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Machinist flew high in WWII

Published Sep. 3, 2005

She is daring and adventurous.

Doris Stebbins, who turned 80 on Saturday, was one of the country's first female aviation machinists.

And as if to assert her daring Saturday, the Pinellas Park resident planned to fly one of the planes she worked on as an aviation machinist in the Navy during World War II.

Stebbins was scheduled to make the 30-minute flight from the Warbird Museum in Kissimmee, near Orlando, in the two-seater plane. She was to be at the controls during the flight, with a pilot handling the takeoff and landing.

Before her flight, which was due to take place after the St. Petersburg Times deadline for this story, she said she was a bit apprehensive, because there are too many planes flying these days.

But she has a history of overcoming obstacles.

She showed that when she enlisted in the Navy in 1944.

"I wanted to do something that was the preserve of men, something that a man would do," Stebbins said. "I think you can say we pioneered the women's liberation movement."

She had tried to enlist the previous year, at age 20, but was turned down because she wore glasses.

Her parents had to give their consent in writing, as then required by the services. Her parents were supportive, she said. Her father was a sergeant in the Army and had fought in World War I.

She was also motivated by the death of her brother, Ed Pickus, who served in the Army as civilian researcher.

"I told myself, somebody had to represent the family in the service," she said.

As a aviation machinist's mate third class in the Navy, she was part of a team that ensured that any plane that took off from Anacostia Navy Station outside Washington, D.C., was in tip-top form.

The station was then called the "Country Club of the Navy," she recalled.

"It was good to work there, because that was where the president and his top security aides were usually briefed," Stebbins said.

She was discharged two years later when she became pregnant with her first child.

The plane she was scheduled to fly on Saturday is an SNJ, a two-seater propeller plane. During active service, they were largely used in training pilots to fly the other planes used by the Navy, Army and Marines.

The last time she flew in a Navy SNJ was 57 years ago, when she put in flight time by visiting her relatives in New York state from her base at Anacostia.

"The snow on the ground reflected the setting sun, and, oh, it was beautiful," she said. "It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen."

But the return trip was scary. Stebbins said that midway through the trip, the pilot passed a note to her indicating the oil gauge had stopped working.

"We managed to get back safely, but the thought of that flight frightens me," she said.

Stebbins was born in New Haven, Conn., where she completed her high school education at the Stone Business College. She moved to Pinellas County with her family from Washington, D.C., in 1954, a couple of years after her husband returned from Japan on military assignment.

She has since been living in their peach-painted home on 66th Avenue N, where she raised her children, Ed, Deborah and Paul.

Her life's most challenging moments have been the couple of years before she enlisted in the Navy, her two years in service and the first few years after being honorably discharged, she said.

"I am still dealing with that era of my life," she said.

Besides the death of her brother and her discharge for being pregnant, she lost the child days after delivery because she suffered from toxemia, a form of blood poisoning.

"It was a heartbreaking thing to lose him," she said, choking on the sentence.

Stebbins said she yearned badly to talk to somebody. Her husband, John, was away in Japan.

Stebbins said she even asked a pastor whether her problems were the punishment for sins she might have committed.

"That experience has enriched my life. It has drawn me closer to God."

And once John, her husband, returned from the war, they moved to Florida.

She worked with the veterans hospital at Bay Pines for 14 years as claims clerk and retired in 1989.