Group of Women Airforce Service Pilots and B 17 Flying Fortress

These WWII Fighters Have Waited 60 Years to Be Buried at Arlington

by Rosa Schwartzburg

We here at BUST, obviously, have a lot of admiration for badass, groundbreaking women. And, particularly, badass, groundbreaking women who tested the limits of society’s expectation of them while serving their community and country. And that is why we, on the whole, get pretty miffed when others fail to recognize them, and their achievements.

Such is the case with Women Airforce Service Pilots — otherwise known as WASPs  — the female pilots who flew during World War II. Originally an auxiliary division, they began transporting supplies and materials during the war, when male pilots were sent to combat and took up increasingly vital and daring missions as the war went on. The 1,064 WASP members ended up flying over 60 million miles in every different type of military aircraft (including B-26 and B-29 bombers), and provided vital services — including towing live ammunition targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice, transporting cargo, and simulating missions under dangerous circumstances. Every member went through the same Airforce training as the male pilots, and a few were selected to test and pilot rocket- and jet-propelled planes, as well as work with radar-controlled targets. Even given this, the WASP fliers were never considered members of the military — they were labeled as civilians.

And yet, the WASP members remained committed to their service and took on necessary and dangerous missions. A total of thirty-eight WASP members died during their service — eleven during training and twenty-seven while on active duty. Twenty-six-year-old WASP member Mabel Rawlinson, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, died when, it is believed, her “hatch malfunctioned, and she couldn’t get out. The other pilot was thrown from the plane and suffered serious injuries. Because Rawlinson was a civilian, the military was not required to pay for her funeral or pay for her remains to be sent home.”  Another WASP veteran, Nell Bright, spoke to NPR and said: “We had exactly the same training as the male cadets — some of the women ferried airplanes, some towed targets,” she said. “I was in a tow target squadron, training the boys at Fort Bliss … and they were shooting live bullets at our targets. Fortunately, they did not hit our planes, but they did not hit the target every time either.”

Though these WASP flyers were not technically in combat at the time, they were certainly killed in service to the military and to their country during World War II — just like their male counterparts who died during similarly dangerous, though non-combative, missions. Those male Airforce members were recognized for their heroism, were given military burials, many at Arlington National Cemetary, in recognition of their sacrifice. The WASP members, however, were never recognized in the same fashion. Though they were promised military status after the war, it was never delivered on, and the former members were not even considered veterans until 1977 (meaning that they did not receive post-war veteran’s benefits.) And until now, they were not allowed to be buried in military graveyards, such as Arlington.

A new bill, however, has been passed that could change that. Representative Martha McSally, R-Ariz., the first female U.S. fighter pilot to fly in combat, introduced a bill that would mandate the inclusion of WASPs in Arlington burials. McSally called the exclusion of WASPs a “cruel injustice,” and responded to the typical justification given by the army – that there is simply not enough safe left in the cemetery — by saying, “I realize that at some point they are going to run out of space at Arlington. We understand that,” she said. “But look, when we are totally out of space … why would we not want to have the story of the WASPs as part of that legacy?” With the support of other former servicemembers, WASPs, their relatives, and more than 175,000 signatures, the bill was passed and signed into law by President Obama.

Then McSally introduced legislation that would require the cemetery in Arlington, Va., to make WASPs eligible for inurnment. The bill passed in May and was signed into law by President Obama. With that, former WASPs are now being buried at Arlington – beginning with Elaine Harmon, who died last year at the age of ninety-five. On Wednesday morning, Harmon’s ashes were spread at Arlington, in a ceremony fitting her bravery and sacrifice.

Photosource: National Archives

More from BUST

Why Drafting Women Isn’t Gender Equality

5 Historically Badass Women We Salute This Memorial Day

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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