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Why female pilots of WWII are still fighting for full military honors

Despite confusions over jurisdiction, both the Pentagon and Congress now support allowing the female veterans military interment and honors at the Arlington National Cemetery. 

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Wearing her WASP uniform from World War II, Eleanor Brown of Victoria, Texas, attended a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Capitol Hill March 10, 2010 to honor the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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When the United States faced a severe shortage of pilots in 1942, military leaders took a chance on an experimental program: the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP for short. And to the surprise of the men in charge, it was a roaring success.

But until 1977, the 1,100-some female pilots were not considered military members. Even now, their fight for recognition from the US government continues: The Army currently does not allow the World War II veterans's ashes to be interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

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But that could soon change.

Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy called on Congress Wednesday to reverse a decision by his predecessor that prohibited the WASPs from receiving military honors and burial at the prestigious military cemetery. Problem is, there seems to be confusion about which government branch can make the change.

Following Mr. Murphy’s statements, a bipartisan group of lawmakers looked to the White House, demanding that the executive branch intervene. Still, they promised legislative action to honor the female veterans.

"[Murphy] seems to think that no one in the executive branch has the authority to let the WASPs in as a group," Rep. Martha McSally (R) of Arizona, said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "He said the fastest way to fix this is an act of Congress, which sounds sort of ironic."

Ms. McSally, the sponsor of the bill in Congress, is a retired Air Force fighter pilot. Despite Murphy’s support for commemorating the WASPs, 112 of whom are still living, the congresswoman is skeptical of the president’s lack of authority over the issue.

“At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform,” she said in a statement.

“These women fought, and died, in service to their country. They trained in the military style: sleeping on metal cots, marching and living under military discipline. They deserve the full honors we give our war heroes, and I’ll continue to fight until they get them.”

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During the duration of the pilot program, the women were considered civilian volunteers despite the dangers they faced in their missions. In 1977, Congress passed a piece of legislation that retroactively granted them active-duty status and thereby deemed them veterans for the first time. According to Bernice "Bee" Falk Haydu, a WASP pilot from Montclair, N.J., it was the first time all female members of Congress co-sponsored the same bill.

But it wasn’t until 2002 that the Arlington National Cemetery approved the WASPs for military honors and burial there. Then, last year, Army Secretary John McHugh revoked this decision, citing logistical err on the part of cemetery officials. Since then, WASP pilots have been barred from the cemetery.

Because of limited capacity, Arlington has strict rules of qualification for in-ground burial. Not even all World War II veterans are eligible.

But for placement of ashes, or above-ground inurnment, the policy is less strict. Eligibility applies for "any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably,” the rules say.

Murphy, in response to McSally’s probe, blamed the confusing language of the 1977 law for the president’s lack of jurisdiction.

“Congress needs to change what Congress changed back in 1977,” he said. “I can’t do that. The secretary of Defense can’t do that. The commander-in-chief can’t.”

In the course of WASP’s two-year program, 25,000 women applied to take part in missions. Just under 1,100 earned their wings. Their missions involved transporting aircraft from factories to air bases, towing aerial targets for the infantry, flying tracking missions, simulated bombing, and testing radio-controlled aircraft, and instructing trainees. These assignments were not without casualties: 38 women died during service.

In 2010, about 200 of the surviving female aviators, mostly in their late 80s and early 90s, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. And even though their quest for full military recognition continues, the WASPs victoriously paved the way for the thousands of women who would enlist the Air Force after them.

And despite the rampant sexism of their time, they proved their worth.

“Now in 1944,” then-commanding general of the US Army Air Forces Henry "Hap" Arnold said, “it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”