by Tiffany Miller
Our grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, was born December 26th, 1919 in Baltimore, Maryland to a pro baseball player turned dentist and a homemaker.
Elaine attended the University of Maryland, majoring in Bacteriology. While in college, she saw a flyer for the Civil Aeronautics Authority Program. Excited at the thought of learning to fly, she sent the parent permission slip to her father’s office, because she knew her mother would find the idea “unladylike”. Her father promptly returned the signed permission slip, along with the $40 fee required for the course. After college, Elaine married her college sweetheart, Robert. Both of them greatly wanted to contribute to the war effort. Robert was unable to join the military due to a heart defect, so he obtained a civilian position in the South Pacific repairing military aircraft. Before he left, he and Elaine happened to see an article about the WASP in Life magazine. Robert encouraged Elaine to follow her dreams and join the WASP program.
Elaine was accepted into WASP class 44-9 and reported to Sweetwater, Texas for training. Upon completion of her training, she was stationed at Nellis Air Base near Las Vegas. During her career, she flew the AT-6 Texan, PT-17 trainer and BT-13 trainer, and was a co-pilot on the B-17 Flying Fortress.
After the WASP were disbanded, Elaine worked as an Air Traffic Controller at the Oakland Airport, awaiting her husband’s return from the South Pacific. She was standing in front of the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square in San Francisco on V-J Day.
Once reunited, Elaine and Robert returned to Maryland and raised a family together; two sons and two daughters.
Growing up with Elaine, or Gammy as we grandkids called her (there were 12 of us in all!), as the matriarch of our family always ensured that life would be interesting and fun.
Gammy would dress up as the Easter bunny for Easter, Uncle Sam for the 4th of July and her favorite---a witch for Halloween.
Whether she was sewing a dress for one of us, correcting our grammar, creating a mini-Fifinella (the WASP mascot) out of crepe paper, or recounting one of her many travel adventures she did it with gusto. Indeed she signed all of her correspondence with her favorite motto - Carpe Diem, or Seize the Day.
Gammy's experience with the WASP colored the rest of her life. As her grandkids, we watched her prep to testify for Congress on behalf of the WASP, we attended WWII events with her where she appeared in uniform, we celebrated when she went up in a T-6 fighter plane at 86 years old, and we saw the fan mail she received from students who had learned about her in school and wanted an autograph. To us it seemed normal to have a grandmother who flew planes in WWII so it was sometimes unbelievable to us when we met people who had never heard of the WASP.
Gammy took her final flight April 21, 2015. It was her last wish to be inurned in Arlington National Cemetery with other WASP and fellow veterans. Unfortunately, our family was devastated to discover shortly after Gammy’s passing that the Army had enacted a policy to exclude the WASP from Arlington.
Our grandmother had fought for decades to secure recognition and benefits for the WASP. Yet, here we were, 70 years after WWII and our family was being told that our grandmother was not a “real” veteran; that her service wasn’t sufficient to earn her a spot in Arlington. It was the ultimate insult. Our mother’s first thought was that she was glad that she didn’t have to tell Gammy what happened, but at the same time she was sad that she would have to break this news to the WASP who were still with us.
Thankfully, Gammy’s resilience and tenacity runs deep in our family. We knew that Gammy would not take no for an answer and so it was up to us to fight this last fight for her. We posted a petition at Change.org and began a social media campaign to raise awareness about this injustice.
After only a few months, the press caught onto the story and the issue came to the attention of Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona, who was one of the first American woman fighter pilots to fly in combat. Throughout her career as a pilot, Rep McSally had several WASP who served as mentors. She knew she had to make this right for our grandmother and all the WASP. She quickly authored HR 4336, the Women Airforce Service Pilot Arlington Inurnment Restoration (A.I.R.) Act.
A team effort ensued, including Representative McSally pushing hard to get her legislation expeditiously worked through the halls of Congress, Elaine's granddaughter Erin lobbying over a hundred legislators as well as other grandkids promoting the petition and reaching out to the press. As a result, in just a few short months, the WASP A.I.R. Act was approved by Congress and sent on to the Oval Office for final signature by President Obama.
The journey to ensure Gammy’s last wish to be inurned at Arlington was granted has been transformative. We have met many amazing and inspiring individuals and organizations along the way, such as the FlyGirls team!
Although losing Gammy was incredibly painful, it has been an honor to help preserve the WASP legacy in our own small way by ensuring that the WASP have the option to have their ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery. We will always remember our grandmother and how she lived every day to the fullest!
Elaine Danforth Harmon was laid to rest September 7, 2016 at Arlington National Cemetery.