Colonel Helen E. O'Day, USAF (Ret.) (1912-2011).
Helen O'Day was born in Detroit, Michigan, on July 18, 1912, the third child and only daughter of Caroline and Warren O'Day. The O'Days were of modest means, with a large kinship network in Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. When Warren died in 1921, Caroline found a job with the city of Detroit and nine-year-old Helen became the family cook. In 1930, Helen graduated with honors from Northwestern High School and went to work for the city's public library system. In 1941, she volunteered as a nurse's aide for the American Red Cross, and remained with the library until joining the military.
In July 1943, she enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary [WAAC] "for the duration of World War II plus six months." She was accepted as the first Detroiter in the newly-formed Volunteer Officer Candidate program. Later that year, she was required to reenlist when the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps [WAC]. After her assignment as an assistant mortuary officer at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, she served in the Pentagon as a staff officer for the Deputy Chief of Staff, Materiel.
From August 1945 to November 1947, she worked as a librarian in the office of Military Government, Berlin. Following this, she returned to the Pentagon as Assistant Recorder, Materiel. Helen was promoted to captain in the Regular Army Air Forces. Until then, all women had been Reservists. After promotion to major in 1951, she became the first woman assigned to the Air Force Legislative Liaison Office in the House of Representatives. In 1952, Helen was the only woman in Class 52B at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Throughout the 1950s, she served as officer-in-charge of Air Force protocol. Her most memorable events included a March 1957 trip, escorting Sean O'Kelly, the President of Ireland, to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During a 1958 event, she headed a group greeting Queen Elizabeth II and the entire royal family
From 1961 until her retirement in July 1967, Lt. Col. O'Day served in Paris as Chief of the Paris Visitors' Bureau. Retirement did not last for long as she was recalled to active duty almost immediately. In November, President Lyndon Johnson lifted promotion restrictions for women officers. In January 1968, she became the first woman promoted to colonel in the USAF. She retired again in August 1970.
Throughout her career, Helen O'Day earned many awards and decorations, including: the Legion of Merit, the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and a certificate from L'Ecole du Cordon Bleu, Paris.
Between 1973 and 1998, she served as a volunteer at the Arlington [Virginia] County Library. In 1972, she was elected to the Air Force Historical Foundation's Board of Governors as a Trustee. She remained active and continued to amaze and inspire all who knew her. She died on March 18, 2011, at the age of ninety-eight.
Anyone who wants to memorialize her may make a donation to the Women in Military Service to America, Women's Memorial Foundation, Dept. 560, Washington, D.C. 20024-0560
By Alan O'Day, Colonel Helen O'Day's nephew