WASPs Still Fighting for Recognition

—Molly Merryman

“Women Who Flew,” documentary short directed and produced by Molly Merryman & Tom Baumann.

When I interviewed veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, it became clear that what most troubled them was the need to “pass the hat” so that women pilots killed in the line of duty could receive proper burial. They glossed over the discrimination and indignities they themselves endured, but they could not forgive the mistreatment of their fallen comrades.

Nor should we.

It recently has come to light that Arlington National Cemetery has refused to accept the cremains of WASP veteran Elaine Harmon. According to her family, it was her dying wish to be inurned there. Once more, these veteran pilots and their families suffer painful discrimination at the hands of bureaucrats.

The WASPs were 1,074 skilled pilots who flew missions that including ferrying planes from factories to bases, test-piloting new and captured enemy planes, and pulling targets at which live artillery rounds were fired for training. Thirty-eight WASPs died in service.

“If we got killed in action our friends passed the hat to get enough money to send our personal effects home to the family. We couldn’t have a military internment; we didn’t get a flag for the coffin; and we got no burial expenses,” WASP Madge Rutherford Minton noted. In a 1978 news story, WASP veteran Pat Pateman said: “We served our country, and when one of us died the parents were met with a pine box saying, ‘Thanks a lot, here’s your daughter’. It was pretty earth-shattering.”

Now, Arlington Cemetery offers earth-shattering disregard to the sons and daughters of WASP veterans.

The bureaucrats at Arlington are using the mistake of a 1940s Congress to justify excluding these veterans. When World War II started, women were forbidden from military service, but it was realized that the war effort would only succeed if that changed, so all military branches created women’s units that were enacted as civilian entities until Congress militarized them. One by one, women in the Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy were militarized. But when the WASP bill came up for debate in 1944, Congress balked: it wasn’t able to accept a unit of women who engaged in the most masculinized and romanticized role: the military pilot. The WASPs were disbanded.

In 1977 Congress passed and the President signed a bill allowing the WASPs to “have their service recognized as active military service by the Secretary of Defense and to receive honorable discharges and full veterans’ benefits.” When Airforce Colonel Arnold testified before the House, he said this about WASP military burials: “Who is more deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders who is shot down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver finance office?”

We should be ashamed to let these veterans’ dying wishes be ignored. The WASPs gave their everything to the war effort—can’t we as a country at least permit them to be buried with the honor they earned?

Molly Merryman, Ph.D., is a documentary filmmaker, author and an associate professor of Sociology and director of LGBT and Women’s Studies at Kent State University. She is the author of Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (NYU Press, 1998) and has written a number of academic journal articles and book chapters. She also has produced and directed documentaries that have screened internationally and been broadcast on regional PBS stations.