World War II pilot Elaine Harmon, who died last year at the age of 95, wanted to be laid to rest with her fellow veterans at Arlington National Cemetery. Harmon’s wish has been fulfilled — thanks to a dedicated effort by her family and a law passed by Congress.
Harmon was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew military planes in noncombat missions in order to free up male pilots for combat. The work carried real risks, and 38 WASPs died serving their country, but they were regarded as civilians. They paid for their own pilot training! The military was not required to pay for funerals, or even just for remains to be sent home. And when the war was winding down, the WASPs were dismissed and their jobs given back to male military pilots. Although the WASPs were promised military status, but they never did during the war.
“The only reason was because of sexism,” declared U.S. Representative Martha McSally, the first female U.S. fighter pilot to fly in combat. “I mean, the men who were doing the same roles before, alongside and after them, they were military. These women should have been active-duty at the time.”
Decades later in 1977 women were retroactively granted military status and acknowledged as veterans. Decades more had to pass before WASPs were allowed to be laid to rest at Arlington with full military honors.
A month before Elaine Harmon died in 2015, then-Army Secretary John McHugh decided that WASPs did not qualify for inclusion at Arlington — and never should have.
The military cited limited space. As The Associated Press notes, “eligibility for in-ground burial at Arlington, which has severe space limitations, is extremely tight, and not even all World War II veterans are eligible for burial there. But eligibility for placement of ashes, or above-ground inurnment, is not quite as strict.”
Rep. McSally called it a “cruel injustice” for the Army to decide that no WASPs could qualify for inurnment. “I realize that at some point they are going to run out of space at Arlington. We understand that,” she said. “But look, when we are totally out of space … why would we not want to have the story of the WASPs as part of that legacy?”
Harmon’s relatives appealed for a change in policy, and a petition on Change.org gathered signatures. Then Rep. McSally introduced legislation that would require the cemetery in Arlington, Va., to make WASPs eligible for inurnment. The bill passed in May 2016, and was signed into law by President Obama.
Harmon’s ashes were inurned in a funeral with military honors this week. “It sounds funny, but we’re all kind of excited,” Harmon’s daughter told the AP before the ceremony.
“In a way, we’ve already grieved, and this now is about closure.”
The chaplain read from a poem penned by a WASP:
“…now her flight can be to heights her eyes had scanned,
Where she can race with comets, and buzz the rainbow’s span”
Sources: The New York Times and NPR