Women pilots who served in WWII can't have ashes laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery

The ashes of World War II veteran Elaine Harmon are sitting in a closet in her daughter's home, where they will remain until they can go to what her family says is her rightful resting place: Arlington National Cemetery.

Harmon piloted aircraft in World War II under a special program, Women Airforce Service Pilots, that flew noncombat missions to free up male pilots for combat. Granted veteran status in 1977, the WASPs have been eligible to have their ashes placed at Arlington with military honors since 2002.

But earlier this year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed course and ruled WASPs ineligible.

After Harmon died in April at age 95, her daughter, Terry Harmon, 69, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was dismayed to learn that the Army had moved to exclude WASPs. She said her mother had helped lead the effort to gain recognition for WASPs.

"These women have been fighting this battle, off and on, for over 50 years now," she said.

Harmon's family and others are working to overturn McHugh's directive. A petition on change.org has received more than 4,000 signatures. Harmon also hopes Congress will ask incoming Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning about the issue at his upcoming confirmation hearing.

McHugh's memo, which Terry Harmon obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, says Army lawyers reviewed the rules in 2014 and determined that WASPs and other World War II veterans classified as "active duty designees" are not eligible for inurnment -- placement of their urns in an above-ground structure at Arlington. The largest group affected by the memo is actually the Merchant Marine, nearly 250,000 of whose members served during World War II.

The WASP program was much smaller -- just over 1,000 women were accepted into the program, which ran from 1942 to 1944.

In a statement, Army spokesman Paul Prince said the cemetery superintendent in 2002 had no authority to allow WASPS' remains into the cemetery. Under federal law, he said, WASPs are eligible only for burial at cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs -- not Arlington National Cemetery, which is run by the Army.

Kate Landdeck, a Texas Woman's University history professor who has focused much of her academic research on WASPs, said she doesn't understand the rationale for the Army going out of its way to exclude this group of women from Arlington after they had been deemed eligible for over a decade without controversy.

WASPs "are a distinct group of women with the surviving 100-or-so women all in their 90s," she said. "It is just mean-spirited for the Secretary of the Army to question their value to their country. Again."

Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, who commanded the Army Air Forces in World War II, created the WASP unit in 1942 with the intention of granting it full military status, but Congress never approved it.

So the WASPs served as a paramilitary unit, subject to military discipline and staying in barracks, Landdeck said. They test-flew repaired military aircraft, trained combat pilots and towed airborne targets that other pilots fired at with live ammunition during training.

Arlington is running out of space and faces ongoing pressure over its eligibility requirements. Tight rules spell out whose ashes can be laid to rest there, and even tighter rules spell out who is eligible for in-ground burial, which place a greater strain on the cemetery's capacity. Harmon's family says the WASPs aren't asking for anything beyond what they earned: eligibility for placement of ashes. And they say the impact on cemetery capacity would be minimal, given that so few World War II veterans remain.

Harmon's granddaughter, Erin Miller, said her grandmother, a Maryland native, had specifically requested her ashes go to Arlington.

"My grandmother is from here," Miller said. "Arlington is kind of our local national cemetery."

In an interview archived with the Library of Congress, Elaine Harmon recalled she needed permission from her skeptical father to begin training as a pilot while a student at the University of Maryland.

"Back in those days, women weren't expected do things like this, and so many people were against the idea of women flying, endangering their lives," she said in the interview.