We have lost nearly an entire generation of heroes.
Of the 1,074 women who qualified as U.S. Army Air Corps pilots during WWII, perhaps fewer than 30 remain with us. It seems that nearly every few weeks another of these brave ladies takes off on what her sister pilots call “her final flight.”
They were the WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots. For nearly two and a half years these women did the same jobs that thousands of male Army officers were doing at the same time — doing it for less pay, without military benefits, no insurance — and even having to pay for their own meals and lodging.
After six months of training, the women were assigned to a myriad of different jobs. They ferried planes from factories to military locations throughout the county, flight-tested repaired aircraft, and pulled cloth targets through the air, while male gunners practiced shooting at them with live ammunition. Some learned to fly bombers. Others sped through the air in the latest fast fighters.
The plan had always been to militarize them with a commission as officers in the regular Army, but the U.S. Congress refused, and for more than 30 years, their files were sealed and their wartime contributions largely forgotten.
“People didn’t really know anything about us or that there were women who were flying for the military,” said Mary Jean “Barnsie” Barnes Sturdevant. “We always laughingly said that it was the best-kept secret of the Army.”
Mary was one of 15 WASP pilots who claimed Oregon as their home state when WASP training began.
Born Sept. 28, 1921, in Bend, Mary was the only daughter of Deschutes County Judge William Barnes and his wife, Cornelia. Not long after Mary was born, the family moved to Phoenix. It was a comfortable life, and Mary was a good student, but by the time she was in the fifth grade, the Great Depression began to take its toll. Her father died when she was 16, leaving her, her mother and her brother in near poverty.
“I didn’t mind having one pair of shoes, a skirt and a couple of blouses,” she said, “because all of my friends were in the same way.”
At her 1939 graduation from Phoenix High, Mary received a scholarship that allowed her to study at Southern Oregon College, today’s SOU. In the spring of 1941, she was one of three women students who enrolled in a pilot training course offered by the college and the U.S. Government. She earned her pilot license and soon qualified as a ground flight instructor.
Following graduation, she set up and taught a preflight training program at Medford High, but within months she accepted a similar position at the Eastern Oregon College in La Grande. After a year there, she moved on to Washington State College at Pullman. There she trained male Air Corps pilot trainees to fly.
Accepted into the WASP program in the spring of 1944, hers was the seventh class to graduate that year. After graduation, her assignment was the Merced Army Airfield in California’s Central Valley. That’s where she met her flight-instructor husband.
Mary’s final flight was June 24, 2017, at her Graham, Washington, home.
Thankfully, unlike so many of her sisters, Mary finally had been lucky enough to hear her country say, “Thank you for your service.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “To Live and Die a WASP: 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or WilliamMMiller.com.