She never would have called herself a pioneer, but Martha Schuchart Sachs found a life of liberated adventure through perseverance and the sheer force of her will. As an Army intelligence officer from the 1940s through the 1960s, she was often the only female officer on the bases where she served, but she didn't seem to mind.
She was entrusted with some of the nation's most sensitive secrets and was in charge of hiring for the Army Security Agency. She raced cars, climbed mountains and made hundreds of friends, whose letters are still arriving at her house in Arlington. By the time she died of kidney failure July 31 at age 90, she had been to every continent except Antarctica.
In some ways, her long, remarkable life encapsulates the nation's own restless trek through the past century, as it grew from a rural and isolated land to a cosmopolitan society crowded with many voices and cultures.
But to see her portrait at full length, to understand where this classic American journey began, you have to go back to Missouri, where Martha Schuchart (pronounced shoe-hart) was born. By the time she first came to Washington in 1944, she had a lifetime of experience.
The eldest of four girls in a family of nine children from the "bootheel" of southeastern Missouri, she was born in a log cabin. She walked to a one-room schoolhouse as a girl, worked the fields behind a team of horses and, from 10, sewed clothes for her family. After surviving a bout of typhoid fever, which kept her in bed for three months, she grew to be a slender, ramrod-straight 5-foot-8.
After graduating first in her high school class in 1932, she taught in rural schools for 11 years, riding a horse in all kinds of weather. She had plenty of male admirers, but at that stage of her life she never came close to marrying.
"She was too ambitious," said her sister, Stella Schuchart Foster of Arlington. "She wanted to see the world."
For 10 straight summers, Sachs studied at what is now Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau before receiving her degree. During her only two free weeks of the year, she joined other teachers on jaunts to Miami, San Francisco, Cuba and Canada. In 1939, she and her sister Alice went to the New York World's Fair.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Sachs completed her school year, then enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women's Army Corps). She was commissioned an officer in 1943, and the next year was assigned to Arlington Hall in Virginia, the home base of the Army Security Agency, now the Army Intelligence and Security Command.
She trained thousands of female recruits before the Army sent her to Asia in 1946. "I was the only WAC in the Philippines at the time," she noted last year in a Women's Army Corps newsletter. She later worked in Army security in Japan, volunteered in orphanages and taught English to Japanese children, forging lifelong friendships with her students. While there, she climbed Mount Fuji by herself, spending a night at the summit.
"I've done that every place I have been," she said in a tape-recorded family reminiscence. "Instead of staying in my little cubbyhole, I went out to find, to see and learn everything I could."
In the 1950s, she returned to Arlington Hall as the Army Security Agency's personnel chief, making "all the enlisted and officer assignments for ASA all over the world," she wrote last year. She was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Army Commendation Medal, among other decorations.
Posted to Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia, in 1962, she met Emperor Haile Selassie, was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and won several dirt-track car races across East Africa. Once, while competing in a demolition derby, her shoulder was severely dislocated when her car flipped on its roof.
Back in Arlington in late 1963, she became reacquainted with Abner Sachs, a widowed officer who had been her chemical warfare instructor 20 years earlier.
Before they were married in 1965, her German Catholic father took his first airplane flight to see whether the Jewish, New York-born Sachs, a Commerce Department economist, was a suitable husband for his 51-year-old daughter.
After Martha Sachs retired from the Army in 1967, she and her husband lived in Arlington, within a block of two of her sisters, Ada Johnson and Stella Foster. Until Johnson's death last year, the three sisters would meet every day at 3, splitting one can of beer among them and recalling the long journeys their lives had taken from Missouri.
Sachs and her husband traveled from Australia and South America to the North Pole, filling their house with dolls and clocks from around the world. They collected books, coins and stamps, attended concerts and plays and volunteered for many civic activities.
After her husband died in 2000, Sachs continued to travel on her own. Last year, she returned to Japan for a reunion with the children she had tutored nearly 60 years before.
She had one more trip planned for this fall. She wanted to revisit Ethiopia, where she had raced cars and met an emperor 40 years before, a place she considered the most magical of all she had ever seen.