Female WWII Pilots Deserve Full Recognition

For too long, a celebrated group of more than 1,000 women who served our country during World War II have been denied the acknowledgement they deserve at our nation’s most hallowed cemetery.

It’s time to right this wrong.

I have cosponsored the Women Airforce Service Pilot Arlington Inurnment Restoration Act (H.R. 4336), directing the Department of the Army to ensure cremated remains of women serving as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII are eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. This bill not only pays rightful homage to our women fighters, but it recognizes the many servicewomen hailing from our very own state of Illinois.

So who are these women?

Elizabeth “Libby” Gardner; 1921–2011

One well-known WASP, Elizabeth L. Gardner from Rockford, Illinois controlled the B-26 Marauder medium bomber during WWII. Aged 22 at the time, Libby recalled, “I was called to duty when the war started to learn how to test planes, instruct pilots, tow targets used for anti-aircraft artillery practice, and assemble planes. When I first started learning, I was eager and nervous and also had two days of training under Lieutenant Col. Paul Tibbets who later commanded the B-29 that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima.”

Another home state WASP, Dora Dougherty, became the sixth woman in the country to earn an airline transport pilot license, quickly excelling as a B-29 Superfortress demonstration pilot. Following her service, she became a flight instructor at the University of Illinois.

Both women have passed away in recent years (roughly 110 WASPs survive today). All WASPs underwent the same military training as their male counterparts: marching, living in barracks, infantry drills, and taking oaths of allegiance. Had they been male pilots during WWII, they could have accepted active duty commissioning following their 90-day training period. But the policy and cultural hesitancy on women in the military was not what it is today.

Dr. Dora Jean Dougherty; 1921–2013

We have made progress. WASPs were granted veteran status in 1977. On July 1, 2009, a bill passed by Congress awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs was signed into law. Present at the ceremony were nearly 300 remaining survivors of the first female military pilots.

Yet instating full burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery is still unfinished. Space constraints at Arlington are well documented. However, housing the cremated remains of a limited number of women is not unduly burdensome. In addition to supporting this legislation, I have written to the Acting Secretary of the Army requesting a plan to reinstate inurnment and full military honors for these women. I wait to hear a response.

Until then, let’s celebrate these brave women and continue to push for full recognition of their service.