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Oldest living chief master sergeant recalls life in Air Force

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Martha Petersante-Gioia
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In 1906, San Francisco was struck by an earthquake with a Richter scale magnitude of 8.3, resulting in fires that burned the city for two days.

Additional significant events that year included Congress passing the Antiquities Act, authorizing the president to establish national monuments on federal lands to prevent vandalism at prehistoric Indian sites in the Southwest. President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a trip to Panama and Puerto Rico, becoming the first president to make an official diplomatic tour outside of the continental United States. Rolls-Royce Ltd., was officially registered, with Charles S. Rolls and F. Henry Royce as directors. The company immediately released the Silver Ghost.

In 1906, the world also welcomed Esther MacKay. Currently, at age 101, she holds the distinct honor of being the Air Force's oldest living chief master sergeant.

Chief MacKay credits her fascination with then-technology's newest medium -- flight -- with driving and inspiring her to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1943. After her enlistment, she shipped off to basic training at Fort Devens, Mass. 

During her Army Air Corps career, she served in England, France and Germany during World War II. When she returned home, she served in various administrative roles while stationed at Westover Air Force Base, Mass. At this time, change was on the horizon for this airplane mechanic hopeful -- the Army Air Corps had become the U.S. Air Force.

 "It was wonderful to have a front-row seat to watch the service change and grow, and it's [humbling] being part of history," she said. 

Looking back at her time in the Army Air Corps, and later, the Air Force, Chief MacKay knows it wasn't easy. Her bright smile, however, tells the tale when sharing her fondest memories of military service. One such assignment comes to the chief's mind -- the Pentagon.

During her days in Washington, D.C., Chief MacKay worked for then-Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson, in his front office staff during the 1950s with four other ladies -- "one from each of the services," she said.

"One time, I was selected to greet Winston Churchill as he entered the Pentagon," she said. "He came up the elevator and looked up at me with the most interesting blue eyes -- mind you, he wasn't a tall man and I'm only 5 feet 6 inches. It was a thrill."

The excitement of the Pentagon spotlight didn't just extend to Chief MacKay, either. Her niece, Colene Dodsworth, recalls watching a news broadcast with her father and then, to her astonishment, she "saw Esther walking behind Secretary Wilson as he made a statement on the broadcast."

After leaving the Pentagon, the chief headed to Colorado and the early days of the North American Air Defense Command, ready to face whatever challenge lay in wait for her.

Being one of only a handful of women was difficult at times, especially when "opening my mouth would get me bounced out of the service," she said when explaining how she may have been overlooked for a grade or advancement due to her sex.

Yet, she wouldn't trade any of the bad experiences to miss her chance to watch the Air Force grow into what it is today.

This retiree credits her success in the Air Force and in life with pursuit of education and hard work.

"I'm a quiet person," she said. "Whenever I made an accomplishment [such as promotion], that was an achievement for me. I knew how hard I worked for it."

Education was always an underlying goal for the chief, who admits that without the help of the service, she may not have been lucky enough to keep learning.

"During the 1960s I studied at night school," she said. "I was the only girl in a class of senior enlisted members and officers. Part of me said, 'Back out, now,' and I almost did. But part of me said, 'No, I won't.'"

She didn't, completing the course and earning a certificate.

Today, Chief MacKay said that if she had it to do all over again, she would.

"If I was entering the Air Force today, I'd want to try get involved in the space program," she said. "I find that area purely fascinating, probably more than most."

Throughout her years in service to her country, Chief MacKay followed two guiding principals -- "being patient and willing to work hard" - that she likes to pass on to Air Force troops. Her other message to the troops: "Happy 60th birthday U.S. Air Force! Thank you for all that you do!"