During World War II, the United States relied heavily on air support for military operations around the world. These operations included not only overseas fighting missions, but also domestic operations like ferrying planes from factories to bases, testing new planes, training other pilots, moving cargo around the nation, and towing targets for ground anti-aircraft fire practice. The dwindling number of pilots forced the Army Air Corps to consider accepting women as pilots. It was obvious that the need existed, but the thought of actually allowing women to be official military pilots was considered outrageous. The Army Air Corps finally compromised and allowed women to be admitted as pilots in a civilian capacity while promising that if the “experiment” worked out, the women would receive official military status.
My grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, became part of this experiment in March 1944 after receiving a telegram from the Army ordering her to report to Avenger Field in Texas. She had received her pilot’s license during her senior year of college at College Park Airport in Maryland through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Out of over 25,000 applicants, my grandmother was one of 1,800 accepted and 1,074 who graduated. She wrote in her diary that on the first day of training, “we were informed that we were being offered the most wonderful opportunity ever offered to women and to take advantage of it.”
After her training she was assigned to Nellis Air Base in Nevada. She trained male pilots, ensuring that while they were learning to fly by relying solely on the instrument panel, that they didn’t crash the planes. Other women performed the missions mentioned above, missions which had previously been performed by men who were now able to go overseas to ensure sufficient supply of pilots for overseas combat. 38 of these women died performing these duties. On December 20, 1944, the WASP program was disbanded and the women were told to go home because they were “replacing instead of releasing” male pilots.
In the 1970’s, the United States Air Force Academy began accepting female cadets and made statements that these women would be the first to fly military aircraft. My grandmother was in the core group of WASP who lobbied Congress in the mid 70’s for the official military recognition denied to them during the war as the first women to fly military aircraft. Before I was born, my grandmother testified before Congress about her role in the war effort as a pilot. In 1977, Congress passed public 95-202 which granted them veteran’s status.
Since the WASP had been forgotten after World War II, my grandmother made it her mission after the lobbying efforts to educate the world about the WASP. She went to schools, museums, and conferences in her military uniform to tell the story of the WASP. I only lived two miles away from my grandmother when I was growing up, so I saw her frequently in uniform. It was normal to me to have a grandmother who had flown planes in World War II. I did not realize until I was older that she did all that work not only for her love of service, but also as a necessity for continuing the legacy of the WASP.
My grandmother passed away in April 2015. As it turns out, the legislation in 1977 is only an extension of the gender bias from the war. Rather than granting complete retroactive veteran’s status, it granted limited status under the Veteran’s Administration only. Because of this, when my family applied to have my grandmother’s ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery, the Army denied our request.
And now the necessity to carry on the WASP legacy which my grandmother addressed with a variety of means has now fallen on my shoulders. My grandmother specifically requested to have her ashes placed in Arlington cemetery because she thought she was a veteran. I am leading a campaign to make sure the Army (which runs Arlington) also recognizes my grandmother as a veteran. My family has a petition at change.org/wasp. We have an extended family and network of supporters of the WASP. And by a very fortunate coincidence, the first female combat fighter pilot, Martha McSally (AZ), began her first term in Congress only a few months before my grandmother passed away, ensuring we could not have a more appropriate and passionate advocate in the House of Representatives.
Last week I gave my first official talk about my grandmother’s service and the WASP at a middle school in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nearly a year after my grandmother passed away, the first time I became emotional about this whole situation was when my grandmother’s photo flashed up on the power point screen. I had been so focused on fighting bureaucracy; I had a sudden realization of why I am doing all this – because she isn’t here anymore.
BIO: Erin Miller is the proud granddaughter of Elaine Harmon, WWII WASP pilot. Erin is a licensed attorney in the state of Maryland. In the past few months, Erin has been managing the campaign to gain inurnment rights with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery for her grandmother and the other Women AirForce Service Pilots of WWII. Please see our petition at change.org/wasp. Contact Congress to say you support HR 4336, the bill to grant these rights.
Editor’s note: You can hear Erin talk about this rights campaign for WASPS on this interview that aired on CBS on International Women’s Day.