Editor’s Note: This is another issue near to our hearts, FighterSweep Fans. Every one of our sisters flying in the Army and Air Force can trace their service heritage back to this exceptional group of women. Brigadier General Dawn Dunlop, the first woman to fly the F-22 Raptor, and our good friend Colonel Nicole Malachowski, were both involved in the process of getting the Congressional Gold Medal approved for the WASPs in 2009.
As great as that honor is, not allowing them burial in Arlington National Cemetery is a slap in the face to their service, heritage, and the legacy carried on by today’s female pilots. More to come on this and other topics as we roll into Women’s History Month in the next couple weeks.
World War II, Elaine Danforth Harmon was stationed at an Army air base in Las Vegas. Her job was to fly a two-seat aircraft with men who had been overseas and needed a refresher course in “instrument flying” — navigating by compass and altimeter, instead of by the landscape. Ms. Harmon served as a lookout “to make sure that we didn’t run into any other airplanes,” she told me.
She died last year at age 95, and when her family sought to have her ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery, they were turned away. Apparently, earlier in the year, the Army had quietly decided to prevent female pilots who served in World War II from having their ashes laid to rest alongside their fellow veterans.
These Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs, flew wingtip to wingtip with their male counterparts and were just as vital to the war effort. They deserve this military honor.
In 1942, as the country reeled from the attack on Pearl Harbor, qualified male pilots were in short supply. So female pilots stepped in, initially to fly small aircraft. Eventually, skilled WASPs flew fighter planes from factories to docks in Newark, where they would be shipped to England. Those planes, primarily new P-51s, had the range to escort B-17s and B-24s on bombing runs to Berlin and back.
Twenty-eight experienced civilian women pilots volunteered to take those ferrying jobs. They formed the country’s first female squadron. Ultimately, 1,074 more women were trained to fly and relieved male pilots who were sent to combat.
WASPs flew almost every aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. They also towed gunnery targets, tested aircraft that had been repaired and transported nonflying personnel. Like the men, they flew whatever they were asked to fly, and dealt with balky aircraft, malfunctioning equipment and occasionally deadly crashes.
In March 1943, Cornelia Fort and several male pilots were flying trainer aircraft from a factory in California to Texas. Near Merkel, Tex., one pilot flew too close to her aircraft. His landing gear sheered off Ms. Fort’s wing, and her plane went into a deadly dive.
On April 3, 1944, on her way to Newark with a new twin-engine P-38 fighter, Evelyn Sharp took off from Cumberland, Pa. The plane’s left engine quit seconds after takeoff. She did not survive the crash.
As Hazel Ah Ying Lee approached Great Falls, Mont., to land her P-63 fighter, on Thanksgiving Day, 1944, another P-63 loomed over her. That pilot’s radio wasn’t working. When the tower radioed, “pull up,” to avoid a collision, only Ms. Lee heard the warning. She pulled up — into the belly of the plane above.
By the end of the war, 38 WASPs had died flying for their country. But the military took no responsibility for them.
The man who championed the WASPs was Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry Arnold, known as Hap. He built and led the greatest Air Force ever assembled. For this, he was revered, particularly by Congress, which gave him virtually anything he asked for.
But in June 1944, when he sought to officially designate the WASPS as members of the United States military, Congress declined. Disgruntled male pilots had complained to Congress that women were taking their jobs. The press took that up and ran with it. So the women remained civilians.
FOR many of those who died while flying, classmates or squadron mates chipped in to ship their bodies home. Some pilots escorted their close friends’ bodies on trains.
The WASPs were disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, and sent home with no recognition. Victory was in sight, and the female pilots were expendable.
The result of this shameful failure to give WASPs their appropriate military classification: no medical care, no insurance benefits. No Gold Star in the family’s window if their daughter died flying for her country. No burial subsidy. And no flag on the coffin.
After a protracted fight, WASPs finally earned veteran status in 1977, thanks to a law signed by Jimmy Carter. And in 2002, the Army granted the WASPs military funeral honors — the playing of Taps, a rifle salute and an American flag to the family — and affirmed that they were eligible for inurnment at Arlington.
But last March, the secretary of the Army overturned that decision because of a technicality. The likely explanation is that Arlington expects to run out of room by 2030. And yet there are over 30,000 spaces left to store urns.
he Army that desperately needed female pilots in 1942 and then discarded them in 1944 has turned its back on them again.
Last month, the House and Senate introduced bills to make this right. Most of the 113 surviving WASPs are in their 90s now. There is not much time left to ensure that they get the honors they deserve.
The original article at the New York Times can be viewed here.
(Featured photo: WASPs on the ramp at Waco Field, 1944. Courtesy of United States Army Air Forces/Wikimedia Commons)