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Witnessing Naval Aviation From the Beginning

Elizabeth Ferguson, 98, has been around almost as long as Naval aviation itself and her late uncle, Admiral Marc Mitscher, was one of its pioneers.

Elizabeth Ferguson was just a young girl, not yet a teenager, when she first saw planes flying over Coronado.

It was the early 1920s, and Naval aviation still was new and unusual; the sound of planes overhead was worth a sprint to the yard for an excited girl staying with her aunt Frances and uncle Marc.

“I can remember I was just a little kid then, and they rented a house on Isabella,” says Ferguson, now 98. “And we all came out into the yard to watch the five planes in formation. I can remember looking up and watching them and thinking, ‘How wonderful!’ ”

It was even better because her uncle, Marc Mitscher, was one of the pilots.

Today, Ferguson still hears the sound of Navy aircraft from the Coronado home she’s lived in since 1954, just a short walk from the main gate to Naval Base Coronado. And she can still tell the difference between the sounds each of the planes makes, from the thundering F-18s to the big cargo transports.

Which is understandable since her life has been remarkably intertwined with Naval aviation, now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

More than an uncle

Ferguson says Mitscher – Admiral Marc Mitscher to everyone else – was “like a second father to me.”

Mitscher, designated the 33rd Naval aviator in 1916, was an early pioneer and proponent of Naval airpower. The one-time squadron leader became a highly decorated commander in the Pacific during World War II and the skipper of the carrier Hornet, which launched the Doolittle Raid in 1942.

He was the Magnificent Mitscher – the title of his biography -- who became deputy chief of Naval Operations and commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet after the war.

Ferguson also married a Navy flier. Capt. John Ferguson served as one of the first test pilots at the famous Patuxent River air station, flew in the Pacific in World War II and worked special assignments to ferry high-ranking officials – including the secretary of state -- before and during the war.

Elizabeth Ferguson never wore the uniform, but the Navy anchor might as well be tattooed on her arm.

Her long life story, and that of her uncle and husband, is rich with Navy history.

Busy and social

As she closes in on her own centennial, Ferguson credits her longevity to “good Irish genes,” regular catnaps and “good Scotch.”

A recent lament: She’s had to cut out the Scotch.

Also, she stays busy, getting together with friends and family whenever she can. Her granddaughter, Sarah Wurzelbacher, credits her vitality to her busy social life. For years, too, Ferguson worked as a volunteer, both at the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park – where she donated much of her uncle’s memorabilia and photos – and the San Diego library.

To the rest of the world, she’s Elizabeth, but to her family she’s “Dardie,” a name derived from a toddler grandson who long ago mangled Elizabeth’s “Hi darling” greetings.

On a recent afternoon, she sat in her sunny kitchen with her granddaughter and son, Sandy Ferguson, talking about her experiences. Her home is filled with photos of her family: three children (Sandy and two sisters), four grandchildren and one great-grandchild (with another on the way).

Just around the corner from the kitchen is the hallway she’s dubbed “Mitscher Hall,” for the many photos of her famous uncle that line its walls.

Coronado has been part of her life since she first visited her aunt and uncle in the 1920s and ’30s. She and John were married in Coronado in 1939, and they made the city their home, where they raised all three children, each of whom graduated from Coronado High. When she and John separated in 1963, she stayed in the house.

Her Coronado roots run deep, and she’s seen the community evolve from “just a little beach town” that still had a few vacant lots to a prime destination spot for vacationers and the upwardly mobile.

She remembers the war years, when the Hotel del Coronado was virtually taken over by the Navy, and when some families built underground shelters in their yards to protect themselves in case Japanese submarines shelled the town.

Even her neighborhood has changed. Where once homes were filled with “nothing but Navy families,” many residents are now summer transplants from Arizona and Nevada.

Remembering her uncle           

She was born Elizabeth Harris on May 26, 1913, in Seattle.

An only child, she spent most of her early years in San Francisco. But because her aunt and uncle had no children, she was like a “child for two families,” often spending time with the Mitschers, meeting up with them as they bounced from post to post.

Today, Ferguson remembers her uncle as a very quiet man. He never spoke much and when he did, he rarely discussed his experiences.

He let his eyes do the talking.

“He had the most beautiful blue eyes,” she says.  “When he’d look at a child it was beautiful to see. And they twinkled beautifully when he had a joke told to him. He liked jokes. He liked fun.”

Two Navy ships have been named after her uncle, who died in 1947, and she’s proud to have christened the second, cracking a bottle of champagne across the bow of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher in December 1994, in Pascagoula, Miss.

“I was queen for a day,” she jokes. “I still have the broken bottle.”

An aviation advocate

That a destroyer carries his name is a great tribute, but Mitscher is most associated with carriers and aviation.

In 1919, he received the Navy Cross as a pilot on one of four Curtiss NC Flying Boat aircraft that attempted to cross the Atlantic. Mitscher took off from Newfoundland and landed off the Azores; heavy fog kept him from continuing to Lisbon.

He then spent the bulk of the ’20s and ’30s serving on the Navy’s early carriers and air stations from San Diego to Washington, D.C., before becoming assistant chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics from 1939-41.

“He was a great carrier advocate,” says Ferguson. “He believed that carriers would win the next war. There was a big fight with the battleship people in those days. He had his chance to prove it, of course.”

During the war, Mitscher commanded a carrier division and the Fast Carrier Task Force – with the carrier Lexington as his flagship – and was involved in major actions across the Pacific.

As she talks about her uncle, Ferguson can cite story after story. But one stands out.

During the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944, eight planes were due to return after nightfall, and Mitscher was under orders to keep his carriers dark and “let them go,” she says.

Mitscher refused; he ordered one of the carrier crews to keep the deck's running lights on, which guided the planes home.

“Some time after that I was over at a friend’s house and we were having a little party,” says Ferguson. “And there were a bunch of young aviators there, and (the hostess) mentioned the fact that I was Admiral Mitscher’s niece. They all came over and sat at my feet. They had been some of the fliers who had gotten back to their ships because of the lights. They thought he was the tops.”

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