My mother, Marie Barrett Marsh, 43-W-7, was a distinguished member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. From an early age, I was proud of my mother and knew I would follow in her footsteps to become a pilot. She ignited an undeniable passion in me – a deep love of airplanes and flying.
Like many young women, Marie learned to fly with the Civilian Pilot Training Program while earning her degree at Youngstown College. The US knew it did not have enough trained pilots for war and offering free pilot training could mitigate that problem. Lucky for my mother and so many others, the program mandated that 10% of each class be comprised of women. Marie and a friend were the only two women in a class of 29 students. After the Primary Course, Marie took Secondary CPT, which included aerobatic instruction in an open cockpit biplane, the Waco UPF-7.
Marie’s brother, Tom, also took the CPT course and then Marie, Tom, and eight others put in $100 each, formed a non-profit corporation, and bought one of the used Porterfield airplanes from Hinkle Fly8ing Service at Bernard Airport. It had a 65-horsepower engine, no brakes, and a single magneto. They flew the plane for about $2/hour until the government requisitioned all available planes for World War II. They sold it for more than they had paid. At the time, no one worried about insurance.
Marie was accepted into class 43-W-7 and trained on Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX. After earning her wings, she was assigned to the headquarters of the Weather Wing in Asheville, NC. Her duties included being a pilot for the non-flying top brass in the Weather Wing with flights to the Army weather stations all over the US, courier service to the Pentagon, “mercy flights,” and flight testing the aircraft at the base after repair. She was checked out in the B-26, A-24, C-45, C-60.
Col. Farnham, the head of Army Airways Communications Systems had as “his” plane a twin-engine Beech C-45, loaded with communication equipment. Marie flew with him on one cross-country flight and he was so pleased with her performance and skills he told her to feel free to take his plane any time.
Life-long friendships were formed during these years and despite the program’s disbandment, Mom continued to fly after the war.
Mom married dad in 1944 as the war was ending. They would go on to have eight children, and, although her hands were full (we weren’t the best-behaved) she continued flying. I remember flying with her and being able to stand up in the back seat of a four passenger Cessna. Our family enjoyed local sight-seeing trips.
On August 28, 1949, Marie attended a WASP reunion, in Lockhaven, PA where J3 Cubs were built. While at the reunion, Mom and several other WASP delivered Piper J3 Cubs to dealers around the country. Mom delivered a 70hp Piper J3 Cub to St Louis. She said the cars on the highway below were going faster than she was.
I received my private pilot’s license when I was in college. The first person I took for a plane ride was my mother. I was so proud to have her fly with me. I had a brother who was also a private pilot and a sister who soloed. I also have a niece and a nephew that are currently airline pilots. I am grateful to my mother for exposing us to aviation. It has been an incredible journey.
My mother passed away in 1997. She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of fame after her death. On my last visit to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, my mother’s picture was on display, along with the Congressional Gold Medal she received as a WASP.
I continued to fly. In December 2016, I received a “Master Pilot” award from the FAA, for fifty years of safe flying. I wish my mother could have been with me when I received the award. She would have been proud of the journey that she started in my life.
I continued to go to WASP reunions with Shutsy. We went to many other events, including a WWII weekend in Reading PA, and AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI. On my first trip to AirVenture, there were twenty-five WASP at Oshkosh. What a great experience to be with them and listen to their stories. I got to meet many wonderful female pilots at Oshkosh. It was not uncommon for a female pilot to shake the hand of a WASP, thank them for being “Trailblazers,” and opening the door for future female pilots.
In April 2016, my wife Pat escorted Shutsy on an honor flight to Washington DC. I escorted a WWII P-51 pilot on the same honor flight. What a privilege! We flew to DC and visited the WWII memorial. We visited other memorials, with a police escort at all times. The Honor Flight made us proud to be American.
After my mother died, I met WASP Florence “Shutsy” Reynolds, 44-W-5. Shutsy had become a silversmith who made and sold WASP jewelry from her shop located on the back of her house. She lived near me, in western PA. I visited Shutsy to purchase WASP memorabilia and a strong friendship began. Shutsy was a widow and lived alone. What an incredible lady! She made WASP jewelry including WASP wing rings, WASP bracelets, and WASP earrings. I still wear the WASP wing ring that we made together.
I traveled with Shutsy to the WASP reunion in Tucson in 2002. She introduced me to her classmates and other WASP. As a stranger, they were very warm and friendly to me. I met several of my mother’s classmates. I was in awe! Shutsy and I became very close friends. I called her my, “honorary mother”. Shutsy never lost her love of flying. We flew together in my plane that is named for her.
My sister, Kathleen Fowler, and I are currently on the Board of Directors at the WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, TX. I am proud to be affiliated with the Museum, and to see the progress it has made in recent years. By the way, you, too, can have Shutsy’s WASP jewelry sold at the WASP Museum. Check out her pendants and rings at waspmuseum.org.
For the fly girls,
Written by: John Marsh
Photos courtesy of: John Marsh & The National WASP WWII Museum