If it wasn’t for a friend who had clued me in last week, I embarrassingly *may* have missed today’s live coverage of the historic Blue Origin space launch featuring the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk.
If you find yourself asking the question “Who is Wally Funk?” – you may not be the only one. If it hadn’t been for my huge interest in all things having to do with women in aviation, I may not have known who Wally Funk was before today, either …
In 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a feature story entitled “The Unlaunchable Wally Funk,” in which the author traced her saga from the early 1960’s until 2004, outlining her achievements in flight, but also ultimately her unfortunate inability to ever make it into space. In covering her achievements following the shutdown of the FLATs program, the author wrote:
She became a flight instructor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport and competed in women’s air races from coast to coast. A three-year around-the-world interlude in a VW camper took her to 59 countries before she ran out of money. Back in L.A., she was hired as a field examiner by the FAA and then an accident investigator by the NTSB–both jobs a first for women, she says. After investigating 450 accidents ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary, she retired in 1985 and went back to teaching.
Funk lectured widely on space and safety. She skydived, bungee-jumped, raced cars, ballooned and, in Wild West costume, competed as “The Taos Kid” in shooting competitions. She entered hoity-toity car shows in a custom-body Rolls-Royce once owned by the Queen Mother. She designed and built her own house in Taos. She appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with Billie Jean King (“I did all the talking”) and was featured flying aerobatics in a Stearman biplane in a Merrill Lynch TV spot (“Sure, I take risks for fun. But when it comes to my money, I’m really careful.”). More recently, and for no apparent reason, she popped up on a CD titled “The Flight of Wally Funk,” by the Australian rock band Spiderbait.
But through it all, she never forgot the ride not taken.
Nearly 20 years later though, it finally appears that all of this has now changed, not only in history’s favor but to Jeff Bezos’ credit. Here’s a short video clip of Bezos telling Wally about how she was going to come up to space with him.
And here’s a look at the recent headlines from CBS and Newsweek, to The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Washington Post, and more:
Who is Wally Funk? Trailblazing aviator becomes oldest person to travel to space at 82 | CBS News (read more)
Who Is Wally Funk? Oldest Blue Origin Passenger Who Outperformed Jeff Bezos | Newsweek (read more)
Guess Who’s Going to Space With Jeff Bezos? Wally Funk has been ready to become an astronaut for six decades. | The Atlantic (read more)
Wally Funk Is Defying Gravity and 60 Years of Exclusion From Space | New York Times (read more)
Wally Funk’s 60-Year Journey Into Space; In the early 1960s, she was one of 13 women who trained to become an astronaut — but it wasn’t until Jeff Bezos brought her on board that she was able to fulfill that dream | Rolling Stone (read more)
Wally Funk Is Going to Space Aboard Jeff Bezos’s Rocket. Here’s Why That Matters | Time Magazine (read more)
In 1961 She Lost Her Chance to go to Space. Today, at 82, She Finally Got Her Shot | Washington Post (read more)
Wally Funk, the ‘heart of this mission,’ finally reaches space at 82 | MSNBC (read more)
Wally Funk fulfills lifelong dream to go to space with Blue Origin flight
The 82-year-old became the oldest person to go to space, six decades after being denied by the US government | The Guardian (read more)
Finally, here is a video in Wally’s own words about what it was like to finally go up into space today:
Today I learned that the Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. From the first hot air balloonists, to the earliest aviators, to the pioneering test pilots, and beyond, I think everyone can appreciate this moment and how far we’ve come, yet how very far we’ve yet to go. Until then, cheers to Wally and congratulations to all at Blue Origin on a very historic, uplifting, and successful mission!
In 2018, Aimee Bissonette wrote a children’s book about Joan and Jerrie’s simultaneous solo flights around the world entitled Aim for the Skies: Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith’s Race to Complete Amelia Earhart’s Quest. Aimee is the author of 10 picture books, fiction and nonfiction: she has also worked as an occupational therapist, teacher, writer, lawyer, and small business owner. Based in Minnesota, she has lived in many different places and one of her favorite things to do is travel and experience new cultures.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Doris Ettinger, a watercolor artist who has illustrated over 40 children’s books. According to her website, Doris lives with her artist husband Michael McFadden in an old gristmill near Hampton, New Jersey where they raised their two children. On the first floor of the mill, the artists have their studios. On the third floor Doris teaches members of the Musconetcong Watercolor Group, now in its 12th year. She also teaches workshops at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster NJ.
With research institutions across the country now physically re-opening after months of Covid shutdowns, I recently heard back from the Eisenhower Presidential Library about an inquiry I made many months ago. Because this library holds the historical files of Jackie Cochran, I wondered if there might be any info about Joan’s experience of being tested for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, a.k.a. Mercury 13.
While I didn’t end up finding any info about Joan’s involvement in the program, I did find a series of letters catalogued between Jackie, Joan, the National Aeronautic Association, and others that shed some additional light on the events that unfolded following Joan’s 1964 world solo flight.
When the package containing the copied materials from archives arrived in the mail, I was excited to see what was inside. Prior to this, the only correspondence I’d seen from Jackie regarding Joan’s flight was a letter that she had written to the NAA on Joan’s behalf courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Individuals involved in the new correspondence that I received include:
Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrix and honorary lifetime president of National Aeronautic Association (NAA)
Floyd Odlum, Jackie’s husband, and one of richest men in the U.S. at the time
Colonel Mitchell Giblo, Executive Director of the NAA
William Ong, President of the NAA
M.J. “Randy” Randleman, Secretary of Contest Board under Mitchell Giblo, NAA
Ruth Deerman, outgoing President of the 99s
Alice Roberts, incoming President of the 99’s
Joan Merriam Smith
John Sarver, Joan’s PR Person
Peg Schroeder, friend of Joan’s and head of “Citizens committee for recognition for Joan Merriam Smith”
Two U.S. congressmen
While reading through these letters, there was a lot to unpack. There’s nothing quite reading actual history vs. someone else’s account of it! I also couldn’t help but think about how much more complicated communication seemed back then having to write formal letters, copy them out in the mail to everyone, and then retain paper copies. Email is so much easier.
Below follows a top-level overview of the correspondence, along with direct links to a couple of these letters for historical value.
May 12, 1964 – Joan becomes first person in history to fly solo around the world at the equator, the first person to complete the longest single solo flight around the world, the first woman to fly a twin-engine aircraft around the world, the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean from west to east in a twin-engine plane, and the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world.
Following Joan’s flight, John Sarver (Joan’s press person) sends out letters to multiple agencies and individuals attempting to find a way to have her flight more formally recognized. In July of 1964 Sarver received a letter from the FAA telling him that there was nothing they could do to help Joan get recognition for her flight.
Joan next reached out to Jackie Cochran directly for help by telegram. (Download telegram)
Jackie’s husband Floyd responded the next day to Joan’s telegram, and he also drafted a response letter for Jackie to send to Joan. In his drafted letter he included a note to Jackie that said: “Maybe a show of interest in Mrs. Smith’s problem along the lines of the attached draft letter would be a good on the record action for you irrespective of results accomplished.” (Download telegram)
Next, Jackie reached out to Colonel Mitchell Giblo, executive director of the NAA for more info, and said she would be in DC soon and would make an appointment before coming to the office.
Jackie received a formal response from the NAA, then sent another letter asking follow-up questions to NAA’s secretary of the contest board, Randy Randleman.
After receiving a response that Jackie felt was sufficient from Col. Giblo with a copy of a letter written from Randleman to Ong, she explained to NAA in another letter that she felt satisfied with the actions taken.
During this time, Jackie received a letter from Joan thanking her for looking into the matter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/14/64, Jackie wrote a letter to Joan summarizing her findings after inquiring about her world flight with the NAA. Jackie explained to Joan that she understood her disappointment but that there was nothing more that she could do.(Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/16/64, Jackie sent Joan another letter acknowledging receipt of her first letter, which she didn’t receive until after her 9/14/64 response.(Download letter)
From here, Joan decided to send Jackie a follow up letter on 9/17/64 explaining what “really” happened, in that she felt there was favoritism. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
Jackie’s secretary then responded saying that Jackie was out of the country for a month. (Download letter)
Incidentally, in this very same month of September of 1964, Jackie was featured on the cover of National Aeronautics Magazine, which was a quarterly publication of the National Aeronautic Association, edited by William Ong, with feature stories by Col. Giblo. (View the publication)
After Joan died, a woman by the name of Peg Schroeder reached out on behalf of a citizen’s committee to gain recognition for Joan in the form of a commemorative stamp to celebrate Earhart and Joan’s accomplishments. (Download letter)
Jackie clearly did not like this idea as she wrote a condescending letter back to Peg in July of 1965, in which she said “I think you and those on your committee may be emotionally carried away by the fact that Miss Smith is dead. She was killed in an airplane accident when the wing of her light plane pulled off. Of course this was a structural failure, but whether the plan was structurally weak or had a stress put on it beyond its designed strength, I do not believe, has yet been officially determined.” Jackie copied NAA’s executive director on this letter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3)
Jackie next reached out to the incoming and outgoing presidents of the 99s, she reached out to two congressmen, and also followed up with the NAA.
The NAA (Giblo’s) response to Jackie on 7/22/65 was “congratulations for sending the type of reply that Peg Schroeder deserved.” (Download letter)
After reading all of these letters, my main takeaways were these: 1) If there truly was any favoritism, Jackie was not asking the right questions to NAA 2) What would Jackie have gained anyway from telling the NAA that they were wrong in how they handled the sanction process between Joan and Jerrie? 3) What reason would there have been for Jackie to have pressed the issue considering she had never even met Joan and also had close ties to NAA leadership? 4) Since Jackie was a close friend of Earhart’s, and together she and Earhart were among the most accomplished women in aviation history, it seemed to me that asking for her support to create a “Joan Merriam Smith-Amelia Earhart Aviation Day” after Joan’s death was a bad idea. The reasoning is evident in her July 1965 letter, as Jackie felt Joan’s supporters were somehow trying to equalize Joan and Amelia when all they were trying to do was find a creative way to get Joan some recognition.
In conclusion, I felt that Joan had noble intentions, and Jackie intended to help her so long as it was convenient to do so, but that’s about the extent of what could be expected given her stature and her political ties. If you’ve followed along this far, would love to hear your thoughts!
If there’s one thing I have learned in this research, it’s that most information about Joan is buried in historical archives such as this and not easily findable. Needless to say, the treasure hunt continues!
Each and every day, countless files from around the globe are newly digitized, catalogued, uploaded, organized, shared, or otherwise published to the web. Take for example the online newspaper archive services. Even though the Newspapers.com database (the largest online newspaper archive) currently features 20,700 newspapers from the 1700s–2000s, it is still adding millions of new pages to its archive every month! Similarly, NewspaperArchive.com is currently adding one newspaper page every second, which equates to over 80,000 images a day or 2.5 million pages per month! With this in mind, every now and then I like to search around and see what new items have popped up.
Recently I was able to locate some new articles I’d never seen before about Trixie, related to her work as a journalist. I was delighted to find an October 17, 1943 Milwaukee Journal article entitled “The Adventures of WTMJ’s Trixie,” where the writer provided an overview of a day in the life of Trixie as Wisconsin’s first female radio news writer.
I also learned that Trixie traveled to Hollywood in the 1940s to personally invite movie stars to Milwaukee’s 1946 100th birthday “Centurama” celebration (see article “Throngs Turn Out for ‘Two Guys’ – Stars Arrive for Fliers Meet.”) While on the Warner Bros. lot, she apparently rode around on the handlebars of Bob Hope’s bicycle.
According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Centurama was comprised primarily of a 31-day festival near the current site of the War Memorial on the lakefront. Concerts, food and entertainment made the festival one of Milwaukee’s most memorable.
During this celebration, I also learned that Trixie helped organize a private gathering for 300 private pilots with special guest Tyrone Power (see article “Private Fliers Get Together, 300 at Gathering“). Power was a big movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he appeared in dozens of films, according to Wikipedia, and was often cast in “swashbuckler roles or romantic leads.” From the above-referenced article, he is quoted as saying: “I’m delighted to be here. I want to thank Trixie Gehrung for inviting me. She’s the reason I’m here tonight.”
For the historical value, below follows the full text of the article about Trixie’s work as a radio news writer. I felt this article not only provided a good description of Trixie’s character, but it also gave a fascinating historical look into the history of journalism and the heyday of radio news.
The Adventure’s of WTMJ’s Trixie by Bea J. Pepan Milwaukee Journal | 10/17/47
“Just back from a trip to New York, Beatrice “Trixie” Gehrung, woman news writer at Radio City, is still quietly glowing over the part she played in a television experiment at NBC‘s Radio City.
As the story goes, Trixie was touring the NBC studios, comparing them mentally with Milwaukee’s own Radio City and enjoying her post man’s holiday immensely.
Her tour party came to a studio where a demonstration of television operation had been scheduled. But at the 11th hour a live subject was lacking. Miss Gehrung, with her televisable black and white dress, be so kind as to sit in? Without hesitation, or even a moment to experience the qualms of stage fright, Trixie acquiesced. Her directions were to talk about anything she desired for six minutes.
She was placed before a backdrop of forest scenery, facing one wall on which was placed a small Televisor, comparable to the lens of the camera. Flooding the room and the subject were blinding lights, as on a movie set. Add a signal chicks he began to speak about Milwaukee’s Radio City. From the studio in which she stood, her picture was flashed upon a screen in front of the audience in the adjoining room, just as slides are flashed on any screen. And sitting in the world’s most famous radio center, the party saw and heard a lecture on the Milwaukee facilities of WTMJ, 1000 miles away.
Unusual experiences seem to be Trixie’s lot in life. And traveling? She’s covered a godly mileage and her 20 odd years, living in big towns and small from Coast to Coast. Born in Denver, Colorado, she found herself in Tampa, Florida, at the age of two, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Hollywood. Her father’s profession, acting, accounts for the steady changes in scenes. On the screen he was known as Gene Gehrung; on the stage he was known as Judd Morgan.
Misfortune over took the family in California – the death of Trixie‘s mother. So from the West Coast Trixie and her brother came to the middle west, to Oshkosh, where they went to school. Trixie spent two years in Oshkosh state teachers, but got her degree at Wisconsin University in Madison.
Ambitions? Trixie had many at different stages of her youth, but finally settled on journalism. And she made up her mind to combine newspaper work with radio if possible.
With this in mind she set out for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After graduation from Wisconsin, she picked up all around newspaper experience editing the Tomahawk leader. Then Trixie took a job as announcer and news writer for station WSAU, Wausau, Wisconsin. Still climbing the ladder she moved onto Radio City, Becoming WTMJ’s first woman news writer.
Here is the radio news riders daily routine: Trixie’s day starts at 5 AM, continuing through until 2 PM, which means rolling out at 4:30 AM daily, dressing in 10 minutes flat, whizzing through breakfast, mounting her bicycle and arriving at Radio City at 5 o’clock promptly. Bicycling in Trixie’s case is not only a convenience but a necessity. Bus service has a tendency to be erratic at that hour.
Trixie’s first duty each morning is to clear the teletype machines of all associated press copy sorting it in piles on her desk according to Washington news, London news, War base news, news from Southwest Pacific, miscellaneous matters, human interest stories, feature stories, local news, etc. That takes about half an hour. As she sorts all this she’s planning her first broadcast, five minutes long, at 6:05 AM. A sustaining program, meaning a broadcast without commercial announcements, generally takes about 75 lines. Sponsored news broadcasts take less depending upon how much time is given over to “plugs.”
All copy news writers hand to announcers must be practically letter perfect. Each WTMJ-W55M announcer spiels at a different rate of speed. Don Stanley usually covers about 55 lines of copy in five minutes. Bob Shannon takes about 48. Words and sentences for news broadcasts must be brief and concise, which naturally throws out those lovely nine and 10 letter words like “diaphanous,” which look good in print but are devilish pitfalls for fluffs.
So it goes throughout the day, the machines pounding out a study ream of AP copy and Trixie writing news broadcasts for 6:30, 7, 7:30, 7:55, etc. … until 2 o’clock, when Jack Kruger takes over.
Trixie says her work doesn’t get dull. She’ll never forget the day when, wearing a very precarious pair of French sandals, she tore into the studio where one of the announcers was on the air awaiting the late baseball scores she was carrying. Trixie skated and fell just inside the door and it banged behind her. Its incidents like these that can start an announcer off on a laughing jag with disastrous results. Trixie hates to recall the moments she spent sitting on that studio floor, trying desperately to regain her composure and stifle the laughter welling within her.”
Recently I came across a couple of old newspaper articles documenting the “feud” between Joan and Jerrie following their respective world flights. Because I had not come across these articles before, I thought it would be fun to share them here for anyone interested. (Links to articles follow below.) Reading the full text offers an interesting glimpse into the past.
Article #1 – Jerrie Calls Joan a “Poor Loser,” Wants Guam to Oakland Race Pacific Stars and Stripes | May 16, 1964 (Note: same text with different headline also ran in the Pasadena Independent on same date.)
The growing feud between America’s two long-distance women pilots leaped into the open Thursday when Mrs. Jerrie Mock charged Mrs. Joan Merriam Smith as “a poor loser.”
Mrs. Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world April 17 when she landed her single-engine plane here to end a 29-day flight. Mrs. Smith, who left Oakland, Cal., several days before Mrs. Mock left Columbus on her flight, arrived back in California Wednesday in her twin-engined plane.
Article #2 – Aviatrixes Fly at Each Other in World Hops Long Beach Press-Telegram | May 15, 1964
A feud which had been smoldering for weeks between Long Beach’s Joan Merriam Smith and Mrs. Jerrie Mock of Columbus, Ohio, who both recently completed solo global flights, broke into the open Thursday.
“I think she’s a poor loser,” Mrs. Mock charged in a Columbus interview.
“That’s the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard from a licensed pilot,” Joan snapped back.
Mrs. Mock’s ire apparently had been raised by a comment made by the Long Beach pilot on her arrival at Oakland to complete her flight.
Joan was asked if she considered herself the first or second woman to fly alone around the world.
“I believe if you check any almanac it will say the distance around the world is 25,000 miles,” she answered.
Mrs. Mock flew a 22,800-mile distance to back up her claim. Joan’s route, which followed that planned by Amelia Earhart in 1937, covered 27,750 miles.
Ten years before Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock successfully completed their solo flights around the world, Dianna Converse Cyrus Bixby planned to become the first woman to complete an official solo flight around the globe. While I had heard of Dianna and knew a little bit about her, it wasn’t until recently that I learned a whole lot more.
While looking for articles that Trixie had written about other female pilots, I came across this gem from a March 1954 edition of The Milwaukee Journal about none other than Dianna Bixby! In the article entitled “Young Mother of 2 Ready to Try to Fly Alone Around the World,” Trixie interviews 31-year old Bixby and reports on her plans to fly around the world in a De Haviland Mosquito Bomber. Back in 1954, no woman had yet completed an official solo flight around the globe.
While there were at least two women who had completed solo flights around the world prior to 1954, neither flight was considered official. For example, both Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn flew around the world in 1930 and 1931, respectively. In both cases, their planes had to be shipped across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Dianna was an accomplished pilot with some 5,000 hours of flight time accumulated by age 31. In 1954, she flew produce 3-4 times per week in-between the United States and Mexico. She also flew passengers around the western half of the United States for the U.S. Forest Service. And, she also flew DC-3s for the movie industry, accumulating some 4,000 hours alone as a DC-3 (camera) pilot.
Standing at just 5 foot 2, Dianna’s personality was described as spunky; she was referred to as a “pretty pixie” with an infectious smile. As a child she rode horses bare back in the circus, accumulating a room full of trophies earned through horsemanship. She studied soprano singing and acted in Santa Barbara, California-based theater groups; she also played violin.
Dianna had a famous grandmother named Mary Parker Converse, who was the first woman to be commissioned by the United States Merchant Marine. (Click here to read “Running over the waves: Mary Parker Converse” from the Boston, MA website Wicked Local, which offers a wonderful summary about Mary’s life and accomplishments.) With a grandmother like Mary, there’s no doubt that Dianna gleaned much wisdom and inspiration from her. From the above-referenced article, the author writes this about Mary:
No stranger to tragedy, Dianna lost her first husband Capt. John Volney Cyrus in 1945 when his plane was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. According to the book Soaring Skyward by Claudine Bennett, Dianna accepted John’s proposal of marriage on the condition that he would teach her to fly. Dianna would continue flying following her husband’s death. Shortly after the loss of her husband, her mother passed away. While flying air freight in 1948, she met and married Robert Bixby, a wartime Air Transport Command pilot. Together they had two children. Her first born, Lillian, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Dianna’s World Flight Attempts
After the loss of her first husband, Dianna set her sights on becoming the first woman to circle the globe. Seeking out Paul Mantz (who had been Earhart’s technical advisor) for assistance, she got to work and in 1947 she set her first air record, which was a speed record between Denver and Burbank of 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. With Mantz’s prompting, she entered the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix Air Race. While she didn’t win the race, she was one of only two women who entered.
In 1950, Dianna and her husband Robert attempted a world flight, but their right engine blew a gasket near Calcutta. Due to the need for major repairs, they were unable to continue. Robert next agreed to let her make the attempt by herself since no one else had yet completed the record. However, it would take them some time to raise the money. The cost of such a flight to Dianna (minus sponsorships, presumably) was estimated to be around $17,000 for fuel plus a $2,500 fee to the aeronautical association, or $190,000 in 2021 dollars. In the early 1950’s, she underwent specialized high altitude training at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, CA.
Dianna worked long and hard hours in preparation for her world flight attempts. Together with her husband, she ran a business transporting produce known as Bixby’s Airborne Products. It is of interest to note here that Jack Smith, Joan Merriam Smith’s husband, worked for the Bixby’s. A normal day for Dianna would begin at 5 am. After leaving her children in the care of a nurse, she would set off for flying until at least 4:30 p.m.. She is quoted as saying: “In aviation, you’re either in it 24 hours a day or not at all.”
Dianna’s planned route for her 1954 attempt was 20,525 miles, beginning in San Francisco, continuing on to Newark, followed by a 3,642-mile leg over to Paris, then Bashra (Iraq), Karachi, Calcutta, Tokyo, Midway Island, and back to San Francisco. On April 3, 1954 (just a few days after Trixie’s article was published) she was set to make the journey, but power plant troubles with her plane in addition to the prospect of bad weather forced her to cancel. She was determined to try again.
In the runup to her next world flight attempt, tragedy again struck when Dianna ran out of gas in inclement weather en route to Mexico. Less than a year following her interview with Trixie, Dianna crashed into the ocean and died. A January 5, 1955 summary from the Pomona Progress Bulletin reads as follows:
Even though Dianna was not able to achieve her dream of becoming the first woman to circle the globe as a solo flier, her efforts were not lost. She was a true pioneer: focused, goal-oriented, and willing to take great risks to achieve her dreams. “The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” — Michelangelo
Recently I had the pleasure of finishing three books about four amazing women who collectively make up a huge chunk of aviation history—Sheila Scott, Jackie Cochran, Jerrie Cobb, and Jerrie Mock. All four of these women lived, flew, and accomplished during the same time period as Joan Merriam Smith. The three books I read include:
Not unlike today, the 1960’s was a period characterized by accelerated change, while at the same time an era filled with promise. Despite the noise and distractions of the day (civil rights marches, JFK’s assassination, the space race, Vietnam, the pervasive threat of nuclear war), rather than becoming too caught up in the drama, these women were instead collectively busy blazing trails, exploring new arenas, living lives filled with adventure and purpose, and generally creating the future that they wanted to live in. For these reasons and more, each of these books offers a real depth of discovery, a reflection about challenges, and a re-imagination of possibilities in times of deep change. In short, they’re simply inspiring.
One of my favorite things about reading books in general is coming across new information, new connections, and new insights. While reading Fighting for Space, for example, I learned that Joan was one of the first few women to be secretly tested by the Lovelace Clinic for the Mercury 13 program! For those who are interested in learning more about the Mercury 13 program, Netflix recently put together a documentary about it. You can watch the trailer here:
While I had suspected that Joan must have been at least considered for this program aimed at getting the first woman up into space (since so few women met the criteria for being tested at the time), this was the first I was able to confirm it. Now if only I could find some more information about her experience there. But first, onto the book reviews!
Barefoot in the Sky by Sheila Scott
Even though I had heard of Sheila Scott and knew she was famous for not only becoming the third woman to fly around the world solo, but for completing a polar flight, as well as breaking over 100 flight records, I really didn’t know anything much about her. Though it took me awhile to actually sit down and read her book, once I cracked it open I simply couldn’t stop! I was surprised to find that her book was extremely poetic, very introspective, and filled with vivid details. This made the experience of reading the book almost as pleasurable and realistic as if you were on the journey together with Sheila herself.
As an actress who originally took a flying lesson on a dare, Sheila soon found flying as her calling and went on to commit to a life of flying and achieving impressive feats. From the book’s epilogue, a particular statement jumped out at me. While reflecting on her experiences after many years of flying, Sheila wrote:
“But why did I have to fly to find happiness? I think it is because in the sky I am able to stretch my brain rather than my legs, and find motivation to satisfy my insatiable curiosity to experience things myself, to be able to understand them, and to find meaning and a sense of man’s superconscious. I must fly over every horizon to see what it is like on the other side!
Flying also gives me a spirit of adventure—which I believe is a necessary thing for future progress, both individually and internationally. Soon computers will install a great deal of knowledge into all men’s mental processes in a very short space of time, much quicker than the old fourteen to eighteen years of present-day scholastic learning periods. But unless man has individuality and some responsibility for his own actions, he will become as a computer himself.”
Sheila Scott, page 211 of Barefoot in the Sky
She goes on to say:
“Through my personal self-evolvement, my flights and what they are teaching me, I am meeting more and more people in other spheres of life who are thinking and striving as I am. Together our experiences may only be particles toward renewed discoveries of the superconscious, but I believe these are of value to man’s higher development. Occasionally I want to switch on my personal autopilot and sit back, for modern life is increasingly automatic, but then I find I am bored, negative, and I become self-destructive. Fortunately, another unexpected idea soon arises and once I have put it into words, I am chasing again, thinking of nothing else until it is done. I must live for the idea totally, completely involved, and know that it is what I have been born for. It is always a flight path of the sky that I am following, but it is not an escape. It is a search, not for fame or riches, but for self and understanding.”
Sheila Scott, page 212 of Barefoot in the Sky
What a profound set of statements! In other words, Sheila’s passion for flying was really about pursuit and progress as much as the thrill of a challenge and the joy of adventure. Her experience is something really anyone can learn from. We could also all take a cue from her bravery, her interpretation of the times, the potential pitfalls, and her commitment to progress.
Another thing that stood out to me about Sheila’s book, among the others I have read in this category, is that she was highly intuitive. She connected very much to the world above the ground, appreciated all that it had to offer, respected the privilege of flying, acknowledged the constant threat of death, and took solace in the idea that she was contributing to the greater good. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the ups and downs of taking on impressive challenges, or who enjoys philosophy or poetry.
Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflightby Amy Shira Teitel
In Fighting for Space, Amy Shira Teitel dives into the story of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, zeroing in on their unique plights to become the first woman in space. I was impressed with the level of research that the author completed, and her ability to synthesize that research into a captivating, well-structured, and engaging story that lines up with actual facts and events. I particularly appreciated how Amy addressed the nuances of both Jackie and Jerrie’s personal stories and varied recollections in her author’s note. The work that went into bridging the narratives of these two complex characters was by no means an easy task.
Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing about the details of Jackie’s personal life other than she was married to one of the the richest men in the United States, that she headed up the WASPs, and of course broke countless aviation records. This story brought so much more color to the complexity of Jackie’s life, which underscored the depth and nuance of her character. I particularly enjoyed the opening chapters which laid a beautiful groundwork for the book.
Here’s a particular excerpt I enjoyed about Jackie’s experience of breaking the sound barrier for the first time:
“For a brief moment, she felt how small she was in her little jet plane, and felt as though she were teetering precariously on the horizon close to the gates of heaven. For a moment she was entranced, but soon realized she wasn’t there to stargaze. Forcing her focus back into the cockpit, Jackie put the sabre into an S-dive. In an instant, she was losing altitude so fast that the needle on her altimeter was a blur …
Then, without warning, the turbulence stopped. The shock waves disappeared. The rattling was replaced by an unearthly silence. She was through the sound barrier; the turbulent air and shock waves were behind her and the noise couldn’t catch her. For a fleeting moment, Jackie felt a spiritual connection with something greater than herself. She didn’t feel scared just confident and keenly aware of the plane’s every moment.”
Fighting for Space, page 117
As mentioned in Fate on a Folded Wing, Jackie Cochran was both a friend and supporter of Joan’s, and for lack of a better descriptive word she was simply badass (according to one dictionary definition, that is to say “distinctively tough or powerful, or so exceptional as to be intimidating”). Because Jackie was concerned that Joan’s world flight didn’t receive the recognition it deserved, she wrote letters in support of her accomplishment to the National Aeronautical Association.
As for Jerrie Cobb, unbelievably I had never heard of Jerrie Cobb until I read this book. I appreciated the opportunity to learn about Jerrie’s life, how she came to head up the initiative of getting women into space (in an industry that worked against her at a time when women had so much progress yet to make). These times were messy, non-standard, emotional, unprecedented, littered with power plays, punctuated by valiant efforts, and filled with highs and lows. On top of everything, I was saddened to hear that Jerrie only passed away in 2019!
In short, without giving too much away, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand this period in history, or who enjoys a riveting, real-life story about two dynamic and complex characters who played a glorious role in history’s unfolding.
The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World by Nancy Roe Pimm
While I have read Three-Eight Charlie, originally published in 1970, I also wanted to read Nancy Roe Pimm’s book The Jerrie Mock Story for additional perspective. Since Jerrie flew around the world solo the same year as Joan, it never gets old hearing additional details about the experiences of women pilots in the 1960’s. While this book was written for a young adult audience, it’s actually perfect for adults! The story is well-laid out, easy to follow, and filled with excellent details. The author provides a thorough overview of Jerrie’s life, her personal experiences, the events leading up to her great accomplishment, as well as the adventure of her world flight. From the book, I enjoyed this particular description, as well as many others from Jerrie’s experience of traveling around the globe:
“During her final approach, ‘the last rays of the sun broke through the cumuli and bathed the little seacoast town with its golden radiance. It was an eerie light that often comes after a storm. The white ships in the harbor, the shiny rooftops, and the emerald palms shimmered against the backdrop of a deep purple sky. The rain-swept runway was like a golden finger.’
The Jerrie Mock Story, Page 51
In short, Jerrie is truly an American legend, and her story is 100% worth exploring!
Even though each of these women lived in different locations (Ohio, England, Oklahoma, and two in Southern CA), because of the global nature and strategic importance of what they were involved in, they naturally had many of the same contacts, supporters, and industry connections in cities around the globe. That’s what makes reading all of these books together so entertaining. I hope you can set some time aside to enjoy them too and give these women some more of the credit they deserve by honoring their legacies!
Recently I listened to an episode of the Women Who Travel podcast featuring Jessica Nabongo, who in October of 2019 became the first documented black woman to travel to every country in the world. How cool is that? I enjoyed listening to this podcast, hearing all about Jessica’s travels, and how she used social media to report on her adventures along the way. While I did not follow her story in real-time as she traveled around the globe, I was able to learn more about her journey through social media.
As I listened to Jessica’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder about how Joan Merriam Smith’s experience of being the first person to complete a solo flight around the world at the equator in 1964 would have, or could have been documented, if only social media, the internet, personal computers, or smart phones had existed back then.
For example, it was only recently that I came across a video of Joan speaking for the very first time! What an experience it was to hear her voice after having wondered for so long what she would sound like. (Click below image to watch this video.)
Whenever I hear stories like Jessica’s or Joan’s, however, more than anything I am reminded of all the wonderful people out there who are busy living their lives and working hard to accomplish big goals, despite the obstacles. Because I came across so many inspiring stories while writing this book, I wanted to take a moment to recognize a few of the females I discovered along the way so that you might feel inspired too!
These women are listed in order of the domains they’ve dominated (air, space, and land, followed by sea) and is by no means meant to be comprehensive. It’s simply intended to be starting point for further exploration. Enjoy!
Modern Day Female TrailblazersAcross Air, Space, Land & Sea
2) Anneliese Satz – In 2019, Annelise became the first female Marine to complete the F-35B Basic Course, becoming the Marine Corps’ first-ever female F-35B pilot. During her four years of training, she accumulated over 300 flight hours. Before joining the Marines, Satz was a commercial pilot flying helicopters. Learn more about Annelise.
3)Alyssa Carson – At 19 years old, Alyssa is one of seven ambassadors representing Mars One, a mission to establish a human colony on Mars in 2030. At age 15, she became the youngest person accepted onto the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy, making her one of the world’s youngest astronauts-in-training. You can learn all about her at her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.
4)Christina Koch – In February of 2020, astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth after spending 328 days in space. On December 28, 2019, she broke the record for longest continuous time in space by a woman. Christina also participated in the first all-female spacewalk late last year. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. (Below video begins at about 6 minutes.)
5)Kristina Schou Madsen – Did you know that there’s an actual, annual World Marathon Challenge, whereby people train and compete to run 7 marathons, on 7 different continents, in just 7 days? In 2020, Kristina became the first woman to win the World Marathon Challenge outright with an average time of 3 hours, 25 minutes, and 57 seconds per marathon. You can read all about her accomplishment here. You can also follow her on Instagram. Here is a short video clip of Kristina talking about running.
6) Gloria Lau – In 2012, Gloria became the first Singapore woman to complete the 7 continents in 7 days challenge. In 2019, she became the oldest woman, at 67 years, to complete the challenge. Gloria only began running at the age of 57. Read more about her motivations, training schedule, and overall accomplishments here.
7) Kate Harris – In 2011, Kate Harris took 10 months to bike the Silk Road, crossing through 10 countries, and cycling over 10,000 kilometers. She wrote a book about her experience entitled Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Below is a short video reel about her experience of biking the Silk Road.
8)Vanessa O’Brien – Just this month, British-American explorer Vanessa O’Brien officially became the first woman to reach Earth’s highest and lowest points. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Vanessa has also skied to both the North and South Pole. In addition, she has climbed five peaks over 8,000 metres. You can read more about her accomplishment here. Her website is filled with great information for those interested in keeping up with her. She also has forthcoming book entitled, To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth, which will be released in 2021.
Chances are, like me, you’ve only heard about a couple of these women. Aren’t they amazing? Sometimes they get publicity, sometimes they do not. Sometimes they are successful in their efforts, sometimes they are not. But the one thing that unites every single one of them is a drive to explore, push boundaries, seek adventure, and learn. There’s so much we can learn from this collective group … if only you can pin them down.
Bryan R. Swopes from “This Day in Aviation” recently wrote a very detailed and well-researched piece about Joan Merriam Smith and her historic 1964 solo flight around the world. As such, and with Bryan’s permission, I am re-posting his write-up here. To view the original piece, please visit the “This Day in Aviation” website. You can also like his page on Facebook to keep up with all the latest and most fascinating aviation history!
17 March–12 May 1964:Joan Merriam Smith By: Bryan R. Swopes
At 1:00 p.m., 17 March 1964, Joan Merriam Smith departed Oakland International Airport, on California’s San Francisco Bay, on what would be the first leg of an around-the world flight. Her first stop would be Tucson, Arizona, approximately 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east-southeast.
Mrs. Smith intended to follow the easterly route of Amelia Earhart, who had departed from Oakland on both of her attempts at the around-the-world flight. The first try, 17 March 1937, was a westerly route, with a first stop at Hawaii. The second try, 2 June 1937, was an eastbound route.
The two routes were planned to take advantage of seasonal weather patterns.
Mrs. Smith wanted to follow Earhart’s eastbound route, but by leaving in mid-March, she put herself at a disadvantage with respect to the weather she would encounter as she traveled around the Earth.
Unlike Earhart, who had two of the world’s foremost navigators in her flight crew, Mrs. Smith would fly alone, her only companion a small teddy bear. She would navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning, and by using radio aids such as non-directional beacons (NDBs) and VHF omnidirectional ranges (VORs).
Forecast adverse weather caused her to leave Tucson for her next stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 2:00 a.m., 18 March. Dodging the weather, she was forced to make an intermediate fuel stop at Lubbock, Texas. She finally arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. After another early morning start, she flew on to Miami, Florida, on 19 March.
A detailed story of Joan Merriam Smith’s flight is told in Fate on a Folded Wing, written by Tiffany Ann Brown.¹ Her route followed Earhart’s eastward across the United States; south over the Caribbean Sea to South America; then across the South Atlantic Ocean; Africa, Asia, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean, where Mrs. Smith’s route diverged from Earhart’s.
Smith’s itinerary: Across the United States from Oakland, California, to Tucson, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida. Then over the Caribbean Sea to San Juan, Paramaribo, Natal; east across the South Atlantic to Dakar, Gao, Fort-Lamy, Al-Fashir, Khartoum, Aden. From Africa, Smith headed into South Asia: Karachi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon; and then Southeast Asia: Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Surabaya, Kupang; Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; and Lae, New Guinea. From here, Smith deviated from Earhart’s route across the Pacific Ocean by flying to Guam instead of Howland Island; then Wake Island; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, finally Oakland.
Mrs. Smith’s flight was troubled by adverse weather, leaking fuel tanks, out-of-calibration radio equipment, a recalcitrant autopilot, problems with the hydraulic and electrical systems, and a heater that would not work. And weather. . .
She arrived back at Oakland International at 9:12 a.m., on 12 May 1964, having flown approximately 27,750 miles (44,659 kilometers). The total duration of her journey was 55 days, 20 hours, 12 minutes. She had flown 35 legs on 23 days. Mrs. Smith wrote that the circumnavigation had taken a total of 170 flight hours, with 47 hours on instruments and 26 hours of night time.
Joan Merriam Smith is credited with having made the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth by the Equatorial route, and the longest solo flight.
The airplane flown by Joan Merriam Smith was a Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, serial number 23-1196, U.S. registration N3251P, which she had named City of Long Beach. The red and white airplane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1958. It had been purchased by the State of Illinois Department of Aeronautics to use checking state-owned aeronautical facilities. When the the state acquired a faster aircraft, the Apache was sold in November 1963. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a registration certificate to Mrs. Smith on 30 December 1963.
The Piper PA-23-160 Apache E was a 4-place, twin-engine, light airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was 27 feet, 2 inches (8.280 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 2,230 pounds (1,011.5 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds (1,723.7 kilograms).
The Apache E was powered by two air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-B horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The O-320-B is a direct-drive, right-hand tractor engine, rated at 160 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The O-320-B is 2 feet, 5.56 inches (0.751 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.24 inches (0.819 meters) wide and 1 foot, 10.99 inches (0.584 meters) high. It weighs 278 pounds (126.1 kilograms). The engines turned two-bladed Hartzell constant-speed propellers.
N3251P’s engines were modified with Rajay Co., Inc., Turbo 200 turbochargers.
The PA-23-160 had a cruise speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour/278 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 159 knots (183 miles per hour/295 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).
During a flight from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Long Beach, 9 January 1965, the cabin heater in the nose of the Apache caught fire. With the cabin filled with smoke and gasoline fumes, and unable to reach any airport, Mrs. Smith crash-landed the airplane in rocky terrain in the Ord Mountains, southeast of Barstow in the high desert of southern California. After it has slid to a stop, N3251P continued to burn and was largely destroyed. Mrs. Smith and her passenger, Willam Harry Eytchison, were slightly injured.
At the time of the accident, N3251P had just under 3,000 hours total time on the airframe (TTAF), and less than 400 hours on new engines (TSN).
Joan Ann Merriam was born 3 August 1936 at Oceanside, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. She was the daughter of Arthur Ray Merriam, Jr., a railroad office stenographer, and Ann Marie Lofgren Merriam. The family relocated to Wayne, Michigan, where Joan attended Jefferson Junior High School and Wayne High School.
Joan’s father died at the age of 43, New Year’s Day, 1952. She and her mother then moved to Miami, Florida. Flying from Detroit to Miami aboard a Lockheed Constellation, Joan was allowed to visit the flight deck and speak to the crew.
The airline flight sparked an interest in aviation. She began taking lessons at the age of 15. Joan learned to fly at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, then located at at Tamiami Airport. She first soloed an airplane at the age of 16 years. On 7 November 1953, shortly after her 17th birthday, she was issued private pilot certificate. Special permission was obtained from the FAA for her to take the written exams for commercial pilot before she turned 18.
Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.
Mrs. Merriam gave Joan a Cessna 140, a single-engine light airplane, making her one of the youngest people in the United States to own an airplane. Joan said that her mother was “the bravest passenger,” as she practiced all of the maneuvers required for a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 18, she earned a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, and a flight instructor certificate. She began instructing at Tamiami. She flew charters from Florida to Texas, living in that state before moving to Panama City, Florida. On her twenty-third birthday, the earliest that she was eligible, Miss Merriam was issued an airline transport pilot certificate (ATP) by the FAA. She had flown nearly 5,000 hours.
Miss Merriam would later own a Piper Cub modified for aerobatics, a second Cessna 140, and a Cessna 172.
In the fall of 1955, Miss Merriam married Harold MacDonald, a student in aeronautical engineering. She worked as a flight instructor for Avex, Inc., at Tamiami Airport. Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald soon divorced.
In 1960, Miss Merriam was living in Panama City, Florida, where she was employed as a pilot for West Florida Natural Gas Company, one of very few women who flew as corporate pilots at the time. (Contemporary newspapers reported that she was “one of three women corporation pilots in the country.”) Reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time, news features often described her as a “blue-eyed platinum blonde,” and made mention of “her personal aerodynamic attributes.” In an interview, Miss Merriam said that a major reason preventing more women from executive flying were, “executive’s wives, and executive’s secretaries.”
She had met Lieutenant (j.g.) Marvin G. (“Jack”) Smith, Jr., U.S. Navy, in 1958. Lieutenant Smith was executive officer of USS Vital (MSO-474), an Agile-class minesweeper homeported at Panama City. She moved to San Leandro, California, and worked as a contract instrument flight instructor at Oakland International Airport for the Sixth United States Army, which was then based at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Miss Merriam and Lieutenant Smith were married at Monterey, California, 23 September 1960. The couple later moved to Long Beach, where Lieutenant Commander Smith’s next ship, USS Endurance (AM-435), was homeported.
In February 1965, Joan Merriam Smith was flying for Rajay Industries out of Long Beach, California. (Rajay was a turbocharger manufacturer which had supplied the turbos for Mrs. Smith’s Apache.) She had been conducting functional and reliability tests on a modified Cessna 182C Skylane, N8784T. The airplane was owned by the V. E. Kuster Co., of Long Beach, a supplier of oil field equipment.
The flight test plan for 17 February 1965 called for the Cessna to be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 23,000 feet (1,524–7,010 meters). Mrs. Smith was flying. Also on board was her biographer, Beatrice Ann (“Trixie”) Schubert.
Smith was flying across the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide southern California’s coastal plain from the high desert. The highest peak in the range, Mount San Antonio, which was not far east of her course, rises to 10,046 feet (3,062 meters).
Witnesses said that the airplane had been flying normally, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (305–610 meters) above the mountainous terrain, when the right wing folded back along the fuselage. The airplane, with the engine revving, went into a dive and crashed into the north slope of Blue Ridge, a few miles west of Wrightwood, California, 10–12 seconds later. There was an explosion and fire.
Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.
Investigators found that both wings had failed outboard of the struts. The outer wing panels, both ailerons and the left elevator were located approximately 1½ miles (2½ kilometers) from the point of impact. Examination showed that the aircraft had suffered severe loads. “There was no evidence of fatigue or failure of the aircraft before the inflight structural failure.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board reported the Probable Cause: “The pilot entered an area of light to moderate turbulence at high speed, during which aerodynamic forces exceeding the structural strength of the aircraft caused in-flight structural failure.” According to the CAB, the Cessna 182 had an airspeed in excess of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) when it entered the area of turbulence.
Her remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California.
For her accomplishment, Joan Merriam Smith was posthumously awarded the Harmon Aviatrix Trophy for 1965. At a ceremony held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, 15 December 1965, the trophy was presented to her husband, Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Smith, Jr., by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Mrs. Smith had intended to attempt an altitude record with the turbocharged Skylane. On 20 July 1965, her husband, Marvin G. Smith, set the record at 10,689.6 meters (35,070.9 feet), flying a Cessna 210A Centurion with an IO-470 engine.²
TDiA would like to thank Ms. Tiffany Ann Brown for suggesting this subject, and for her invaluable contribution.
¹ Fate on a Folded Wing: The True Story of Pioneering Solo Pilot Joan Merriam Smith, by Tiffany Ann Brown. Lucky Bat Books, 2019.
² FAI Record File Number 9977 (Class C, Sub-Class C1c: powered airplanes, takeoff weight 1000 to 1750 kg).
In 1963, Trixie Schubert published a book entitled A Bell in the Heart: The Autobiography of Patty Gardenseed, America’s Ambassador of Good Will. This book was gifted to me by my grandfather at Christmas-time when I was just 14 years old. Featuring a split-pea green cover, with its dust jacket either missing or removed, to me it looked like the most boring book I’d ever seen. Promptly shelved, it wouldn’t be until dozens of years later that I actually decided to read it …
I’ll admit: I mostly wanted to read this book because it was published the year before Joan Merriam Smith’s world flight took place, and theoretically it would have laid the groundwork for Trixie’s interest in wanting to write Joan’s story. My best guess was that it had something to do with spreading seeds around the world. I also assumed Patty Gardenseed was woman. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If you search for the terms “A Bell in the Heart” or “Patty Gardenseed” on Google, you’re not likely to find much. Mostly, I came across a few eBay pages and historical book sellers carrying old copies of this book. As for Patty Gardenseed, I was only able to find a couple of articles referencing his work as a goodwill ambassador—including this 1952 New Yorker article entitled “Global Johnny Appleseed“—as well a summary of boxing records, and an overview of felonies. But if you were to stop here, that would certainly be a pity.
Patrick Mozier: The U.S. Navy’s Original Bad Boy
As it turns out, A Bell in the Heart is the story of Aloysius Eugene Francis Patrick Mozier, or Pat Mozier, a.k.a. Patty Gardenseed, who is coined in the book as “the U.S. Navy’s Original Bad Boy.” Rather than a cheerful story about gardening, Pat Mozier’s story reads more like a James Bond meets Indiana Jones adventure. The experience of reading the book, in fact, also feels a bit reminiscent of the movie A Night at the Museum, for key characters in history continually pop up throughout and are subsequently brought to life. Adolf Hitler, Chiang Kai Shek (leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975), Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Henry T. Ford (Pat was sworn into the Navy on Ford’s recommendation), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, Jim Thorpe (an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist), and others are just a few of the well-known names who make an appearance. Also worth noting, the foreword to this book is written by Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
With regard to Hitler, for example, Pat recalled:
“I had reached Berlin, heading for a German port, and deviating by train to Berlin so I could meet a friend of mine in that city. I was sitting in the lobby of the Kaiserhof Hotel when Hitler walked through with an entourage of Secret Service men. Ribbentrop, following closely behind him, bellowed in German, ‘The Fuehrer.’ Resentment of Hitler overwhelmed me. Being full of the sailor sap that runs in the spring of the year, I stood up and bellowed back, ‘Ah, the Fewer the better,’ after all, what could happen to an American? I wasn’t long in finding out. American citizenship was no immunity when it came to punishment for insulting the Fuehrer. Promptly I was strongarmed and escorted to jail.”
(Page 253, Schubert)
Pat’s story begins at his childhood home at 27th and Lexington in Newport News, Virginia. He was born on April 20, 1903, the second of 13 children born to Teresa and Alonzo Mozier. Having served as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, Pat’s father spent most of his time out at the local docks, gathering stories from the seamen and traders coming into the port, often inviting them to his home to tell their tales of adventure late into the night. As such, Alonzo inspired eight of his own sons to become seamen and no doubt secured Pat’s deep love for adventure.
By the age of 13, Pat was starting to cause trouble in school and continually running away from home. His parents decided to send him to Grand Prairie, Texas to live with Grandpa Ennis at his cattle ranch (an excursion that included transportation by train, horse, buggy and wagon). From there, the two set sail for Alaska where they lived for four months in search of gold. Eventually it was decided that Pat’s wanderlust could not be contained, so his parents next sent Pat to live with his godparents in France. This time, he sailed across the ocean to England with a family friend, a legend known as Trader Horn. Upon arrival to France, instead of going to live with his godparents, Pat decided to run in the other direction and kick off a life-long adventure of his own.
As luck would have it, at the moment Pat arrived to France, WWI was just beginning. As such, Pat decided to join up with the French Foreign Legion as a way of securing food and shelter. But at age 13, he did not quite meet the minimum requirement of being at least 17 years old, so he lied about his age to get in.
In no time at all, Pat became a messenger boy for the French. Everything was going well until he accidentally left behind a notebook of decoded messages. Publicly charged as a spy and sentenced to prison for 20 years, to his surprise, he was next made an offer he couldn’t refuse by the French: go directly to Strasbourg, Germany to find out what happened to five missing French operatives. In this way, because his reputation among the French had already been tarnished, he would not be suspected as a French spy among the Germans.
As soon as Pat got to work, he learned more about what happened to at least one of the missing French spies: he had defected to Germany. Pat soon became friendly with the Germans. He was next offered a job to become a spy for the Germans. From the book:
“It was like the bizarre plot of an unbelievable novel. But the strange coincidence of it all was too real ever to make acceptable fiction. I stood speechless. Able to make myself understood adequately in several languages, I suddenly had nothing to say in any of them. Not by the most exaggerated twist of fate could I have anticipated being in the spy messenger business for two countries at war with one another. Each country expected me to give it an outline of the other’s movements. If either country had reason to doubt my integrity the result would have been the same.”
(Page 71, Schubert)
What ensued was a literal game of cat and mouse while engaged in dual espionage. There were death threats, killings, arrests made in both Russia and France, a prison escape, harrowing travels back and forth across the front lines of war, submarine rides, parachute jumps into enemy territory, and most notably perhaps, time spent with Mata Hari, among the most famous of spies for her time.
Pat Mozier would go on to befriend Mata Hari. Perhaps in part because of his age (she was in her late 30s at the time of his boyhood), and perhaps because Pat never drank, smoke, or gave into tattoos, she was able to trust him, and provide him with valuable info that would ultimately help the French. Though charged as a German spy, it is widely believed that she was setup as a scapegoat. Hari was executed by a firing squad of French soldiers just before dawn on October 15, 1917. Pat Mozier tried in vain to reverse her fate. He was on hand to witness her execution. The night before her death, she told him that she believed that her execution would be faked. From the book, Pat stated the following:
“I witnessed the execution of Mata Hari, the woman who saved my life in Germany a few months back, and I was unable to help her in the least. I wonder if she ever knew what hit her, it happened so quickly. They tricked her into her death. They say it is the best way out. But it is the way of cowards. As the rifles rang out she smiled at me where I stood and her mouth formed the word ‘Adieu.’ Eleven bullets easily found their mark. One of the soldiers near me fainted. Mata Hari was 39 years old. To me she looked 18. A beautiful morning today but I am a little sick. I wonder if the real story about her will ever be told.”
(Page 122, Schubert)
Following the closure of this particular chapter in his life, unbelievably Pat’s adventures were only still JUST beginning. In-between stints working for the Navy, other branches of the military, and taking on odd jobs while stowing away on ships, Pat also gained acclaim for becoming an undefeated boxing champion in the Navy, winning over 220 matches. He was awarded the prestigious Diamond Belt.
Aside from traveling to and through some 36 countries by either ship, plane, train, or automobile, there were also times that Pat traveled by submarine, camel, horse, or parachute. While there are simply too many stories to recount here, some of the episodes from the book that stood out to me include:
Deciding to take the matter into his own hands of being the first person to land a plane on the U.S.S. Saratoga, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. Upon completion of the feat, Pat soon learned that the stunt had been reserved as a honor for ace pilot officer Dave Rittenhouse. Subsequently, at the age of 29, Pat was transferred to the U.S.S. Texas.
Following a stint in Hawaii, Pat boarded a Dollar liner bound for the Phillipines. He bribed the gang to bring him on board as an oiler. Once the ship arrived to the port in Manila, he was anxious to find a new adventure. A local suggested visiting the town of Navjan in the northeastern part of Mindoro. A group of three Filopinos agreed to bring him there via boat. Along the way, the Chief attempted to kill him with a knife to avenge his two sisters’ deaths by a white man. Pat sent the chief into the ocean.
Stowing away on a ship in December of 1932 en route to China that was believed to be transporting opium, and resisting arrest upon arrival to the British port in Hong Kong, Pat evaded authorities and was chased on Christmas Eve throughout town by the British police. He ultimately hid out in a church during Christmas Eve mass.
Fleeing Shanghai to join up with a caravan as a camel driver, crossing the Gobi Desert to arrive in Lhasa, Tibet where he lived for a time among the Buddhists after passing a test of walking across an alligator-filled pond blindfolded to prove his worthiness to the locals.
Getting arrested in Germany for disrespecting Hitler as he passed through a hotel lobby with his entourage, and then talking his way out of arrest since he not only spoke German, but explained that he and Hitler shared the same birthday (April 20th).
Surviving a raid of rebel forces while aboard a cross-country train in Mexico, having his life spared only because the rebels happened to reach within a pocket to find he was carrying the proper papers.
Being arrested in Mexico, feigning injury while imprisoned, knocking out the prison guard, setting fire to the prison and then hijacking a government plane in order to make it back to the U.S., only to run out of gas and land in a peasant’s field where he received guidance and a boat to ultimately make it safely across the border.
In short, there is so much about Pat’s story that I can barely scratch the surface.
Ultimately, a turning point for Pat came a little later in life. While serving in Korea, he witnessed a young girl collapse, whose death was ultimately caused by starvation. From that point forward, he decided to dedicate his life to spreading seeds around the globe in order to teach communities how to grow their own fruits, vegetables, and yes, even flowers. This change of heart is best captured in his own words:
“After half a century of fighting with my fists as a welterweight champion, and fighting with guns and sabres in the French Foreign Legion, fighting with Chinese bandits in the Orient, and in innumerable wars and scraps from Turkey to Tibet, it came somewhat as a shock to find that there were other ways of fighting, equally stimulating and much more rewarding.”
(Page 270-271, Schubert)
He also offered these valuable words of advice:
“I’ve not been able to accomplish alone what needs to be done in each of the underprivileged countries. But my procedure is always the same. I go to the top man in the country. I always go to the top man; it is only through the pinnacle that individuals, or governments for that matter, can escape needless red tape. In this manner of always going to the top I’ve met every president of the United States from Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman to Eisenhower, and most of the heads of other world governments.”
(Page 278-279, Schubert)
In summary, for anyone interested in history, WWI history in particular, and adventure in general, this is a book that would be well worth anyone’s time to read.