In 1942, when the U.S. Marine Corps recruited women, Betty Blair (1912-1998) drove to Portland and signed on. Until then, she worked as a clerk at the Kaiser Shipyard. With two college degrees and five years teaching experience, she was overqualified. But Blair and other shipyard women were patriotically filling men’s jobs to free up men for fighting in World War II. As a Marine, she could do more.
Soon after her signing, a newspaper article declared her the first in the area accepted, making her one more in the Blair linage who served their country. Her brother John signed on as an Army doctor. Her father was an Army Medical Reserve doctor in WWI, and her grandfather, Jasper, was a Union soldier during the Civil War.
Officially, she was in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Its commander, Maj. Ruth Cheney Streeter, warned the reservists to prepare for “an alien way of life.” That was an understatement. There were no regulation uniforms for women, no military undergarments, no shoes, no special barracks. When regulation garments became available, finding the right fit frustrated the women.
Private Blair attended boot camp at Camp Lejeune and qualified on the same weapons men did, including a flame thrower. Like them, she learned to pull on a gas mask by the count of three or suffer burning throat and eyes from tear gas.
In 1943, after boot camp and maybe because of her teaching background, the Corps sent her to the Atlanta Naval Air Station, a Navy flight school where she would learn to operate the Link, an early flight simulator designed by Ed Link.
The Link is a blind fuselage containing merely flight controls and instrumentation. Once trained, she and others departed for Cherry Point, N.C., to test Navy and Marine pilots. Blair maneuvered the trainer and recorded each pilot’s success or failure.
The charter establishing the women’s reserve status required their resignation at the war’s end. In 1945, Sgt. Blair, discharged honorably, returned to Vancouver where she worked for the Washington National Bank and married local attorney Donald Simpson.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.