LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4)– When the Gunderson sisters think about their mom, they can’t help but feel a great sense of pride. She was a war hero among a group of women who sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve.
“She was a pioneer in women’s aviation,” Patrice said.
“Mother was a great judge of character,” Sheila added.
“I don’t think anybody could live up to what she did,” said Kathryn.
Kay Gunderson fell in love with flying early in life. She took that passion into World War II working for the U.S. Navy teaching pilots on the Link Trainer. Then Kay learned of the WASPs – Women Airforce Service Pilots – and immediately applied. In 1943, Kay became a part of the WASP 5th class.
Women were not in combat, but Kay’s job was still dangerous.
“She was assigned to fly tow targets for machine gun practice for the cadet pilots at Eagle Pass, Texas,” her daughters explained. “Live rounds, one tearing through a tail fin, but they never took [Kay] down.”
Sheila said her mom never expressed being afraid during those live-fire exercises.
“She did say, ‘I was never sure if I would get back,’” Sheila told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann.
Kay’s job also included delivering new models of airplanes to various bases all over the country, training waiting pilots on the newest technology and ferrying service personnel wherever they were needed.
“It wasn’t easy,” Patrice said. “[My mom] said that every time somebody would land funny, they’d get on the radio and say, ‘Is that one of the girls?’ And she’d say, ‘It never was.’ [The WASPs] were very good pilots.”
Thumbing through photos at Kay’s kitchen table in her Lakewood home, the sisters admire their mother’s dedication and the hard work of every WASP.
“If those women hadn’t done that, women flying now would not be where they are,” Patrice said.
WASP service was long unrecognized. It wasn’t until legislation passed in the late 1970s did the women finally get veteran status. Then, in 2010, Kay received a Congressional Gold Medal.
“It’s extraordinary to think about,” Patrice said.
Also extraordinary, Kay lived to be 103!
“We asked her secret to life and she said ‘junk food,’” Kathryn said with a smile.
Kathryn said her mom not only loved being a pilot, she loved being a mom.
“She enjoyed being a parent,” Kathryn said. “She was always sad when we went back to school.”
The mother of five never slowed down, Kathryn added.
“She took helicopter lessons in her 80s,” she said. “She took tai chi in her 70s. She took exercise classes when she was 99 and 100. She never stopped!”
Kay passed away on Feb. 12, and her family misses her dearly.
“She was with us for so long, it’s kind of hard to imagine her not marching into the room with an opinion about something,” Sheila said with a smile.
They all miss hearing her stories, as well as her sense of humor.
“‘I didn’t go into any foreign countries except Texas,’ she would say,” said Patrice, sharing one of her mom’s jokes.
Yet Kay’s family does find peace knowing she’s still flying, but with a different set of wings.
“Now she’s flying with the angels,” Patrice added.
Kay was preceded in death by her husband of 60 years, A. Lee Gunderson.