When Japanese troops bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Bonnie O’Leary wanted to drop out of the University of Texas and join the service. But O’Leary’s father, who had been a USMC colonel, told her to finish college first. She completed her degree at Barnard, then began working in New York as an actress and assistant television director for ABC’s Pulitzer Prize Playhouse. In 1951, O’Leary learned that the Air Force was starting a television unit to produce training films, and thought that her media experience would make her a shoo-in. In 1952 she was commissioned as a first lieutenant and worked for the Air Force’s mobile TV squadron.
“If you were a woman in television, you had to start out as a typist,” she says. But in the Air Force, she was able to start out as a director, where she proved herself through her experience and hard work; she wound up directing 10 of the squadron’s 11 training films. In her squadron, however, there were 100 men and only two women.
In 1955, O’Leary began working as an information officer, managing public relations programs for the Air Force Band and several Air Force units. For 20 years, she traveled around Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. in the line of duty. Even as she rose in stature within the Air Force, it was sometimes difficult to gain respect. “While serving as project officer at a U. S. event for Jamaica’s independence, a woman came rushing up to me with a little kid,” O’Leary says. “She asked: ‘Where’s the ladies’ room?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ She replied, ‘You’re a pretty lousy flight attendant.’”
O’Leary’s time in the service gave her a front-row seat to some of the most iconic moments in American history. “I ran the press desk for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony,” she says. “I even served as a press escort for three different groups of astronauts.” O’Leary retired from the Air Force in 1972; a resident of Aurora, Colorado, she’s now a field representative for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial located at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
- Kathryn Hawkins
- photograph by Noah Sheldon