Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the war effort

It was while I was looking at photos taken by Ann Rosener that memories of Roald Dahl's Gremlins came to mind. Rosener worked for the Office of War Information which, in 1942, had succeeded the Farm Security Administration as FDR's domestic photographic agency. OWI's main role was to document mobilization within the US to fight the Axis powers. Unabashedly propagandistic, the agency's photos showed Americans doing good things to help the country gear up for war alongside ones reminding Americans what to do or not to do to help the war effort. All in all, OWI can be seen to have achieved some very straight-forward home-front morale-building.

Ann Rosener, who was in its stable of photographers, produced thousands of workmanlike images to further this work.[1] Her speciality, if she had one, was documenting the contributions made by women, members of minority groups, and people with disabilities. She showed these folks at work in defense industries and in their homes busy conserving, recycling, and making do so that consumer resources could be diverted to military production.

I was especially taken with a set of photos showing a nun of the Roman Catholic faith who came to be known as "The Flying Nun."[2]

{Washington, D.C. Field trips for the "flying nun" pre-flight class, including inspection tours of hangars at the Washington National Airport. Here, Sister Aquinas is explaining engine structure to her students, 1943 June}

As the caption says, the photo shows Sister Aquinas and students in 1943 at DC's commercial airport. To take it, Rosener used an elevated camera location and single-source artificial light. Although she normally posed her subjects, this appears to be at least partly candid. She obviously set up the shot, but it's also pretty obvious that Sister Aquinas is instructing the class while a guy in the background does some maintenance work on a radial engine.

Sister Aquinas belonged to Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. She'd graduated from the Catholic University of America and Notre Dame with majors in mathematics and physics. She'd also gotten her flying license in 1938 and, as a teacher at Catholic U, taught military and civilian pilots as well as the nuns which the photo shows. A former student says she went by the nickname "Spike" though no one told him why.[3]

She continued to fly after the war, mostly small commercial aircraft like this one.

{This photo shows Sister Aquinas piloting a Piper Cherokee. It was taken much by an anonymous photographer some time in the 1960s. The caption reads: "The real flying nun, Sister Mary Aquinas Kinskey, arriving at Sheboygan County Airport with two Franciscan sisters in a Cherokee C airplane. Sister Mary Aquinas, whose mother house was in Manitowoc, learned to fly during World War II in order to teach her students. Later she was involved with pre-flight instruction for the military. After the war she continued to fly, and she introduced aviation into the science curriculum in schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere. This photograph is part of the collection of Wisconsin author Tere Rio Versace concerning an unpublished book about Sister Mary Aquinas. Confusingly, Versace was also the author of the 'The Fifteenth Pelican,' from which the fictional 'Flying Nun' was adapted." Source: wisconsinhistory.org}

This caption alludes to the TV series, The Flying Nun, which may have been "inspired" by Sister Aquinas's passion for aviation, but took nothing at all from the story of her life.

Here's are some more of Rosener's session with the Sister in June, 1943.

{Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, "flying nun," exchanging trade secrets with an engineer at the Washington National Airport, 1943 June.}

{Washington, D.C. The "flying nun" from Ironwood, Michigan, walking down the field at the Washington National Airport after taking her class through the hangars. Sister Aquinas holds a student pilot's license and has many flying hours to her credit, 1943 June.}

{Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas teaching a lesson in practical radio operations to the Sisters attending her Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instructors at Catholic University, 1943 June.}

{Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, "flying nun," in her laboratory at Catholic University checking the grease job on one of the airplane engines, 1943 June.}

{Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, "flying nun", with model planes in hands walking toward the aeronautics laboratory at Catholic University where she gives a daily three-hour preflight Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instructors, 1943 June.}

{Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, "flying nun," applying a little glue to the model P-38 which hangs from the ceiling of her classroom at Catholic University. A veteran of fifteen years' teaching experience, the Sister is giving a summer Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instruction, 1943 June.}

{There's no caption on this photo of Sister Aquinas and model airplane enthusiasts. It's found with the photos of the June 1943 shoot and presumably was taken then.}


Here are photos of Ann Rosener by an anonymous photographer from OWI collections at the Library of Congress.

{Washington, D.C. Portrait of Ann Rosener, United States OWI (Office of War Information) photographer}


Here are a few examples of Rosener's other OWI work.

{Women in industry. Tool production. Pioneers of the production line, these two young workers are among the first women ever to operate a centerless grinder, a machine requiring both the knowledge of precision measuring instruments, and considerable experience and skill in setting up. In this Midwest drill and tool plant, manned almost exclusively by women, centerless grinders have been efficiently operated by women for more than a year, and company production figures have continued to soar. Republic Drill and Tool Company, Chicago, Illinois, 1942 Aug.}

{"How do I look?" Attractive playsuits for daughter can be made from that old housedress with the splitting seams, and junior's first long pants (no cuffs) can be cut from father's old overcoat. With shortage of wool and other materials needed by the armed forces, it's a wise mother who conserves clothing by altering and remodelling used garments for other members of the family, 1942 Feb.}

{Production. Aircraft engines. Negro women with no previous industrial experience are reconditioning used spark plugs in a large Midwest airplane plant. Despite their lack of technical knowledge, these women have become expert operators of the small testing machines. Melrose Park, Buick plant, 1942 July.}


Some sources:

Women Photojournalists, Prints and Photos Div., Library of Congress

Sister Mary Aquinas, obituary in the NYT, October 23, 1985

Flying Nun in a B-52

Sheboygan Airport and Flying Nun

All Saints Academy School, Ironwood ("Sister Mary Aquinas, who was on the faculty of St. Ambrose High School, learned how to fly a plane so she could teach aeronautics. She was the original 'flying nun!'")

Flying Nun (1941), The Home Front - Manitowoc County in World War II, Manitowoc Local History Collection, The State of Wisconsin Collection

The Flying Nun TV series, article in wikipedia

The Flying Nun (TV Series 1967–1970) on imdb



[1] The photos can be found in the OWI collections at the Library of Congress. I'd provide a bio link for Rosener if I could find one. I've her birth date (1914) and virtually nothing else.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all photos come from the OWI collections of the Prints and Photos Division, Library of Congress.

[3] The student's reminiscence comes from the web site of Silver Lake College. It's Sister Aquinas taught — and flew an airplane — with strength and authority (pdf). Here's the text:
Remember your favorite teacher in high school? Was it a softspoken woman who gave you extra help after hours? Or perhaps it was the gym teacher who wouldn’t let you quit. Maybe it was a teacher who didn’t give homework and told a lot of jokes in class. For Bill Sullivan, a former student of St. Ambrose High School in Ironwood, Michigan, it was a Sister from the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who honed her affinity and talent for teaching at what was the forerunner of today’s Silver Lake College. Her degree work (undergraduate and graduate) was taken at Catholic University of America and Notre Dame in mathematics and physics.

Now, Sister Aquinas Kinskey did not fit into the stereotypical mold of what you may think a Sister might be like. In fact, Sullivan recounts that Sister Aquinas had a nickname: “Spike.” “Nobody ever told me why, but we all understood. It reflected her personal strength, her dynamics, and her take-charge image.” Sister Aquinas received her flying license in 1938, and eventually provided classroom instruction for prospective WWII pilots. She received a special citation of honor in 1957 from the US Air Force Association for her “outstanding contributions to the advancement of air power in the interest of national security and world peace.”

The nation remembers Sister Aquinas as the original “Flying Nun,” and although her work teaching for the US Air Force was incredibly important, Sullivan remembers Sister Aquinas for different reasons. His life was changed by his personal experience with her in high school.

Sullivan’s first class with Sister Aquinas was Chemistry in his junior year at high school. Before that, he knew her by reputation — and by how she took charge on an important feast day at the school. Sullivan, a trained altar boy and second tenor, recalls, “There was much going on at the altar in the church, with priests and altar boys all over the place. Spike [who directed the school choir] found herself short of second tenors. She looked up at the altar and saw me there. She marched right up to the altar, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me back to the choir loft, telling me loudly that they needed second tenors more than they needed altar boys.”

Stories about “Spike” abound at St. Ambrose High School reunions. Sister Aquinas had the stride and presence of a military general and the smile of one who was true to the person God created her to be and to the vocation God called her to follow. She inspired others to live their vocation as well. Under Sister Aquinas, Sullivan fell in love with the logic of science. As Sullivan excelled in Chemistry, he began to admire her expertise in the field of science. Sullivan recalls, “It was during this time that Sister Aquinas introduced me to someone, saying, with her hand on my shoulder, ‘This is my little chemical engineer.’ I truly did not know what a chemical engineer was at that point, but from that time on I set out to become one. I was afraid not to. I was sure she would call me to account.” Inspired, or perhaps driven, by Sister Aquinas, Sullivan went on to earn a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He attained a job at Abbott Laboratories where he helped to create medicinal chemicals. Most notably, he worked with a team that helped to mass-produce the new “wonder drug” penicillin. Later, in 1962 , Sullivan received a research award for Outstanding Advances in Arythromiacin, another antibiotic.

Even a small pebble when thrown in a still pond will make a ripple, changing that pond. Those who influence the lives of others in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways, can spur immeasurable good during our earthly existence. We can all attest that there have been certain people who have changed the course of our lives.

More information about the life work of Sister Aquinas is available in the Holy Family Convent Archives, 920-682-772 8.

1 comment:

Niall Mor said...

I love the shot in which she is lecturing on the intricacies of an aircraft engine while dressed in full habit to a group of nuns also in full habit.