In the News
Source: Wall Street Times
May 20 2016
By Ben Kesling
Female military pilots who served in WWII can officially have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery after a decades-long fight.
The veterans who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, have long fought for full burial rights, and can now be inurned in the nation’s most famous military cemetery following a bill signed by President Barack Obama Friday.
Mr. Obama didn't comment on the bill, but White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said last week that the president welcomed the legislation. The women’s ashes were being placed at Arlington’s columbarium starting in 2002, but the policy was reversed in 2015 because the Army determined it violated the law at the time.
“It is fitting these individuals should be duly honored with the opportunity to choose America’s most-hallowed military shrine as a final resting place,“ said Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning in a statement. ”It is nothing less than they deserve—the recognition of a grateful nation.”
In 1942, the Army Air Forces needed pilots but was sorely understaffed. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold formed auxiliary units made up of female pilots, all of them merging into a single unit in 1943. They were known as WASPs.
Women in the program flew aircraft from factories to bases and points of embarkation, and ferried officials around the country among other tasks in order to free up male pilots for combat duty.
More than 25,000 women originally applied for the job, and fewer than 2,000 were accepted. Of those, 1,074 graduated from training, according to the Department of Defense. The women had to pay their own way through basic training and buy their own dress uniforms, though they were paid as civil servants. During their service, 38 women died.
Congress disbanded the unit in December 1944 and the WASPs weren’t allowed to call themselves veterans, according to Department of Defense historians.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a law declaring the women to have been active duty service members and granting them veterans’ status, though with fewer privileges than other vets.
In that same year, the Air Force graduated its first female pilots, according to the service.
In 1984, WASPs were granted campaign or service medals for their time in WWII. And in 2010 the WASPs were presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, according to the Defense Department.
There are 104 WASPs still living, according to the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
The limited rights and increasing stature didn't include burial or inurnment at Arlington. In 2002, the cemetery authorized the women to have their ashes placed in its columbarium, but the policy was reversed in 2015. Then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh said the cemetery’s superintendent had overreached and federal law didn't support the decision.
The law signed Friday gives the women full access for their ashes to be placed at the cemetery along with full military honors. Burial at Arlington remains a right to only a subset of all veterans.
“Restoring what was once the right of the WASP to have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery is undoubtedly the right thing to do in honoring these extraordinary women for their remarkable military service,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) a co-sponsor of the legislation and a veteran herself.
—Byron Tau contributed to this article.