In 1943, Mabel Rawlinson, a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), was killed in an airplane crash. The government would not pay for her remains to be sent back to her family, nor allow her to have a flag draped over her casket.
Her fellow WASPs passed around a hat, pitching in to have her casket shipped back to her family – flag-draped in defiance, and escorted home by her service sisters.
She was one of 38 WASPs to die in service to their country.
More than 70 years later, as the the “greatest generation” sees their numbers dwindle and the WASPs’ male counterparts are laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with befitting honors, another WASP was, at last, receiving a final and lasting tribute for her service. During a military funeral service Sept. 7, Elaine Danforth Harmon’s ashes were inurned at Arlington National Cemetery.
Along with Rawlinson, Harmon was one of 1,074 women, from 1942-1944, to serve as a WASP during World War II, fulfilling what the Air Force Historical Research Agency called a “dire need” to train male pilots, tow targets for aerial gunnery practice and ferry aircraft overseas, thus, freeing up male pilots for combat assignments.
She is the first WASP to be buried in Arlington since the passing of a bill, introduced by Arizona Representative Martha McSally, a retired USAF colonel and the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron in combat, to ensure WASPs’ eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
The WASPs’ contribution to the war effort was classified for 35 years after WWII. It wasn’t until 1977, seven years after the Air Force began accepting women for pilot training, that they were given veteran status.
In 2002, Arlington Cemetery’s superintendent cleared the way for WASPs to have their ashes placed at Arlington with military honors, due, in no small measure to the efforts of Harmon and her fellow WASPs.
In 2009, all WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
However, in March of 2015, former Army Secretary John McHugh revoked the policy allowing for WASPs to be buried at Arlington, citing limited space in the nation’s military cemetery.
When Harmon passed away April 21, 2015, her family’s application for her inurnment at Arlington, per her final wishes, was denied based on the new policy that “active-duty designees,” such as the WASPs, did not meet eligibility requirements for the cemetery.
Since then, her ashes had remained in the black box provided by the funeral home, sitting amidst folded sweaters, old photos and hanging clothes in her granddaughter’s closet.
“Gammy doesn’t belong on a shelf,” said Tiffany Miller, one of Harmon’s granddaughters who, along with her sister Erin, were of the driving force behind the effort, online and in the halls of Congress, to open Arlington’s gates to WASPs.
So passionate were the granddaughters about their family’s fight to secure a place for the WASPs in Arlington, that Erin got a tattoo on her forearm that reads, “114th Congress, 2d Session, H.R. 4336.”
Her family’s quest to honor her grandmother included enlisting the aid of members of the self-proclaimed “Chick Fighter Pilot Association,” female pilots who owe their success to the trailblazing efforts of the WASPs.
After the passing of the bill, several of the female aviators proudly carried the burial flag during their missions. They documented the flag’s travels in a logbook that was read during the memorial service and presented to Harmon’s family.
The flag “went on a journey worthy of a WASP,” according to Lt. Col. Caroline Jensen, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who aided the family’s campaign.
“Because of the legacy of the WASPs and the service of women like Elaine, I stand before you,” she said. “I’m a reservist on active duty, 22 years in the Air Force, 3,500 hours flying fighters, 1,700 in an F-16, 200 in combat, three years as a right-wing pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and eight of those while being a mom. So we owe a lot to Elaine and the women like her.”
Jensen was joined by McSally and retired Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, each of whom credited their success as female pilots to the WASPs.
“As you look at any female aviator, wearing the uniform in service, please know that she is still alive,” said Penney, one of the two pilots scrambled from Andrews AFB on 9-11 with orders to ram any plane headed for Washington, D.C.
They gave their remarks, and read letters from WASPs who could not make the trip to Arlington, alongside beaming photos of Elaine – decked out in her flight suit at the ages of 22 and 85, demonstrating her continued love of flying.
“You could tell that the time they were WASPs was one of the best times of their lives and they were very proud to have served their country,” Elaine’s daughter, Terry Harmon said.
Retired Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold once spoke to a class of graduating WASP and said that initially he hadn’t been sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather. Now in 1944, it is on record that women can fly as well as men.”
“It was a man’s world, but we did something really great that was needed for the war effort,” Elaine had said during an interview for Library of Congress historical archives.
Elaine wanted people to remember that effort, and in her handwritten will, beseeched her family to place her ashes in Arlington National Cemetery.
“To her, Arlington is more than a cemetery, it’s a memorial for all the people that have served their country,” said her granddaughter, Erin Miller.
Seventy-two years after her fellow WASP died in service of country and was denied military honors, Elaine Harmon died among her family. More than a year later, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, her WASP sisters and her Air Force daughters escorted her home.
“For generations to come, when they come to these hallowed grounds that honor our heroes and educate people about their service and sacrifice … these women will be in that history book on their own merit, on their own right,” McSally said.
The trailblazer was laid to rest among her brothers and sisters-in-arms. Her urn was placed in a niche of the columbarium wall between her fellow veterans, where she left her final mark on the white marble: “Elaine Danforth Harmon, WASP.”