen did instrument training. Here she flew aboard the B-17. In other missions she tested and repaired new aircraft to ensure they were frontline ready, and towed targets. Many WASPs towed target aircraft to train aircraft artillery troops who often had live ammunition.
Harmon flew in dangerous circumstances. Testing recently repaired planes or new ones could prove fatal if the aircraft malfunctioned, and WASPs did not enjoy the same benefits of enlisted men and received less pay. Thirty-eight women died during service and their families and friends paid out of pocket to bring their remains home.
Harmon and the rest of the WASPs served their country until December 1944 when the program abruptly ended. Both the WASPs and Arnold fought to militarize the group, which would have granted them the same benefits as enlisted men. Congress took up a bill to militarize them in March 1944, raising hopes it would happen.
Yet, a mere three months later, Congress dashed their hopes and the bill failed by 19 votes.
Pres. Barack Obama speaks with WASP pilots Elaine Harmon, left, and Lorraine Rodgers after signing S.614, a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Women Airforce Service Pilots on July 1, 2009. White House photo
American history forgot about the WASPs’ service until the 1970s when Harmon and other former pilots banded together to bring their history to light. The U.S. Air Force Academy first admitted women in 1976 — pilots who the media incorrectly touted as the first American women to fly military planes.
“Some of our women heard that and they got so upset,” Harmon recalled. “They decided something had to be done.”
The former WASPs with the help of Bruce Arnold, Gen. Arnold’s son, and Sen. Barry Goldwater helped create Public Law 95-202, which went into effect in 1977. This granted active duty designee status to WASPs and states the WASPs “shall be considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by the Veterans’ Administration.”
But the Department of the Army argued in a Jan. 5 press release that the law does not apply to inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery. The law would apply at cemeteries maintained by the V.A., but not at Army-administered Arlington.
However, Arlington has inurned WASP pilots before. In 2002, the family of pilot Irene Englund requested it, which the Army granted though did not provide military honors at her funeral. A statement from Reginald Brown, then-assistant secretary of the Army, noted that “active duty designees already are eligible for inurnment at the Columbarium at Arlington as a result of the 1977 law.”
This seemed to have settled the case. A 2002 memorandum from John Metzler, Jr., then-superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, further stressed that the “ANC allows inurnment in the Columbarium for those who are eligible for burial at V.A. cemeteries, provided they received an honorable discharge.”
Harmon’s family struggles to understand why the Army just a month after Harmon’s passing decided to reverse course. One reason appears to be the cemetery’s space limitations, which Arlington cited in its Jan. 5 press release.
Arlington also cited a lack of “legal counsel” prior to 2010. But this statement contradicts Brown’s letter, which mentioned a legal review and “extensive legal research.”
“This is our national cemetery. This is our most hallowed ground and it’s just not credible that they would turn away these women, considering how long they fought for their veterans’ rights,” Terry Harmon said. “They were an integral part of supporting the army during World War II. The Army was the branch of the service they served in and it’s the Army that’s turning them away from Arlington Cemetery.”
Another Army memorandum dated March 23, 2015 stated that previous decisions to inurn WASPs were “without authority,” despite previous approval from Brown. The Harmon family acquired the document via a Freedom of Information Act request. Harmon told War Is Boring, however, that not all the information she requested has been released and has filed more FOIA requests.
The Department of the Army has not responded to questions from War Is Boring.
Despite these setbacks, many people have shown support for the Harmon family and their cause. After all, allowing Harmon’s ashes to be inurned at Arlington will allow other WASPs to join the two already in the Columbarium. More than 37,000 people have signed a Change.org petition started by Tiffany Miller, Harmon’s granddaughter.
Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and Air Force veteran, introduced a bill on Jan. 6 in the House of Representatives to allow Arlington to inurn former WASPs in the Columbarium. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced similar legislation a week later with Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa.
“As a family, we are completely overwhelmed,” Terry Harmon said. “We don’t almost have time to fully appreciate how people are stepping up.”
Harmon said her mother did not want a “big fuss about her funeral,” but her mother did strive to highlight the WASPs’ service. “These women who were in the first classes and the WAFS, Nancy’s group, they needed some recognition, I felt,” Elaine Harmon said in 2004. “That’s why I like getting the word out and telling that these women existed and did something great.”