Despite serving bravely in World War II, Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASPs, had to fight for decades to have their military service recognized. Now, reports Rachel Weiner for The Washington Post, the women have been given one final military honor—the ability to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
H.R. 4336, which allows the cremated remains of “persons whose service has been determined to be active duty service” was signed into law by President Obama on Friday, Weiner reports. The bipartisan bill was introduced after then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed the cemetery’s longstanding tradition of interring the remains of WASPs with full military honors in 2015.
The passage of a bill may seem commonplace, but in this case it’s the culmination of nearly 75 years of struggle. The aviation organization was created in 1942 to free up male pilots for service in World War II, bringing more than 1,000 women under the purview of the United States Army Air Forces and hiring them to fly military aircraft in the United States. WASPs were stationed at Army air bases across the U.S. and did everything from ferrying aircraft to serving as administrative, training and even test pilots.
Though WASPs received strict military training, did drills and wore uniforms, they were considered a paramilitary, civilian organization at the time—in part due to a lobby of angry male pilots who felt they were being put out of their jobs by women. Despite plans to send women pilots to participate in the enormous air offensive against Nazi Germany as commissioned Army Second Lieutenants, the program received stiff opposition from the press and a public who felt that it was unnecessary and unnatural to let women fly for their country. No matter that 38 of those women died for their country—WASPs had to pay for their own uniforms and lodging, and the families of the deceased even had to pay to bring the bodies of their loved ones home.
After the WASP program ended in 1944, a decades-long attempt to obtain benefits and gain military recognition for their service began. Assisted by dossiers that proved that WASPs were subject to military discipline and even flew top-secret missions, the pilots were finally recognized as veterans in 1977. WASPs were even awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2009 in honor of their courageous service. In 2002, Arlington began to bury WASPs in the cemetery with full military honors—a practice that continued until McHugh ruled that the women should never have been allowed in the cemetery in the first place, a point
The acknowledgment has particular significance for the family of 2nd Lt. Elaine Danforth Harmon, who has fought for years to have Harmon buried at Arlington, even spearheading a petition that eventually racked up over 178,000 signatures. Today, thanks to their efforts, more than 100 WASPs who are still alive today are eligible to be buried in the nation's most famous military cemetery—but for the other brave women who served, the gesture comes too late.