When you hear the term WASP, what do you think of?
If your first thought was not about the Women Airforce Service Pilots, don’t fret. It’s something I had not heard before I read our October book, Final Flight Final Fight: My Grandmother, the WASP, and Arlington National Cemetery by Erin Miller. And now after reading about them, I wish I had known about these amazing women sooner.
The WASP were female pilots during World War II. According to NPR, these women were some of the first female pilots in our military history. The WASP program began in 1942 as America was entrenched in the war. There was a shortage of male pilots, and the U.S. Army launched this program to fill in the gaps back home.
WASP pilots tested planes that were overhauled. They flew planes, including the B-26 and B-29, back and forth from factories, military bases, and departure points in the U.S. WASP pilots even towed targets for ground and air training. They were as much a part of the military as any other branch or position, and they were promised that their service would be officially recognized.
Yet as the war drew to a close in 1944, the WASP program was disbanded and the women were not granted military status.
Erin Miller’s grandmother or Gammy was a WASP.
Elaine Danforth Harmon served proudly and with her fellow WASP, she fought for their service to be recognized and to attain the rights and priviledges that they earned and were promised. After many attempts and efforts, they were finally granted this veteran status in the 1970s.
Erin remembers that her Gammy talked to anyone and everyone about the WASP. She talked to students at schools and traveled to WASP reunions. In 2010, she and her fellow pilots were granted the Congressional Gold Medal. She was proud of her military service; she even kept a WASP blanket on her bed as she fought cancer for many years.
When Gammy died in 2015, she left a request to be inurned at Arlington National Cemetary. Erin and her family felt this would be an easy request. Elaine had her coveted DD-214 that granted her veteran status and priviledges. She had attended previous inurnments and burials at the cemetary for fellow WASP.
But their family was shocked when their request was denied by the U.S. Army over a technicality.
And as Erin states in her book and in many interviews,
The Army said ‘no’ to the wrong family.
The book chronicles Erin’s fight for her grandmother to be laid to rest at Arlington.
The technicality stemmed from the 1977 legislation that gave the WASP veteran rights. The legislation extended to the VA or Veteran’s Affairs department. Arlington was and is administered by the U.S. Army, and the Secretary of the Army at that time determined that the WASP did not qualify for burial there because they only qualified for burial at VA administered cemetaries. The family could have applied for an exception to policy, but they wanted to change the decision and legislation for ALL those who served in the military but were denied this right.
Erin and her family began a petition online and contacted their goverment officials. Erin particularly campaigned for her Gammy on social media and through local media. The petition and their plight were picked up by national media; the petition grew rapidly; soon senators were involved. It was a fight that took over a year, but their family was able to get legislation passed to restore the rights to inurnment for the WASP.
Yet the book was about more than Erin’s fight for her Gammy.
She learned so much about the WASP and about her grandmother. She spoke with her fellow pilots and colleagues, who gave her insight into the program and her Gammy that she wished she had known before she passed. Erin learned about the bureaucratic process, with all its struggles and frustrations. She became a pro at media interviews, a familiar face on Capitol Hill, and an expert on the WASP.
Final Flight Final Fight is one part history lesson and one part compelling story of a granddaughter’s fight to restore the right to burial that her grandmother earned. I learned so much about a program in our military history. I was puzzled as to why I had never heard of these amazing women beforehand but grateful to learn about them through Erin’s words.
We highly recommend this book – if Erin does not inspire you to act for the change you wish to see, her grandmother’s life as a WASP will educate and inspire you.