The rules were clear when she was growing up: Women were not allowed to fly U.S. military aircraft. But that was not going to stop Rosemary Bryant Mariner.
The daughter of a Navy nurse and an Air Force pilot who had died in a plane crash when she was 3, Mariner made it her goal to be as qualified as possible to fly in the armed services. She got her private pilot’s license at 17. Then she got her aeronautics degree from Purdue University in 1972 when she was 19.
A year later, as a growing feminist movement took hold amid a push for the Equal Rights Amendment, the Navy lifted its restrictions and opened up its flight program to women — setting Mariner on a path to becoming a pioneer in the military.
She was in the inaugural class of women who earned their Navy wings in 1973. Mariner then became the first woman to fly a tactical fighter jet in 1974, at just 21; in 1982, she was among the first women to serve aboard a U.S. Navy warship; in 1991, during the Gulf War, she became the first woman to command an aviation squadron. Later, she was instrumental in the repeal of combat exclusion restrictions on women.
Capt. Mariner died at 65 last Thursday, Jan. 24, of ovarian cancer, nearly five years after she had been diagnosed. At her funeral service on Saturday, the Navy plans to honor her with a “missing man flyover” — a tribute honoring aviators who have died — that will consist of all women. It will be the first all-female flyover ever, the Navy said.
Her husband of nearly 39 years, ret. Navy Cmdr. Tommy Mariner, said the fact that it will be all-female would flatter Mariner, but she “certainly would not say that that component is necessary.”
“It’s wonderful that the Navy can do that and it’s good that they have that many women where they can fill out all the cockpits with women,” he said, his voice breaking. “But that would not be a requirement for Rosemary.”
A petite woman who had no trouble keeping up with the physical requirements of the Navy, Mariner made clear from the moment she got accepted that she wanted to fly, said Capt. Joellen Drag Oslund, one of Mariner’s 1973 classmates and the Navy’s first female helicopter pilot.
“Right from the get-go, Rosemary was a lot of grit and determination wrapped up in a small package,” Oslund said. “She just had this vision and this mission, and nothing was going to deter her from accomplishing that.”
Initially, the Navy admitted eight women, including Mariner and Oslund, to what Oslund said was then called “women officer school.” Six ended up completing the program. Mariner, Oslund said, “made no bones about it, that officer school was just to be tolerated, and that the real work was going to be in flight school.”
Despite the women’s ability to keep up, there were some in the Navy that were not entirely open to them being there.
“I would say the reception in the fleet was skeptical, but not overtly hostile,” Oslund said. “It was dubbed as a trial program, so the Navy, honestly, I don’t think they expected us to stay for 20 years.”
In interviews over the years, Mariner, a Texas native who was raised in San Diego, credited the commanding officer of her first squadron, Capt. Ray Lambert, who was black, with mentoring her on how to succeed.
“He taught me how black men in the Navy and all the services networked. He told me how it was going to be and what we would need to do as women,” she told the University of Tennessee, where she taught U.S. military history for years, in November 2017. “He was adamant that women should never have a separate chain of command. Racial segregation in the armed forces was a major barrier African-Americans had to overcome.”
Katherine Sharp Landdeck, a historian of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II and a professor at Texas Women’s University who was friends with Mariner, said Mariner’s intelligence was one of her signature assets, along with her willingness to assist others reach their potential.
“She shaped generations of people with that confidence in them and helping them find their path,” Landdeck said.
“She was a badass pilot, too. Landing on carriers? That’s pretty badass. You’re not just landing a jet. You’re landing a jet on a runway that’s rising up and down in the seas, and I think as a woman doing it, you’ve got everybody on deck watching. Very cool under pressure.”
Mariner’s husband said that while she was proud of the doors she opened for other women in the armed services, she never thought of the work she was doing as being revolutionary.
“She considered people — not men and women,” he said. “From a standpoint of getting the job done, and the way you’re treated in the world, she felt that people ought to be treated the same.”
He said she took on her cancer diagnosis the same way she approached everything else in her life — by educating herself as much as possible about it, relying on her Roman Catholic faith to get through tough times, and by thinking of it as her “mission.” When she was diagnosed four and a half years ago, he said, doctors believed she only had several months to live.
In her 2017 interview with the University of Tennessee, she emphasized the importance of persistence.
“Life can deal you a lot of curveballs,” she said. “You hang in there and you don’t quit.”