ARLINGTON, Va. – After flying military planes during World War II, raising a family, visiting all seven continents and bungee-jumping in New Zealand at 83, Elaine Harmon had one final, seemingly simple wish: to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Harmon got her wish Wednesday, at a funeral with military honors and a flyover, but it took a lobbying campaign by her family and an act of Congress.
In the process, the campaign helped bring to light the long-forgotten exploits of the fearless female pilots known as the WASPs.
Harmon, who died last year at 95, was a member of Women Airforce Service Pilots, who flew military aircraft on support and training missions during World War II so that men were freed up for combat.
The women did not have military status at the time but were retroactively designated veterans in 1977. And for many years, WASPs were eligible to have their ashes placed in urns at Arlington.
Last year, though, Army officials concerned about limited space at the cemetery ruled WASPs ineligible for Arlington.
Harmon’s family fought back. In December, an Associated Press story about the family’s campaign prompted widespread criticism of the Army. In May, President Barack Obama signed legislation allowing WASPs in Arlington.
The legislation – which passed unanimously – was sponsored by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., herself a retired Air Force officer who was the first female fighter pilot in U.S. history to fly in combat.
McSally said the WASPs were an inspiration for her when she was the only female pilot in her training class.
“These were feisty, brave, adventurous, patriotic women,” she said, recalling that some of the WASPs gave her pep talks when she considered leaving the Air Force early on.
Harmon’s granddaughter, Erin Miller, helped lead the lobbying efforts. She even had “H.R. 4336,” the name of McSally’s legislation, tattooed on her forearm.
Miller recalled how her grandmother wore her uniform on Veterans Day and gladly partook of free meals that restaurants would offer vets. Miller said she couldn’t believe the Army considered her grandmother’s ashes ineligible for Arlington.
“I was mostly confused at first. Even Applebee’s knew she was a veteran,” Miller said.
Family and friends said the sense of adventure that led Harmon to fly military airplanes carried over into the rest of her life. Harmon’s daughter, Terry Harmon, described the mandatory singalongs on car trips and her mother’s penchant for dressing up on holidays. Every year for Halloween, she dressed up as the Wicked Witch to spook children who trekked up the dark house on the hill for candy, she said.
“Every kid in the neighborhood was petrified to trick-or-treat at her house, but the homemade caramel apples made it worth the risk,” she said.
Eligibility for in-ground burial at Arlington is extremely tight, and not even all World War II veterans are entitled to be laid to rest there. But eligibility for above-ground placement of ashes is not as strict.
Kate Landdeck, a Texas Woman’s University history professor who has researched the WASPs, said roughly 1,100 women earned their wings while the program was in effect from 1942 to 1944. Thirty-eight were killed.
Fewer than 100 are still alive, Landdeck said. The youngest is 93.
The women test-flew repaired military aircraft, trained combat pilots and towed airborne targets that other pilots fired at with live ammunition.
After the WASPs were disbanded, many of the records detailing the program were deemed classified until the 1970s, when the push to grant them veteran status began. In 2009, the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal, but the campaign to get them into Arlington exposed even more people to the WASPs’ role in history.
“No one knew who these women were in the 1990s,” Landdeck said.
The dangerous work required of WASPs, in an era when women faced overt discrimination, appealed to women with a certain fearlessness, Landdeck said.
“These women were not afraid, and if they were afraid, they’d do it anyway,” she said.
Shirley Chase Kruse, 94, of Pompano Beach, Florida, was one of several WASPs who attended Wednesday’s service. She recalled Harmon’s adventurous spirit and said she hopes more people learn about the WASPs.
“For 30-some years,” she said, “they’ve been trying to shove us under the rug.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter