When Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) refused to accept her grandmother’s last request to be laid to rest there, Erin Miller refused to let her legacy as a veteran die along with her.
That grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, flew as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II. Despite being part of the first group of women to fly for the United States Army, the WASP remained officially unrecognized as members of the military. Although they didn’t fly combat missions (which was left to the men), the WASP pilots were used to test newly built planes, then ferry them from factories to war zones, transport cargo, and tow banners that aircraft carriers used for target practice.
To become a WASP, a woman was required to already have a civilian pilot’s license. She also had to pass an Army Air Corps physical and pay her own way to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for basic training. Twenty-five thousand women applied; less than five percent — 1,102 — made the cut.
Although these female pilots flew military aircraft, they were considered civilians, so they were not granted military benefits or burials. The 38 WASP who gave their lives in service did not get flags draped over their caskets.
“When I was young,” said Miller, “I thought of my grandmother’s trips to accept awards, or to visit the White House, or to give lectures about her time in the service, as her hobby. I knew what she had done and I knew that, in the 1970s, they had lobbied Congress to get the veterans’ status they had been denied during the war. From that point on, my grandmother shared her story of service with the WASP during World War II with anyone who would listen.
“But it was not until after she died that I fully understood why she had spent so many years talking about her service with the WASP. My grandmother’s last request was to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Our family was surprised when the United States Army, which managed the cemetery, denied that the WASP — and, therefore, my grandmother — were eligible for placement in the cemetery.
“The Army said ‘no’ to the wrong family,” said Miller.
Miller led her family’s campaign on behalf of her grandmother — and all the women of the WASP — across social media, traditional news outlets, and to Capitol Hill to fight for their equal recognition at one of the nation’s most well-known cemeteries.
The WASP was disbanded on 20 December 1944. It took another 30 years for women to fly again in the United States Armed forces, with the Navy and Army accepting their first female pilots in 1974 and the Air Force following suit in 1976.
The WASP were granted retroactive military status in 1977, after two years of lobbying, when President Jimmy Carter finally signed the bill into law. WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (shown below) in 2010.
Elaine Danforth Harmon died in April 2015. On May 20, 2016, President Obama signed H.R. 4336, the bill introduced in Congress by Representative Martha McSally of Arizona in January 2016, which then became a law to officially recognize the service of WASP as eligible for ANC. Harmon’s funeral was held 7 September 2016, at ANC.
Miller wrote a book about the fight to ensure that her grandmother and all women of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II received equal recognition at Arlington National Cemetery. Final Flight, Final Fight: My Grandmother, the WASP, and Arlington National Cemetery was published in February. See www.finalflightfinalfight.com for more information. The book also is available on Amazon and other retailers. Miller is looking into having it added to the Montgomery County library system. It is already being ordered by the Baltimore system.
“My grandmother’s final fight came after her final flight,” said Miller, “but I was honored to follow in her footsteps to ensure her legacy would not be forgotten.”
[Miller lives on Ladson Road.] ■
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