Great Falls Tribune: Bill would allow female WWII pilots back into Arlington

A bill to make Women Airforce Service Pilots eligible for interment at Arlington National Cemetery is headed to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and Rep. Ryan Zinke, passed both houses of Congress and would fix technicalities in the law that the Army said precluded the WASPs from Arlington burial since Arlington follows Army rules and not those of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“This is a wrong that needed to be made right, and I’m proud to be part of restoring benefits to our WWII women pilots who trained right here in Montana,” Daines said in a release. “With the president’s signature, our women pilots will now have the honor that they have always deserved.”

The legislation allows WASPs who served on active duty during World War II to be eligible for interment at Arlington.

Malmstrom Air Force Base was a WASP hub during WWII, when it was formerly Great Falls Army Air Base. WASPs, who flew noncombat missions to free up male pilots, were granted veteran status in 1977 and made eligible for interment at Arlington National Cemetery in 2002.

WASPs were an integral part of the Lend-Lease program that was based out of Great Falls. The program sent U.S. aircraft to the Soviets during WWII. WASPs flew the planes from the manufacturers to Great Falls, where male military pilots took the controls and ferried the planes through Alaska to Russia.

In 1942, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold created the WASP unit. Nearly 1,100 signed up for the WASP program, which ran from 1942 to 1944. Their missions included ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets, and 38 WASPs died during their service.

In 1977, Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active duty status to WASP pilots for the purposes of all laws administered by the VA, and in 2009, Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Arlington National Cemetery approved in 2002 active duty designees, including WASP pilots, for military honors and inurnments. That decision was reversed in March 2015 by then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh.