Mary Richardson plans to take it easy for her birthday this year, and a well-earned rest it will be.
The longtime island resident will turn 99 on Nov. 12, which is, ironically, the observed date of Veteran’s Day this year, a group among which Richardson holds an elite place. Not only is she a female World War II vet, a rare subset of an already sadly fast-disappearing population, but she is a female WWII Marine Corp vet — an air traffic controller, no less.
But the woman who would go on to blaze a pioneering trail through the male-dominated worlds of both the mid-century military and aviation industry was born in California’s San Fernando Valley and, having graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in geography, at first aspired to nothing more exciting than planning other people’s vacations.
“I wanted to be in the travel business,” Richardson recalled. “But Pearl Harbor came along.”
As it did for so many others, the date that will live in infamy was a game-changer for Richardson. Though she’d never been especially interested in military service (not that it was even an option for women at the time) or aviation, she was soon to discover both, and in so doing be introduced to her life’s work and set on a reluctantly revolutionary path.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Richardson, like many other women, sought opportunities to contribute more directly to the war effort, which had to that point been almost exclusively a boy’s club.
“I got interested because of Pearl Harbor, everybody suddenly got very patriotic,” Richardson said. “I was working at the Lockheed Corporation (later Lockheed Martin). At that time I guess I was just doing clerical things. That was the only thing women could do, there was nothing to enlist in at the start [of the war].”
The United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was the World War II-era women’s branch of the Marine Corps Reserve, authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30, 1942 (though the Marine Corps delayed its actual formation until February 1943) for the purpose of filling shore station assignments with qualified women so as to free up more men for combat.
“Which the men didn’t particularly like,” Richardson laughed.
Though the women stepping up to fill the home turf slots meant more men were combat-bound, Richardson said she could not recall any instance of bullying or sexist behavior during her time in uniform.
“People were pulling together,” she said.
She was signed up and shipped out to boot camp in May 1943, at the age of 23.
Why the Marines?
Richardson said she chose the Corps because, “That’s the elite group.”
Sure as she was about her branch of choice, though, she was equally uncertain about what her role might be.
“[Aviation] was sort of where I ended up,” she said. “They gave you a list of things available to do and you could pick what you wanted [but] they didn’t promise that you’d get it. I originally picked meteorology, and that got me into the aviation division.”
Though typical duties for women in the reserve were clerical or semi-skilled trades, Richardson quickly distinguished herself and was made an air traffic controller. Hawaii (then still just a U.S. territory) was the only
overseas duty station to which women were assigned, but almost all stateside bases were fair game. Richardson began her tour of duty in the tower at El Centro, California.
“It is [stressful], but oddly enough people doing stressful work often feel they wouldn’t want to do anything else, even though it’s difficult,” Richardson said. “In those days aviation was very glamorous, and here I am working with pilots. That’s what I liked, I guess, telling them what to do. I couldn’t believe that, here I am telling Marine Corp pilots what traffic pattern to get in and so forth.”
Here again Richardson said she recalled no misogyny on the part of the pilots. Though her longtime friend Karen Anderson said those fellas would have hard a hard time getting under Mary’s skin.
“I don’t think Mary would have been intimidated by anyone,” Anderson said. “She’s just been amazing.”
“I enjoyed working with men, and I mostly did work just with men,” Richardson said, though she recalled the community of wartime female air traffic controllers being fairly small but convivial.
“We all got along fine,” she said.
Gender-blind as the war effort was, however, the ladies couldn’t help but turn a few heads.
Richardson recalled one particularly steamy anecdote from her days, well, not actually in uniform.
“There was no air conditioning in El Centro, and we soon found ourselves running around in nothing but a towel,” she said. “The bathroom was down the hall and we wore as little as we could to stay cool. So a bunch of us were transferred, because of the heat, up to [Marine Corps Air Station] El Toro, which is inland from Laguna Beach and which is cooler. We unthinkingly just went on wandering around in a towel or our underwear and we got a terrible reputation as ‘The Naked Ladies from El Centro.’
“We soon got over that because it was cooler and we realized we needed a bathrobe, not a towel,” she added.
Victory and beyond
With the end of the fighting in sight, the writing was on the wall for the reservists.
The Marine Corps began to demobilize them, and by late 1945, their numbers were significantly diminished. Richardson got out in October of that year, having achieved the rank of sergeant, though it was a reluctant move.
“I think I would have stayed, at least a while,” she said. “The only reason I left was because they said they were disbanding the women’s part, but of course they ended up keeping it. It seemed there was no point in staying on until they kicked me out.”
But she wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to aviation yet.
“I went back to work at Lockheed while looking for control tower positions,” she said.
“They gave me clerical work, which I hated, and one day I picked up the company phone book to see if I could’t find a better part of the company and here’s a division called flight operations and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s for me.’ So I finally got an appointment with the chief pilot and they showed me to a bare room in a big hangar and told me to wait. There were windows, and I went over and looked out and here’s the flight line and airplanes taxiing, so I climbed up on a chair and hung out the window, enjoying this. And I heard the door open and it was the chief pilot come to interview me. I was kind of embarrassed, and I jumped down off the chair and he looked at me and he said, ‘You like airplanes.’ And so he took me on.”
She had a degree, a license and wartime experience. Also, as luck would have it, she had a great sense of timing.
“I turned out that Lockheed was testing their new jet fighters, which were quite new, at a small nearby airfield,” Richardson said. “The tower was run by an Air Force unit [and] they just got up and left one day because the war was over. So Lockheed had to provide control tower operators and I turned up at just the right time. So I went to work as the tower operator at Van Nuys; did it for several years.”
Thus she went to work keeping track of the comings and goings of test aircraft, calling emergency responders when necessary. But the war was still more stressful, Richardson said, “Because I was dealing with inexperienced pilots.”
Even so, it’s one of the most notoriously stressful occupations there is. How does one cope?
“You drink a lot,” Richardson laughed.
In fact, until she was about 90-years-old, Anderson said a key secret to her friend’s longevity and vibrancy was a strict daily regiment of two gin-on-the-rocks at 7 p.m., just before dinner. Also, lots of garlic. At 95 she cut back to one drink a day, and these days she’s a reluctant teetotaler, as it does not mix well with her Parkinson’s disease medication.
The garlic, though, is still a staple. As was, until very recently, her get-up-and-go lifestyle.
“She was a very outdoorsy person,” Anderson said. “She did a lot of camping.”
Richardson also once did the Inside Passage, and tooled around Europe for three months in a ’78 camper van.
“Since she retired and moved up here she’s done a lot of camping on her own,” Anderson said. “When she was about 92 or 93, we went out to Mount Rainier … and she lasted longer than I did and I’m like 20 years younger. She’s always been very athletic.”
Tennis loves will no doubt already be aware of Richardson’s physical prowess, her being something of an icon in the sport round these parts.
“She was one of the original members of the Bainbridge Island Athletic Club and she played tennis twice a week until she was 95-and-a-half,” Anderson said.
Having retired from the aviation biz, Richardson moved to Bainbridge in 1978, after falling in love with the place while visiting a friend.
“I visited a friend and I liked it,” She recalled. “Southern California had gotten so crowded, so different from what it used to be.”
Though inspirational, Richardson’s life has not been without sadness.
Her husband, a soldier, died young of a spinal chord tumor, after they’d been married about 10 years. Her mother passed away during childbirth when Richardson was just 2, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother for a time and then her aunt and uncle. She believes these experiences have made her more resilient in the long run.
Of her time in service, or the progressive example she has set in her subsequent career, Richardson is reluctant to expound. She shrugs of the idea she may be any kind of role model and insists the things she’s done, “didn’t seem amazing at the time.”
Even during a brief stint in hospice care, from which she recovered, Richardson downplayed her accomplishments to the point she refused any sort of VA assistance. She has made her own arrangements, to be buried beside her husband, in California, when the time comes, and until then is learning to, finally, take it easy.
“Mary has, when we talked about it over these past years, she never wanted VA benefits because she’s always said they gave me my life, they gave me my career, they don’t owe me anything,” Anderson said. “Which, I think, is a fantastic attitude that she’s had.”
Even some staff members at the assisted living facility where she now lives were shocked to learn of Richardson’s service record.
In lieu of burning up the tennis court herself anymore, these days Richardson ardently follows sports as a fan. She never misses a Seahawks or Mariners game, and when watching tennis she roots for Roger Federer.
She loves crossword puzzles, and to knit — but do not get her started on cooking.
“I hate cooking,” she said. “I’m happy that they cook here for me.”
“Even before she moved here, her favorite dinners came from Town & Country, pre-made,” Anderson said.
When she sold her condo, Richardson donated about 600 books to the Bainbridge Public Library. Though she does not read as much these days, she still prefers primarily nonfiction.
Her favorite movie is “Casablanca.”
Of the culture today, the national discourse, Richardson has little good to say.
“We do seem to be more divisive,” she said. “Trump is impossible.”
On Nov. 12, Richardson will share a cake with two other residents of the facility where she lives who have the same birthday. Even so, she’s not looking to make any bigger a deal than that.
“Let it happen,” she said. “That’s the way to put it.”
To young people, especially women, she counsels fearlessness. Be it a possible career, a tour of service, however brief, or an adventurous excursion, Richardson said regretting not doing something is much worse than being disappointed.
“If they want to try it, try it.”