WWII Female Flier Gets Arlington Honors

June marks the observance of the 227th anniversary of the U.S. Army. And this year's commemoration brings long-overdue recognition for a special group of Army veterans.

Irene Englund was part of an elite group of World War II pioneers, chronicled in movie newsreels of the time.

They were called WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots. A total of 1,074 were recruited by the Army to fly military aircraft on domestic missions, freeing up male pilots for combat duty.

Englund and the other WASPs ferried supplies, personnel, bombers and other planes. They even towed targets for gunnery practice. As Englund told an interviewer in 1986, "I just wanted to fly and it was a great opportunity."

The WASPs flew 60 million miles for the Army, and 38 of them died in the line of duty.

Former WASP Lorraine Rodgers said the fliers were always aware of being the military's first female pilots. "We realized that we were under constant scrutiny," she said. "But we did prove that we could do it."

A Daughter’s Campaign

When Englund died four months ago at the age of 85, her daughter Julie learned that there was more for the WASPs to prove.

Julie Englund knew that her mother believed she would be entitled to a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, complete with military honors. That was the same ceremony Englund's husband, a World War II Navy lieutenant, received when he died in 1996.

However, Julie Englund was told that despite congressional legislation giving the WASPs veteran status, the women were not entitled to military funeral honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I was shocked," she said. "I was disappointed and shocked."

Julie Englund, dean for administration at Harvard Law School, set out to change that policy. She wrote highly visible editorials appearing in The Washington Post and other papers on behalf of her mother and the 500 surviving WASPS.

She wrote: "It is difficult to believe that … the sponsors of the 1997 legislation granting veterans' status to the WASPs intended for Arlington National Cemetery to treat these pilots differently from their male counterparts. The 1,074 WASPs served their country with equal dedication and devotion. It would be a shame to treat the Greatest Generation as if it were only male."

"I felt that it was very important to see that their service to the nation was honored," she said.

Her campaigned worked. The policy was changed last week. And in a somber ceremony under gray skies on Flag Day, Irene Englund became the first WASP to receive burial honors at Arlington: The first to receive a rifle salute, the first for whom "Taps" was played.

After more than a half a century, the WASPs have finally won full recognition.