Rosemary Mariner, who shattered barriers when she became one of the Navy’s first female pilots and the first woman to command a naval aviation squadron — and who later successfully fought for a congressional measure that lifted a ban on women serving in combat — died on Jan. 24 in Knoxville, Tenn. She was 65.
Her husband, Tommy Mariner, a retired commander in the Navy, said the cause was ovarian cancer.
When Captain Mariner joined the Navy in 1973, she was a licensed pilot and a graduate of Purdue University, where she had been the first woman to enroll in a newly created aeronautics program. She had been enthralled by flight since she was young when she watched Navy pilots taking off from Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. As a teenager, Rosemary read books on aviation and washed planes at local civilian airports to earn money for flying lessons
Most women in the Navy of the early 1970s were assigned to hospital posts or clerical jobs. But times were about to change.
After graduating from officer candidate school in 1973, Captain Mariner was chosen for the Navy’s first flight-training class for women; she was among six of its graduates to earn wings in 1974. The next year she became the first female aviator in the Navy to fly a jet attack craft, a single-seat Skyhawk.
After various postings, she was named commander of a Navy tactical electronic warfare squadron at Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Southern California in July 1990. A 300-member unit, which was about 30 percent female, the squadron flew aircraft that simulated Soviet and other foreign planes and missiles for United States fleet ship and squadron training. Since women were still not allowed to fly combat missions, their flying skills could be put to use in that type of exercise.
The Navy was soon to face a major embarrassment. In September 1991, members of the Tailhook Association, a group of retired and active-duty Navy aviators attending a Navy-sanctioned convention in Las Vegas, groped and otherwise harassed female Navy personnel. When what became known as the Tailhook scandal came to light, Captain Mariner viewed it in a wide context.
In a reference to women being barred from combat, she told the PBS program “The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour” that her nearly 20 years in the Navy had taught her, “If you cannot share the equal risks and hazards in arduous duty, then you are not equal.” “And if the institution can discriminate against you,” she added, “then it’s not a big leap” for “bigots to decide that ‘well, I can harass you and I can get away with it.’ ”
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.
But Captain Mariner saw continued obstacles facing women in the armed forces. “There have been remarkable changes in the military,” she said at the time. “What I’m still concerned about are these reports of sexual assault and sexism and criminal activity that still go on.” She nonetheless emphasized the quality of perseverance that had served her so well. “Life can deal you a lot of curveballs,” she said. “You hang in there and you don’t quit.”
In April 1993, Defense Secretary Les Aspin lifted the restrictions on female pilots flying combat missions. Until then, female aviators in the Navy, Army and Air Force had been limited to training and other noncombat jobs.
When she retired from the Navy in 1997, Captain Mariner “had become one of the nation’s leading advocates for equal opportunity in the military,” Deborah G. Douglas wrote in “American Women and Flight since 1940” (2005).
Captain Mariner logged 17 landings on aircraft carriers and more than 3,500 flight hours in 15 different aircraft.
Rosemary Ann Bryant was born on April 2, 1953, in Harlingen, Tex. Her father, Capt. Cecil Bryant, an Air Force pilot and a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War, was killed when a transport plane he was ferrying developed engine trouble and crashed near Atlanta. Her mother, Constance (Boylan) Bryant, a Navy nurse in World War II, moved with Rosemary and her sisters, Libby and Linda, to the San Diego area when Rosemary was 8.
In June 1990, when Captain Mariner was the executive officer, or second in command, of the air squadron she would soon command, her mother, speaking of her daughter’s determination to fly, told The Los Angeles Times, “I was worried because her father had been killed in an aircraft accident, but she was so determined to do it, I felt I shouldn’t hold her back.”
In her later years in the Navy, Captain Mariner attended the National War College in Washington, earning a master’s degree in national security strategy, and served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon. After retiring from the Navy, she taught military history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Captain Mariner and her husband had been living in Norris, Tenn. In addition to him, she is survived by their daughter, Emmalee, and her sister Libby Merims.
In tribute to Captain Mariner, the Navy conducted its first all-female flyover at her funeral service in Maynardville, Tenn.
See more on Captain Mariner in the program featured on Valorous TV.