Mary Lou was one of many WASPs, but she holds a special place in our hearts because she represented this fine group of women pilots on our Board of Directors
She is also responsible, with help from fellow WASPs Catherine Vail Bridge and Iris Critchell, for creating the WASPs exhibit at our P‑38 Museum in Riverside, CA.
UPDATE: We are very sad to report that Mary Lou passed away on September 12, 2011, shortly before her 97th birthday. Here’s to Mary Lou and a life well lived!
Mary Lou (Colbert) Neale was born on Oct. 6, 1914, in Juneau, Alaska to Rear Admiral Leo Otis and Florentine Odou Colbert.
She traveled extensively as a child attending schools in various locales including Manila in the Philippines.
Mary Lou graduated from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington D.C. and entered Wellesley College in 1931, graduating with a degree in English Composition in 1935. She worked as a newspaper writer, and a cataloguer for the Library of Congress.
When the nation prepared for WWII she met with Eleanor Roosevelt to ask her help in allowing women in the newly formed Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). In this program she completed her Primary and Secondary Pilot Training.
“When she took us up flying, I remember thinking as we were roaring down the runway: That’s my mom!”
-Denise Neale Jensen, Mary Lou’s daughter
About the CPTP
The Civilian Pilot Training Program opened up to women (after Eleanor Roosevelt questioned the dictum of “boys only”), and “1 girl for every 10 boys” became the rule from late 1939 to 1941.
Mary Lou had the “Primary” (which led to the private pilot license) and the “Secondary” (aerobatics) courses under her belt before they closed it down to females due to the necessity to train male combat pilots.
When Jacqueline Cochran finally got the go-ahead to select 25 women pilots for this “experimental” program, (following the regular Air Corps Cadet training course and with some 450 flight hours and the required Commercial license) Mary Lou was the first to apply.
And she was the first accepted. Mary Lou was the first candidate Jackie Cochran signed up for the WASP program and was a member of their first class, 43-W-1.
Mary Lou was checked out in all the trainers, fighters and most of the bombers and was assigned to the Ferry Command, flying P-38s and various other aircraft between the west and east coast military bases.
Mary Lou was later Commander of the WASP Unit at the Palm Springs Army Air Force Base, and received a commission as Captain in the USAF Reserve after the WASP organization was deactivated.
She served as ferry pilot until the last hour on the last day (December 20, 1944), when all WASP flying was halted.
“These courageous ladies piloted fighter craft and bombers… so dedicated were they that 38 of them lost their lives…”
FOOTNOTE: Only one, Evelyn Sharp, was killed in a P‑38, on April 3, 1944.
After WWII, Mary Lou married her flight instructor in the CPTP Program, Navy Captain Raphael A. (Ray) Neale and had four children.
Recalling a WWII flier who stole a heart
Mary Lou and all other WASPs were declared military veterans in 1977 for the vital role they played in the war effort. Here’s Mary Lou’s page on the Texas Woman’s University WASPs page.
Awards & Honors
Board of Directors, P‑38 National Association
Santa Clarita Chapter of the American Association of University Women, Charter Member
Conceived and organized the WASP Display at the P‑38 Museum, with photo donations from fellow WASP, Iris Critchell
Received an honorary granite plaque in the International Forest of Friendship
U.S. Congressional Gold Medal
On March 10, 2010 Mary Lou, and her fellow WASPs, received the United States Congressional Gold Medal for her service as a WASP during WWII. It is one of only two highest civilian awards in the United States.