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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Thank you Chris Carroll and the design team for creating this beautifully written and laid out article about my grandmother Elaine Harmon. We are so grateful for the people who are sharing her story and our campaign to ensure she and all the WASP are eligible for Arlington Cemetery. Erin Miller Twitter @millerlawmd
Daniel Hope III
As a Terp and the proud nephew of Elaine Harmon I thank the University of Maryland for publishing this article. The U.S. Government’s continual failure to honor & support those who they send off to war & conflict never ceases to amaze me. The long term failure to support the women of the WASP, women who gave every bit as much to help us win WWII as did men in the military, is in my opinion, unconscionable. If a Secretary of the Army can take away the deserved rights of the WASPs with the stroke of a pen, why can’t the President of the United States reverse that act with another stroke of a pen?
Pass the Senate bill an correct this injustice .... carpe diem!
Pastor Jeff Clemens
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) are deserving of our highest respect. It is "Army Wrong" to deny the WASP a proper military burial at Arlington. May this injustice be quickly corrected. For God & Country, Former Army Chaplain (Major) Jeffrey Clemens
Thank you so much for honoring my grandmother, Elaine Harmon, and all the WASP with such a moving and powerful article. They truly were pioneers and heroes in their day, and still are not receiving the recognition and honor they are due. Congress must pass HR 4336 so all WASP have the option for inurnment rights at Arlington National Cemetery. As a UMD alumna, so proud of my and my grandmother's alma mater for publishing this story.
Hi, One of my best friends is the son of a wasp who has passed away. He has devoted much time to supporting the wasps. He hosts the ones that can still travel at Oskosh each year and goes to almost every event they hold around the country. His best friend is a wasp named Shutsy, she lives near in in Connelsville PA. I had the honor of meeting her at an air show and also having dinner with her last summer. She is spry and a wonderful interesting person. These are special people. They are part of our great military that have kept us free for 240 years. Pray for them all.