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mary nicholson 1943

Mary Webb Nicholson


Mary joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1942. All the Americans had a security check-up from the US Authorities before they joined, and hers is particularly interesting:

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"Subject is described as being about 36 years old and was divorced from Dr. Harris Preston Pearson. She was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on July 12, 1905 and is the daughter of Francis H and Frances M Nicholson; both described as being native born Americans.

Her parents reside at 2400 Walker Avenue, Greensboro N.C. for the past 30 years and own their house at this point. Her father is about 70 years old and is employed as a salesman by the Cole Chemical Co. of St. Louis Missouri. He has been here for several years and prior to that was with the North Carolina Bank & Trust Co. for a number of years. Public records disclose that he filed a petition in bankrupcy on June 28, 1930 and was discharged on October 16, 1930. The family is well regarded locally and informants state that subject's parents are not known to have ever engaged in un-American activities.

Subject obtained her early education in Pomono, Cal. and later attended Guildford College, Guildford, N.C., Women's College of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C.

She has done considerable flying and it is reported by our correspondents that she is the first woman in North Carolina to receive a commercial pilot's license. She had been employed by the Hickory Memorial Hospital, Hickory N.C. for about one year as business manager, but had to resign from her position in October of 1936 due to an injury sustained in an accident. She later was engaged on airport promotional work for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, and in June of 1937 entered the employ of Miss Jacqueline Cochran, 300 5th Avenue, NYC, doing private secretarial work. She is employed at the above business address and also at 435 East 52 Street, NYC where Miss Cochran maintains Apartment #9-A. This latter party operates a cosmetics business but is well known as one of the outstanding aviatrix in this country.

 Subject is highly regarded as to character and habits and is said to be a member of the ninety-nines which is an outstanding women's aviation organisation, as well as the National Aeronautics Association.

She is not addicted to the use of intoxicants or narcotics and is not connected with any labor or political organizations. Informants state that subject has never engaged in any un-American or subversive activities.

Subject had resided with her parents since birth up to 1936 when she moved to Hickory, N.C. in keeping with the requirements of her position at that time. She gives another former residence as 435 East 52nd Street, NYC. This is the residence of Miss Cochran and building management authorities at this address advise that subject never lived here but is well known to them in connection with Miss Cochran. 

She has been living at 333 East 53rd Street, NYC since May of 1938 and leases a two rooms apartment at a rental of about $60. per month. She lives alone and is reported to be a satisfactory tenant here. Informants at the various places of residence advise that subject associates with good reputable persons coming from good class families, and in all quarters checked the opinion was expressed that subject is thoroughly American in her sentiments."

 She also had to complete a 'next of kin' form, naming her father; the form was witnessed by Emily Chapin, a fellow American ATA pilot who also joined the ATA in August 1942.  She gave her religion as 'Christian Scientist"; her flying hours to date were 606 hrs 36min, making her one of the more experienced women to join the ATA.

In more detail, she gave her education as:

  • Pomona High School, 1922
  • Guildford College, Guildford, N.C. 1923-24
  • Women's College of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C. 1 year - 1925
  • Southern Brothers University, Portsmouth, Ohio (Secretarial Certificate) 1 year - 1928.

As for her detailed flying history, she said she "began flying July 21, 1928 at the Raven Rock Flying School, Portsmouth, Ohio. Received ground instruction and 17 hours flying time. Private license at Greensboro, North Carolina October 17, 1929. Limited commercial license at Winston Salem N.C. October 17 1929. Carried passengers on week-ends at Winston Salem until Oct. 1934.

Transport License in Wilmington, N.C. July 4th 1934. Barnstorming on week-ends in small North Carolina towns, including stunting exhibitions until February 1936. Started flying school in Hickory N.C. instructing 15 primary students between June 1 and September 20 1936. Various flying around New York and North Carolina since that time. Over 250 hours cross country flying. 7 hours link training. 

Ships flown: Taylorcraft, Luscombe, Waco 10, Pitcairn Orowing, Monocoupe, DH Moth, Waco 9, Eaglerock, Challenger, Fairchild 21, 22, 24, Commandaire, Travelaire, Spartan, Cutiss Robin, OX Bird, Waco C, Waco N, Jensen Trainer, Pitcairn, Fleetwing, Beechcraft Kittyhawk, Waco F, Great Lakes, Fleet, Stinson Reliant, Stinson 105, Rearwin."

All of which was sufficiently impressive (I've never even heard of some of her 'ships flown', have you?) for them to offer her a position straight away.

She arrived in the third batch of American (and Canadian) women aviators, together with Mikkie Allen, Emily Chapin, Gloria Large, and Bobbie Sandoz.

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She started her training course but, perhaps surprisingly, seems to have found it hard going to begin with; she was signed off sick for two weeks for 'Debility/ Reactionary exhaustion' in October 1942.

On the 10th December, Cadet Nicholson had he honor to report that:

"On December the 9th, I lost my black leather handbag with black shoulder strap containing - in addition to the usual cosmetic items, handkerchief, purple fountain pen - a black leather pocket book holding the following important items:-

American Passport; Alien Registration Certificate; National Registration Card, Clothing Coupn Book, Personal Ration Card, 19 pound-notes, Autographed American Dollar note, Address Book and family photographs.

The last time I saw the handbag was when I placed it in Locker No. 13 at 09:30 hours, and I missed it at 17:00 hours when I prepared to leave the airfield for the day.

I have made a careful search of the locker and have retraced my movements during the day without success in locating trhe missing article.

I have the honor to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, Mary Nicholson, Cadet"

... all of which sounds pretty serious, but I'm afraid the outcome is not recorded in her file.

Anyway, less than 3 weeks later, she passed the training course and was duly promoted to 3rd Officer. She was W.97 - the 97th woman pilot in the ATA (out of an eventual total of 168).

 Early 1943 therefore found her flying 'Class 1' (light single-engined) aircraft like the Fairchild Argus and DH Tiger Moth, until she went on the training course for 'Class 2' (advanced single engined) in February, passing that in March and being promoted to 2nd Officer. Her confidential report says:

"In the I.F.T.S. this pilot did some 75 hours flying and proved a steady pilot who took a great interest in her work. In A.F.T.S. she reached a good standard in technical subjects and in her navigational flying. Her Class 2 flying was steady and good. In Training Pool her work was excellent and she has all along impressed her instructors as being a cautious pilot who is out to do the best ferrying job she can. Her behaviour as an officer was good and she should prove a useful ferry pilot at any Pool, and is now capable of flying all Class 2 aircraft up to and including Spitfires."

Pauline Gower wrote to Mary's parents on the 13 May 1943:

"Your daughter Mary has given me your address as I feel I must write to you myself to tell you how well she is getting on. She is just about to pass out from her training and she has shown great powers of hard work and intelligence during the time she has been in this country. Every day she is proving her ability as a pilot and I am very pleased with her in every respect.

You will be interested to know she has now flown both Spitfires and Hurricanes and you can understand how pleased she is to have handled these aircraft which played such a prominent part in the Battle of Britain.

With kind regards, Yours Sincerely, P. Gower, Commandant Women"

Mary was posted to No. 12 Ferry Pool (Cosford) on the 22nd of May 1943.

That same day, the 22nd of May, Mary was killed when her Miles Master W9029 crashed at 17:00 hours at Littleworth Norton, Worcestershire. According to an eye-witness, the airscrew came away from the aircraft before it crashed and burst into flames.

Later technical analysis showed that a failure of lubrication to the propeller reduction gear caused a ball race to fail, and the propeller and reduction gear flew off. On gliding down the aircraft struck some farm buildings. Mary was deemed to be 'not at fault' for the incident.

Her funeral was on the 29th May. Pauline Gower is named as 'Senior Pilot to attend' on the official forms for the funeral, but Giles Whittell (via Ann Wood) states that "Gower failed to attend the funeral, even though Nicholson had been based at White Waltham. Sometimes, just when they most needed to be warm, the Brits could be breathtakingly chilly."

Whittell, Giles (2008-09-04). Spitfire Women of World War II (p. 218).  

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 Pauline now had to write another, ghastly letter to Mary's parents, less than a month after her previous one.

"I do wish to express my very deep sympathy to you both on the loss of your daughter Mary. It grieves me very much to have to follow my last letter to you with this one of sympathy.

As I remarked to you before, your daughter was doing very well and you have every reason to be extremely proud of her. She was a good pilot, a hard worker and full of the spirit which we need so much these days.

She will be much missed by her many friends in this country and all those with whom her work brought her in contact.

Again, let me tell you how very much I feel for you in your loss.

With kind regards, Yours Sincerely, Commandant Women"

Even worse, Mary's mother had written to her on the 11th May, and the letter arrived after Mary's fatal accident. It is a normal, chatty family letter:

My Dear Mary,

I was overjoyed to receive your cable Sun a.m. Was sure a message would come from you and nothing did me so much good as to know you are well and happy.

Had cards from David, Ruth and H. And Frank & I. gave me a navy slip.

No news from Herbert, but hardly expect him to think of such things, and Julia is too busy decorating their home. She doesn’t write to her own mother, so guess I can’t expect it.

They have a lovely home and were decorating and putting in handsome new rugs from wall to wall.

Harold and Ruth have a very comfortable, attractive aptm., large enough for them, but not for company. The baby girl has arrived, & is named Ann Frances. I was so anxious for them to name her Mary Webb, and would like Ann Webb much better or Cole if they wanted to use my name. As it is Ruth has named them both for her Bro and Sister, but I think she was partial to Ann. I guess Harold doesn’t have much say so, and as Dad wrote Herbert I don’t appreciate having my name stuck in as tho for appeasement. Dad and I sent Harold $50.00 and Frank added $25, as he is hard pressed with this big expense coming on almost before he could get the other baby paid for. Eddie is not a bit like Harold, except his eyes are blue, has a long face and perfectly straight hair that won’t lie down, but is a fine sweet little boy. I hope the girl will look like the Nicholsons.

Ruth has her hands full, has help only one day a week. Harold did all the spring cleaning. He is a sweet boy as you know and so proud of his babies.

Re and Nancy are lovely girls, and beautiful, and both very bright. Re gets high grades and takes part in all the school activities. Nancy is a lively bird, beautiful big blue eyes, and sings so well, she catches tunes from the radio and sings with it so well. We enjoyed our visit with them, but have had a time catching up with my work. Have the garden in fair condition now, but have done no spring cleaning. We are raising 50 chicks in the yard, so as to having something to eat.

I went to entertain some of the soldiers all along and they like fried chicken.

Frank told me you had directed him to give me $50.00 for class instruction. I had just made my application to Mrs. Matters of Great Neck, N.Y., feeling sure the money would be supplied as I having been saving some for a time. She has her class in late summer, and I do not know yet if she can take me as they have only 30 in a class. If I do go, I sure wish you were in N.Y. I appreciate so much your thoughtfulness. But will wait to take the money later. I have my hands full with all the work here, garden, and Reading at Ch., which takes much time. I am wearing a real pretty navy sheer with lace collar, and hope to find a pretty lavender or orchid later.

We sent you a box recently, containing a w. Bottle, the man at W.Rich & Co. gave Frank with their compliments. I will get off some orange juice to you soon. Tell me if their is any special thing we can send you.

David is liking his work & is Cpl. Aren’t we proud of him, he is in the office and doesn’t have K. P. which suits him. Earl Garrett joined the Navy. Cousins Tom & Sola both passed on recently.

We have two nice quiet couples in the house now, Capt. and Sgt., & their wives & don’t enjoy smelling bacon grease and cigarettes early in the morning, but glad to help out in the very congested condition, and it makes me get up early. Lots of people I meet send messages to you.

Had a letter from one of your friends saying you are well and writing, tho we don’t get letters from you often. Dad is in W. Cas for a few days. Please write soon.

Much love Mama.


Mary was the only American woman to be killed on active service with the ATA.