Elaine Harmon and her comrades flew Army planes across the country. They helped train pilots on how to operate aircraft and instruments. They towed targets behind them while soldiers below fired live ammunition during training. Harmon was aware that her service could cost her life: For 38 other women, it did.
But few people in 1944 wanted Harmon or women like her to be part of the military. Not Harmon’s mother, who believed that Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) “were all just awful, just probably loose women” and was ashamed that her daughter would be one of them. Not civilian male pilots, who felt threatened by the female recruits. And not Congress, which voted down a bill that would have granted the female pilots military status for fiscal and political reasons. As World War II drew to a close, the program was disbanded and largely forgotten. It wasn’t until the Air Force began accepting women for pilot training in 1970 that anyone remembered women had flown for the military previously, and it was not until 1977 that the female pilots were finally granted veteran status.
Harmon, who helped campaign for WASPs to get that status, was at the first full veteran’s funeral for a WASP in 2002. It was a world apart from the brief affairs she had attended before, when urns containing a woman’s ashes were unceremoniously placed inside an outdoor structure at Arlington National Cemetery. It made Harmon proud to know that she also would be afforded full military honors when her time came — in April of last year.
Which is why Terry Harmon, Elaine’s 69-year-old daughter, was angered when Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed the old rule and said that ashes of WASPs can no longer be inurned at Arlington Cemetery.
“These women have been fighting this battle, off and on, for over 50 years now,” Terry Harmon told the Associated Press.
Now Harmon’s relatives are working to overturn McHugh’s decision. A Change.org petition to incoming Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning asking him to make WASPs and other “active duty designees” eligible for inurnment at Arlington Cemetery has garnered more than 28,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning. Terry Harmon also hopes that Congress will bring the issue up at Fanning’s confirmation hearing.
The WASPs were formed midway into World War II, when the huge numbers of service members being sent overseas meant the military was in need of pilots who could ferry planes across the country, test-fly repaired aircraft and help with combat pilot training. According to the AP, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the Army Air Forces in World War II, created the WASPs intending for the women pilots to gain full military status, but Congress never approved it.
Harmon, a 25-year-old from Maryland with a husband overseas, joined up in 1944.
The civilian pilot’s training program needed to qualify for the WASPs required a parent’s permission, which Harmon knew her disapproving mother would never grant. So she quietly sent the permission forms to her father’s office, she said in a 2006 interview, and he signed them instead.
“Back in those days, women weren’t expected do things like this, and so many people were against the idea of women flying, endangering their lives,” she said.
During training in Sweetwater, Tex., Harmon and the other women in the roughly 1,000-person paramilitary program lived according to military standards. They slept in concrete barracks without insulation and dressed in the closest approximation of a uniform they could find. (The WASPs weren’t issued uniforms by the Army until well into the program.)
“We fully expected — we’d been told we’d be taken into the military eventually,” she said in 2006. “We took the same oath of office that the men took. We drilled. … We went to bed at night with taps, and we got up in the morning with reveille.”
But the female pilots were not considered true members of the military. They earned less, for one. They weren’t given insurance to fly. They got no G.I. benefits. During training, they paid for their own food, room and board. Harmon recalled how, when a woman in the program got into an accident and was killed, the other WASPs passed a hat around to collect money to send her body home — the Army wouldn’t pay for it.
Throughout the summer of 1944, Congress was considering a bill that would have militarized the WASPs. But it seemed unlikely to pass.
“There was a lot of negativeness about taking us into the military because at that point there was a lot of politics, for one thing,” Harmon explained in 2006. “We were told [to] keep our mouths shut, don’t do anything. We were good little girls, and we did that.”
“Today,” she continued, “we wouldn’t have done that.”
By the time Harmon graduated from training in November 1944 and flew out to her station at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, it was clear that her days as a pilot were numbered. She was among the penultimate class of WASPs before the program was disbanded the following month.
Records of the WASP program were classified for 35 years after the end of the war, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“She said the reason the program was kept secret was because the government was afraid if enemy nations found out the USA was ‘so desperate’ to allow women to fly planes, it would be seen as a weakness,” Harmon’s granddaughter, Erin Miller of Silver Spring, Md., told the Sun last year.
Whether that suspicion was correct, recognition was a long time coming for the WASPs after the war. They were not recognized as veterans until 1977. But in 2009, about 200 still-living WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
She looked forward to being interred at Arlington Cemetery, among the women she served with, her family said.
But Army spokesman Paul Prince told the Associated Press that WASPs are only eligible for burial at cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs; Arlington Cemetery is run by the Army, and its superintendent had no authority to allow WASPs’ remains into the cemetery, he said.
Arlington Cemetery, which is running out of room, faces increasing pressure over eligibility requirements for internment, according to the Associated Press, and strict rules govern whose ashes can be laid to rest there. The rule that bars WASPs from inurnment also covers tens of thousands of others who served in paramilitary or other capacities. In fact, the most-affected group is the Merchant Marine, which had nearly 250,000 members serve during WWII.
But Harmon’s family says the WASPs are just asking for what they’ve earned, and that the small number of WASPs remaining seems unlikely to strain the cemetery’s capacity.
The WASPs “are a distinct group of women with the surviving 100-or-so women all in their 90s,” Texas Woman’s University history professor Kate Landdeck told the Associated Press. “It is just mean-spirited for the secretary of the Army to question their value to their country. Again.”