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‘Thank you for your service’ – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

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In just a few days, we celebrate another Veterans Day, honoring the men and women who served, or still serve, in our country’s armed forces.

Until recently, a group of veterans never got recognition for what they did in World War II. After the war, his military records were sealed, classified as secret, and kept out of public view for 35 years.

Of the 1,074 women who volunteered and qualified as pilots in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, fewer than 15 are still alive.

When the war began, men often called these women “girls” and did not believe that this grand experiment would ever work, that America’s women, sisters, daughters, and wives, could fly army planes all over the country. These women were just asking for a chance.

Their reason for volunteering for such a dangerous duty was almost always the same. “I wanted to do something for my country,” said Dorothy Ann Smith. For Penny Peirce it was simple: “I wanted to do something patriotic.”

Organized as Womens Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASPs, the women had to complete and meet the same training requirements faced by male recruits. The only difference was that the men were from the regular Army and the women were classified as Civil Service. They were promised that they would become regular Army officers as soon as Congress approved their commissioning, but it took Congress until 1977 before the vote was successful.

The women’s primary duty was to fly and deliver new military aircraft to bases in the United States, although other flying missions were soon added.

Of the 15 female volunteers who successfully completed WASP training and called Oregon home, three were born in another state and none were born in southern Oregon. The two women born closest to Jackson County began their lives in Bend.

Born in February 1921, Helen Marie Skjersaa was the third child and first child of Love Nilson Skjersaa and his wife, Mars. Love had come to the United States from Norway in 1907 and, having become a naturalized citizen and saved enough money, he returned to Norway in 1914 to marry Mars and bring her back to Bend.

Helen had a simple childhood surrounded by other Scandinavian families whose parents and children worked in sawmills. As a teenager, she enjoyed dancing and acrobatics and soon became a high school majorette with the girls’ drum and bugle corps.

Upon graduating in 1938, he received permission from his father to learn to fly. The University of Idaho offered pilot training and Helen signed up. In 1943, with three years of college behind her and 200 hours of flying time, she earned her pilot’s license and was accepted into the WASP program.

By the time the program ended in December 1944, Helen had delivered every type of aircraft flown by the Army and Navy. Her favorites were the B-25 and the B-17. It was the last time she flew a plane. She passed away in 2008.

Mary Jean Barnes was born in Bend in September 1921, the only child of Deschutes County Judge William Barnes and his wife, Cornelia. Just a few months after her birth, the family moved to Phoenix.

Her father died when she was 16 years old, leaving the family in poverty. “I didn’t mind having just one pair of shoes, one skirt, and one pair of tops,” she said, “because all my friends were the same.”

A good student, Mary received a scholarship to Southern Oregon College, now Southern Oregon University, where, in 1941, she and two other women enrolled in a pilot training course offered by the college. She earned her pilot’s license and soon graduated as a ground flight instructor.

After graduation, he established and taught a pre-flight training program at Medford High but, within months, accepted a similar position at two other colleges where he trained male Air Corps trainees to fly.

In the spring of 1944, she was accepted into the WASP program. Stationed at Merced Army Airfield in California, she once again taught male Army recruits how to fly.

After the WASP program ended, he also never flew a plane again and died in 2017.

Unlike Helen Skjersaa, Mary lived long enough to hear people say, “Thank you for your service.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of six books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Contact him at newsmiller@live.com.

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