Pilot smashed glass ceiling

Military volunteer left her job and found a place flying planes for the U.S. during WW II.
Friday, May 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mary Burch Nirmaier wasn’t satisfied with her job as a secretary for the War Production Board in Washington, D.C. She wanted a job that was substantial, one that would serve an important purpose.

A friend told her about a new women’s organization, one that would help their country during a time of need. Nirmaier signed up and became an integral part of women’s history.

Nirmaier was already taking flight lessons, so when she completed the required 75 hours of flying time, she applied and was accepted, becoming one of the first female pilots in the history of the U.S. military. It was the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots — or WASP, formed to replace the male Air Force pilots who were going to Europe to fight in World War II. It was 1943.

“Subconsciously, we were all aware that we were pushing the frontier back,” Nirmaier said. “We were proud of it and hoping we were making some important contribution.”

Training was in Sweetwater, Texas. After graduation, she was sent to Douglas, Ariz., to attend the Air Force Twin-Engine School. The WASPs trained with the UC-78, and then the A-T9s, or Advance Trainer 9.

“Those planes floated like a rock,” Nirmaier said. “You had to be really quick to fly it because it was all metal and you would have to pull it up very quick for a landing. That’s why it was a good training plane for the P-38, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited this year about the air show. A P-38 is going to be on display, and I understand it’s going to be flown.”

This weekend at the Salute to Veterans Corp. 2004 Memorial Day Weekend Celebration, the public will have an opportunity to meet Nirmaier and other veterans who have dedicated themselves in service to the country.

In her service as a WASP, Nirmaier’s main duties were to ferry planes from factories to Air Force bases, retrieve planes and transport documents. In December 1944, the WASPs ended their service when the men returned from the war.

Nirmaier moved to New York City with several other women who had WASPs and tried her hand at civilian jobs. After one year, she returned to Columbia and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and later worked toward a master’s degree in arts and science from UM. She worked a variety of jobs for public figures, such as serving as staff assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. She had four children and retired in Columbia.

After her move, she settled and became involved with the Salute to Veterans Corp. Memorial Day weekend festivities in 1990. She and the other WASPs stay at a local hotel one night during the celebration so they can spend time with each other. They have their own tent set up close to where the action is taking place at Columbia Regional Airport. They also will be available to sign programs, books and memorabilia.

The WASPs have their own float in the parade on Monday as well. In 1995, Nirmaier was selected to be the Parade Grand Marshal.

“I presided over all the activities,” Nirmaier said. “It was an honor to be chosen. This is a yearly celebration that shows respect by the people for veterans and what they’ve done so their contributions aren’t forgotten.”

In addition to the Memorial Day weekend festivities, the Salute to Veterans Corp. offers a “Living History” program to area schools so that heroes can share their experiences with the students. As a participant, Nirmaier spoke on Thursday to fifth-graders at West Boulevard Elementary School.

Fifth-grade teacher Marsha Sprigg said Nirmaier was an inspiration to her students. “She talked about her training and the role of women pilots back then,” Sprigg said. “She made them see that there’s more to the Air Force than just flying.”

Nirmaier is a hero to many, and her friend Mary Posner, who is the president of Salute to Veterans Corp., praises her history.

“She’s one of the bravest women I know,” Posner said. “She flew during World War II as a WASP and did it because she wanted to serve her country, and because she wanted to fly. She wouldn’t even admit the glass ceiling existed. Against all odds, they did it and they did it well.”

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