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Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

  • VOA News

Erin Miller, granddaughter of World War Two veteran Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Elaine Harmon, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 16, 2016. Miller was instrumental in getting a bill passed to allow WASPs to be buried in A

Erin Miller, granddaughter of World War Two veteran Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Elaine Harmon, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 16, 2016. Miller was instrumental in getting a bill passed to allow WASPs to be buried in A

A rare bipartisan effort by Congress "righted a terrible wrong" last week with the president signing a bill allowing female World War II pilots to be inurned with full burial honors in Arlington National Cemetery outside the nation's capital.

The policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015.

Tiffany Miller and her sisters, who started an online campaign to give their grandmother Lieutenant Elaine Danforth Harmon the right to an Arlington burial, were elated by the news, they told CNN.

It was her last wish to be in Arlington," Tiffany Miller told CNN. "We haven't been able to hold a funeral for her because we wanted to honor that wish."

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, right, speaks with Terry Harmon, daughter of WWII veteran WASP Elaine Harmon, left, before an event on the reinstatement of WWII female pilots at Arlington National Cemetery, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 16, 2016.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, right, speaks with Terry Harmon, daughter of WWII veteran WASP Elaine Harmon, left, before an event on the reinstatement of WWII female pilots at Arlington National Cemetery, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 16, 2016.

Harmon died in April at age 95. She served in WASP.

Miller told The Washington Post that her family would now apply at Arlington for a new funeral date, which she estimated would take about a year.

Signed into law

On Friday, President Barack Obama signed the bill, which was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate.

Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress, told CNN she introduced the bill to honor the "service and sacrifice of WASP in defending our freedom."

“If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough for Arlington," Mikulski told the Post.

Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa was a co-sponsor in the Senate. The House bill was sponsored by Arizona Republican Martha McSally.

FILE - Wearing her WASP uniform from World War II, Eleanor Brown of Victoria, Texas, attends a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, honoring the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), March 10, 2010.

FILE - Wearing her WASP uniform from World War II, Eleanor Brown of Victoria, Texas, attends a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, honoring the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), March 10, 2010.

McSally, a former A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, cited the WASP female fliers as inspiration, according to a report in the military paper Stars & Stripes.

The women who served in WASP have struggled to be viewed as veterans since its inception.

The WASP program lasted two years -- from 1942-44 -- and just over 1,000 women served in it. Of those, 38 died in service -- 11 in training and 27 during missions.

Noncombat missions

The women pilots flew Army planes across the country, taking part in noncombat missions to free up male pilots for combat. They transported cargo, helped train pilots on how to operate the aircraft and instruments, and towed targets for live-ammunition air-to-air gunnery practice and ground-to-air anti-aircraft practice.

But the female pilots also faced cultural and gender bias against women serving in nontraditional roles. They were considered civilians throughout their wartime service.

"If a girl got killed, her parents didn't get anything, not even a flag -- nothing," WASP Barbara Erickson London told CBS News during an interview in 2014. "Not even any acknowledgement that their daughter had been in the military."

It wasn't until 1977 that they were given veteran status. In 2002, Arlington Cemetery's superintendent said the women would finally be allowed to have their ashes placed at Arlington with military honors.

In 2009, all WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honors Congress can bestow.

FILE - Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) hold up a flag on Capitol Hill in Washington after the ceremony where the first women in to fly America's military aircraft were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, March 10, 2010.

FILE - Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) hold up a flag on Capitol Hill in Washington after the ceremony where the first women in to fly America's military aircraft were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, March 10, 2010.

At the bill signing, Obama said, "The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need. ... [They blazed] a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since."

However, the policy allowing for burials at Arlington was revoked in 2015 by former Army Secretary John McHugh. His memo cited Army lawyers as saying Arlington National Cemetery's superintendent did not have the authority to allow such inurnments. The Army also cited increasingly limited space in the nation's military cemetery.

Arlington cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery, founded in 1866, is a military cemetery located across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C. It is the resting place for more than 300,000 veterans of every American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are strict requirements for ground burials at the cemetery, where space is increasingly limited. Any active duty member of the Armed Forces, except those serving on active duty for training only, and any veteran who is retired from active military service are allowed to be buried in Arlington.

The bill signed into law Friday allows all those "whose service has been determined to be active-duty service" to be buried at the cemetery, including the WASP.

The WASP "can once and for all be laid to rest alongside our nation's patriots at Arlington National Cemetery," Mikulski said in a statement Friday.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Congresswoman Martha McSally's name. VOA regrets the error.

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