As the years pass, there are fewer and fewer of the “Greatest Generation” left to thank for all they did for us.
This generation is defined as those born between around 1910 and 1925, who grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II, or whose hard work and sacrifices helped win it. The description of the greatest generation was first used by NBC Nightly News anchor and author Tom Brokaw, whose book by the same name was published in 2004.
As I belong to Generation X (born between 1965-80) and my husband is a baby boomer (1946-1964), his parents and my grandparents fought for the allied forces in World War II. My father-in-law was in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, and my grandfather was in the British Army in Europe.
Despite growing up on opposite sides of the Atlantic, we were brought up to remember and respect the memory of those who perished, and to thank those who returned home forever changed from this war, which is before our eyes now passing from living memory and into history.
Last week in England, respects were paid to wartime pilot Mary Ellis, who was one of the last surviving “Spitfire women” who flew fighter and bomber planes to Britain’s frontline airfields. She died at the age of 101 and her life story really demonstrates how the Second World War redefined the role that women could play in the world at war and beyond.
At the start of the war, women were not allowed to fly military aircraft. Remember that Britain went to war on Sept. 3, 1939, to retaliate for Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which is more than two years before the U.S. joined after Pearl Harbor. The Royal Air Force (RAF) played a vital role in stopping Hitler’s invasion of the British mainland, and in 1940 the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) advertised for female pilots to help. In effect, the ATA delivered new planes from the factory, as well as damaged and repaired planes, to wherever they were needed to join the fight.
Mary, a 5-foot, 2-inch blonde, was then a 24-year-old farm girl from Oxfordshire when she saw the advertisement for female pilots. She became one of 166 women who flew without radio — relying on only a map, compass and stopwatch for navigation — to deliver aircraft all over Britain, in all types of weather, as part of the war effort.
Fifteen of these women were killed on duty, and Mary herself was lucky to survive two crash landings and landing on the same airstrip at the same time as another pilot in poor weather and almost zero visibility. She also escaped being shot by British gunners who mistook her for the enemy and was spared by a German fighter pilot who apparently saw she was a woman and did not open fire.
Mary and her fellow brave female pilots who undertook this vital wartime duty were known as “Atagirls” or “Glamour Girls” (glamor being spelled with a u in the U.K.) and their motto was “Anything to anywhere.” They had to learn to fly a wide variety of planes, some damaged and needing repairs, and Mary delivered 76 different types of planes during more than 1,000 flights, almost all of which were solo. She flew every type of plane manufactured in Britain between 1941 and 1945. The Spitfire was reportedly the Glamour Girls’ favorite, and it was viewed across Britain as a symbol of freedom.
After the war, she continued flying and became the managing director of Sandown Airport in England’s Isle of Wight a few years later. Before her death, she was honored by the British government and the Royal Air Force (RAF), which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. For more information visit www.bbc.co.uk.
I say goodbye this week with a short excerpt from Tom Brokaw’s book: “When the war ended, more than 12 million men and women put their uniforms aside and returned to civilian life. They went back to work at their old jobs or started small businesses; they became big-city cops and firemen; they finished their degrees or enrolled in college for the first time; they became schoolteachers. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the baby boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.”
God bless America, and rest in peace Mary Ellis!