WASP gets dying wish: Burial in Arlington

By Ron Leir

Bad news continues to dominate the headlines these days.

There was the so-far unexplained explosion that shook up the heart of New York City’s Chelsea section this past weekend.

And the pipe bomb that ripped up a section of the boardwalk in Seaside Park at the Jersey Shore about 11 hours earlier.

Then, Sunday night, there was the discovery of pipe bombs outside the train station in Elizabeth.

As of press time, these incidents remained under investigation but they certainly were grim reminders that fears of another terrorist attack still abound – 15 years after the 9/11 horrors.

The despicable madmen who killed nearly 3,000 Americans that day have left an imprint so deep that we cannot help but recoil in paroxysms of disbelief when we are confronted by events that seem to mimic the unconscionable.

Likewise, the horrors of war in the Middle East continue, as witness our recent “accidental” bombing of Syrian troops and the continual agony of Syrian civilians caught in a never-ending crossfire.

Then there is the scourge of the U.S. Congress that cannot – or will not – come to an agreement to provide funding to combat the ravages of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, our forgotten commonwealth on the verge of bankruptcy or to rescue the citizens of Flint, Mich., from the peril of its contaminated water supply.

I don’t even want to think about our upcoming Presidential election choices. Yes, let us leave that for another day.

Instead, let’s try to focus on some good news, although it’s certainly late in coming: a faithful servant of the Republic has secured her dying wish.

Elaine D. Harmon, who flew for the U.S. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, was permitted to have her remains interred in Arlington National Cemetery. She thus becomes the first of the WASP contingent to attain that honor.

It wasn’t easy.

First, as reported by Wikipedia, here’s a bit of history on the WASP: Nearly 1,900 women were culled from more than 25,000 women applicants to be trained to fly non-combat missions by the U.S. Army Air Force. After four months of training, about 1,000 got their pilot’s license.

They were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. and collectively logged 60 million miles of flights, from aircraft factories to embarkation ports and military training bases, also towing targets for live anti-aircraft practice, simulated strafing missions and transporting cargo.

A few WASP members tested rocket-propelled planes, piloted jet planes and worked with radar-controlled targets. From September 1942 to December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft.

Eleven died in training and 27 perished in active duty while serving during the war years.

But despite their contributions to the war effort, the Army would not pay for the expense of sending a deceased WASP member home nor would the Army provide a funeral with military honors – or even allow an American flag to be draped on her coffin – because a WASP flew only domestic missions so she was considered a civilian and not part of the military.

Harmon, who had initially learned to fly Piper Cubs with the Civilian Pilot Training Program at College Park, Md., completed six months of flight training and ground school with the Army Air Force at Avenger Field in Texas in 1944, flying, among other planes, the B-17 Flying Fortress out of Nellis Air Force Base.

Her job was to fly with men who needed retraining in instrument flying.

In 1977, President Carter signed a bill conferring veterans’ benefits on WASP members, followed in 2002 by the Army granting a WASP eligibility for inurnment in Arlington Cemetery.

However, in March 2015 Secretary of the Army John McHugh ruled that WASPs did not have status in the Army and were, therefore, excluded from that cemetery privilege because Arlington was an Army gravesite and that WASPs could only be buried in Veterans’ Administration cemeteries.

Harmon died April 21, 2015, and her dying wish for burial in Arlington went unanswered.

That was remedied, however, in May 2016 when President Obama signed a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barbara Mikuklski (D-Md.) to reinstate inurnment rights for WASPs at Arlington and in September 2016 Harmon got her wish.

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