March 4, 2010 in Washington Voices

Pilot’s service lauded

Congressional Gold Medal awarded posthumously
Jill Barville
Courtesy of Carol Landa-McVicker photo

Jean Landa was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.Courtesy of Carol Landa-McVicker
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

For Jean Landa, even the sky wasn’t the limit.

The Spokane Valley woman learned to fly at Felts Field and became a flight instructor in the early 1940s, when women aviators were rare. She then used those skills during World War II, joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots. This unit of women aviators flew military missions in the United States, freeing up male pilots for overseas duty.

Though stateside, it was still a dangerous job. The WASPs flew planes towing targets, so army trainees could practice shooting. They flew B-26s and B-29s to show male pilots the aircraft were safe. And they flew each type of military mission the male pilots did save one: combat.

On Wednesday, 66 years after the unit disbanded and 30 years after her death, Jean Landa will be honored for that service with a Congressional Gold Medal. Several of Landa’s family members plan to travel to Washington, D.C., to receive the medal on her behalf.

Landa didn’t consider her service heroic, said her daughter Tere VonMarbod, explaining that the whole nation was rallying to support the troops any way possible. Service with the WASP was Landa’s way to do that.

According to the Wings Across America Web site, 25,000 women applied to become a WASP but only 1,830 were accepted to train and 1,074 graduated.

“Imagine mother leaving little ol’ Spokane Valley. The people in Spokane Valley must have been shaking their heads,” said VonMarbod.

Since the WASPs were all volunteers, Landa paid her own way to train and serve, first in Pullman, then in Sweetwater, Texas. After graduating with the class of 44-7, she was stationed in Dallas and served in the unit, ferrying and testing planes until WASP was disbanded in December 1944. The women were left to pay their own way home, leaving without veteran status, benefits, or honors and WASP records were sealed until 1977.

“No one even said thank you,” said daughter Jane Johnson, adding that this wasn’t an issue for her mom, who merely moved on to the next challenge. When that “thank you” finally came in the mail during the Reagan administration, Johnson said her mother was “very surprised and thrilled. They didn’t expect it.”

“She didn’t live in the past. She looked for the next adventure. This was a map but then she went on to write more chapters,” said VonMarbod, noting that her mom’s WASP experience did influence her approach to life. “Her WASP connection gave her a global perspective. It set the tone that there are so many possibilities. … She liked to prove things to herself.”

That risk taking, get-it-done attitude permeated Landa’s life. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. She also went to college at Whitman and Stanford before earning her degree in sociology from the University of Washington.

“She pushed herself,” said Johnson.

After her service as a WASP, Landa and several family members founded Spokane Valley Savings and Loan, which later became Pacific First Federal.

As a woman, she couldn’t buy real estate, and as a Mexican citizen, Landa’s husband, Carlos Landa, also couldn’t buy a house, said VonMarbod.

That experience and the knowledge that area banks weren’t lending for home construction south of Sprague or east of Pines led Landa to become the driving force behind the bank’s inception, said daughter Carol Landa-McVicker.

“In the 1950s women weren’t heads of banks,” said VonMarbod, noting her mother became vice president of the bank and was the first person locally to imagine the benefits of grocery store banking. She acted upon that epiphany by starting Pacific First Federal in Rosauers.

While reminiscing over their mother’s many innovations and accomplishments, Landa’s daughters described how she showed them what it meant to take risks, try new things and become leaders.

“To be Jean Landa’s daughter made you somebody,” said Landa-McVicker. “She gave me those tools and encouragement to do anything I wanted.”

“I admired her fearlessness,” said Johnson. “She gave us wings.”

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