Articles

WWII-era female flyers are fighting for military burial honors (and you can help)

*This story was updated on 1/29 to reflect input from the Department of the Army*


Early in the world wars, many American women found roles open to them. While they were usually kept far from the direct combat (nurses excluded), the positions they filled were usually designed to "free a man to fight." Female units formed throughout the U.S. military, though not without debate or criticism. Many of these were based on similar British organizations for women. After visiting Americans observed these female units in action, they brought the good ideas home.

Nancy E. Batson, WAFS pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Women's Flying Training Detachment was one such unit. Created by Legendary Air Force (then-Army Air Corps) General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, these women pilots were hired to fill jobs flying aircraft stateside from base to base. They received hundreds of flying hours in training, but were not considered a real part of the Army and thus could not received veteran status. The WFTD and the Women's Auxiliary Airforce Ferrying Squadron (WAAFS) were both formed separately in 1942.  The WAAFS would take fighters, bombers, and transports from the factories to stateside bases.  Both the WAAFS and WFTD would later be merged with the now-famous Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

WASPs uniforms on display in the Air Power Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The first director of the WASPs was Jacqueline Cochran, a contemporary of famed pilot Amelia Earhart.  She was only woman to win the Bendix Transcontinental Aeronautical Race and also a five-time Harmon Trophy winner, which was awarded to the world's foremost leading aviator. Cochran would also become the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, the first woman to break the sound barrier, and many more female firsts. She also currently holds more distance and speed records than any pilot of any gender, living or dead. If that wasn't enough of a pedigree, Nancy H. Love, commander of the WAFS, was the Executive Officer for the new unit. Love was also an accomplished pilot by any metric. She was certified in 19 military aircraft and was the first woman to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress. After the creation of the independent Air Force, Cochran and Love would both joint the U.S. Air Force Reserve and rise to the ranks of lieutenant colonel.

Nancy Love and Betty Gillies (U.S. Air Force photo)

The WASP program would train over a thousand pilots as light training instructors, glider tow pilots, towing targets for air-to-air and anti-aircraft gunnery practice, engineering test flying, ferrying aircraft, and other duties. They were considered civil services employees, never being accepted into the Army Air Forces despite their proven ability.  WASPs were capable of flying any aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, including the P-51 Mustang and B-29 Superfortress,, often remarked by men as being difficult to fly. In fact, the first person to fly an Army Air Forces jet was WASP Ann Baumgartner.

A WAFS pilot flying a B-17 (U.S. Air Force photo)

WASPs were required to complete the same training as male Army Air Corps pilots, save for combat flying, such as gunnery and acrobatics. WASPs did their training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas and were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. They would deliver more than 12,000 aircraft of 78 different types.

Thirty-eight WASPs died during the program's run. The accident rate was similar to that of males doing the same work. Hap Arnold himself would address the last class of WASPs to graduate from training.

"You ... have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was doubt in anyone's mind that women could become skilled pilots," Arnold said. "The WASPs dispelled that doubt. I want to stress how valuable the whole WASP program has been for the country."

The WASP program was classified and sealed until 1977, when a false press release from the Department of the Air Force announced that the first women would be trained to fly military aircraft. Then-Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold, lobbied Congress for full recognition of the WASPs as veterans. President Carter ordered their recognition as veterans in 1977 and in 1984, they received their World War II Victory Medal. In 2009, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, with 300 surviving members on hand to receive them.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

The family of WASP Elaine Danforth Harmon started a petition to get WASPs their recognition as veterans eligible for inurnment at Arlington. According to the Department of the Army, WASPs have never been eligible either for inurnment or burial at Arlington.

"The service of Women Air Force Service Pilots during World War II is highly commendable and, while certainly worthy of recognition, it does not, in itself, reach the level of Active Duty service required for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery," Lt. Col. Patrick Seiber of the Army's Media Relations Division clarified.

"The confusion is caused, in part, by Public Law 95-202 Section 401," Seiber continued. "Which authorized the Secretary of Defense to declare that certain groups be considered active duty for the purpose of allowing certain Veterans Affairs benefits, which include burial and inurnment at national cemeteries maintained by VA."

"Arlington is not administered by the VA, and its eligibility criteria are far more stringent, due to space limitations. Burial space at Arlington National Cemetery is ultimately finite. Based upon current demand and capacity, Arlington will exhaust interment and inurnment space for any Active Duty service member or veteran in the next 20 years, by the mid 2030's."

Harmon was too young to volunteer for the war effort, but she got her parents' permission to join. Her 40 hours of flight time earned her a training spot in Sweetwater, Texas, and then later a spot for more training at Nellis, in Nevada. It was a rare opportunity, only one woman was accepted for every ten males. Even then, they were treated like the backwater of the flying corps. WASPs did not even have uniforms until about seven months before they were deactivated. They wore coveralls when they flew and had to wash them in the showers.

Elaine Harmon, one of just over 1000 women who served as WASPs, or Women Airforce Service Pilots.

"My grandmother was just a generally very adventurous person. When she saw an advertisement for a program to learn how to fly, she said 'Oh that sounds like something I'd be interested in doing,'" Harmon's granddaughter Erin Miller told PRI. "My grandmother and the women she served with, the other WASPs, were just really excited to be able to serve their country, like they would gladly have gone overseas if they had been allowed to — they had no hesitation about that. They were just very glad to serve their country."

You can sign the WASPs petition here.

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