Angelos - Winter 2017

Soaring to Victory

Sherry Egan Anderson, Angelos Editor 2016-12-17 22:48:13

At the height of World War II, Elaine Danforth Harmon, Alpha Rho-Maryland, answered the call to duty. On Sept. 7, 2016, Elaine's ashes were inurned at Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's historic military cemetery; however, her brave journey to her final resting place was not easy. Elaine served with the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first group of American women to provide air support for the U.S. military around the world. The day she began her basic training in April 1944, she wrote in her diary: "We were informed that we were being offered the most wonderful opportunity ever offered to women and to take advantage of it." When the WASP organized in 1942, the need for their assistance was great, but many questioned if women would be up to the task of flying military planes. It was decided they would fly stateside, ferrying planes, towing equipment and gunnery targets, and flying in the cockpit with male pilots as they practiced instrument flying with their vision impaired. The latter task – making sure the planes didn't crash during training – was Elaine's job. More than 25,000 women applied to WASP, 1,800 were accepted, and 1,074 earned their wings. Thirty-eight died during active service. Collectively, they flew 77 kinds of airplanes for 60 million miles before the program was discontinued in December 1944. The Army Air Forces had told the WASP members they would receive official military status, but they were paid less than their male counterparts doing many of the same jobs, and they received none of the insurance or other benefits granted to the men. The bodies of those who died were brought home at their families' expense, and they were buried without military recognition. Elaine was in her senior year at the University of Maryland when she saw an ad seeking volunteers for a civilian pilot training program sponsored by the U.S. government. She was a UM cheerleader, an academic scholar, an athlete and vice president of her Kappa Delta chapter, but the ad seeking pilots was the first thing that truly interested her, according to Final Approach, an article published by the University of Maryland. Under the age requirement, Elaine had to obtain her father's permission for flying lessons while still attending school. Elaine graduated in 1940 with a degree in microbiology, one of the few degree fields beyond teaching and nursing that were available to women at the time. "I never really knew what I wanted to do, "she told the Women Veterans Historical Project in 2006, but when she read about the WASPs in a 1943 issue of Life magazine, she was inspired to join. Elaine had married into a family that shared her passion for flying. Her father-in-law was a prominent World War I pilot, and her brother- in-law was a WWII bomber pilot. Her husband, Robert, could not fly because of a heart defect, but he repaired military aircraft and was stationed in the Pacific when he encouraged Elaine to apply to the WASP. In April 1944, Elaine reported for basic training at Avenger Field in Texas. She and the other trainees spent their mornings in the classroom and their afternoons flying military planes. "It was strictly military." Harmon said in the 2006 women's project interview. "We went to bed at night with taps, and we got up in the morning with reveille." Author Chris Carroll wrote in Final Approach: "She was initially put off by the brash attitudes of many of the young women she encountered. 'I'm not going to like these women,' she recalled thinking. 'They're so confident and full of themselves.' "Yet, Elaine proved to be just as confident and also daring. The UM article shares the following story: "On a training run over Munday, a small Texas town that was home to a class member with whom she'd become close friends, she engaged in her only instance of Top Gun-style hotdogging. She decided to fly low and give the residents a wakeup call. 'I got to buzzing, and I thought, oh, this is great fun,' she said. 'I kept buzzing and buzzing, and I looked over, and there was an instructor.' "She returned sheepishly to base, worried she'd be expelled. The only problem was, the instructor who'd spotted her antics didn't know who was flying the plane – only that it was a member of a training group where everyone's name began with an H. When he confronted the instructor in charge of her own group, Harmon's squeaky-clean reputation saved her. 'It could have been House, Hershey or Hughes, but it could never have been Harmon,' her instructor said. Unsure whom to blame, they dropped the matter." When the war ended and the WASP disbanded, Elaine and Robert returned home to Maryland where they raised their family. Robert, a patent attorney, passed away in 1965. Elaine's time as a WASP may have remained a private memory or a story shared only with family if not for this event: In 1975, the United States Air Force Academy announced women would be admitted for the first time, implying that it also would be the first time American women would fly military planes. Realizing they should have made a greater fuss when the WASP disbanded, Elaine and other WASP members initiated efforts to find each other and finally claim the recognition – and military benefits – to which they were entitled. Although Elaine never flew in combat, she made it possible for others to defend the United States, and a generation later, she took on a new battle in the nation's capital, fighting for the WASP to be recognized as war veterans and entitled to the same rights afforded to the men who served. Elaine was among the WASP who testified before Congress about their role in the war effort, and in 1977, Congress granted them veteran's status. Elaine spent the rest of her life visiting schools, museums and conferences to educate others about the WASP. Erin Miller, writing about her grandmother at the, says: "I only lived two miles away from my grandmother when I was growing up, so I saw her frequently in uniform. It was normal to me to have a grandmother who had flown planes in World War II. I did not realize until I was older that she did all that work not only for her love of service, but also as a necessity for continuing the legacy of the WASP." Erin recalls Elaine's patriotism, always flying a flag at her home; her zest for life, enthusiastically celebrating holidays; and her adventurous spirit, bungee jumping in New Zealand when she turned 8o. "She liked to push us to pursue our dreams and be independent," Erin says. Before Elaine died at age 95 in April 2015, following a long battle with breast cancer, she believed her ashes would be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery. She didn't know that about a month before her death, then Secretary of the Army John McHugh had overturned the decision to include the WASP, citing they were eligible for burial at cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs but not Arlington, which is under the Army's jurisdiction. Elaine's family, including daughter Terry Harmon, Phi Epsilon-Colorado State, saw this as another sign of disrespect for the WASP. Granddaughters Erin, Tiffany and Whitney launched a campaign on and garnered the support of Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who flew A-10 Warthogs over Iraq and Kuwait. McSally introduced a bill in the House to overturn McHugh's decision, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Sen. Joni Ernst sponsored similar legislation in the Senate. The bill was approved less than five months later, and in May 2016, President Obama signed the legislation making it possible for Elaine's ashes to be inurned at Arlington. McSally spoke at Elaine's funeral, telling those gathered: "These were feisty, brave, adventurous, patriotic women." "It seemed like a big obstacle in the beginning," Erin says, "But fortunately, we found the right people to help us. It was the right thing to do." Erin, an attorney in Maryland, is carrying on her grandmother's mission to educate others about the women who helped the nation win World War II and preserve the military rights they deserve. She is writing a book about the WASP called Final Flight Final Fight and speaking to groups just as her grandmother did. Nearly a year after her grandmother passed away, she gave her first official talk at a middle school. Erin shares, "I had been so focused on fighting bureaucracy; I had a sudden realization of why I am doing all this – because she isn't here anymore." On that beautiful day last September, Elaine's journey came to an end as her ashes were inurned at Arlington. A flag was held over her urn during the ceremony. A bugler in the distance played taps. A rifle team shot three volleys into the blue sky. And the Army's P-51 Mustangs flew overhead. Elaine's spirit no doubt soared with them. To learn more about Elaine Harmon and/or other WASP members, go to: Final Approach by Chris Carroll, WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds by Sarah Byrn Rickman, Beta Tau-Vanderbilt MARCH IS WOMEN' S HISTORY MONTH. Look for more stories about notable Kappa Deltas on social media and at

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