When Google Maps wasn’t a thing yet, people had to rely on our ancestors’ trusty heavenly bodies to navigate the vast ocean. Celestial navigational methods were essential to save lives. That was the situation during World War II when technology was not as reliable, and sailors had to rely on the stars and the help of a brilliant navigator by the name of Mary Tornich Janislawski.

Bright Beginnings

According to History, Mary was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1908, to Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants. When she was young, Mary would wear aviator helmets made of scraps of felt sewn together. In her 20s, 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 that time when men dominated the world of navigation. He was the one who taught her nautical and aerial navigation methods since he was an adjunct professor at U.C. Berkley, Stanford, and Polytechnic College of Engineering in Oakland. Weems was known as “The Grand Old Man of Navigation” and taught Charles Lindbergh how to navigate Admiral Richard Byrd to fly.

Entrance to WWII

Mary soon married Captain Stanley Janislawski, a mariner and navigator. Together, they spent their lives practicing navigation and teaching the craft. After she graduated, she began teaching navigation to Bay Area mariners.

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 fight the war and professionals and experts like Mary to teach these soldiers how to navigate their way correctly.

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)

Mary hated war. Still, she found herself earning her stripes as a civilian teacher preparing her students and ensuring 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, California, Mary taught about 4,000 cadets how to plot their positions correctly. Then, she taught at Alameda Naval Air Station to train in the US Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) program for celestial navigation. She also prepared Navy fliers for carriers and bases in the Pacific missions under radio silence. By the 1950s, she was commissioned by Transocean Airlines and Pan American World Airways to map specific Pacific routes.

Apollo Mission

Mary’s skills were utilized in the skies and way beyond. She became part and largely contributed to the space era by creating lunar grid maps that helped the astronauts of Apollo navigate the moon’s surface. She also met with the Institute of Navigation at Ames Research Center in 1970 to apply her navigation methods to provide NASA with a roadmap to navigate 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 be awarded the Superior Achievement Award from the Institute of Navigation for her actions in helping sailors, pilots, and astronauts navigate their way back home.