Family Prevails in Fight to Bury Female World War II Pilot in Arlington

PHOTO: This Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), provided by the family, taken in the 1940s, shows Elaine Harmon. PlayAP Photo
WATCH Family Prevails in Fight to Bury Female World War II Pilot in Arlington

Elaine Harmon answered her country’s call during World War II, serving as part of the Army's Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) program.

More than 40 years after the war's end, Harmon has won another battle: the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Harmon died in April 2015 at age 95. Her dying wish, according to a letter she wrote to her family, was to have her ashes interred at the cemetery's Columbarium. But her family's request was initially denied when the gates of Arlington were closed to WASPs in 2015 because of a ruling that reversed the right for WASPs to be interred there.

"When I was told by Arlington that my mother couldn’t be buried here, I told them that there is something wrong that they needed to check, because I had attended three services for WASPs with my mother here and I knew that in 1977 they had earned their veterans benefits, which included burial here at Arlington Cemetery,” daughter Terry Harmon told ABC News today.

“So I was just devastated and I was so glad that my mother did not hear this news.”

The Harmon family eventually petitioned on to reverse the decision that denied Harmon’s burial.

After months of work and hundreds of thousands of signatures, dozens of family members, friends, WASPs, service members and distinguished guests gathered today at Arlington National Cemetery for the burial service of Harmon.

WASPs in attendance like Shirley Kruse said, "For someone to step forward and fight for us is really gratifying."

Harmon's remains were interred in Columbarium Court 9 with standard military honors, including a casket team, firing party, bugler and military flyover. Air Force Capt. Jenifer Lee presented the U.S. flag to Harmon's daughter Terry, who worked tirelessly to have her mother's remains interred at Arlington.

In the reception after Harmon's burial, Terry Harmon said, "My mother's last dying wish was to have her remains in Arlington. She also asked us not to make a fuss, but thanks to you all for making a fuss."

Arlington National Cemetery "didn’t ever say, ‘Yes, she can be buried here,’" Harmon said. "Once the president signed Martha McSally’s bill H.R.4336, I just called Arlington up and said I am ready to schedule my mother’s service."

Elaine Harmon was born in Baltimore, where she spent most of her life, except for her time in the service. Family and friends described Harmon as "very patriotic, independent and fun loving."

"Thirty-eight women gave their lives during WWII and now the final barriers have been taken down for WASPs," U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said during the program. "Finally the fight is over and WASPs will be honored on their own merit."

McSally, a 26-year Air Force veteran, first U.S. woman to fly in combat and first woman to command a fighter squad, worked with the Harmon family to get legislation signed so that WASPs could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

With fewer than 100 WASPs still alive, McSally said there was a sense of urgency to have an act of Congress pass this legislation. On May 20, 2016, President Obama signed H.R.4336, an act to provide for the inurnment in Arlington National Cemetery of the remains of those whose service has been determined to be active service.

Harmon's family fulfilled her dying wish, and she now flies and rests in peace in a sacred place.

"When the Army needed them, these women stepped up, they did something extraordinary that will always be memorialized," Terry Harmon said.