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Congress Approves Arlington Cemetery Burials For Female WWII Pilots

WASP (from left) Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their B-17, called Pistol Packin' Mama, during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Air Force base in Ohio. They're carrying their parachutes.

Congress has passed legislation to allow the cremated remains of women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, to be buried in the revered Arlington National Cemetery, a space reserved for people who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

The legislation will now go to President Obama for his signature.

In the 1940s, when the U.S. was faced with a shortage of pilots, the WASP became the first women to fly military aircraft. Training women to fly noncombat and training missions freed up male pilots for combat duty overseas, as NPR's Susan Stamberg reported for Morning Edition in 2010.

But the female pilots' jobs weren't without danger. In fact, 38 female pilots died in service, including 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, Mich. Susan reported:

"Rawlinson was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina. She was coming back from a night training exercise with her male instructor when the plane crashed. Marion Hanrahan, also a WASP at Camp Davis, wrote an eyewitness account:

" '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."

Now, the question regarding the WASP remains is about to be settled once and for all.

As NPR and WBUR's Here & Now reported earlier this year, the WASP spent years fighting to win status as war veterans before a federal law finally recognized their military service in 1977. As veterans, the WASP had been eligible for years to have their ashes buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But that changed last year, when the Army revoked their right to be laid to rest in the veterans cemetery, citing limited space.

"The Army is giving some bureaucratic answer that makes absolutely no sense," said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., on Here & Now in March. 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 that criteria retroactively."

More than 1,100 young women, who were all considered civilian volunteers during the war, "flew almost every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers — as part of the WASP program," Susan reported. She added:

"They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition. The WASP expected to become part of the military during their service. Instead, the program was canceled after just two years."

But the women's service to the country was not forgotten. In 2010, U.S. lawmakers awarded the WASP the highest honor Congress can bestow: the Congressional Gold Medal.

Burial in Arlington, however, transcends personal awards, as 94-year-old Nell Bright, one of about 100 WASP who are still living, told Here & Now.

"Its a great honor to be buried at Arlington," she said. "I think that the WASP deserve to have that honor."

McSally agrees, dismissing lingering concerns about space as "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?"

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