Maryly Wallof: The View from 96

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2015 12:47
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Maryly with likeness she sculpted of her daughter Marta

When Maryly Wallof was 19, she had three goals. “I wanted to get a college diploma, learn to fly, and go to Hawaii.”

Achieving even one of those goals in the late 1930s would have been remarkable, as America was mired in the Great Depression, and women lacked opportunities they have today.

But Wallof was ahead of her time. She learned to fly, graduated from UC Berkeley and in the fall of 1940, moved to Hawaii. A year later, from a Honolulu rooftop three miles away, she witnessed firsthand Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Trim and lively at 96, Wallof today still drives, exercises regularly, spins wool, weaves beautifully on her own loom, and on occasion picks up an electric string trimmer to knock down recalcitrant weeds around her home.

“I stay as active as I can,” she says, the energy of her earlier life still much in evidence.  “Until I was 93, I didn’t feel like I was aging at all.”

Born Maryly (pronounced Merilee) Lyons, she was the third of four children in a farm family that raised vegetables and sheep near Terminous, a small San Joaquin Delta community. Like most families of that era, hers knew firsthand the Depression’s economic challenges and would soon know the heartbreak of losing loved ones in World War II.

After graduating from Stockton High School in 1936, she attended junior college and then enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1938. Both her parents were Berkeley grads, as were her older sister and brother. Tuition was negligible; room and board cost $40 a month.

“I had wanted to major in art,” she says, “but the prospects of earning a living as an artist were slim, and I had that farm-family background. I chose plant pathology.”

Then there was flying, which fascinated her. “My father had learned to fly – he was an adventurous guy who earlier had traveled the world on a freighter – and I guess that’s what got me started.”

Her plan to earn a pilot’s license coincided with the government’s plan to increase the number of civilian pilots and thus the roster of potential military pilots. The Civilian Pilot Training Program, which started on college campuses, came to Berkeley in 1939.

“They took 110 fellows and 10 girls,” Wallof recalls.  “We paid $40 each.”

After several months of classes at Berkeley and flight training in a Piper Cub at the Oakland Airport, she completed the program.

Wally and Maryly during their courtship

Wally and Maryly during their courtship

By June 1940, young Maryly Lyons had a college degree and a pilot’s license. With some savings and a little help from her parents, she booked one-way ship passage to Honolulu, meeting her third goal.

Once there, her Cal degree helped Maryly find a job with the University of Hawaii, and early in 1941, she began doing research at the Pineapple Producers Cooperative Association Experiment Station.

“There were not many girls around,” Wallof smiles. “It was a paradise for single women.”

But her idyllic island stay was transformed drastically in late 1941.

“I belonged to a flying club, and usually we would rent planes and fly to the north side of Oahu for breakfast on the first Sunday of the month,” Wallof says. “December 7 was the first Sunday, but because I was planning to come home to see my family for Christmas, I wasn’t going that day.”

Instead she was at the beach apartment she shared with two roommates.

“I was still half asleep when I heard it: Boom! Boom!” she continues. “For some reason I thought to myself, ‘It must have sounded something like this in London during the Blitz.’ Then a man from an upstairs apartment rushed down, shouting, ‘We’re being attacked, we’re being attacked.’ ”

Maryly and her roommates scrambled up to the roof of a nearby four-story building. From there they watched the tragedy unfold. “We were about three miles from Pearl Harbor,” she says. “We could see the planes over the water and black smoke pouring out of the ships.”

But, adds Wallof, “I was never frightened. I knew we were under attack, but when someone turned on the radio, all we heard at first was beautiful Viennese music. Then someone broke in and announced it was the Japanese.

“I was young and unattached… I remember it was exciting in a thrilling sort of way. But I did worry about some of my friends in the military who I knew were down there assigned to ships.”

Maryly never returned to the research station. Pressed into medical service because of her knowledge of lab techniques, she spent the next 10 months processing blood donations. “There were so many burned people after the attack, such a demand for plasma,” she says.

The ensuing war years brought joy and heartbreak. In Honolulu, Maryly met a naval officer who had been on board the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans during the attack. When Annapolis grad Chas Sawers qualified for Naval flight school in New Orleans, Maryly followed, and they married in October 1942. The newlyweds soon learned that Maryly’s youngest brother, Billy, had died of pneumonia while serving in France.

Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Maryly applied in 1944 for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. Of more than 25,000 applicants over the two-year life of the program, she was one of only 1,900 accepted to train and then fly newly manufactured planes from factories to American bases.

“The minimum weight for a WASP pilot was 110 pounds,” Wallof says. “They told me I had to gain at least five pounds before they’d take me. I ate so many bananas, but before I gained enough weight, they disbanded the program.”

Chas completed stateside fighter pilot training and was assigned to a carrier in the Pacific. In July 1945, near the end of the war, he was killed in action, shot down on a mission near the Japanese mainland. The news was delivered to his young widow by a bike messenger bearing a telegram.

Later that year, another intrepid combat pilot would capture her heart. It happened at a family friend’s Cloverdale ranch where recovering veterans were invited to spend time.

There Maryly met Marine pilot Edward “Wally” Wallof, whose dive bomber had been hit by enemy fire during the battle for Okinawa in May 1945. Shards from the shattered windshield tore into his face and sliced one eye in two. Not only did Wallof drop his bomb, but he also flew the plane safely back to the base, landing in the dark.

The much-decorated pilot’s military career was suddenly over, but romance was about to begin. “He was a pilot, and a cocky Marine,” Maryly says, “and he had a uniform. I’ve always liked uniforms.”

Eager to start a family, the couple settled near Stockton, raised three children, and Wally ran a business that built and sold small racing boats. When they retired to Tuolumne County, where they had often visited friends, Wally designed and built the home they shared until his death at 96 last year.

Spinning wool, one of Maryly's hobbies

Spinning wool, one of Maryly’s hobbies

Maryly has grieved the loss of two husbands, her son Kurt to Hodgkin’s disease, and both parents in a private plane crash. Yet she remains engaged and upbeat. “I try to keep a positive outlook,” she says. “Everyone is going to die. When Wally died, I knew life would go on. You just have to accept it.”

Staying active with creative pursuits has helped. Her own rock sculptures adorn her home, and she meets weekly with the Mother Lode Weavers and Spinners to spin both wool and a few yarns. She was a member of the first Tuolumne County Master Gardener class in 1983 and still, with help, takes care of her own ample yard.

Daily stretching and exercising with light weights also keep her healthy and happy, as do the people in her life. She remains close with her daughter, Marta, and son Hunter, and savors life’s simple pleasures – “like just having coffee with my friends.”

Her advice to younger generations?

Be kind. Avoid conflict. Try a little of everything, in moderation. Above all, says Maryly, “Enjoy life.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2015 12:47
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