"It was their living wish, and they expressed that wish, said WASP Bernice "Bee" Falk Haydu

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated March 21, 2016 04:35 PM
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Credit: U.S. Air Force

Female pilots who served in World War II are fighting for the right to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The women lobbied for decades for the right that was granted in 2002 and revoked in 2015, according to The Military Times.

“It was their living wish, and they expressed that wish, and so if they were here, they would be devastated to know that it wasn’t going to be honored,” said former WWII pilot Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, according to NBC Los Angeles.

The United States began training women to fly military aircrafts in 1942 following a pilot shortage, reports NPR. The program was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and trained more than 1,000 women, all civilian volunteers, to fly nearly every type of military aircraft. Thirty-eight of these female pilots lost their lives in the service.

Even after serving their country, these women were not considered veterans until Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots in 1977, reports The Military Times. The women and their supporters then fought for a variety of benefits available to veterans. WASP members were approved for military honors and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 2002.

Then in March 2015, Army Secretary John McHugh reversed that approval, citing that WASPS and other World War II veterans considered “active duty designees” are not eligible for burial at Arlington, the Associated Press reported.

One month later, former WASP Elaine Harmon was denied burial at Arlington, according to NBC Los Angeles. Her ashes have been sitting in her family’s home ever since as they hold out hope that the right will be restored.

This decision was far from the first time the group has had a right of service taken from them. When the war ended, all the women in the Air Force received letters of dismissal, according to Examiner.com.

“Yes, it hurt, when they sent that letter. I tore it up,” WASP Alyce Stevens Rohre said. “But the other one from the airline where I was offered a job as a stewardess hurt, too. I was not a stewardess. I tore that one up, too.”

A petition to restore the group’s right to an Arlington burial has gained over 170,000 signatures on change.org and a piece of legislation to reverse the decision was introduced by congresswomen Susan A. Davis and Martha McSally.

“We need to allow the WASPs to be laid to rest as the heroes they are,” McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, told The Military Times. “It’s ironic and cruel that at a time when the administration is trying to open up combat positions to women they are closing the gates to Arlington to these women.”

Until then, Harmon’s ashes will remain in her daughter Terry Harmon’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home. Inspired by the WASP’s legacy, Harmon told The Herald that she believes her mother’s ashes will one day rest at Arlington.

“When the WASPs did anything they always had no doubt,” she said. “There’s no doubt this legislation will get passed.”