Mary Jean Barnes Sturdevant
September 28, 1921 – June 24, 2017
Training Location: Avenger Field (Sweetwater, Tex.)
Assigned Bases: Merced Army Air Field (Calif.)
Planes flown: PT-17, BT-13, AT-6
Mary Barnes Sturdevant was born in Bend, Oregon. Mary enjoyed acquiring her education and graduated as Valedictorian at Phoenix High school in 1939. While in school she earned the Golden Eaglet award through the Girl Scouts of America, their highest award and equivalent to that of Eagle Scout.
On August 27, 1927 Mary saw Charles Lindbergh come through the city of Medford. This inspired her to become a pilot, and in 1939 she was 1 of 3 women able to enter a civilian pilot program at Southern Oregon University. She earned her ground school certification and pilot’s license there. One she graduated, she set up a ground-school program at Medford (Oregon) High School, instructing interested students there, with the Medford Flying Service furnishing the airplanes. Later, she did the same at Eastern Oregon College, La Grand for the War Training Service Program, under the auspices of the Army Air Corps. She then went to Washington State University (Pullman, WA) and was the chief instructor to cadets sent there preparing to be pilots, navigators and bombardiers. She applied to the WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) program (along with 25, 000 other women) and was eventually one of 1820 who were accepted into training. She could not leave WSU until they found an instructor to replace her, so her entry into the WASP program was delayed until February 1944.
Entering class 44-W-7, she trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Her class initially consisted of 90 women, all of whom had to have their pilot’s licenses already and a base amount of flying experience. The course was grueling. Mary later recalled: “There were about 45 of us [who] graduated and there were about 90 in the class to begin with and they washed out left and right.”
Her wartime flying experience included surviving a crash in a basic trainer. She was flying with another trainee when the plane’s engine died. The aircraft broke apart and crashed. The other trainee was permanently disabled while Mary Barnes recovered from her injuries.
She was then stationed at Merced (CA) Army Air Base, Base Operations, flying AT-6s and BT-13s and instructing male pilots who would be sent overseas to fight in WWII. While at Merced, she met Philip A. Sturdevant, where he was also a pilot and instructor. They eventually married, after the War. The WASP program was disbanded in December, 1944, at the end of the War. The women, including Mary, were left to get home on their own after abrupt termination of the program.
Upon graduation from the WASP training program, Mary was sent to Merced Army Air Base, flying AT-6s and BT-13s and instructing male pilots who would be sent overseas. It was also at Merced that she met a fellow pilot and instructor named Philip Sturdevant, whom she would later marry. Sadly, the WASP were unceremoniously disbanded late in the war and Mary was sent home with no veteran benefits since the WASP were civilian contractors and not members of the military. “There was a saying that made the rounds: Go home. Go back to the kitchen and keep your mouths shut,” she later recalled bitterly. Still, she and her fellow WASP were immensely proud of what they accomplished.
In 1977, Public Law 95-202 was signed into law, giving the women of the WASP veteran status. Mary later related, “Now we got our veteran’s status established in about 1977…it was good because we have the privilege of the VA, Veterans Administration, and that means so much to me…At the VA they look at me, well, what’s that old thing doing here? And they say, well what did you do in the service? I say, ‘Well, I was an Army pilot.’ And they just look at you in amazement.”
After war, Mary settled down in Tacoma, Washington. While she was able to be a pilot for a few years after the war, she became a legal secretary for the Pierce District Court. Still, she loved to fly whenever she could and both her daughter and granddaughter became pilots based on the passion she passed down to them.
In the 1990s, Sturdevant had the opportunity to travel to Russia through a cultural exchange program. At first she didn’t want to go, but while she was in Moscow she was delighted to discover Soviet female veterans who were pilots just like her. “They were wonderfully interesting women,” she said. “And they had identical experiences to us… And they got combat time. They were called the Night Witches.”
In 2010, the WASP were granted the highest civilian honor — the Congressional Gold Medal — for their WWII service. Said one member of congress, “These extraordinary women were part of a select group of American pilots who became pioneers, heroes, and role models.” At the age of 88, Mary travelled to Washington, DC to join a handful of surviving WASP to witness the official ceremony bestowing this honor upon them.
In February of 2017, she was interviewed by a film crew working on the documentary “Fly Girls.” Her daughter and granddaughter (both pilots) were interviewed at the same time, in order to include a perspective of women in aviation across several decades. A trailer for the film can be viewed at www.youtube.com/flygirlsseries
Mary Jean Sturdevant passed away at the age of 95 on June 24, 2017. She is interred in Section FI, Row B, Site 3 of Tahoma National Cemetery. She is remembered on the Veterans Legacy Memorial at https://www.vlm.cem.va.gov/0919/MARYJEANSTURDEVANT/CC6F6DF/