“I’m going to be the first! The youngest! The oldest! The [insert superlative here]!”
When people aspire to be a trailblazer, they often make it known. The public follows their journey. Cheering them along. And at times even supporting them financially or otherwise.
But what about the unintentional trailblazers? The ones who happened to be at a particular place. At a particular time. Doing their job. Responding to a crisis. Pursuing a sport or a hobby that they enjoy. Who are all of a sudden thrust into the spotlight? The ones who make history opening doors that should never have been closed?
An Unintentional Trailblazer
My grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (“WASP”) during World War II, the first group of female pilots to fly for the United States armed forces. The WASP flew from 1942 to 1944. Between the 1,102 women who served as WASP. The group flew a collective 60 million miles domestically in each type of airplane the U.S. Army had at the time – from training planes to the B-29 bomber. Thirty-eight WASP gave their lives in service to the United States of America.
My grandmother often related her desire to serve in the WASP as a patriotic duty. She had a pilot’s license. This was one of the requirements to apply to the program. She also wanted to support the war effort in the best way she could. I do not ever remember her saying she wanted to be the first woman to fly military planes or be some kind of feminist icon. She enjoyed her time with the WASP. She loved the friends she made at the time. And the new friends she made later when many of them traveled to attend air shows or give lectures. Most importantly, she loved the United States of America. She was proud to have played her part during World War II.
The history of WASP
Although the group is more recognized now than it once was. These pilots remain relatively obscure among the popular women studied during the month of March. Even folks who have heard of the WASP. Thanks to recognition efforts like the Congressional Gold Medal bill in 2009 (led by fellow trailblazer, Col. Nicole Malachowski (USAF, Ret.)). Also the countless lectures, public appearances, and media interviews done by WASP themselves. Fewer know about the arduous campaign decades after the war to recognize that trailblazing service in their quest for the simple title of “veteran.”
World War II required a quick response in the form of support from almost every person in the United States. Kids collected scraps, families reduced their consumption, women moved to factory jobs so men could fight overseas, and the WASP flew airplanes to free up male pilots for the same reason. Conspicuously delayed was the response of Congress to passing the legislation to admit this new group of women aviators into the Army Air Forces. Nonetheless, women like my grandmother wanted to serve the country and volunteered to fly planes in a civilian capacity while the bureaucrats did the paperwork, accepting this delay as a mere formality. Unfortunately, when the debate ended with a vote in Congress in the summer of 1944 against allowing women to serve as Army pilots, the women were already flying.
The WASP program was canceled on December 20, 1944.
Without the government ever officially giving military status to the WASP. Despite having done the same training and work as male pilots. The only exception being combat, which they were prohibited from. My grandmother went home to Baltimore. “Nobody asked me what I had been doing,” she recalled when I inquired if anyone wondered where she had been since April. My great grandmother, who had been against the idea of her daughter doing anything “unladylike,” was surely eager to ignore any talk of flying military planes. She was ready to have my grandmother move ahead with more acceptable pursuits like having children.
Moving forward and forgetting the trailblazers
The rest of the country was ready to move ahead as well. Folks were not prone to speaking widely about the war after 1945. The nation and the world were traumatized. And, unlike today where talk therapy is recommended. At that point in time, people remained silent. Moving ahead often meant a return to the status quo prior to 1941. As the economy reverted. Women left or were pushed out of factories and cockpits. They also were prevented or discouraged from pursuing post-war aviation careers.
My grandmother had a jovial personality. Not the type to dwell on the past or linger on what might have been. But she did admit to me that one of her regrets was not talking about her service during the war until decades later. Her regret was not rooted in the lack of recognition for her own service. The Army locked the records of the WASP away in a government facility. My grandmother was instructed not to discuss her service. She felt that because she had not talked openly about her service earlier on. The women who were entering military aviation in the 1970s had to prove again what the WASP had already demonstrated. Women can fly airplanes.
This realization was one reason that prompted the WASP, including my grandmother, to campaign for retroactive recognition as veterans. Multiple bills over multiple sessions of Congress supported by petitions, personal office visits, and media coverage culminated in a 1977 law permitting the WASP to apply for veteran status. My grandmother received a DD-214 in 1979. Thirty-five years after her service.
Sharing the story of the WASP
She compensated for that particular regret by dedicating the rest of her life to sharing the history of the WASP and stories about her time flying military planes. It was not enough that she had blazed the trail; she had a responsibility to maintain it so future generations could navigate it more easily and move even further ahead. She was especially proud of the women pilots who flew combat missions. Because the WASP were not permitted to do so. Women re-entered military flight training in 1977. Then in 1993, allowed into combat aviation when the United States lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy.
It took 35 years to get women completely integrated into military training. And 51 years for women to take the controls of aircraft in combat. Women who serve in these roles today credit the WASP like my grandmother. Both for their service as pilots but also their willingness to share their stories and inspire the next generation. Like the WASP of WWII, today’s women aviators serve as unintentional trailblazers. They want nothing more than to serve their country.
About the author:
Erin Miller is the granddaughter of WASP WWII pilot Elaine Danforth Harmon. Erin has a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. A Master’s in international studies from the University of Leeds (UK). And a B.A. in history from the University of California, San Diego. She is a licensed attorney in Maryland. She lives with her two Shiba Inus. Her book Final Fight Final Flight (affilate link) shares the story of her grandmother and her family’s fight to have her buried at Arlington National Cemetery.