Granddaughter on a Mission: Interview with Erin Miller

11:36 AM



By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

Many of the #avgeeks who hang out at Camp Bacon during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh will remember meeting Erin Miller, a bright young attorney from Washington D.C. who began visiting the camp in 2016. She was at Oshkosh to present on a very special project she was launching, to honor a request of her grandmother – Elaine Danforth Harmon, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) – to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
    
When Miller’s family found out that the Army excluded WASPs for burial at Arlington, it sparked something in this devoted granddaughter. With a big challenge accepted, Erin began a quest to see to it that not only her grandmother, but other WASPs as well, be allowed burial at Arlington.
    
Speaking to Erin a few times over bowls of Jambalaya and Chili at Camp Bacon, it is easy to see that this driven woman means business. I was so impressed with what she had accomplished, I hung on her every word. It truly was one of those “Oshkosh moments” I write about, where you are sitting in such a special place, listening to someone who would not take no for an answer. It is not every day we get to chow down at a picnic table with someone who was not afraid to take on Congress, someone willing to duke it out with the establishment in the marble halls of the U.S. Capitol.
While not a pilot herself and with no aviation experience, Erin persevered. Airplanista recently virtually “sat down” with her to dive into the backstory of this huge and very noble accomplishment. Erin’s story follows below.

AIRPLANISTA: Tell my readers the backstory of the WASPs, and describe their important mission and contributions to our military.

ERIN MILLER:
The detailed history of the WASP fills books, but I can summarize the main developments of the program. The United States Army needed more pilots to support overseas aerial operations during World War II. Two well-known and accomplished female pilots, Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran, independently had ideas about developing female pilot groups in the US Army.

In 1942, the Secretary of War appointed Nancy Love to lead a new group of female pilots, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The WAFS were composed of 28 experienced pilots, including Nancy, who ferried airplanes. Jackie was asked to become the leader of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) that trained pilots for various duties. In August 1943, these programs merged to become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). With the 1,074 graduates of the WASP training and the 28 pilots from the WAFS, the WASP eventually comprised 1,102 pilots. They performed domestic flying duties including training other pilots, towing targets for gunnery training, test flights, and ferrying missions.

The work of the WASP allowed more male pilots to be transferred overseas for combat flying, an integral contribution to the war effort. Although the other branches of the armed forces had female service members who were formally enlisted or commissioned during World War II, the WASP were not militarized. Congress did not pass the bill to militarize them and the program was disbanded in December 1944. Women did not fly in the military again until the 1970s and were not authorized to fly combat missions until 1993. The WASP were the forerunners of the opening up of not only female pilots flying in combat, but also opening a door for greater access to military specialties for servicewomen in general.

AIRPLANISTA: Your grandmother was a WASP, what was her specific mission and history with them?

ERIN MILLER: My grandmother joined the WASP in April 1944 with class 44-9. She completed training at Sweetwater, Texas at Avenger Field. She was assigned to Nellis Air Base in Las Vegas where her duty was training male pilots in the BT-13 and Link trainer.

AIRPLANISTA: How did you get involved in keeping the legacy of the WASPs alive? Was there one particular incident that helped you launch your work and begin this project?

ERIN MILLER: Growing up, I knew that my grandmother gave talks and shared her experiences as a WASP at museums and schools, but I was not involved with her activities. After she passed away and our family applied to have my grandmother laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, as she had requested, the Army told us the WASP were no longer eligible for inurnment there. I eventually became the leader of a campaign on behalf of my grandmother and all the WASP to have Congress pass an amendment to a 1977 law that had granted the WASP retroactive veteran status. Congress passed the new bill and the president signed it into law in May 2016, allowing us to reapply at Arlington National Cemetery and ultimately have a funeral for my grandmother there, about a year and half after she died. During this process, I came to appreciate that my grandmother's greatest goal was to have the history of the WASP remembered by future generations, and that I had become someone who could carry on her legacy after her death. I continue to work with groups like Women in Aviation International, EAA, the Ninety-Nines, and others to provide opportunities to share the WASP history.

AIRPLANISTA: How long have you been working on this project, and tell me how you fit this work in around work and family obligations.

ERIN MILLER: I have been working on WASP-related activities since leading the campaign to ensure my grandmother was honored at Arlington National Cemetery. For the most part, I am able to work on these projects on the weekends and in the evenings. But I do take time off from work occasionally when required. The wonderful thing is that many others have taken up the task of honoring the WASP, so I am not solely responsible for this enormous responsibility. For example, Women in Aviation International started a program this year at Memorial Day weekend to have their members seek out the graves of WASP in their area and post photos and information about their service. I was honored that some chose to visit Arlington National Cemetery and specifically visit my grandmother's grave. The group plans to carry on this tradition.

AIRPLANISTA: Of all the presentations you have given on this topic, which one stands out as very meaningful to you?

ERIN MILLER: I am always honored to be able to share my story of working on behalf of my grandmother and the general history of the WASP. When I was advocating for her in Congress and working toward ensuring she was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, I was focused on the task at hand and did not think too much about future projects about the WASP. But, after the President signed the law and before my grandmother's funeral, I had the opportunity to present at EAA Airventure at Oshkosh 2016. I had never been to Oshkosh and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was overwhelmed at the reception by the attendees and volunteers at Oshkosh to hear the story of honoring my grandmother at Arlington National Cemetery.

Over the course of the days I spent at Airventure, I felt enveloped by support from the aviation community. I was able to spend substantial time with some of the WASP who attended Airventure that year, which was inherently meaningful, but I also was moved by how much reverence the folks at Oshkosh had for them. One of the best parts was being able to meet in person the many people and groups that had supported our family in the journey to fight back against the Army's decision.

AIRPLANISTA: How has this project rewarded you personally?

ERIN MILLER: I have met and continue to meet amazing people whom I would not otherwise have met had my grandmother not requested to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. When I meet young people studying the WASP, I am always reminded of my grandmother's quest and I become a bit emotional thinking about how proud she would be to see the kids learning about the WASP.

AIRPLANISTA: What do you feel is the single biggest “win” in this endeavor?

ERIN MILLER: The single biggest win in this endeavor is getting the law passed in Congress to recognize the Women Airforce Service Pilots at Arlington National Cemetery. However, the continued support from the aviation community and general public for keeping the history of the WASP alive and honoring their service is a huge win.

AIRPLANISTA: So you are writing a book on this topic…tell us how that has been going. Do you have a publisher or are you self-publishing, and what have you learned about authoring a book in this process.

ERIN MILLER: I have never written a book before, but I felt compelled to write about the process of passing the law for my grandmother and what I learned during that time. My goal with the book is to share the process of advocating for legislation in Congress, along with my personal story with my grandmother and learning more about her and the service of the WASP. I started a company to publish the book. I learned that writing a book, for me, ended up in a horrendous first draft, and a much-improved final draft that still invites lots of self-criticism.

AIRPLANISTA: What is one big thing my readers will not know about the WASPs, something they will not see coming?

ERIN MILLER: One big takeaway is the extent to which the WASP have had to go to secure basic recognition of their service during World War II, a fight that endures even after they have taken their final flights.

Erin’s book Final Flight Final Fight is planned for a March, 2019 release. You can subscribe to follow the release progress and learn more about her book at finalflightfinalfight.com.

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