Millions of American women served their country during World War II, but few served with greater distinction, determination or bravery than the intrepid female aviators of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. As the first American women ever trained to pilot military aircraft, the WASPs were pioneers in what until then had been an exclusively male domain — and they made the most of it, flying thousands of missions delivering warplanes from factories to front-line units, ferrying sensitive military cargos and performing countless other hazardous wartime duties. Yet until recently their contributions never received the official recognition their exploits deserved.
That is why we are heartened that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has joined a growing number of federal lawmakers pressing the Army to allow those who took up the challenge of becoming WASPs to be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery, where the ashes of veterans of the nation's wars are housed within its Niche Wall. Because the WASPs were recruited from civilian women who were never formally inducted into the military, they were considered civil service and, unlike their male counterparts, were not eligible to receive military benefits. The legislation introduced by Ms. Mikulski and others would clear the way for the nation to finally honor in full the service of these intrepid fliers.
More than 1,000 women — including 14 Marylanders — flew for the Army Air Forces during the war, and 38 lost their lives in the line of duty. WASPs who were killed in training accidents or on active duty were sent home at their families' expense without traditional military honors or notes of heroism. Not until 1977, when the official records of their service were declassified, did their contributions to the war effort become more widely known.
That year President Jimmy Carter signed legislation granting the WASPs full military status for their service, and in 1984 they were awarded the World War II Victory Medal and other belated military honors, many of which were accepted by the fliers' descendants on their behalf. Finally, in 2009 President Barack Obama and Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the nation's pioneering women military aviators. "The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation," Mr. Obama said. "Every American should be grateful for their service."
Among the surviving WASPs who attended the ceremony that day was Elaine D. Hamon, a Baltimore native who became a student pilot while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in the 1930s and learned to fly Piper Cubs at College Park Airport. After war broke out she applied to the WASPs and after successfully completing her training was assigned to Nellis Air Base near Las Vegas, where she ferried various military aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Harmon had wanted to have her ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery, whose superintendent allowed the practice for former WASPs. But last March former Army Secretary John McHugh reversed that policy shortly after Harmon's death. It was the kind of injustice that had long typified the government's treatment of these pioneering female military aviators, who were forced to stoically endure the discrimination practiced by their male counterparts without complaint throughout their wartime careers.
Yet their contributions helped win the war and paved the way for future generations of women to succeed in what is still an unapologetically macho culture among military pilots. The WASPs served our country well in its hour of need, as President Obama acknowledged, and it's altogether appropriate that Ms. Mikulski — a pioneering figure herself as the first Democratic female senator elected in her own right — should be among the strongest voices demanding recognition for their role in bringing the colossal conflict that was World War II to a victorious end.