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Female WWII pilot's family fighting for her Arlington wishes

Women Airforce Service Pilots were tasked with helping train the male pilots during WWII. But they weren't considered active duty
Female WWII service pilot's Arlington burial request denied 02:32

ARLINGTON -- Elaine Harmon was one of a chosen few, her wartime service immortalized in newsreels as one of the first women in the history of America to fly military aircraft.

She was a WASP -- Women's Airforce Service Pilot -- one of about 1,000 who signed up during World War II when a shortage of male pilots forced the military to do what it had never done.

Elaine Harmon Erin Miller

"Their training program was exactly the same as the male cadets were going through all over the country," one newsreel said.

The WASPs were not sent into combat, but remained stateside.

Erin Miller CBS News

"Her mission was to train male pilots that needed either refresher courses on planes or to learn about new planes that were coming out," said Harmon's granddaughter, Erin Miller.

Miller's grandmother died last year at 95. "Her wishes were to be inurned at Arlington Cemetery."

Harmon had even left handwritten instructions, but the director of Arlington denied the request, saying serving in the WASPs "is not the same as active duty service as a member of the Department of Defense."

"The army said no to the wrong family," Miller declared.

Elaine Harmon Erin Miller

"Sexism and gender discrimination. That is the only issue that did not allow them to be military. Hang ups about the role of women in the military," said Congresswoman Martha McSally.

Harmon's family turned to McSally for help. The Congresswoman became one of the first female combat pilots, following a path first blazed by the WASPs.

Congresswoman Martha McSally Martha McSally

"Think about the irony here. The military just announced that they're opening up all positions to women to serve in uniform, at the very same time they're closing the gates to Arlington on the pioneers who paved the way."

Officials at Arlington say allowing WASPs to be buried there would set a precedent for hundreds of thousands of other Americans -- like the merchant Marine -- who served in World War II. That would increase the waiting time for burial, which already can be up to 10 months.

That's about how long Elaine Harmon's ashes have been stored in her granddaughter's closet waiting to find a resting place.

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