Mary Janislawski: From WWII Navigation Instructor to the Apollo Program and the Stars

When Google Maps didn’t exist, people had to rely on the faithful celestial bodies of our ancestors to navigate the vast ocean. Celestial navigation methods were essential to saving lives. This was the situation during World War II when the technology was not so reliable and sailors had to rely on the stars and the help of a brilliant navigator named Mary Tornich Janislawski.

Brilliant beginnings

According to the story, Mary was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1908 to Italian and Yugoslav immigrants. When she was young, Mary wore aviator helmets made of felt pieces sewn together. In her twenties, she had to work in a candy factory to send herself to the University of California, Berkley, where she studied astronomy and graduated with honors.

In the 1930s, Captain Philip Van Horn Weems discovered Mary and took her under his wing as a protege, at a time when men ruled the world of shipping. It was he who taught him the methods of nautical and aerial navigation since he was an adjunct professor at UC Berkley, Stanford and the Polytechnic College of Engineering in Oakland. Weems was known as “the great old man of navigation” and taught Charles Lindbergh how to sail with Admiral Richard Byrd to fly.

Entry into World War II

Mary soon married Captain Stanley Janislawski, a sailor and navigator. Together, they have spent their lives practicing navigation and teaching the trade. After graduating, she began teaching sailors in the Bay Area to sail.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, Mary taught at Stanford University. It was then that the United States officially entered the scene of World War II. The government needed soldiers who would wage war and professionals and experts like Mary to teach those soldiers how to navigate properly.

Mary Janislawski Papers, HDC 1649, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. (Mary Janislawski Papers, HDC 1649, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park via History History)

Marie hated war. Yet she found herself earning her stripes as a civilian teacher preparing her students and making sure they passed their CAA exams with her protractors, sextants, and squeaky rubber airplane as her primary tools. First, at King City Airport in Mesa Del Ray, Calif., Mary taught about 4,000 cadets how to properly plot their positions. Next, she taught at Naval Air Station Alameda to train for the US Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) program for celestial navigation. She also prepared Navy flyers for aircraft carriers and bases in the radio-silenced Pacific missions. In the 1950s, she was commissioned by Transocean Airlines and Pan American World Airways to map specific Pacific routes.

Apollo Mission

Mary’s skills have been used in the heavens and far beyond. She became a part of and contributed greatly to the space age by creating lunar grid maps that helped Apollo astronauts navigate the moon’s surface. She also met with the Institute of Navigation at the Ames Research Center in 1970 to apply her methods of navigation to provide NASA with a roadmap for navigating to any planetary body.

Mary Tornich Janislawski on the beach with a sextant in Northern California. (Photo: Mary Janislawski Papers, HDC 1649, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park via History)

In 1972, she became the first woman to receive the Superior Achievement Award from the Institute of Navigation for her actions in helping sailors, pilots and astronauts return home.

On June 16, 1998, Mary died at the age of 90. She was posthumously awarded the first female Fellow of the Institute of Navigation. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Maritime Research Center at the Maritime National Historical Park displays his family’s brass sextants and compasses in his honor.

As his former student “Ernie” Ford wrote in a 1999 condolence letter to Mary’s daughter,

Not only did your mother train pilots to fly in the skies above and back, BUT she developed a new and totally different way to navigate space and return safely. This made interplanetary travel possible.

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