US & Canada

US Female WW2 pilots allowed to be buried in Arlington

Former WASP pilots hold a banner during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the US Capitol on March 10, 2010 in Washington, DC. The ceremony was held to honour the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) of WWII. The WASP was a pioneering organization of civilian female pilots employed to fly military aircrafts under the direction of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II Image copyright Mark Wilson/Getty
Image caption Pilots from World War Two in 2010 during Congressional Gold Medal ceremony.

More than 70 years after serving in World War Two, American female pilots have finally won the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The cemetery is where US presidents, honoured military personnel and national heroes are buried.

President Barack Obama has recently signed a law that allows the pilots from the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) to buried in the famous cemetery.

This is not the first battle they have won in their fight for recognition.

When they served as pilots during World War Two, they were considered civilians. They flew non-combat missions in the US but were trained like their male counterparts, lived in Army barracks and flew military aircraft.

Image copyright Erin Miller
Image caption Elaine Danforth Harmon served as a pilot during WW2 and wanted to be buried in Arlington National Ceremony

Thirty-eight women died during that time and as civilians they weren't entitled to be buried with the US flag on the coffin or any benefits for their families after their deaths.

When the Army no longer needed their help in 1944 they were sent home, having to pay their own way back, without any honours and without the status of veterans.

Nell Bright, who is 94 years old, joined up in May 1943. She said they were told if the WASP programme was successful they would be given the status as veterans. But the move was defeated in Congress.

She said: "We were not very happy about it."

That unhappiness turned into something stronger in the 1970s when the Army bragged about allowing women to fly military aircraft for the first time. Nell Bright said it was the spark that set off the campaign for recognition.

It took a few years and culminated in President Jimmy Carter signing legislation to treat them as veterans in 1977 - including burial rights in Arlington Cemetery.

'Unjustified'

On 21 April, one of the women involved in the 1970s campaign for recognition passed away. Elaine Danforth Harmon wanted to be buried in Arlington Cemetery, but when her family applied they were rejected.

It turned out the Army had changed their minds and the women could no longer be buried in the famous cemetery. Specifically it was the then Secretary of the Army John McHugh who made the ruling, which Nell Bright said was done "behind closed doors."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionErin Miller speaking in March 2016 (before the bill was passed in Congress) about the fight to get her grandmother buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

There are some pilots from the WASP group buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as they were eligible at the time of their deaths. Others have been buried alongside their husbands, not in their own right, but as the spouses of their veteran husbands.

Elaine Danforth Harmon's granddaughter Erin Miller said apart from a technicality no real reason for the sudden change was given.

She said: "I felt the policy change was unjustified."

Along with her sisters, the family felt they needed to challenge that decision, so they started a petition on change.org which received over 170,000 supporters.

It was picked up by Republican Representative Martha McSally, who before entering politics served in the US Air Force and was a combat fighter pilot and commanded a fighter squadron.

Responding to the news of the Women Airforce Service Pilots Arlington Inurnment (WASP AIR) Act being passed by Congress she said: "It's been just 19 weeks since the Army's decision to kick out our pioneering female World War II pilots was brought to light, and we've been fighting ever since."

The process was a frustrating experience for the Miller family but knowing the law has been enacted is exciting for Erin Miller. To celebrate she got a tattoo with the bill's number on her arm, despite her sister calling it crazy.

Image copyright Aaron Falk
Image caption Erin Miller, granddaughter of Elaine Danforth Harmon who was a pilot during World War Two, with her celebratory tattoo.

She's hoping their application to bury their grandmother might be fast-tracked, but is aware it could take another few months to see if they are successful.

At the moment the ashes of Elaine Danforth Harmon are being kept in a closet in their home.

"Nobody should have to ask Congress to bury their grandmother" she said.

Not all the families of the pilots or even the pilots themselves who are still alive wanted to be buried in Arlington.

Nell Bright said: "I don't particularly care where I'm buried, but it's the principle, and many of the women do want to."

More on this story