If you haven't been to Arlington Cemetery in the last several years, you may not recognize the memorial shown above. It is the "Women in Military Service for America" memorial and it stands near the gate of the cemetery.
The women's memorial is intended to recall all women who gave their lives in military service. But there's one group of servicewomen who were nearly forgotten by the Government with respect to recognition. That group is the Women's Airforce Service Pilots ("WASPs") of World War II. These were the first women pilots employed by the United States military.
The government first used women to fly military airplanes in 1942. The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was formed in September of that year under the command of Nancy Love at New Castle Army Air Base, Delaware. This unit ferried aircraft from factories to airfields, freeing the male pilots for combat duty.
In 1943, the Army activated the 319th Women's Flying Training Detahcment at Ellington Army Air Field, near Houston, Texas. The commander was renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran. Later, the two women's flying units were combined under the name "Women's Airforce Service Pilots." Cochran was given overall command, and training was moved to Avenger Field near Sweetwater, Texas.
The women pilots flew almost every military aircraft in the U.S. inventory. In addition to ferrying duty, the WASPs towed targets for live-fire antiaircraft exercises, trained male pilots in some of the advanced aircraft, flew simulated bomb and strafing runs for training combat troops, and performed other flying duties when and where necessary to relieve male pilots.
On March 3, 1943, Margaret Sanford Oldenberg of Contra Costa County, California, became the first WASP to die in the line of duty when her plane crashed five miles from the airfield. Overall, thirty-eight women were killed in the line of duty.
But the Government did not consider the WASPs to be service veterans. They were therefore entitled to no medals, and no funeral honors. That changed somewhat in 1977 when Congress passed a law permitting the Secretary of Dfense to recognize the WASPs as having performed military duty. Despite this change in status, the Army, which operates Arlington National Cemetery, refused to allow WASP members to be buried there until 2002.
In 2002, former WASP Irene Kinne Englund died at age 84. Her family attempted to have her buried at Arlington based on her WASP service. They were told that she eligible, but onl;y because her husband was a World War II veteran, not because of her own service. Her daughter, Judith Englund, took up the cause for her mother and all WASPs. Several months later, the Army changed its mind.
One June 15, 2002, WASP Irene Kinne Englund became the first of her sisters of the air to have a full military funeral at Arlington.
Cross-posted at Geneablogie.