Stitched in Steel: Women who wove 911th AW history

  • Published
  • By Ms. Clara Gourley
  • 911th Airlift Wing

Women have played indispensable roles in bolstering the U.S. military since the days of the Revolutionary War. Betsy Ross, a legendary figure in American history, is known for her role in creating the first American flag. Sybil Ludington, often referred to as the "female Paul Revere," bravely rode through the night to warn American troops of a British attack in 1777. Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army, participating in skirmishes and battles for more than a year before her true identity was discovered. Their contributions, however, were long overshadowed by government restrictions that barred them from serving as permanent, full-time members until relatively recently.

One Robert Morris University history major lent her research skills to Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station to piece together the threads of history that stitched the wing’s legacy. At the onset of Women’s History month, Clara Gourley, the practicum student attached to the 911th Airlift Wing’s History Office, focused her aim on the women who paved their way in military service.

Amidst the tumult of World War II, with Europe engulfed in conflict, the United States confronted a pressing dilemma – a scarcity of qualified male pilots for crucial combat missions, said Gourley. It was during this pivotal period that pilot Jaquelin Cochran approached First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with a visionary proposal – to enlist female pilots for non-combat roles, freeing up their male counterparts for frontline duty.

Eight years later, the establishment of the Air Force in 1947 heralded a new era, culminating in the historic signing of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act by President Truman on June 12, 1948. This landmark legislation granted women the opportunity to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces, paving the way for initiatives like the Women in the Air Force (WAF) program. However it allowed women access to only ground duty roles – primarily in medical and clerical positions.

“Historically, WAF members from the 911th have been heralded as a dedicated group," said Gourley. “Virginia DeVenzio, a WAF member, was the first woman to enlist at the 911th Troop Carrier Group in 1964. Two WAF officers, Capt. Thelma Sidberry and 1st Lt. Mary K. Laurash were the first women added to the 911th Tactical Dispensary, or what is currently known as the 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron.”

Yet, despite these strides forward, women continued to encounter formidable barriers and entrenched discrimination of the times. It wasn't until 1967 that women could ascend to general and flag officer ranks, and nearly yet another decade passed before they secured admission to the prestigious United States Air Force Academy.

Undeterred by these obstacles, women at the 911th Tactical Airlift Group forged ahead, leaving an indelible mark on military history, said Gourley. Chaplain Adrienne Howard's historic appointment as the first female Air Force Reserve Chaplain in 1967 marked a watershed moment. Staff Sgt. JoAnn M. Barber's groundbreaking achievement as the first female combat-qualified flight engineer in the Air Force Reserve in 1992 underscored the unwavering determination of women to excel in their chosen career fields. Chief Master Sgt. Jamesha Barnes further cemented this legacy by not only becoming the first Black woman to serve as the 911th Airlift Wing's command chief, but as its first full-time command chief – a testament to her leadership and dedication.

The journey of Staff Sgt. Nyarauch Gnecco, a current member of Pittsburgh IAP ARS’s 32nd Aerial Port Squadron, serves as a modern example of the transformative power of perseverance and determination. From her humble beginnings as a South Sudanese refugee to her current role as a passenger operations representative, Gnecco exemplifies the core values of the Air Force, embodying the spirit of "service before self" and “excellence in all we do” in every endeavor.

Despite these accomplishments Steel Airmen of the 911th AW continue to march on, resisting to rest on past laurels. In 2023, Pittsburgh IAP ARS hosted the launch of ARC Athena. An event that underscores the commitment of the 911th Airlift Wing to address the unique challenges faced by women in service and their families. Led by Chief Master Sgt. Rebecca Schatzman, the senior enlisted leader for the 911th Operations Group, this grassroots initiative aims to provide essential support and resources, ranging from childcare programs to lactation room facilities, ensuring that women can thrive in their military careers within the Air Reserve Component while balancing familial responsibilities. It is slated to hold its second conference later this spring.

In the annals of history, the resilience and determination of women at the 911th Airlift Wing and in the Air Force Reserves stand as a testament to an enduring spirit of service and excellence. Despite facing formidable obstacles since the Revolutionary War, they have defied expectations and shattered barriers, reaffirming that the call to serve can ascend any boundary. As they continue to chart new frontiers and overcome challenges, their legacy of courage and resilience is poised to inspire future generations to reach new heights.

(revised by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Grossi)