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WWII Air Force service pilot dies

Posted: September 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Mary Lou Neale poses with a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal she received in Washington, D.C., last year. Each of the wartime Women Air Force Service Pilots received one.

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A Newhall woman who was a pioneer in aviation and the first member of World War II’s Women Air Force Service Pilots was buried with military honors this week at Eternal Valley Memorial Park.
Mary Lou Colbert Neale died Sept. 12 after inspiring generations of flyers. She was buried Tuesday.

On March 10, 2010, Mary Lou Neale was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal for her World War II service as a WASP.

Other recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include George Washington, Walt Disney, John Wayne and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and John Glenn.

“When she took us up flying, I remember thinking as we were roaring down the runway, ‘That’s my mom,’” Denise Neale Jensen, one of four Neale children, said Wednesday.

Adventurous spirit

Neale was born Oct. 6, 1914, in Juneau, Alaska, to Florentine Odou Colbert and Rear Admiral Leo Otis. Otis was director of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and a member of the board of directors for National Geographic magazine.

As a child she traveled extensively with her family, ending up in places like Manila in the Philippines.

“She was different,” Jensen said of her mother. “She didn’t see any boundaries in her life.”

As she was inspiring to many later in life, she herself was inspired by many strong women, including Eleanor Roosevelt and legendary pilot Amelia Earhart, the first woman awarded the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross and the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

After graduating from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and later Wellesley College, Neale turned a degree in English into a journalism career working as a newspaper writer and a cataloguer for the Library of Congress.

When war broke out, she went to Eleanor Roosevelt and asked her for help getting women into the Civilian Pilot Training program. She stepped up to become one of the first among those pioneering women pilots.

It was in that ground-breaking program that she completed her primary and secondary pilot training and was introduced to fellow pioneering pilots Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran.

Earhart inspired her to fly.

Cochran, a co-founder of the wartime Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) Program, signed Neale up as the first candidate. The WASPs were women pilots employed to fly military aircraft.

The list of aircraft Neale took to the air is extensive, including P-38s, P-51s, P-47s, P-63s, P-39s and B-25s.

Before long she was named commander of the WASP Unit at the Palm Springs Army Air Force Base. And when the unit was deactivated, she received a commission as captain in the USAF Reserve.

When World War II ended, Neale settled down to family life.

Family life

She married her flight instructor, Navy Captain Raphael A. “Ray” Neale, and had four children.

Jensen was the second oldest. Her older brother Steve is a well-respected and long-standing swim coach at Hart High School.

Her younger brother Jim shares his mother’s adventurous spirit, traveling and photographing the world with the World Food Program.

Her sister Michelle is the youngest in the family and recently married Larry Bruyere, director of the Ice Station near Valencia High School.

“My dad was her wingman,” Denise said, reflecting on talks her mother gave regularly at schools.

She and her older brother were born in Hawaii and moved to Santa Clarita with her family when her father became chief pilot of flying operations and test pilot for Lockheed Burbank.

Mary Lou Neale quickly made an impact in the SCV.

In 1959 she became a charter member of the Santa Clarita Chapter of the American Association of University Women, a member of the San Fernando Valley 99s Women Pilots Organization and, later, volunteered as the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital’s medical librarian for 30 years.

Although she never finished the autobiography she started, Jensen said, she wrote for veterans’ groups representing many of the planes she had flown.

Unique memorial

Neale’s pioneering efforts in the air earned her official recognition in 2007, when the she was honored by the International Forest of Friendship, an arboretum and memorial forest beside Lake Warnock in Atchison, Kan.

The memorial honors men and women in aviation and space exploration.

Mary Lou Neale’s name is among 1,200 other notable names, including Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, the Wright Brothers and Sally Ride.

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