There are all sorts of pioneers in this world—those who have gone before and been the “first” to do something. One such person was Ellen Church, a young woman from the little town of Cresco, Iowa. Ellen graduated from high school and went west to California to, as the cliché goes, seek her fame and fortune. She became a nurse and, at a time when it was extremely rare, also became a pilot.
Ellen wanted to fly for a commercial airline and applied at Boeing Air Transport in San Francisco. Though she was not hired as a pilot, she was hired on as the first American air hostess on May 15, 1930. It was not her skill and knowledge as a pilot that landed her the job—it was the nursing. In the early days of commercial flight, passengers were scared and uncertain about air travel—and often suffering from air sickness. Boeing Air Transport specifically wanted young women (25 and younger) who could calm the fears of the passengers and offer aid and comfort.
In addition to having nursing skills, these young women had to meet physical requirements, as well. The first “sky girls” as they were first referred to, were to be no taller than 5’ 4” and weigh no more than 115 pounds. In spite of this diminutive size, the stewardesses had to tote luggage, fuel airplanes, and, if need be, assist pushing the airplanes into the hangars. Ellen only worked as an air hostess for a little less than a year and a half when a car accident sidelined her—but by then she had already made history.
Church went on to serve in World War II. She served in North Africa and Italy evacuating wounded soldiers. She also helped train nurses who were at the ready to aid wounded servicemen during the D-Day invasion. Church served with distinction being awarded an Air Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven bronze service stars, the American Theatre Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal as a captain in the Army Nurses Corps
Later she moved to Terre Haute where she met and married Leonard Briggs Marshall. She died in 1965 and is buried in the Highland Cemetery at Terre Haute, Indiana.