First In Flight

When most people think of a sailor, they think of a grizzled seaman or a fresh faced recruit leaving home to join the Navy. Most people don’t think of adventurous young women, leaving to serve their country in wartime.

During WWI, over 11,000 young (and not so young) women joined from all over the country to serve as Yeomen (Female) in the United States Naval Reserve Force (U.S. Navy wartime reserves). Although recruited in the Yeoman rating, they worked in a variety of jobs including in the intelligence field, recruiting and as translators.

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One of the young women who joined was Marthe Rosalie Laure Ballot, a lively 28-year-old from Brooklyn, New York. She and her sister Yeomen(F) were assigned at Naval Training Station Great Lakes, Illinois in the Aviation Department and Public Works Department where they worked typing new instruction manuals. Originally recruited by naval officers stationed at Cornell University, the women were asked to transfer to Great Lakes when the aviation school was moved to Illinois.

In April 1919, an office pool was held among the Navy women serving in the Aviation Department at Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois. The prize: a flight in a Navy Liberty plane piloted by Ensign Applegate, one of the Navy pilots stationed at the base.

On 7 April 1919, literally by the luck of the draw, YN2(F) Ballot was chosen to take a ride in one of the Naval Station’s Liberty aircraft. As exciting as the flight was to Petty Officer Ballot personally, her flight marked her as the first Navy woman to fly in a U.S. Navy plane. During her short, 20 minute flight she marked an unplanned, and quiet, landmark in women’s history.

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Petty Officer Ballot’s comments after returning, “It surely does beat walking, riding in a Ford or traveling on the North Shore Electric to Lake Forest about 14 ways. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t the least bit afraid. From the very start, I made up my mind not to be afraid and I guess I kept my nerve pretty well.”

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