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Rosemary Mariner, The First Female Military Air Commander, Dies At 65


The Navy is saying farewell Saturday to the first woman to fly one of its attack jets, Captain Rosemary Mariner. She died last week of cancer at age 65. Mariner received her wings in the 1970s and spent more than two decades achieving a series of firsts as a naval aviator. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has this remembrance.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The U.S. Navy released a promotional video in 1974 that included this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Without doubt, the Navy's most ambitious plans for women has been in the flight training program. Six young women have been selected to pave the way for future women in naval aviation.

MYRE: Rosemary Mariner was one of the six. Here she is speaking to NPR in 2013.


ROSEMARY MARINER: My role models were African-American men who had led the vanguard in integration of race in the armed forces and studied many of the lessons that they had to pass on.

MYRE: Another one of the pioneers was Mary Louise Griffin. She and Mariner formed a lifelong bond as they cracked the Navy's gender barrier.

MARY LOUISE GRIFFIN: It was quite honestly an experiment. And they really had many detractors, but Admiral Sumwalt, who was chief naval operations then, said it's a go. We're going to do this.

MYRE: Griffin spoke from her home in Georgia. She'll give a eulogy at Saturday's funeral for Mariner outside Knoxville, Tenn. She recalled the reception they faced from male pilots in the '70s.

GRIFFIN: Well, no disrespect to my buddies, but some of them took a long time to come around to the idea.

MYRE: There were other challenges, like uniforms.

GRIFFIN: We were told to bring three weeks of dresses and heels because our uniforms were custom tailored and wouldn't be ready for about three weeks. We marched in our companies in our heels and our dresses. It was pretty darn funny.

MYRE: Mariner became the first woman to pilot an attack jet in 1974, flying an A-4 Skyhawk. In the 1991 Gulf War, she was the first woman to command an air squadron. She logged more than 3,500 in 15 different aircraft in her career. Griffin remembers Mariner most vividly as a friend.

GRIFFIN: A very quiet, introspective, thoughtful person with a really dry sense of humor. And you kind of caught yourself missing it sometimes and then just laugh uproariously.

MYRE: Mariner was a strong advocate for women in the military during and after her career. Here she is in 1997 speaking to NPR just after she retired from the Navy.


MARINER: You have to have an integrated, cohesive force that is identified as a common soldier, sailor, marine or airman, not as boys and girls who are wearing the same uniform.

MYRE: And she's still paving the way for women pilots. Mariner's funeral on Saturday will include the Navy's first-ever all-female flyover. It's so unprecedented, the Navy doesn't yet have a proper name for what it still calls the missing man flyover. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.