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The Trailblazers with Fern Kinion

Celebrate the Women Veteran with Fern Kinion

Fern Kinion was born in 1937 and will celebrate her 87th Birthday this year. She was born just two years before the release of The Wizard of Oz in August 1939. In speaking with Fern, you can’t help but be reminded of Dorothy and the many characters she encountered in her adventures. The story of a little girl from a farm in Kansas who went on a magical journey was an inspiration for Fern and a small part of her ambition.

Fern was the youngest of eight children. Her parents had survived the hard years of the Great Depression, and although she never went without, her parents remained frugal with the children’s upbringing. As a family, they all experienced the impact of World War II, where several of Fern’s brothers had served. Fern had always dreamt of seeing the world, and by 1947, she had graduated from high school and had her first job with Southwestern Bell Telephone in the big city of Kansas City. Fern also attended college, focusing on Court Reporting, which ultimately resulted in a job as a secretary. In 1948, while at her desk, Fern read in the newspaper about the United States Air Force becoming its own branch. Without any hesitation and with great excitement, she used her lunch hour to walk across the street from her office to the Federal Building to sign up. Before she knew it, she had passed the physical for enlistment and was on a train to Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. This would be only the second time Fern had left her home state of Kansas.

Fern had two brothers who served in the Navy and a brother, Homer, who served in the 82nd Airborne and who jumped on D-Day and was captured and held for one year in a German POW camp. She recalls a story Homer told of being force-marched in freezing weather, and as people would fall out of the line, he would take the back of a cigarette package and write down their name and the date for the record. Homer would take apart tuna cans and use the metal pieces to create a paperclip to keep the collection of cigarette wrappings together. Many years later, Fern had possession of Homer’s cigarette wrappings and took them to Washington, D.C., where they are now part of the Library of Congress.

Fern became part of the very first female class at basic training for the Air Force. She recalls, “When we arrived, I remember all of us women being loaded into the back of trucks to be taken to Lackland. There was a lot of media there. It felt like we were being presented to the media. Much attention was paid to us since we were the first females in the United States Air Force.” After ninety days of training, there was an announcement of the opportunity to join Officer Candidate School as a Coed. Fern quickly took the exam, becoming part of Class 49-A, the first OCS class of the newly formed Air Force. The first Flight of the first Squadron, of the first Group. “I’m not able to find out how many graduates were in my class,” Fern says. She and her daughter Sharon have spent hours researching without success, “The number seventeen sticks in my mind,” she recalls.
In the early years of the United States Air Force, there was a maximum percentage of female service members allowed at any given time. When Fern joined, there was a maximum of 4000 enlisted females and only 300 female officers. Fern became one of the 300. In 2020, the United States Air Force is reportedly 21% female.

-From the January Edition of FireWatch Magazine: In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, allowing women to serve as full-time, permanent members of all branches of the Armed Forces. There were caveats to this law that restricted the number of women who could serve to only 2% of each branch. Limiting the ability of women to achieve officer rank, forcing the automatic discharge of pregnant soldiers, and prohibiting women from commanding men or serving in combat positions. – Toni Hedstrom
After earning her 2nd Lieutenant commission, Fern was assigned to recruitment duty, and the doors to her dreams of adventure and seeing the world became a reality. Her first two service stations were in CONUS (Continental United States), in Charleston, West Virginia, for one year, where she was part of a weekly radio program to promote enlistment into the Air Force and Army. She then went to Baltimore, Maryland, for another year. After Baltimore, Fern got an assignment to Europe and found herself in Rhine-Main, an area centered on the city of Frankfurt, Germany. Arriving in Frankfurt, Fern recalls the bombed-out buildings and the ghosts of WWII.

In Rhine-Main, an organization issued NOTAMs (A NOTAM is a notice to pilots containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations. In 1947, it was agreed to begin issuing NOTAMs via telecommunications. NOTAMs were modeled after Notice to Mariners, which advised ship captains of hazards in navigating the high seas.)*1 There were recruitment offices in Rhine-Main, London, Paris, Casablanca, and Rome. Fern’s job was to travel to each of these offices and review the records, making her dreams of seeing the world an incredible reality.

“The pilots needed to get their flight hours in, so each weekend, they would fly to different places to log the required fly time, and they said I could go with them, but there would have to be two women. One woman could not fly alone with the crew,” Fern shares, “I had a friend, a fellow graduate from OCS, who would accompany me, and we went to Oslo, Copenhagen, and other areas. This was a rare opportunity for travel.”

Not only did Fern find adventure during service OCONUS with the United States Air Force, but she also found love. At her home base of Rhine-Main, Fern met a pilot she would marry later. During those years, female servicemembers could not remain in the military if they intended to have children. So it was, after more than six years of service, that Fern had to be separated from service to start her family.

After being discharged from military service and starting her family, Fern entered the Civil Service at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where she served more than thirty years. She was placed as Director of Cadet Awards and Graduate Studies, working directly with Cadets who had excelled in the Academy and with those who had earned limited scholarship opportunities. Fern recalls one of the Cadets, now a retired Lieutenant General living in Lakeland, Florida.
Each generation has unique attributes, from the formality of the 1950s to the free love of the 1960s, the rebellion of the 1970s, and the overabundance of the 1980s. Fern witnessed it all. She recalls, “At the Air Force Academy, on the lower level, there is a big arch that says, “Bring Me Men.” Fern and others at the Academy had presented a proposal to change the wording on that arch. In 2003, the arch was removed.

With a combined 36+ years in Federal Service, it wasn’t until many years later that Fern realized she had earned VA Benefits from her six years of active service. Her daughter, Sharon, explains, “It wasn’t until my mother and I were living together that a caregiver resource group I was a part of held a seminar to discuss veterans and their potential benefits. The group encouraged caregivers to contact the Veterans Administration if someone they were caring for was a veteran.” Fern had earned an excellent health care package with her retirement from the Civil Service, so the family never thought about what was available from the VA.

As Fern shares her memories, she beams with pride about how blessed she has been through her decades of service. She points out that service instilled in her a sense of responsibility and discipline and allowed her to make a difference from within her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). The values of military service have remained within Fern all the years of her life and to this day. She recalls meeting a young college graduate while working at a Tampa area health food store who did not know what she wanted to do after college. “I put on my recruiting hat,” says Fern, “I told her about the Air Force, and to this day, she has been in service for nine years and will be promoted to Major in 2025. She has flown as a navigator and is now working with drones.”

Although Fern’s service took place many decades ago, her thoughts and opinions on transition remain true. “The values ingrained into you in military service stay with you. When you enter the civilian world, those attributes aren’t there in other people.”

Her adventurous nature never ceased. Throughout her lifetime, Fern has returned to Switzerland on more than four hiking trips and shares her deep love of that country. She recalls she and four friends who had a raft called the ‘Rubber Duck’ they would take out onto the Arkansas River every weekend. The brightness remains in her eyes as the memories remain in her heart.

Family Memories of WWII: While Homer was being held captive, we sat around the radio daily, waiting to hear any news. Somehow, Homer got notes out to us, and we still have those. He shared that his feet were frozen, and the only food he was given was year-old bread and water. Homer and others eventually escaped to France.

*Fern currently displays Homer’s Purple Heart in her home office, as well as photos and other memorabilia.



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