by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LENEXA — Elinor Swartz has taken the past year in stride.
The coronavirus, the shutdowns, the civil unrest. She’s approached it all with a prayer in her heart, and reliance on the mantra that has gotten her through 98 years: “Just be brave.”
“I’ve lived through the depression and terrible droughts and three house fires,” she said.
Add to that, Swartz was one of the first female aircraft communicators during World War II.
“I was the only person on an emergency airfield from midnight till eight in the morning,” she said. “So, I learned to be brave.”
Swartz was a member of St. Agnes Parish, Roeland Park, for 60 years. She recently moved to Lakeview Village in Lenexa and started attending Holy Trinity Church.
Always friendly, she soon met parishioners who sat around her at Mass, including Charles Gampper.
“They’ve been talking about women’s rights for so long,” said Gampper. “And her story is about a woman during the Second World War.
“That she got into this particular job is just unbelievable.”
Growing up in Nebraska, Elinor Doran attributes her moxie to her mother, who insisted that she and her sister Dorothy could do anything as well as their three brothers.
“She was a really strong woman,” said Swartz. “And she wouldn’t tolerate Dorothy or I using excuses of ‘Poor me, I’m just a girl.’”
So, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and their brothers enlisted in the military, Elinor and Dorothy decided to be part of the war effort, too.
They began by taking a course in first aid.
“In case Japan decided to bomb Nebraska,” said Swartz. “That wasn’t too logical.”
Then Swartz saw an article in a magazine titled Knittin’ for Britain.
“And so, we tried to knit sweaters,” she said. “But that was hopeless.”
Finally, the sisters saw an ad for aircraft communicators — jobs available only to men before the war.
“We knew that was our destiny because we were both good students,” said Swartz.
The sisters began training in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 1, 1942. They had never been away from home.
“I was 18,” said Swartz. “The only thing I knew about Kansas City was an article in the Omaha Daily Bee entitled ‘Kansas City: The City of Sin and Vice.’”
Aircraft communicators were responsible for keeping track of aircraft over remote locations while reporting weather observations over teletype networks and radio, and helping pilots in the area with flight plans.
The women had four months of rigorous training, studying aerodynamics, flight rules and regulations, radio theory, meteorology, weather reporting, Morse code and Baudot code.
Upon graduation they were sent to an aircraft communications station in Wyoming — together, which was contrary to protocol.
“But we were the best students in the class,” explained Swartz. “And we told them we wouldn’t go anywhere unless we were together.”
Arriving at the station, the two were given 15 minutes of orientation and then left alone.
“Now, we had studied all the things we needed to know,” said Swartz, “but we’d never even seen an aircraft communications station before.
“So, the first few days, Dorothy and I stood watches together. I went to work at four [p.m.] and Dorothy went to work at midnight; both of us would go home at seven o’clock in the morning.”
It wasn’t easy being the first women aircraft communicators.
“When we first arrived,” recalled Swartz,” we had many curious visitors and we turned them all away with our ‘Positively No Admittance’ sign.
“One man who had obviously been drinking tried to persuade Dorothy to let him in to see ‘the new equipment.’
“He said he could easily break in!”
The FBI was notified and made their presence known as the locals adjusted to women in a male-dominated field.
In addition to curious onlookers, the women had to deal with the Wyoming weather.
“We did experience a wild Wyoming blizzard,” said Swartz. “And believe you me, that was difficult.
“Once an hour, we had to go outside and check everything and write a report. Well, we had to hang on to everything on the way to our little weather station or we would get blown away!”
They also dealt with emergency landings of pilots who had lost their way or run out of fuel.
“That was pretty exciting to look out my window and see a plane gliding in,” said Swartz.
Throughout their journey, the Swartz sisters relied on their faith. When they moved to a new city, they found friendship with Catholic youth groups.
“That was Dorothy and my main activity,” said Swartz. “Each place we went, we would start going to church there.
“We would work till seven [a.m.] and then go to eight o’clock Mass, which we probably half slept through.”
Swartz spent two years at emergency fields in Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas City. At a stint in Lincoln, Nebraska, she met and married Earl Swartz, the military tower chief.
While raising their family of two daughters and one son, Swartz became involved with the Girl Scouts.
She spent 11 years as a volunteer Girl Scout troop leader, trainer and association chairman, and 11 more years on the Girl Scout staff as field service director.
This month, Swartz was thrilled to receive her first COVID-19 vaccination, and had no fear of any needle pricks or side effects.
She just said to herself, “Be brave.”