Bea St. Claire Smith Thurston, who flew noncombat missions during World War II as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, has died. She was 84.
Thurston, a Pacific Palisades resident, died of complications from an infection April 14 at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, her family announced.
One of six daughters of a military pilot, Thurston learned to fly years before she could drive.
At Pennsylvania State University, she studied aeronautical engineering, then became one of 1,074 women who earned their wings after training at a women-only military flight school in Sweetwater, Texas.
With male military pilots needed in war zones, women were sought to ferry planes, transport personnel and haul cargo in Army Air Forces planes from 1942 through 1944.
She also towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice, "then would go back up and do some aerobatics," said Sheryl Thurston Rosenbaum, one of her five children.
Thurston flew military planes from September through December 1944, when the WASP program was disbanded. Not until 1977, and after years of lobbying, were the women recognized for completing military service and allowed to apply for veterans benefits.
Beulah St. Claire Smith was born Jan. 13, 1923, in New York City to Eben and Florence Smith.
After the war, Thurston became a secretary and married. While raising her family in Livingston, N.J., and Barrington, R.I., she taught high school math and sold real estate.
She went back to school after divorcing, earning a bachelor's degree in education from Barrington College and a master's in psychology from Providence College.
In 1994, she moved to Beverly Hills to be near family and became active in the local Women Airforce Service Pilots Assn. From 2002 to 2004, Thurston was national president of the WASP group. There are about 300 surviving members.
In addition to her daughter Sheryl, Thurston is survived by four other children, Crystal, David, George and Robert; three sisters; and 12 grandchildren.
A memorial service with military honors will be held at 10 a.m. May 7 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the WASP Endowment, Texas Woman's University, P.O. Box 425528, Denton, TX 76204.