Elaine Danforth Harmon was a WWII pilot -- part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who were the first women to fly American military aircraft.
When she passed away, it was her final wish to be inurned, or buried, at Arlington National Cemetery, but she was denied.
So Elaine’s granddaughters -- Tiffany, Erin, and Whitney Miller -- started a petition to make sure that their grandmother and other WASP would all have the honor of burial at Arlington afforded all other veterans.
The petition quickly gathered signatures and worldwide media interest. In March, Erin journeyed to Capitol Hill to present the petition’s 170,000 signatures to Congress.
Afterward, Erin and her mother, Terry Harmon, visited the Change.org Washington, D.C. office to talk with our staff about Elaine and their experience during this campaign.
They were interviewed by Ben Lowe, a Senior Campaigner at Change.org. Ben has worked with Erin as she meets with members of Congress and gains support for a piece of legislation that would ensure her grandmother’s (and other WASP’s) burial at Arlington.
Here are nine things we learned when Ben sat down to talk with Erin and Terry:
1. Elaine raised her kids to be independent and adventurous. Terry recounts one summer when Elaine took her four kids camping across the country for two months...in a Buick sedan, no tents. “She was a get to it and get-it-done type of person,” said Terry.
2. WASP flew 60 million miles during two years of WWII. As war approached, the U.S. government found itself short of military pilots. They came up with the idea of using women to fly domestic missions, so they could send all the men overseas to fly in combat. The WASP did everything from training male instructors to ferrying troops from base to base and transporting cargo. They even flew top secret missions -- like carrying pieces of the atomic bomb.
3. After WWII, the WASP were ordered not to speak about their wartime activities. No one knew about the WASP or what they had done until their records were declassified in the late 1970s. When the Army and Navy opened pilot training to women in 1972, they were even hailed as the “first women pilots in the military” because the WASP legacy was so veiled.
4. Elaine fought for the WASP to be granted veteran status in the 1970s. Elaine was a core part of a group of WASP that lobbied Congress. Terry remembers her mom staying up for hours typing letters to Congress. Two people were instrumental helping these women get their veteran legislation: Col. Bruce Arnold, the son of the commanding general of the Army Air Force in WWII who wanted to see the WASP militarized; and Senator Barry Goldwater who had flown with the WASP.
5. This isn’t the first petition the WASP have used. A newsletter from 1976 referenced several petitions the women has started to help get their veteran status. One had more than 20,000 signatures. And Terry remembers one WASP set up a table outside of a Star Wars premiere asking for signatures. You might say petitioning is a long-term strategy.
6. When the law was passed that gave them veteran status, the WASP became celebrities. The events and panels were non-stop from the late 1970s. Erin notes that as a kid she thought it was normal to have a grandma who was invited to the White House and was recognized at airshows. Elaine still received 4-5 letters a week asking for autographs or photos until she passed away.
7. Elaine and Terry attended many WASP funerals at Arlington. This made the denial of inurnment so much more shocking. Terry’s first thought: she was glad she didn’t have to tell her mother, whose hand-written last wish was to be inurned there. Her second thought: she couldn’t believe that she would have to tell the WASP that they would have to fight to be recognized as veterans again.
8. The petition quickly caught global attention. After starting the petition with her sister’s, Erin posted it on social and went door-to-door asking neighbors to sign it. In three days, it reached 5,000 signatures and caught the attention of the local news. A few days later, the AP picked up the story, taking it global. A barrage of media followed.
9. Erin has visited more than 100 offices on Capitol Hill during this campaign. The petition is asking for legislation to be passed to make sure all WASP can be inurned at Arlington. But a petition alone doesn’t make legislation pass. Erin has visited representatives and senators to rally support and co-sponsors for the bill. She said that members of Congress have been quick to sign on, especially when they see the support for the petition.
The bill Erin is lobbying for is the WASP Arlington Inurnment Restoration (AIR) Act. Introduced by Representative Martha McSally, it would overturn a 2015 decision by the Secretary of the Army that denied the WASP inurnment, which they had since 2002.
The Act was co-sponsored by 163 House members and unanimously passed on March 23. Now, the Miller sisters, their mother Terry, and all of their supporters are waiting for similar legislation to be passed in the Senate.
Speaking of all that has happened over the last couple of months, Terry said:
“I’m not surprised. I traveled with my mother, I know a lot of these WASP. Since they were recognized as veterans in the 1970s, they’ve been treated just wonderfully, like they should be. So I was counting on support from Congress, but I really didn’t expect it to be as...passionate as it is.”
Make sure to check back for news on the Senate vote. And make sure to tell us what you think about the campaign in the comments.