Congress Passes Legislation Finally Allowing WASP Burials in Arlington

Legislation has passed Congress allowing the cremated remains of women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The legislation now moves to President Obama to await his signature.

The WASP were the first women to fly combat aircraft. They were used during World War II to fly noncombat and training missions. This freed up male pilots to fly in combat.

38 female pilots died in service, including 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, MI. She died when her plane crashed as she was returning from a night training exercise at Camp Davis in North Carolina.

According to another WASP, Marion Hanrahan, who witnessed the crash:“I knew Mabel very well. We were both scheduled to check out on night flight in the A-24. My time preceded hers, but she offered to go first because I hadn’t had dinner yet. We were in the dining room and heard the siren that indicated a crash. We ran out onto the field. We saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire, and we could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare.”

“It’s believed that Rawlinson’s hatch malfunctioned, and she couldn’t get out. The other pilot was thrown from the plane and suffered serious injuries. Because Rawlinson was a civilian, the military was not required to pay for her funeral or pay for her remains to be sent home.”

WASP spent years attempting to receive war veteran status, which was finally recognized by federal law in 1977. Because of their war veteran status, they were eligible for the privilege of having their ashes interred in Arlington. That changed in 2015 when the Army revoked that right, claiming that Arlington was running out of space.

“The Army is giving some bureaucratic answer that makes absolutely no sense,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. McSally introduced the legislation to allow the WASP the honor of being buried at Arlington.

“These women should have been active duty at the time,” McSally said. “The requirements to being in Arlington are very clear – to have your ashes inurned you have to have served on active duty and you have to have been honorably discharged. And they meet those criteria retroactively.”

Over 1100 women flew military aircraft, including the B-26 and B-29 bombers, as part of the program. All were considered civilian volunteers at the time.

Their service included ferrying planes from factories to military bases, testing overhauled planes, and towing targets for ground and air gunners to practice shooting with live ammunition. They expected that they would become part of the military, but the program was canceled after two years instead.

Their legacy lived on, however. In 2010, Congress awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor it can give.

94-year-old Nell Bright, one of approximately 100 living WASPs, feels that being buried in Arlington is something more than a personal award. “It’s a great honor to be buried at Arlington,” she said. “I think that the WASP deserve to have that honor.”

McSally agrees. She calls the worry over space in Arlington “sexism.”

“I realize that at some point they are going to run out of space at Arlington. We understand that,” the congresswoman said. “But look, when we are totally out of space … why would we not want to have the story of the WASP as part of that legacy?”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE