Violet "Vi" Cowden, a Huntington Beach resident who served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II and recently became the subject of an award-winning documentary, died Sunday at 94.
Cowden died at 8:34 p.m. at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, according to the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department.
A Congressional Gold Medal winner last year, Cowden was among the few surviving members of the service pilots, known as the WASPs, who were the first women to fly American military aircraft.
She was also active in Huntington Beach, serving as a grand marshal in the Fourth of July Parade and arranging for American flags to hang from the pier during Veterans Day weekend. For years, she served as a board member of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and often participated in beach cleanings and restoration work.
"My fondest memory of Vi is her ability to always find a positive in any situation," said Land Trust Executive Director Flossie Horgan. "She was a very optimistic person who was generous with her time and her love for the Huntington Beach community. Quite apart from Bolsa Chica, she was involved in all kinds of community projects and always available to go and meet with our Congress people.
"And she knew everyone. She knew everybody in the city. She was just one of those special people who will be sorely missed by this community."
Cowden, born Violet Thurn, grew up on a South Dakota farm and enlisted in a volunteer women's emergency service program after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Before basic training, she joined other women in a new program created by the Army Air Corps.
The WASPs did not fly combat missions, but ferried planes from factories to training fields or debarkation points, among other home-front duties. The Congressional Gold Medals last year came after a decades-long movement to fully recognize the WASPs for their contributions.
Christine Bonn, the co-director of "Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story," said Cowden's story often drew emotional reactions from festival-goers. At a recent screening, she said, an audience member told her that she planned to pursue her abandoned dream of earning a pilot's license after seeing the film.
"I just feel like the country has lost one of its national treasures," Bonn said. "She was just such an inspiration."
The film, which has played at festivals nationwide, won the 2010 Audience Award for short films at the Newport Beach Film Festival.