How do we honor the Greatest Generation, those brave and determined Americans who served in World War II, when they die? That depends. The men are eligible for an array of military tributes at Arlington National Cemetery, while the female pilots from that era qualify only for a perfunctory, second-class ceremony -- without even an American flag to mark their service.
I know about this inequity because my recently deceased mother, Irene Englund, is one of those pilots.
My mother learned to fly by landing on and taking off from the cliffs rising above the Pacific Ocean near her rural beach town north of San Diego, earning her license in 1938. When the call went out for pilots during WWII, she eagerly volunteered for service with a program that came to be called Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. Of the 25,000 women who stepped forward, only 1,074 -- including my mother -- were chosen to fly military aircraft on domestic missions, freeing up the male pilots for combat duty. The WASPs, under the direction of famed pilot Jackie Cochran, logged 60 million miles on 12,650 different aircraft, transporting military personnel, supplies and medical patients, towing aerial gunnery targets and ferrying war-weary planes to the scrap heap. The female pilots were often assigned planes with difficult reputations -- such as the B-26 and B-29 bombers. The WASPs had safety records equal to the male pilots.
My mother joined the WASPs in July 1943 with considerable flight experience. She was stationed in Sweetwater, Tex., at Avenger Field, training base for the WASPs. Later, she was sent to Dodge City, Kan., to B-26 bomber school, where she towed targets for air-to-air gunnery practice by male trainees using live ammunition. In Pueblo, Colo., she learned to fly the B-24, becoming one of a handful of women qualified to pilot this massive bomber, despite the military's initial fear that women lacked the strength to fly the four-engine plane. Over the next 17 months, she logged hundreds of hours on every kind of mission -- except combat.
In 1944, word began to circulate that the WASPs would be disbanded to make places for male pilots coming home from the war zones. The WASPs were told that they were welcome to stay on as secretaries. My mother liked to recall her response: She wasn't interested in flying a desk.
The WASPs were disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944. My mother's logbook shows that a male officer on his way to California let her take the pilot's seat for one final turn at the controls of "my favorite B-24 bomber" on her way home. It was one of the last flights for a woman in the cockpit of any American military aircraft for more than 30 years.
She was lucky to get a free ride. As any WASP will tell you, and as several histories of the group recount, the military didn't even give bus fare to most of the discharged WASPs. Nor did it pay to send home the bodies of the 38 women who were killed in the line of duty, which led some of the WASPs to take up a collection among themselves to foot the bills. One could argue the military was just applying a certain bureaucratic logic: The WASPs were federal civilian employees attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces, and therefore technically not members of the armed forces. But my mother had a different way of describing how the military handled the WASPs' final days. "They just kicked us out and never even said thank you," she said.
It took 35 years for the WASPs to gain the status they so richly deserved. In 1977, Congress passed Public Law 95-202, granting them veterans' recognition. Two years later, on March 8, 1979, the secretary of defense declared the service of the WASPs to be active military, the final act in recognizing them as true veterans.
My mother passed away on Feb. 15, after a stroke. She was 85. When my father -- also a WWII vet -- died in 1996, his ashes were placed at Arlington. My mother proudly noted that when her time came, she, too, would be entitled to an Arlington funeral with military honors. She had no idea that the congressional act and the defense secretary's declaration had not settled the issue.
As my mother's health began to fail, I flew to New York for what would be my last visit with her. I remembered a ritual that she always observed as a passenger on commercial flights -- pausing at the cockpit door as she entered the plane, and introducing herself as a WWII pilot. The airline crew often made announcements over the PA system of the presence of a special guest. So as I boarded, I stopped by the cockpit to let them know that the daughter of a WASP was on board. I saw that both of the pilots were women.
Upon reaching my mother's bedside, I found her unable to move or speak, but still alert. As I told her the story of my flight -- and of the two female pilots -- she smiled broadly. I'm sure she was pleased at the thought that her WASP service had helped pave the way for them -- and for equal treatment.
When I called to make arrangements for my mother's ashes to be placed at Arlington, I was astonished and disappointed to learn that the cemetery deems her ineligible for military funeral honors. Despite the intentions of Congress and the secretary of defense, Arlington National Cemetery still maintains that the WASPs' legally granted rights do not qualify them for the same honors as men.
Arlington essentially offers two types of ceremonies for male vets of WWII. Enlisted men are entitled to "standard honors," which involves a military honor detail that accompanies the deceased, a rifle salute and a rendition of "Taps," followed by the folding and presentation of the American flag to his family. Officers are eligible for "full honors," which include the addition of a horse-drawn caisson draped with the American flag and a ceremonial band. My father, as a WWII Navy lieutenant, received full honors at his Arlington service.
None of this will be done for my mother. She is entitled only to a chaplain and to an airman carrying her ashes -- the same treatment accorded to a veteran's spouse. The greatest insult is that Arlington National Cemetery will not even provide a flag -- a final honor of her service to the nation -- as her ashes are placed next to my father's.
This is inexplicable. While it is true that Arlington faces a growing demand for funeral ceremonies as WWII-era veterans pass from the scene, Congress has spoken. In 1999, it enacted Public Law 106-65, requiring that the secretary of defense provide military funeral honors for any veteran, upon request. Certainly, my mother and the other WASPs should be considered veterans in every respect, not in name only.
It is difficult to believe that the sponsors of this measure, or the sponsors of the 1977 legislation granting veterans' status to the WASPs, intended for Arlington National Cemetery to treat these pilots differently from their male counterparts. The 1,074 WASPs served their country with equal dedication and devotion. It would be a shame to treat the Greatest Generation as if it were only male.
An estimated 500 WASPs are still alive. For them, I hope this injustice can be remedied in time for the nation to honor them. My mother's service will be held on Flag Day, June 14. I am hopeful that Arlington's rules will be changed by then so that she can be laid to rest with honors -- including an American flag.