Tennessee has its share of native-born heroes. Others have come to call it home at different life stages. One such hero we call our own is naval aviator Rosemary Bryant Mariner. Her career is unparalleled in aviation history, and she literally broke the glass ceiling of the skies. As we watched the flyover of the women Naval pilots at the Super Bowl, this barrier breaker was likely smiling from the heavens.
Rosemary was the child of military career parents. Her mother was a nurse in World War II, and her father was an Army Air Corps pilot and later an Air Force pilot in Korea. She knew early the dangers of flight. As a child, Rosemary watched military aircraft take off and land from the famed Miramar Base in San Diego. Her father was killed in an aircraft accident when she was only three. Her fascination with all things flight started early. She was always destined for the skies.
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Rosemary was bright and a hard worker. She earned money for flight lessons and flying time by cleaning houses and washing airplanes. She graduated from Purdue University at nineteen with a degree in Aviation Technology, the first woman at that university to earn that degree. A few months later, she joined the Navy. At 5’4”, she barely met the height requirements.
Nonetheless, she became one of the women to join the Navy’s flight training program for women after finishing Officer Candidate School. She and five other women in the program were known as “The First Six.” By 1974 she had earned her wings and was flying the A4L Skyhawk and, shortly after, the A7E Corsair II. She became the first woman to fly a frontline attack aircraft.
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In 1982 Rosemary Bryant became the first female pilot assigned to an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington. By 1987 she was the first female squadron commander. Restrictions still existed on women flying on combat missions, and she and other female leaders in the Navy lobbied for that restriction to be removed.
According to Richard Goldstein of The New York Times, “Captain Mariner was a leader of the organization Women Military Aviators. In 1992, she worked with members of Congress and a Defense Department advisory board to overturn laws and regulations keeping women from combat.” In 1993 thanks in part to her efforts, those restrictions were lifted.
As a result of lifted restrictions, she became the first woman to command a squadron during Desert Storm. She was the first woman to serve on the staff of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon. By the end of her Naval career, she had earned a Master’s Degree in National Security at the National War College.
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She flew over fifteen different types of Naval aircraft in her career, made seventeen carrier landings, and logged over 3500 flight hours. During the Tailhook Scandal, she made sure that a woman’s voice was heard. In reference to women being barred from combat, she told the PBS program “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” that her nearly 20 years in the Navy at that time had taught her, “If you cannot share the equal risks and hazards in arduous duty, then you are not equal.” She went on to say that if you are not equal, you can be harassed.
In her later years, Rosemary talked about the difficulties of being one of “The First Six.” She credits a mentor, the commander of her first squadron, Captain Ray Lambert, with advice that he gave her on how to succeed as a minority in a white male-dominated group. It worked; she retired as a Naval Captain after a sterling career marked with many firsts. She considered it her role to mentor other young women and influence them in how to be a part of the best of the best of military aviators.
She and her husband Tommy Mariner retired from military careers and moved to Norris, Tennessee, where they lived for years. While there, Mariner taught military history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and served as an advisor on the integration of women in the U.S. Navy and as an advisor on national defense.
In 2019, Captain Rosemary Mariner died of ovarian cancer at sixty-five. According to her husband, she battled it with the same grace that she lived her life, finding out all she could about the disease and bravely enduring what it brought. She was expected to live only a few months after her diagnosis but fought the odds and survived five years.
Captain Mariner was laid to rest in a cemetery in Maynardville, Tennessee. Like the Super Bowl, the flyover at her interment was made by a group of all-female pilots in celebration of the life and contribution of this groundbreaking woman of the skies. As with other things with Rosemary Mariner, it was the first “Missing Man Flyover” performed by all female pilots.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel that covered the interment flyover, one of the Commanders, Stacy Uttecht, of the Strike Fighter Squadron 32, and the second woman to command a F/A-18 squadron, said Mariner paved the way for women like her to make their own success in the Navy and join the ranks of its elite fighter pilots.
Uttecht was quoted as saying, “This has probably been the coolest thing that I’ve done in my 19-year career that I’ve had in the Navy,” Uttecht said. “Getting to fly awesome aircraft in and of itself is pretty cool, but then to be able to honor someone who really blazed the way for folks like me to be able to fly these jets, go fly combat missions and be the commanding officer of a squadron — it’s almost indescribable.”
As a female and an American that celebrates equality in all things, I am proud that Captain Mariner, who broke so many barriers and advocated so strongly for her fellow pilots, is buried in East Tennessee ground. Captain Mariner was survived by her husband of many years, Tommy Mariner, and two daughters. Rest in peace, Captain. You will not be forgotten.
There is much more to learn about Rosemary Mariner’s fascinating life and career. She is featured in articles that can readily be found on the internet.
Below are a few of the many books that feature her life and career:
Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook
American Women and Flight Since 1940
Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military
Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook