Catherine Parker Chatham
1921 –  August 25, 2016
Class 44-W-9
Planes flown: PT-17. BT-13
Bases served: Marana Army Air Field (Ariz.)

Catherine Parker Chatham was a lifetime resident of Bryan, Texas, and her ancestors were among the first European settlers to Brazos County. She passed away on August 25, 2016, at the age of 95.

Chatham’s niece and nephew, Marshall Parker of Galveston and Candy Thompson of the Dallas area, have spent time going through boxes in Chatham’s apartment at St. Joseph Manor since her death. Among their findings have been journals of pilots logs and a medal given to her by federal leaders, including representatives Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner.

In 2010, Chatham was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest awards that can be given to a civilian, for her service as a WASP. Though several politicians requested to give Chatham her medal, Thompson said, she insisted it be given to her by a current female pilot.

Maj. Katherine Burkhead of the Air Force, who saw 300 hours of combat flying a B-52 plane in Afghanistan, presented her with the medal. Chatham’s funeral will be in October so that Burkhead will be able to attend.

Parker and Thompson said their aunt decided to become a WASP because she had a thirst for the adventure of flying and wanted to serve the military alongside her two brothers and then-boyfriend, Bryan photographer Roland Chatham.

“She just had the bug [for flying],” Thompson said. “Catherine was a free spirit. I think that’s why she and I are close and bonded a lot of our lives. She got into piloting because she said she had the feeling, the freedom of flying.”

Chatham served as a female civilian pilot stateside during World War II and was not honored for her service until decades later.

“She wore slacks back before women ever wore slacks,” Parker said, “[She] had a crop haircut, and was pretty independent.”

When Roland Chatham returned to Bryan after the war, he and Catherine worked side-by-side at his photography business. She indexed his photographs and flew him in her airplane over Bryan and College Station while he took aerial shots of Aggieland. The two also raced antique British race cars together, with Catherine Chatham navigating the vehicle while he drove.

The couple married in their 60s, after Roland Chatham suffered a stroke.

“My aunt always said as a joke that they decided to get married because she was pregnant,” Thompson said, “But the truth is, he was a photographer she had known and worked together with all her life in the studio, and when he had a stroke, she said she wouldn’t move in with him to take care of him unless they were married.”

The couple’s collection of photographs of Bryan and College Station is currently in storage at Cushing Library on Texas A&M’s campus. “There are a lot of preservation issues we’re working out with the collection,” said the library’s processing archivist Jeremy Brett. “… I think this will make for a great local history collection.”

“If you knew Catherine, you loved her,” Thompson said. “You couldn’t help yourself.”

Catherine Parker, pulling on the propeller of a plane with another WASP sitting in the cockpit with the door open

Listen to her story recorded by The Museum of the American G.I.

Sources:

Calloway-Jones

Texas Womens University

 

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