Pioneering Maryland Aviator’s Family Leads Push for WWII Recognitionby Chris Carroll | materials courtesy of the Harmon family
She was a cheerleader, an athlete, a sorority vice president with a handsome boyfriend and a lofty GPA. Elaine Danforth '40 was also bored.
Then, in her senior year, she saw an ad in The Diamondback seeking volunteers for the U.S. government’s new Civilian Pilot Training Program. “That was the first thing I had seen that really interested me,” she recalled in an interview decades later.
Underage and certain her mother would never approve, she got her father’s permission for flying lessons at College Park Airport. The pilot’s license she received after months of training opened the door to greater adventure in 1944 when the now-married Elaine Harmon entered the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first group of American women to fly military missions.
The organization was unceremoniously disbanded later that year and the jobs taken over by men before the women could be sworn into the military, as originally planned. Nevertheless, she and others fought for and won recognition from Congress of the WASPs as war veterans in 1977.
Harmon, 95, died last April planning her final act as a WASP—inurnment of her ashes at Arlington National Cemetery, where the remains of fewer than 20 of her old colleagues have been placed.
Today, however, Harmon’s ashes remain tucked away in her daughter’s closet in Silver Spring, Md. Thanks to a new reading of the 1977 law by the Army, the gates of the nation’s most hallowed cemetery were closed to WASPs a month before she died.
“I’m glad my mother never learned about this,” Terry Harmon says. “She had fought so hard for the WASPs over the years. It’s a matter of honoring and preserving their legacy, not so much having her own place there.”
In denying her a place, the Army resurrected questions about who deserves a resting place at Arlington and what it meant to serve decades ago when strict gender roles severely limited women’s options. (By contrast, the Pentagon last year opened all military occupations to women.) Army officials have pointed out that the 624-acre cemetery overlooking the Potomac River is short on space, but WASP supporters question how the urns of a few more WASPs could be a burden.
Harmon’s family has pushed to overturn the decision, backed by widespread media coverage and a petition on change.org that had gathered 175,000 signatures by mid-April.The pressure appears to have worked. Bills to overturn the decision introduced by a bipartisan groups of women legislators in the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed both houses this spring, and President Barrack Obama is expected to soon sign the legislation into law.
“If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a sponsor of the bill, “they should be good enough to be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery.”
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