Seventy years ago, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) flew 77 types of airplanes 60 million miles during World War II. Forty years ago, they won formal recognition for their service and were finally granted their honorable discharges. Five years ago, they received the Congressional Gold Medal. But last year, the Secretary of the Army rescinded their eligibility to be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery. Now, the families of this dwindling group of veterans are fighting to ensure that the United States honors their service.
The WASP flew the heaviest bombers, fastest pursuit planes, and lightest trainers during World War II. They ferried planes across the U.S. and flew Army chaplains from base to base for services on Sunday. They test-flew planes that had been repaired to make certain they were safe for the male cadets who would learn to fly and fight in them. They trained gunners on the ground and in B-17s, towing targets behind their own planes while the men fired live ammunition at them. Of the 1,102 who earned their Silver Wings, 38 died during the war. The WASP served their country when it needed them and then fought to be remembered when their nation forgot them—over and over again.
In November 1977, President Carter signed the G.I. Improvement Act into law, which contained an amendment that officially declared that the WASPs had served on “active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration.” The Department of Defense then, upon individual request, reviewed each woman’s record, and issued an honorable discharge and a DD214.But last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh construed this line—that they were active duty for the purpose of the Veterans Administration—as a reason to keep the WASPs out of Arlington National Cemetery. He may have had a technical point, as the Army, not the VA, has run the cemetery since 1973. McHugh argued that since the women are eligible to be placed at Veterans-Administration cemeteries, they don’t need to be in Arlington.
In a bipartisan effort, Representative Martha McSally, an Air-Force veteran, introduced legislation to restore the women’s eligibility to be inurned at Arlington. Long-time WASP supporter Barbara Mikulski put forward a similar bill in the Senate.
Since 1977, the WASP have been told they were eligible to be placed at Arlington. In 2002, Arlington even recognized the WASP’s service as eligible to receive standard honors, which include the playing of taps and the family receiving a flag. Several of the women’s ashes have been placed and their families have received flags.
There are only 115 WASP still living, all over 90 years old. Arlington National Cemetery is hallowed ground, and its crowded space should indeed be reserved for those who served America with honor. But that’s precisely why Arlington has been open to WASP for the past four decades, and should be again.
By Kate Landdeck