Friends and family of Lt. Irma Cameron Dryden, the last living Tuskegee Airmen nurse, came to Arlington National Cemetery to honor her life at her funeral service on Aug. 24, 2023.
Dryden joined the all-Black U.S. Army Air Forces pilots in Alabama in 1943. There, she provided medical care at the Tuskegee Army Airfield station hospital. She also met her future husband, Tuskegee Airman Lt. Charles Dryden, who had already flown combat missions over Sicily. She lived to be 100 before passing away in 2020.
“She stood strong as a woman of color,” Army Chaplain (Cpt.) Emonena Itugbu told the crowd of 25 people at the funeral service. “Irma has found her rest and healing. She had fought a good fight and has kept the faith.” The service included a firing party, a bugler sounding Taps and an honor guard who folded the flag over her urn and presented it to her son, Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Charles Walter “Chaz” Dryden. Then, ANC Cemetery Representative Kathaleen Sherrod led the mourners to Columbarium Court 9 to say their final goodbyes.
Once Lt. Dryden’s urn had been placed in its niche, Lt. Col. Dryden passed out nickels for people to put in the niche. “It comes from a Korean War-era song,” he explained. The song is about bringing good luck to fighter pilots. He explained that his father played it on the record player when he got home from Korea. “My mother loved it, and he loved it, and it stuck in my brain.” Lt. Col. Dryden had previously handed out nickels at his father’s 2008 funeral service at ANC. “I thought, Mom and Dad are together again, so let’s do it again.”
Once all the nickels were placed, the mourners took turns speaking about Lt. Dryden. “When I interviewed her for the National Park Service I thought, ‘I want to be her when I grow up,’” said one woman.
“Rest well, my queen,” said Lt. Dryden’s caregiver. “Beyonce Knowles-Carter has been known as Queen Bey, but she don’t have nothing on Momma Dee.” She went on to describe Dryden’s 100th birthday. “She was so happy to make 100, and she wore it well.”
“All I can say is she was bold,” said another funeral guest. “She was always right there for people.”
A man dressed in a World War II khaki Army uniform with a Fifteenth Air Force shoulder patch (for which the Tuskegee Airmen flew) also spoke up. “This woman opened the door for so many nurses working today who look like her,” he said. “We’re standing a little taller because we’re standing on the shoulders of women like Ms. Irma.”
The last person to speak was ANC’s Kathaleen Sherrod. “I want to thank you,” she said to the crowd. “I’ve never recorded parts of a service, but this was worth every minute.” She admitted that Dryden’s service brought her to tears. “It’s such an inspiration to hear and see and be a part of this service.”
► To learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, explore our educational materials on African American History at Arlington National Cemetery.