“Flying was my dream.”
That’s what Mary Cox said when asked why she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1943. Of course, it was not the WASP in 1943, but was called the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).
Mary Eaton Cooper was born January 19, 1924, the oldest of three daughters of Dr. Howard and Katherine H. Cooper. Dr. Cooper had moved his family to Watertown when Mary was a baby. Dr. Cooper was a pilot, and served in the Navy Reserves as a Flight Surgeon. He was the first chairman of the airport commission of the local airport, which became Watertown International Airport in the 1970’s. Mary recalls that she could see the airport beacon at night from her home in Watertown, and she always wondered who was landing, or leaving. Flying was always on her mind.
Mary attended Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA, and graduated from high school in 1942. She returned to Watertown, and took flight instruction at the Watertown airport. When she heard that women would be recruited to fly planes for the armed forces in the US, freeing the male pilots for duty overseas, she knew that she did not have the qualifications. While she met the height and weight requirements, she was 3 years younger than the minimum of 21. Nor did she have the required 500 hours of flight time, which would have represented several years of flying. She went to Florida and enrolled in a flight school, acquiring flight hours, as well as qualifying in several types of planes.
By July 1943, the flight hours requirement had been lowered, and she was accepted to the 11th class of women pilots. She described the training they received as a ‘repeat of what I’d already taken’. Her class was the first class that admitted some candidates who were under 21. Later on, the age requirement was lowered, and more women younger than 21 were accepted. Her class was also used to test whether sections of the course could be left out, and the training shortened, while still graduating knowledgeable and safe pilots. Based on the performance of her group, flight training for male pilots was revised and shortened.
“After graduation I was sent to B-26 school in Dodge City Kansas, then to Cochran Field at Macon, Georgia, to their testing division. then to Officers Training at Orlando, Florida.” (Then I was sent) “Back to Cochran where I was deactivated. I did have several other assignments like to B-25 school that did not finish because the war was winding down and the boys were coming back and wanted their jobs back.” The women pilots were civil service, and were not considered military, though their jobs, uniforms, and discipline matched their military counterparts. 38 of the 1074 pilots were killed while performing their duties. Mary recalled that the Service did not pay to send their bodies home. The women collected among themselves to take care of their fallen.
On December 20, 1944, they were told that their services were no longer needed, effective immediately. They had to pay their own way home. Some of the WASP then joined the military service in the hopes of continuing to fly. They would never see the inside of a cockpit in their military careers. It would be over 30 years before a woman would again pilot a military plane.
Mary came to New York City, and began looking for work. She knew that Grumman Aircraft was hiring test pilots. However, employers knew that the men would soon be coming home, so no one would hire the women as pilots. Mary got work with a couple airlines as a reservations representative. She was too tall to be a stewardess.
Mary returned to flight school to update her instructor qualifications, and returned to Watertown, where she worked as a flight instructor. It was here that she met her husband, George Cox, a Navy veteran, and a war hero famous for captaining the PT41, which carried General MacArthur off Corregidor to Mindanao Island. Mary recalled that they attended many veterans’ gatherings, and that most of his acquaintances had no idea that she had been in the WASP.
Mary and George Cox raised four children, and Mary was widowed in 1972. She attended all of the WASP reunions from 1972 to the last reunion in 2008. In 1979, the WASP were finally recognized as having served in the military, and eligible for veterans benefits. In 2008, she was presented with the American Theater medal for her WASP service. “I don’t care about the medals,” she said, “But I always accept them for our service.” In an interview in 2007, she said that the last time she piloted a plane was in 2004, 62 years after her first time.
Prepared by Sharon Wuerschmidt, Jefferson County Branch AAUW
Notes: This short biography is based on a personal interview with Mary Cox, by Jill Johnson and Sharon Wuerschmidt, conducted at the Crystal Restaurant on Public Square,Watertown, NY on March 12, 2009, and the following newspaper articles, all from the Watertown Daily Times, Watertown, NY
“Women’s AirForce Services Pilots of World War 2, Who Flew Missions, To Hold Memorial Reunion” by Marion Hodgson, North American Newspaper Alliance, June 22, 1972
“Women Pilots Attain Status as Veterans: Affects Mary Cox”, March 13, 1979
“Female Fliers Highlighted in Book on WASPS”, March 22, 1979
“Hero’s Wife: “Flying was my Dream”, by David C. Shampine, Times staff writer, March 10, 1992
“Former WASP member is parade grand marshal”, by Chris Brock, Times staff writer, May 3, 2007
“Clayton Resident’s WASP Service Honored in DC Ceremony”. By Jude Seymour, Times staff writer, February 15, 2009
Documentation of the WASP members and the history of the service is available at the WASP website www.wingsacrossamerica.us