“I don’t know if God is going to let me into heaven,” Mary Gibson said at the end of an interview with the Roundup.
Gibson, a navigator and trainer in the British Royal Air Force during World War II, was born in London. She won’t reveal her age, but she admits she lied about it to get into the RAF.
“They were taking people when they were 17, but I was only 16,” she said.
Gibson remembers the days before America entered that fray.
“The most sad thing about the war is that we’d lost it,” she said. “We’d run out of young men to train; there was nothing but women and children left. I’ll never forget Churchill’s words when he got up and said, ‘You will fight on the beaches. You will fight with your shovels, your pitchforks, anything you can. The Germans are on their way across the ocean.’
“As we stood on the beaches of Dover waiting for the Germans to come, there was this roar in the air and someone yelled, ‘Air raid! Air raid!’ But it turned out to be the Americans and they came just in time. If you only knew how we relied on the Americans. We called them Yanks. ‘The Yanks are coming. They’re here. They’re here.’”
The U.S. entry into the war didn’t assure victory, of course. Gibson remembers like it just happened.
“I was struggling to train young boys to fly and we lost so many young boys in the ocean. On D-Day, when you boys were on the ground going across to Normandy, I was up there in the sky. We were just a mish-mash of all kinds of planes. Anything that could fly. Luckily, we caught the Germans unaware. We landed in a place where they were not.”
Among the more memorable characters in Gibson’s life was Churchill himself. While she considers the British leader “a wonderful man, a marvelous man,” she also saw another side.
“I knew Churchill,” she said. “I campaigned for him. He smoked cigars and he drank rum, and I stood there through many of his drunks. I used to have to be the big strong girl who had to hold him on one shoulder with another girl on the other side. He was a short man and we’d make him stand there while he made his speech. He was so drunk.”
After the war, Gibson found her way to America where she married, raised a family, spent some time in the restaurant business and eventually served as postmaster to the town of San Diego.
When she retired 20 years ago, she moved to Payson to be near her two daughters who live in the area. Except for the lack of convenient transportation for seniors, she loves it here.
“I get involved with the town council,” she said. “The mayor’s a veteran and he’s a good friend of mine. But you need a bus here to get us old people around. We’ve got one bus and only seven people can get on it, and you’ve got half a dozen wheelchairs in there as well as the seven. It’s very sad because I like to say to somebody sometimes, ‘Can I take you out to dinner?’ Well, I’m not allowed to drive because several doctors have found me lacking. Of course I’m not. If I can fly a plane and I can drive a 10-ton post office vehicle, don’t tell me I can’t drive. I’ve never had an accident in my life.”
Grounded against her will, Gibson has taken up the pen.
“I like to write and that’s what I spend most of my time doing these days,” she said. “I just finished writing about my father’s life in World War I, which was certainly different from my life. Who knows what World War III is going to be like?”
She’s also working on a novel that she hopes will capture some of the colorful personalities she’s known in her life.
But her thoughts on this Veterans Day weekend are focused on the war, and the people who fought it.
“A lot of people were killed at Normandy,” she said. “You’ve seen the pictures of the beaches and the crosses on the beach. On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I went back to Normandy with a group of English vets, and it was very sad to see that carnage.”
She also thinks of those who, like herself, survived.
“You see these dear little men who were once soldiers and warriors and fought for the queen. Here they come. They get older and older every time you see them and there are fewer and fewer.”
One of those “dear little men” is local veteran Karl Knotts who was honored along with Gibson at a special Veterans Day celebration Monday in Rye. After meeting just briefly in England during the war, an amazing coincidence reunited Gibson and Knotts in Payson and they have since become good friends.
“I met him in England in an air-raid shelter before D-Day. We were singing war songs in the park, people of every nationality, when the air raid came. We ran to shelters in the underground tunnels and I turned around and saw Karl. We went our separate ways and led our separate lives. Then one day I was standing in line waiting to have breakfast at the (Mazatzal) casino. I looked at a man through the years and I said I know you. Now he’s like one of my family.”
As the interview ends, Gibson’s mind, still razor sharp, turns to the future. Her closing words:
“Get that bus.”
If Mary Gibson isn’t allowed through the pearly gates, you get the distinct impression she’ll find another way in.
Name: Mary Gibson
Occupation: Retired writer
Age: I’m not telling you.
Birthplace: London, England
Family: Two daughters, one son, three grandchildren.
Personal motto: Caring, helping. I believe in the ideals of Soroptomist, which was started in England the year I was born.
Inspiration: Great writers like Shakespeare and Dickens.
Greatest accomplishment: It will be completing my novel. I’ve been working on it five years.
Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Having fun.
Three words that describe you best: Vivacious, popular and you pick one and surprise me.
I don’t want to brag, but ... I have humility.
Person in history I’d most like to meet: Dan Haapala because I like the way he talks. If it’s somebody dead then I’d love to meet Charles Dickens.
Luxury defined: Travel
Dream vacation spot: Rio de Janeiro
Why Payson? To be near my children.