Today – September 9, 2106 – I was heartened to find an article in The New York Times, illustrated with a lovely full-color photograph of the interment in Arlington National Cemetery of the cremated remains of Elaine D. Harmon, a veteran World War II pilot in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a pioneering Army unit known as WASPs. The media called the 1,102 women pilots”Flygirls.” (1,074 new recruits, plus 28 WAFS, Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) They logged over 60 million miles in the air, ferrying 78 different types of aircraft from factories to repair bases to front-line airfields, towing targets in training exercises, and flight-testing planes. The unit was not set up as part of the military so the thirty-eight WASPS who died were refused a military burial. In June 1944, efforts were made to officially recognize and militarize the WASP, but Congress refused. The end of the war was in sight and the pressure was on to move women out of the workforce to accommodate the returning men. The WASPS were unceremoniously disbanded in Dec. 1944, with no benefits. Efforts to rectify the injustice finally forced Congress to officially recognize WASPS as members of the military, thirty-three years later, in 1977. In 1910 they received the Congressional God Medal.
There’s a section titled “When I Die . . .,” about last wishes in my book, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. Elaine Harmon, who died in 2015 at the age of ninety-five, wrote her last wish on WASP stationery and left in a fireproof file box for her family to discover: “I would like to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.” I had the honor of meeting Elaine Harmon in 2012 at an event, “Honoring Maryland’s ‘Rosies'” sponsored by the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center in Baltimore. As you see in the photographs, she still fit into her WASP uniform. The woman seated with Harmon is Mary L. Cleave, a former NASA astronaut, who flew on two space missions. Although some WASPS had been buried in Arlington, a ruling was issued in 2015 that there was no room for any more! It took the activism of Harmon’s family and the support of two female veterans in Congress to get legislation passed, overturning that ruling. President Obama signed the bill in May 2016.
The New York Times’ article quoted a stanza from “Celestial Flight” written by Elizabeth “Kit” MacKethan Magid, a WASP, in memory of her best friend and classmate Marie Michell Robinson, who died in a crash of a B-25. They had promised each other that if one of them died the other would visit the grieving mother. Shortly before she left to attend her friend’s memorial service in Michigan, Magid was flying and fantasized that her friend was alive. When she landed she founded a quiet place in the Operations Room and wrote, “Celestial Flight.” Here is the entire poem:: She is not dead – /But only flying higher,/ Higher than she’s flown before/And earthly limitations will hinder her no more./There is no service ceiling,/ Or any fuel range,/And there is no anoxia,/ Or need for engine change./Thank God that now her flight can be/To heights her eyes had scanned,/Where she can race with comets,/And buzz the rainbow’s span./For she is universal/ Like courage, love and hope,/And all free, sweet emotions /Of vast and Godly scope./And understand a pilot’s Fate/ is not the thing she fears,/But rather sadness left behind,/ Your heartbreak and your tears./So all you loved ones, dry your eyes,/Yes, it is wrong that you should grieve,/For she would love your courage more,/And she would want you to believe/She is not dead./You should have known/That she is only flying higher/Higher than she’s ever flown./ Elizabeth Magid died in 2004 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. In 2005 a group of amateur aviation archeologists located the crash site in the Mojave Desert and discovered items belonging to Marie Michell Robinson, including her WASP lapel insignia.