A passion for piloting: We visit with Ann Lesnikowski, World War II vet

Ann Lesnikowski was one of 138 female fighter pilots during World War II. - Stacey Rupolo

Updated Nov. 14, 5:29 pm

Ann Berry Lesnikowski, 95, former WASP pilot who fought the good fight in the 1940s, lives on the Lagoon, the Hines Point Road side, with her daughter Alicia Lesnikowski. Ann, believe it or not, is more radiant today, at 95, than she was as a pretty, bright-eyed young pilot in a class photo from 1943, looking militarily snappy with dark brown curls under an Air Force cap, a stiff white collar tucked into a jacket with all the necessary regimental ornaments, including a round shoulder lapel with a gold star and wings.

Ann Berry, born on a farm in Western Kentucky, began to fly in 1939 because, lucky individual, she felt drawn to it in that way that’s impossible to describe, but which everyone understands who has ever been raving nuts about anything. A student at Murray State College in Kentucky, she was the second girl to be accepted into a new course called Civilian Pilot Training Program, CPTV. She trained her heart out until Pearl Harbor was attacked on the “day that will live in infamy,” Dec. 7, 1941. When war was declared on this side of the Atlantic, CPTV vaporized like the fourth season of “My Favorite Martian.”
And yet women like Ann Berry, with a positive libido for flying, and plenty experienced at it, wanted only to serve her country in the way she knew best: in the air. She saw a photo in a magazine of a striking young woman named Nancy Love, who started the now famous WASP program.
The demand for women pilots was plausible: Induct women to fly all manner of military aircraft from factory to Air Force base or from base to base, thus freeing up male pilots for combat duty. Of course now we know women could have flown air raid missions with the best of them, but we mustn’t forget that in the mid-20th century women were considered unfit for anything but strapping on aprons and, whenever possible, squeezing out another baby. (For fans of the BBC mystery series “Foyle’s War,” you’ll recall how Samantha — Sam — as D.C.I. Foyle’s uniformed driver, is often sneered at by visiting brass. And that’s just driving an Army Jeep, not a chunk of metal whizzing 25,000 feet above the ground).

Thankfully, Ann had the full support of her parents to work for Piper Aircraft, because new rules guaranteed that a person servicing airplanes in the hangar could also take aircraft out and up to accrue flying time. In September 1943, Ann was accepted into WASP class 44-W-2. At her graduation she was pleased to have her wings pinned on by General Henry “Hap” Arnold himself (I know, this particular name has vanished into the annals of time, but according to the news of the day, getting “pinned” by General Arnold was a big bonus).

Other female flying groups were merged into the paramilitary WASP, an elite club: Over 25,000 women flyers applied; only 1,074 were accepted, Her own work was to transport planes to Army bases all over the country. Her favorite planes were B-17s and C-47s. In her memoir, published by Texas Women’s University Women’s Airfare Service Pilots Oral History Report, she observes, “You know whatever you were doing was sort of exciting. You were traveling all the time. You were flying different planes all the time. Dangerous somewhat, probably, because any time you go up in an airplane it’s a little bit dangerous.”

Glamorous and daunting as Ann Berry’s war effort appears today, it wasn’t until 1977 that female veterans received the love. WASPs were granted veteran status in 1977, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. Over the years there’s been a back-and-forth about whether women war vets may be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This particular fight puts an extra-sharp pin in the national misogyny cushion, but as of today, deceased female military personnel are indeed accepted at Arlington. The only requirement is that they be cremated first.

Following the war, Ann Berry worked as a secretary for a journalist in Manhattan, and her boss introduced her to her future husband, artist, designer, and builder Bronislaw Lesnikowski. On a visit to Martha’s Vineyard, they followed the classic pattern of falling in love with the place and buying a piece of property. This one was — and is — at the Lagoon’s edge, where they repatriated themselves from “America” to here. Daughters Alicia and Mollie were born in Oak Bluffs in the early ’50s. Both daughters have clearly inherited their mother’s independent streak. Alicia, after her undergraduate years, sought and won two doctorates, one in biology, one in botanical sciences. She practices her education onsite with a landscaping business. Sister Mollie lives in Ruttledge, Ga., and oversees her own arts and crafts at Red Doors Studio. Her handpainted floor cloths are on display at Craftworks Gallery in Oak Bluffs, and during the summer, she’s here, offering her wares at all the open-air venues.

Daughter Alicia says that at one time there were five WASP flyers living on the Vineyard, including the patron saint of women in the sky during WWII, Nancy Love. “She lived right down the street here on Hines Point!” said Alicia.

Now the Vineyard proudly harbors two living WWII women veterans, Ann Berry Lesnikowski, and Grace “Phronsie” Conlin of Hart Haven who served as a WAVE.

Thank you for your service, ladies, not only for answering the nation’s call in a time of dire need, but for the magnificent example you set for a new generation of liberated women, in every descending generation down to the present young’uns.