Seventy years ago, Women Airforce Service Pilots 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 But last year, the Secretary of the Army rescinded their eligibility to be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery.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 WASPs 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 WASPs served their country when it needed them and then fought to be remembered when their nation forgot them—over and over again.
In 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces desperately needed pilots for the two-front war that no one was sure they could win. They needed pilots to fight, but they also needed pilots to fly planes the factories were building to points of embarkation on each coast. Desperate for women to fly, the AAF decided to bring them in as civilians, just as they did some men, and work out the bureaucratic details later. The WASPs began with a small group of highly qualified female pilots, later expanding to less-experienced women who went through the same training as male cadets to earn their wings. They flew 60 million domestic miles during the war, taking on every flying job their country asked of them.
But their semi-civilian, semi-military status wasn’t working. The women were stuck between the two worlds. They had to buy their own insurance. If they were injured, they were sent home to care for themselves with no help from the government. When one of the women was killed, the response of the AAF depended on the commander at the particular base. Some women were honored with a service on the base and escorted home by a fellow WASP at the expense of the AAF. The families of others received cold telegrams telling them, “Your daughter was killed this morning. Where do you want the body?” The families of the 38 women killed were not allowed to put the same gold star on their windows as other families of fallen service members.
And yet while serving, WASPs were treated as officers wearing uniforms. They earned demerits, were admitted to officers clubs, and were saluted by enlisted personnel. They did the same work as male AAF pilots serving stateside, with safer flying records and faster aircraft deliveries than the men.
In 1944, the AAF decided it was time to carry out its initial plan and make the WASPs, who were all pilots, an official part of the military. General Henry “Hap” Arnold first testified before Congress in the spring of 1944, asking for the women to be formally made a part of the Army Air Forces. He expected it to happen. Congress had never said no to him before.
While he was advocating for the women, there was another group of pilots losing their jobs. The Allies had finally gained the upper hand in the air war against Germany and Japan, and since the U.S. was not losing as many pilots in combat, it didn’t need to train as many of them. Civilian men who served as primary flight instructors were losing their draft deferments. They wanted the positions that the WASPs held.
Arnold had little regard for these men, who now badgered their members of Congress for support at the expense of the WASPs. The men had been offered positions in the reserves and turned them down, preferring to retain their civilian status. And yet the story about “glamour girls” taking the jobs of hard-working men caught the ear of Congress. It rejected formally bringing the WASPs into the USAAF by just 19 votes, with 73 members abstaining. On December 20, 1944, the women were thanked for a job well done and sent home, despite the fact that war still raged and planes sat waiting to be flown.
As the war ended, former WASPs moved on with their lives. Some continued to fly. Others owned businesses. Many married and had children. Several worked in civil-service jobs, but without any veterans’ preference for promotions. Many went back to college, without the benefit of the G.I. Bill. Several hundred of the women responded when they were invited to join the new Air Force Reserves, only to be uninvited a year later when the Air Force realized they had children under the age of 14. Men with children were allowed to serve.
Over 200 WASPs did serve in the reserves, some going to Korea and even Vietnam. In the late 1960s, when the women in the reserves and civil service were beginning to think about retirement, they discovered that the two years they had spent flying for the USAAF during World War II didn’t count. They began to demand that those years be recognized. Then in the early 1970s, the various military branches, responding to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, announced that “for the first time ever” women would be allowed to fly military aircraft. The surviving WASPs realized they, and the 38 who died, had been forgotten.
The women organized an extensive grassroots campaign, piggy-backing off of the media coverage the young women pilots were receiving to say: “We were first!” They gained support from Arnold’s son, Bruce, and Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was one of a handful of senators who voted against the ERA, and he strongly opposed women in combat. But he became the women’s greatest advocate. He had flown side-by-side with them during the war. They deserved to be called veterans, and he fought to make it so.
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 WASPs 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 WASPs 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 WASPs for the past four decades, and should be again.