Elaine Danforth Harmon

(1919 - 2015)


 
A life-long Marylander of 95 years, Elaine Danforth Harmon was a role model, patriot, and World War II veteran. Born in 1919, she was the daughter of Dr. David Charles Danforth (a Baltimore dentist and professional baseball player with the 1914 Baltimore Orioles) and Margaret Oliphant Danforth (a homemaker). She distinguished herself early in life by earning a degree in bacteriology from the University of Maryland in 1940.

While an undergraduate, and in response to an ad in the school's student newspaper, "The Diamondback," Elaine applied for, and was accepted into, the Civilian Pilot Training program at the historic College Park Airport. She asked her father to sign the permission form because she knew her mother felt it would be “unlady-like” to be a pilot.

After earning her private pilot's license and graduating from the University of Maryland, she became aware of a need for female pilots to join the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) to provide support for the war effort in 1943. Over 25,000 women nationwide responded, but only 1,830 were granted admission into the program. Ultimately, Elaine was one of the 1,074 women who successfully completed pilot training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Thirty-eight of these brave women died in service to their country. The WASP were trailblazers by successfully breaking into the previously male dominated role of military pilots. In the many decades that have passed since the war, they have continued to be role models, and heroines, for aspiring young women across our nation.

During the 1970s, she was very proactive in working with the WASP organization, and Senator Barry Goldwater, to get the WASP contributions to World War II finally recognized with the award of an Honorable Discharge and GI benefits from the United States Air Force for the pilots. In more recent decades she remained active in WASP activities that resulted in the awarding, by an act of Congress, of the Congressional Gold Medal. Resulting from her leadership role in ongoing post-WWII activities, Elaine was invited to the White House Oval Office on two occasions, one with President George W. Bush, and the other with President Barack Obama.

Over the years she has been invited to speak to local (Washington, D.C.) school children. She has been an honored guest at many air shows around the country, and at museums, including the National Air & Space Museum and the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center. She always made sure she attended the annual WASP reunions in Sweetwater, Texas. Despite declining health, she continued to do all these activities well into her 90s.

Elaine was a guest of honor at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the 1998 opening of the College Park Aviation Museum in Maryland. Due to her many accomplishments, including graduation from the University of Maryland, there is a permanent exhibit in the museum honoring her. She generously donated many of her WASP artifacts, including her Congressional Gold Medal, to the museum, where they are now on display.

Faced with the adversity of losing her husband at the early age of 45, and left with four teenagers to raise, Elaine Harmon remained true to her life-long motto “Carpe Diem!,” which she included with her signature on all correspondence. As a widowed single mom, she guided all four of her children to earn undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees (two from the University of Maryland), and successful careers.

Elaine Danforth Harmon died on April 21, 2015. Throughout her life, she was a proud Marylander, and she was a distinguished member of what has become known as “America’s Greatest Generation.”

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2016.

© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2016