The first sentence in Elaine Harmon’s handwritten will detailed her desire that her ashes be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside the men and women she served with during World War II.
Harmon was a pioneer, among just more than 1,000 women who climbed into cockpits to test-pilot recently repaired fighters and bombers, train male pilots and fly planes towing targets for live target practice by pilots headed overseas.
It was dangerous, sometimes deadly work — 38 women died during the two years the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program was active.
It took the Army 30 years to recognize the women for their service, retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots in 1977. In 2002, Arlington National Cemetery began to allow active-duty designees, including WASP pilots, for military burials and inurnments.
But last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh barred WASPs and other active-duty designees from being buried at Arlington. A few of the female pilots were buried there between 2002 and 2015, but military officials called that a mistake — they said there simply isn’t enough space for Harmon and the estimated remaining 100 WASPs still alive.
That angered U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who was an Air Force fighter pilot before she was elected to represent Southern Arizona in Congress.
McSally, a Republican, called on the secretary of the Army, Arlington and the president to immediately reverse the policy.
“At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform,” McSally said.
“It doesn’t make sense; we thought this was settled in 1977. The Army can give some bureaucratic answer, but they’re on the wrong side of this.”
Unwilling to wait for the Army to get on what she sees as the right side, McSally has introduced legislation to rescind the decision.
“When the call came to serve in World War II, the WASP answered that call like millions of other Americans,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Davis of California, a ranking member of the Military Personnel subcommittee who is co-leading the bill. “They have inurnment rights in other national cemeteries throughout the country.
“That right should include Arlington National Cemetery, which has always been considered a special place of honor.”
She noted that the WASPs served in the Army in every way that matters.
“These women fought, and died, in service to their country. They trained in the military style: sleeping on metal cots, marching and living under military discipline.
“They deserve the full honors we give our war heroes, and I’ll continue to fight until they get them,” she said.
Erin Miller describes her grandmother, Elaine Harmon, as a bit of a daredevil who jumped at the chance to join the WASPs in 1942.
Her duties included towing targets that male pilots shot at in midair and co-piloting bombers as male pilots learned to fly using instruments only.
She says Harmon wanted to be buried alongside the men and women she served with as well as alongside her family. Her great aunt Helen, Miller said, is already at Arlington for her service in World War I in the Navy.
But there is a more important reason: Harmon wants the generation of women who died and risked their lives in service to their country to be remembered.
“The main reason is that my grandmother feels that Arlington is not only a cemetery but also a sort of a historic museum, and she would really like the WASPs as a historic group to have representation at that cemetery,” Miller said.
Jay Helm, whose mother was a WASP, found the Army’s decision perplexing.
He isn’t sure what his mother, Ruth Helm, would have said about the Army’s decision, as she often downplayed the years she spent flying fighters, bombers and cargo aircraft from Texas to one of the coasts.
“My mom never talked about what she did as pioneering,” he remembers. “She said, ‘We got to do what we loved to do to in a time of war.’”
After the war, Helm and three other WASPs moved to Tucson to open a fly-in guest ranch on the east side of town.
Helm died in 2015, but not before serving as a mentor to McSally.
After Helm’s passing, McSally took the House floor to honor Helm, crediting her for breaking down gender barriers.
“They were my personal wingmen — or wingwomen — and I will be forever grateful to Ruth and all the WASP women for paving the way for me, for serving as my friends and mentors, and for proving that women could be exceptional pilots too,” McSally said.
Support from wasps
McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and the first American woman to fly in combat, says Helm and several other local WASPs were in the first three rows during her promotion ceremony at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. They were a particularly impressive bunch because they withstood gender discrimination while learning to fly all sorts of aircraft, she said.
Ruth Helm “actually got to fly a lot more than the male pilots,” said her son. Most male pilots were trained to fly a specific type of aircraft.
But that doesn’t make them eligible for inurnment or burial at Arlington, cemetery officials wrote in a blog post.
“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,” the post read.
The issue, officials contend, is that Arlington is on track to run out of space by the mid-2030s for active-duty service members and veterans.
“As stewards of these hallowed grounds, we remain committed to maintaining Arlington as an active cemetery for as long as possible to continue to honor and serve our Nation’s military heroes,” the blog post said.
McSally, who calls that decision appalling, said she is committed to reversing it.
In the meantime, Harmon’s remains sit in an urn in her granddaughter’s closet, waiting to complete her last act of service to her country.