KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Capt. Rosemary Mariner lived a life full of firsts.
She was the Navy’s first woman fighter pilot and later the first woman to command an aviation squadron.
But on Jan. 24, those who knew her best believe she earned a new set of wings — ones that allowed her to fly higher than she ever has following a five-year battle with ovarian cancer.
It only seems fitting that the Navy will honor her in a way that’s never been done before.
The Navy will conduct its first all-female flyover Saturday in Maynardville, Tennessee, during a graveside service for Mariner, who spent her retired life living in Norris, Tennessee, as a lecturer and resident scholar at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
‘What’s important to you?’
Mariner never wanted to be exceptional.
“When people look at you as an exceptional person, they think that person can do it and nobody else can,” her husband and retired Navy commander Tommy Mariner said. “Rosemary didn’t want that. She wanted other people to be living their dreams, too.”
Rosemary left the door open for women to thrive in the United States military. But first she had to open the door herself.
Her long list of achievements include being one of the first women in the Navy to earn her pilot wings in 1974, the first woman to fly a tactical fighter jet in 1975 and the first woman to command a naval aviation squadron in 1990, according to a tweet from historian and friend Kate Landdeck.
She also went on to become one of the first women to serve aboard a Navy warship.
It was her unique career and intelligence that caught her Tommy’s eye during the California summer of 1977. Rosemary was working as a writer for a project with Tommy’s fleet at the China Lake naval weapons station at the time.
“She was a good-looking jet pilot that was feisty and intelligent,” he said. “In naval aviation, she was a different character. … One day, the master chief at the time said they got my airplane fixed and I could be on my way. I told them I would just go in the morning.”
Tommy wasn’t planning on staying that night, so he had to borrow clothes from a squadron member. Rosemary, on the other hand, showed up to their first date in a stunning peasant dress and off-white top.
As the two shared dinner, Tommy asked her a simple question that changed the way he thought of her forever: “What’s important to you?”
“She came back with no hesitation at all — ‘To be looked at as a person,'” he said.
A ‘path-forging career’
Tommy, a graduate of the University of Tennessee, always knew he would come back to the eastern part of the state. He told that to Rosemary when he proposed in his family’s tobacco field in 1978.
She didn’t answer right away, choosing to write Tommy a letter in 1979 to say “yes.” They married the following year but didn’t come back to Tennessee until much later than Tommy had originally planned.
“I made the decision early on that her career was unique,” Tommy said. “There was a lot of guys who could do what I did. But her path-forging career was one of a kind at the time.”
The couple followed each other from base to base, with Rosemary surpassing multiple milestones along the way.
Rosemary learned to build valuable connections, master flight and, of course, drop bombs during her career, Tommy said. She racked up more than 3,500 flight hours in 15 different aircraft during her 24 years of service.
Tommy said Rosemary was always appreciative of the military men who let her follow her dreams. But while the men taught her a lot about aviation, Tommy said, she taught him a lot about love and how to treat others.
“She grew me up,” Tommy said. “I was a different person. Rosemary changed me. … And you have to understand, China Lake was isolated. You learn to rely on each other and do things together.”
That continued after Tommy retired in 1995 — Rosemary two years later — when the two decided to share their knowledge and experiences with others.
UT and life after flight
After Mariner’s wheels touched ground for the final time, she found a new call for duty.
The two moved to East Tennessee, where Tommy worked on the family farm before helping start the ROTC program at Anderson County High School. Rosemary would accompany the students as a chaperone on trips.
“She enjoyed the students, I enjoyed teaching and she decided she would try it over at the university,” Tommy said. “She worked a lot harder than everybody I have ever seen prepare for a 45-minute lecture.”
Rosemary was a resident scholar with UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society starting in 1998. She later became a lecturer in the history department from 2002 to 2016, focusing her teaching on the U.S. military tradition.
According to the university, Rosemary’s discussions on just war theory, conscription and placing military tradition in the context of English political philosophy were just a handful of ways she inspired her students and colleagues.
“When I think of her, I think of words like her integrity and her grace and her generosity and her warmth,” said the center’s program director, Cynthia Tinker, who worked with Rosemary for about 18 years. “To be around her, you knew you were around greatness.”
Once Rosemary began teaching at the center, Tinker said, “the classes were always packed.”
“You wouldn’t know that she’s this historic barrier-breaker if you’d just met her,” she said. “She was great to work with — so smart, always reading. She was such an enormous contributor to the intellectual life of the center.”
And it was at another UT center — the UT Medical Center — where her life was cut short at 65 by ovarian cancer.
“Her theory was that cancer was a refugee looking for a place to hide out,” Tommy said. “Rosemary’s efforts to keep her immune system were pretty amazing. Her diet completely changed. Mine did, too a little bit. … But what was important to Rosemary was not the number of days but the quality of the days.”
The husband and wife were able to take a couple of vacations toward the end of her life, and their 24-year-old daughter Emmalee was around to help as much as she could.
“On her last day, whenever (the doctor) came in and checked on her, he said, ‘Rosemary, you changed me,'” Tommy said. “She said: ‘I know. I meant to.'”
‘I told her she was successful’
Rosemary’s funeral will be held Saturday in Andersonville, Tennessee. A group of female pilots will then fly above the Maynardville graveside service in an act officially known as the “Missing Man Flyover.”
The pilots will fly four aircraft in formation, while one leaves to symbolically climb upward toward the heavens.
This is the first time the Navy has conducted an all-female flyover.
“You might warn people that at about 3 o’clock it will be noisy in the valley,” Tommy said. “I am honored that the Navy does that.”
Tommy said he is also honored that he was able to grow old with Rosemary. He finds some comfort knowing she was a strong believer in Jesus who was able to see the impact of her work.
Tommy recalls seeing those effects firsthand during a new teacher orientation at Anderson County High School.
“One stood up and said she spent seven years in the Navy and had a great time and wanted to come to live her dream as a teacher,” Tommy said.
It was a dream very much similar to the one Tommy and Rosemary fulfilled.
“I just went home and told Rosemary,” he said. “I told her she was successful.”
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