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Initially denied the honor, World War II pilot Elaine Harmon is laid to rest at Arlington

Elaine Harmon died believing she would be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery. She was right.

Even in death, Elaine Harmon challenged convention.

The Baltimore native, one of some 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew noncombat missions for the United States during World War II, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday after her family successfully fought a decision to deny her the honor.

With P-51 Mustangs buzzing overhead and a bugler in the distance sounding taps, Harmon's final wish was realized — and her family celebrated the conclusion of an improbable campaign that took them all the way to the White House.

"When the Army desperately needed them, these trailblazing women stepped up to the task," said Terry Harmon, Elaine Harmon's daughter. "America and the world loves these women."

The WASPs — 14 of them Marylanders — delivered war planes, ferried cargo and towed targets for other pilots during the war.

Harmon, who learned to fly as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, signed up for the job in 1944 — over her mother's objections.

Since the war, the women and their descendants have had to fight for recognition — in part because the official record of their effort was classified for decades. The group was not granted veteran status until President Jimmy Carter signed legislation in 1977.

Harmon was at President Barack Obama's side in 2009 when he signed a law awarding the pilots the Congressional Gold Medal.

She died last year believing she would be inurned at Arlington. The cemetery's superintendent had approved the honor for the WASPs more than a decade earlier.

But Harmon did not know that the secretary of the army at the time, John McHugh, overturned the decision about a month before she died at 95.

McHugh, concerned about shrinking available space at the cemetery, ruled that the WASPs were eligible for burial only at cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans of Affairs. Arlington is run by the Army.

The decision drew outrage.

"I couldn't believe it," said Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican who flew A-10 Warthogs over Iraq and Kuwait.

"These were feisty, brave, adventurous, patriotic women," said McSally, a retired Air Force colonel. "The airplane doesn't care if you're a boy or a girl; they just care if you know how to fly and shoot straight."

McSally introduced a bill in the House to overturn McHugh's decision. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.

The bill moved through Congress with unusual speed, winning approval less than five months after introduction. The votes came so quickly, Terry Harmon said, that people thought the family had hired "a big-time K Street firm."

In May, Obama signed the legislation, which allows the ashes of the women to be inurned above ground alongside those of other service members. The rules surrounding who may be buried are stricter.

And so on Wednesday, Harmon's ashes were taken off the closet shelf where her family stored them during the ordeal and carried by an honor guard of airmen in dress-blue uniforms to a spot in the southeast corner of the cemetery.

The airmen held the flag over Harmon's padauk wood urn during a brief ceremony.

A rifle team fired three volleys under an almost cloudless sky. There were tears, but also a sense of celebration among the family.

"If the WASPs were good enough to fly and risk their lives for our country, they're good enough for Arlington," Mikulski said in a statement. "This is an honor Lieutenant Elaine Harmon and the WASPs have earned and deserve."

The WASPs logged 60 million miles flying missions across the United States between 1942 and 1944, when the program was disbanded. Thirty-eight of the pilots died in the line of duty. They were not granted military funerals then. Their families were responsible for bringing their bodies home.

Fewer than 100 WASPs are still living, a fact that McSally said gave a sense of urgency to the effort to open the cemetery's gates.

Harmon grew up on 34th Street and graduated in 1936 from Eastern High School. She studied bacteriology at the University of Maryland, joined the Civil Aeronautics Authority Program and learned to fly Piper Cubs at College Park Airport.

Harmon completed her training in 1944 at Avenger Field and was stationed at Nellis Air Base near Las Vegas. She flew the AT-6 Texan, the PT-17 and BT-13 trainers, and co-piloted the B-17 Flying Fortress.

Her family noted her love of Baltimore and Maryland. She often recalled childhood memories of roller skating in alleys and playing tennis at Druid Hill Park, they said.

After the WASPs program ended, Harmon returned home to Silver Spring, where she lived with her husband, Robert Harmon, a patent attorney, whom she married in 1941.

He died in 1965.

Her family described Harmon as an adventurous soul who continued to fly in her later years, even as she doted on children and grandchildren. Never timid, she decided to go bungee jumping in New Zealand when she turned 80.

It was that spirit, they said, that inspired their determination.

"It seemed like a very big obstacle in the beginning," said Erin Miller, a granddaughter who became the public face of the campaign and is now writing a book about the effort. "But my grandmother never would have taken 'no' for an answer."

Baltimore Sun reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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