A love for flying and high places
WILLMAR -- It was a training run, to simulate an enemy plane on a strafing run. Betty Wall Strohfus, a member of World War II's Women's Airforce Service Pilots, had signed a paper agreeing not to fly the run below 500 feet. "Five hundred feet? I ...
WILLMAR - It was a training run, to simulate an enemy plane on a strafing run. Betty Wall Strohfus, a member of World War II’s Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, had signed a paper agreeing not to fly the run below 500 feet. “Five hundred feet? I thought it said 50 feet,” she said to the laughter of more than 100 people listening to her speak at a WeLEAD event Wednesday. WeLEAD is a women’s empowerment group in the Willmar area. She flew in from behind an infantry troop in a surprise attack. “I did stop at 50 feet, but it was pretty close to them,” she said, to more laughter. “I waited until I just got over the building, and when I changed the prop pitch, oh, it made a beautiful roar.” She looked back to see that everyone had “hit the deck,” she said. When she landed, an officer came looking for the pilot who had made that run and was surprised to find a female pilot with fresh lipstick. Most people didn’t know that women flew military planes. He told her that his men would soon be shipping out for combat, and he wanted them to live to get there. “You know what, I want them to live after they get there,” she responded. Strohfus, who will be 96 in November, was greeted and treated as a hero by the WeLEAD crowd Wednesday. “I’m just an old lady pilot,” she said at one point, as she received a standing ovation. She talked about training to fly military planes at a time the military really did not want to acknowledge female pilots. “The government did not want women to fly airplanes, because they did not think women could handle them,” she said. “We showed them we could.” Their flight suits were cast-offs from the men who had previously trained in Sweetwater, Texas. “We wore them because we wanted to fly, “ she said. “We didn’t care; we’d roll ’em up, pull ’em up, yank ’em up, whatever we had to do.” When they graduated, Jacqueline Cochran, a wealthy woman and advocate for female pilots, used her own money to purchase uniforms for the pilots, as the military was not providing them. They wore suits from Neiman Marcus at their graduation. Whether the military wanted them, the military needed them. As more and more male pilots went into combat, the female pilots ferried planes where they needed to go and also trained more male pilots. They taught instrument flying, which required some trust on the part of the men. After her talk Wednesday, she said in an interview that some of the men were not too happy to have women teaching them anything about planes. The women gained their confidence by showing they could handle the planes. Strohfus’ son Art Roberts, who is her scheduler and accompanies her on speaking trips, said, “It’s interesting; when men went through training, they typically concentrated on one type of airplane. The women were expected to fly anything they were given.” Among the planes Strohfus flew: Stearman biplane, PT-19, BT-13, AT-6, P-39, B-26 and B-17. “Oh, how I loved to fly,” she said. Strohfus had good things to say about each plane, but none of them changed her life like the AT-6 did. A young man came to visit her and asked her to come home to Minnesota and marry him. She thought about it and talked to the other pilots. One of them pointed to the AT-6 and said “Look at that airplane.” She looked. “It sure was pretty.” Then she flew it, and “I told that boy I’m not coming home.” He told her he would go home and marry someone else. She told him to go ahead. “That AT-6 was so much fun,” she said. Strohfus is the recipient of two congressional gold medals, for being a WASP and for being a member of the Civil Air Patrol earlier in the war. Roberts said few people have two of the medals. Once the military felt the women were no longer needed, “they clipped our wings,” she said. “It broke our hearts, but we kinda knew it was coming. Big shots would come to visit, and they didn’t spend much time with us.” There were other slights. A female pilot who died on duty was not accorded military honors. Her family had to pay to bring her body home and pay for her civilian funeral, Strohfus said. The records of the WASPS were sealed, and they were seemingly forgotten. WASPs flew millions of miles in support of the war effort, but they were not recognized as war veterans until 1979, when a group of them, including Strohfus, went to Washington to plead their case. “That’s OK, I know I flew all those planes in World War II,” she said. “I am proud that I am a veteran of the United States Air Force.” After the war, she said, she tried many jobs, but she was “so dissatisfied that I couldn’t fly an airplane.” She married and had five children, she said, and that was truly the end of her flying days. Her husband, who was also a veteran and knew accidents happened, asked her not to fly until the children were grown, and she agreed. Later in her life, she began speaking about her experiences. Roberts said she speaks and visits air shows a couple times a month, and he enjoys the time they get to spend together. The WASPs still have reunions in Sweetwater, but the group is now quite small. In the beginning 1,800 women were chosen for the program from 25,000 applications; 1,704 earned their wings. Roberts said about 125 women remain, and fewer than 20 can still travel. Strohfus said the community of Sweetwater always welcomes and celebrates the pilots, and they appreciate that. A BT-13 named after her is going to be based in Sweetwater, she said. “I’ve had such a great life, and I hope God lets me tell a few more stories before I go,” she told the crowd. “I had a helluva good time flying airplanes.”