WW II pi­lot re­ceives honor ini­tially de­nied

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze

AR­LING­TON NA­TIONAL CEME­TERY, VA. — Even in death, Elaine Har­mon chal­lenged convention.

The Bal­ti­more na­tive, one of about1,000 Women Air­force Ser­vice Pi­lots who flew non­com­bat mis­sions for the United States dur­ing World War II, was laid to rest at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery on Wed­nes­day after her fam­ily suc­cess­fully fought a de­ci­sion to deny her the honor.

With P-51 Mus­tangs buzzing over­head and a bugler in the dis­tance sound­ing taps, Har­mon’s fi­nal wish was re­al­ized — and her fam­ily cel­e­brated the con­clu­sion of an im­prob­a­ble cam­paign that took them all the way to the White House.

“When the Army des­per­ately needed them, these trail­blaz­ing women stepped up to the task,” said Terry Har­mon, Elaine Har­mon’s daugh­ter. “Amer­ica and the world loves these women.”

The WASPs — 14 of them Mary­lan­ders — de­liv­ered war­planes, fer­ried cargo and towed tar­gets for other pi­lots.

Har­mon, who learned to fly as an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, signed up for the job in 1944 — over her mother’s ob­jec­tions.

Since the war, the women and their descen­dants have had to fight for recog- Elaine Har­mon ni­tion — in part be­cause the of­fi­cial record of their ef­fort was clas­si­fied for decades. The group was not granted vet­eran sta­tus un­til Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter signed leg­is­la­tion in 1977.

Har­mon was at Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s side in 2009 when he signed a law award­ing the pi­lots the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal.

She died last year be­liev­ing she would be in­urned at Ar­ling­ton. The ceme­tery’s su­per­in­ten­dent had ap­proved the honor for the WASPs more than a decade ear­lier.

But Har­mon did not know that the sec­re­tary of the army at the time, John McHugh, over­turned the de­ci­sion about a month be­fore she died at 95.

McHugh, con­cerned about shrink­ing

avail­able space at the ceme­tery, ruled that the WASPs were el­i­gi­ble for burial only at ceme­ter­ies run by the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans of Af­fairs. Ar­ling­ton is run by the Army. The de­ci­sion drew out­rage. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” said Rep. Martha McSally, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can who flew A-10 Warthogs over Iraq and Kuwait.

“These were feisty, brave, ad­ven­tur­ous, pa­tri­otic women,” said McSally, a re­tired Air Force colonel. “The air­plane doesn’t care if you’re a boy or a girl; they just care if you know how to fly and shoot straight.”

McSally in­tro­duced a bill in the House to over­turn McHugh’s de­ci­sion. Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski, a Mary­land Demo­crat, and Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Repub­li­can, spon­sored sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion in the Se­nate.

The bill moved through Congress with un­usual speed, win­ning ap­proval less than five months after in­tro­duc­tion. The votes came so quickly, Terry Har­mon said, that peo­ple thought the fam­ily had hired “a big-time K Street firm.”

In May, Obama signed the leg­is­la­tion, which al­lows the ashes of the women to be in­urned above ground along­side those of other ser­vice mem­bers. The rules sur­round­ing who may be buried are stricter.

And so on Wed­nes­day, Har­mon’s ashes were taken off the closet shelf where her fam­ily stored them dur­ing the or­deal and car­ried by an honor guard of air­men in dress-blue uni­forms to a spot in the south­east cor­ner of the ceme­tery.

The air­men held the flag over Har­mon’s padauk wood urn dur­ing a brief cer­e­mony.

A ri­fle team fired three vol­leys un­der an al­most cloud­less sky. There were tears, but also a sense of cel­e­bra­tion among the fam­ily.

“If the WASPs were good enough to fly and risk their lives for our coun­try, they’re good enough for Ar­ling­ton,” Mikul­ski said in a state­ment. “This is an honor Lieu­tenant Elaine Har­mon and the WASPshave earned and de­serve.”

The WASPs logged 60 mil­lion miles fly­ing mis­sions across the United States A U.S. Air Force honor guard folds the Amer­i­can flag above the re­mains of Elaine D. Har­mon. More than a year after her death, Har­mon, a Bal­ti­more na­tive, was in­urned Wed­nes­day at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery with mil­i­tary hon­ors between 1942 and 1944, when the pro­gram was dis­banded. Thirty-eight of the pi­lots died in the line of duty. They were not granted mil­i­tary fu­ner­als then. Their fam­i­lies were re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing their bod­ies home.

Fewer than 100 WASPs are still liv­ing, a fact that McSally said gave a sense of ur­gency to the ef­fort to open the ceme­tery’s gates.

Har­mon grew up on 34th Street and grad­u­ated in 1936 from Eastern High School. She stud­ied bac­te­ri­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, joined the Civil Aero­nau­tics Au­thor­ity Pro­gram and learned to fly Piper Cubs at Col­lege Park Air­port.

Har­mon com­pleted her train­ing in 1944 at Avenger Field and was sta­tioned at Nel­lis Air Base near Las Ve­gas. She flew the AT-6 Texan, the PT-17 and BT-13 train­ers, and co-pi­loted the B-17 Fly­ing Fortress.

Her fam­ily noted her love of Bal­ti­more and Mary­land. She of­ten re­called child­hood mem­o­ries of roller skat­ing in al­leys and play­ing ten­nis at Druid Hill Park, they said.

After the WASPs pro­gram ended, Har­mon re­turned home to Sil­ver Spring, where she lived with her hus­band, Robert Har­mon, a patent at­tor­ney, whom she mar­ried in 1941. He died in 1965. Her fam­ily de­scribed Har­mon as an ad­ven­tur­ous soul who con­tin­ued to fly in her later years, even as she doted on chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Never timid, she de­cided to go bungee jump­ing in New Zealand when she turned 80.

It was that spirit, they said, that in­spired their de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“It seemed like a very big ob­sta­cle in the be­gin­ning,” said Erin Miller, a grand­daugh­ter who be­came the pub­lic face of the cam­paign and is now writ­ing a book about the ef­fort. “But my grand­mother never would have taken ‘no’ for an an­swer.”


Air Force Capt. Jen­nifer Lee pre­sents the Amer­i­can flag to Terry Har­mon, daugh­ter of Elaine Har­mon, dur­ing a grave­side cer­e­mony at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery. Leg­is­la­tion this year re­versed a rul­ing that would have sent her re­mains else­where.


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