Published: Saturday, May 2, 2009
Wartime pilot's service honored at long lastOAK HARBOR -- Marge Neyman Martin flew across the West during World War II, delivering aircraft parts and carrying classified military documents.
As a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she was part of a wave of young women who took to the air to fly planes stateside while most male pilots were sent overseas on combat missions.
After her service, Martin returned to her job as a secretary.
Now, the 88-year-old former aviator could be in line for a Congressional Gold Medal.
Legislation designed to award the federal honor to Martin and other surviving WASPs throughout the country is before a Senate committee. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., are among the bill's sponsors.
"I think it's a wonderful idea," Martin said. "It gives a little recognition to the women who opened the doors back then."
The pioneering women aviators have received little acknowledgement for their wartime service. Of the 1,102 women who earned their wings as WASPs, about 300 are still alive. Twelve of those surviving pilots, including Martin, live in Washington state.
"These brave pilots have inspired decades of women service members who have followed in their footsteps," Murray said when the bill was introduced. "They took flight at a time when the idea of women aviators was thought not only improbable, but impossible. They risked their lives, but for too long their service has not been recognized."
Born in the early 1920s on Whidbey Island, Martin graduated from business school and was a secretary for Standard Oil Co. in Seattle when the United States entered World War II.
"It was a very patriotic time," Martin said. "We were all wondering what we could do to help the war effort."
When Martin read in a newspaper that the country had launched a program to train women to fly military aircraft in noncombat missions, she immediately requested a leave of absence from her job.
"Flying seemed like the thing to do to help because there was a shortage of male pilots at home," she said. "And it sounded terribly exciting."
Martin headed to Felts Field in Spokane to obtain her pilot's license. She bunked at the YWCA and in a few weeks had completed the required 35 hours of flight time. Back in Seattle, she took ground school courses and waited for the day she would be accepted into the WASP training program.
In January 1944, she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. As a native Northwesterner, Martin found the winter there harsh and the summer unbearably hot.
"Texas was terrible," she said. "But when you're young, you can manage those things."
The nine-month training program, with long days of studying and flying, was stressful physically and mentally. With the exception of combat and formation classes, the women got the same training their male counterparts received in two years of pilot preparation.
"You had to be the best you could be, because it was very competitive," Martin said. "I was always worried, wondering if I would make it or if I would wash out."
Of the 25,000 women who applied for the WASP program, only 2,000 were accepted for training and just half of those graduated and got flying assignments.
After getting her silver wings, Martin was sent to Douglas Army Airfield in Arizona. From there she flew many courier missions to California and up the West Coast.
The example set by the Women Airforce Service Pilots paved the way for the Pentagon to lift the ban on women attending military flight training in the 1970s, and eventually led to women becoming military pilots. Today, women fly every type of aircraft and mission, including fighter jets and the space shuttle.
When the war ended in 1945, the men began to return. The WASPs were told to go home, and they paid their own way to get there. The WASPs were never awarded full military status and were ineligible for officer status and veterans benefits.
The families of the 38 women who died in the line of duty were saddled with the costs of bringing home the bodies and arranging burials. It was not until 1977 that the WASPs were granted veteran status.
"I was heartbroken when we were deactivated," Martin said. "Everybody was."
She rejoined Standard Oil in San Francisco where she worked as the executive secretary in the aviation oils division. When her boss wanted to sell his private airplane, she flew it to demonstrate it for the buyers.
After marrying, Martin moved back to Whidbey Island to raise her family and occasionally flew with her husband, who also was a pilot.
When her four children were old enough, she returned to work at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. She retired in 1982 as secretary to the commanding officer at the base.
"It was a great job and my experience as a military pilot was a great help," Martin said. "People knew that I knew what I was talking about."
For many years Martin continued flying with her son, a Vietnam veteran. Now that arthritis keeps her behind a walker or in a wheelchair, she expects she's taken her last airplane ride.
Not even a public ceremony awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., would get the grandmother of four to fly.
"That doesn't mean I wouldn't be honored to get the medal," Martin said. "I just don't feel top drawer anymore. We worked hard."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.