World War II female pilot remembers exhilarating flying exploits

Dolly Kawczynski, 97, and Betty Strohfus, 95, meet following Strohfus’ presentation on her flying days with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Kawczynski was a U.S. Navy nurse stationed in Hawaii during the war, and afterward returned to Minnesota to teach nursing. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)
Dolly Kawczynski, 97, and Betty Strohfus, 95, meet following Strohfus’ presentation on her flying days with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Kawczynski was a U.S. Navy nurse stationed in Hawaii during the war, and afterward returned to Minnesota to teach nursing. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)
Betty Strohfus in an undated photo on the wing of an AT-6 trainer plane. Strohfus said an invigorating flight in an AT-6 compelled her to remain in the WASP after a suitor in Minnesota said she should return home and settle down. (submitted photo)
Betty Strohfus in an undated photo on the wing of an AT-6 trainer plane. Strohfus said an invigorating flight in an AT-6 compelled her to remain in the WASP after a suitor in Minnesota said she should return home and settle down. (submitted photo)

Betty Strohfus says WASP had pivotal role in military history

World War II veterans Betty Strohfus and Dolly Kawczynski chatted like old friends when they met for the first time, swapping stories of their military service completed some 70 years ago.

The occasion was Strohfus' appearance at Chandler Place, an assisted living community in St. Anthony, where Kawczynski is a resident.  
Chandler Place invited Strohfus to discuss her time during World War II as a WASP aviator — a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots — piloting fighter jets and bombers stateside under the direction of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

The presentation took place March 31, the last day of this year's Women's History Month as an installment of the community's monthly Vets Club speaker series, which honors military veterans and their spouses.

Elizabeth "Betty" Strofhus, a 95-year-old Faribault native, has been speaking about her time as a part of WASP since the 1980s, shortly after congressional action in 1977 granted the women flyers veteran status.

Flying in Faribault

"I just loved to fly those planes," Strohfus said as her son Arthur worked a slide projector, clicking ahead and sometimes back through photos that chronicled his mother's life.

It's apparent the two have worked together for some time. Arthur, as Strohfus introduced him, or "Art," as he introduces himself, fills in the blanks on stories when his mom leaves something out.

Strohfus spoke in a large dining room at Chandler Place, where centerpieces of small American flags and flowers sat atop white linen tablecloths. Residents who were veterans or whose husbands served sat in attendance, along with younger male veterans and at least one current airman.

Even as a child, Strohfus explained in her rapid-fire cadence, she tried to "get high," climbing just about anything to get a view of the world "as God made it."

"I have to explain that to kids when I speak at schools; I never knew there was a second meaning," she said of her pursuit of "getting high," a comment that was met with laughter.

One of six children, Strohfus said she grew up poor even if she didn't know it at the time.

As a young adult, she recalled being content with her job at the Rice County Courthouse and riding her bicycle around town. But all that changed when one of the 18 "fellas" in the local Sky Club dropped out, creating an opening for her to learn how to fly airplanes.

The Sky Club membership was $100, and Strofhus took out a loan from the bank to cover the costs.

She told of hearing comments such as: "Women don't fly” at the time, and said she faced resistance and skepticism throughout her piloting career.

Even then, she determined, “This one’s going to.”

WASP nests

Credit for the creation of WASP, according to Strohfus, goes to three people: Jacqueline Cochran, a famous female pilot; General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the USAAF, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The group was created out of the merger of the Women's Flying Training Detachment and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, officially becoming WASP in August of 1943.

The intent of all three squadrons was to allow female civilians to fly domestic missions, freeing up male pilots to fly in combat in the Pacific and European theaters.

Some 25,000 women applied to be a part of it; only 1,074 were accepted.

Strohfus said her sister nearly made it into WASP, though she "only liked to fly straight as an arrow" and would close her eyes during rolls. An instructor sent her home.

WASP training took place in Sweetwater, Texas, at Avenger Field, which is now a public airport, and then Strohfus was stationed at the Army airbase at Indian Springs, Nevada.

Strohfus recounted marching in formation to-and-from flight school for lessons, which she didn't expect, because she had already learned how to fly thanks to the Fairbault Sky Club.

"We had to learn physics, and I thought that was something you took for a stomachache!" she said, punctuating the line, like many, with a slightly off-mic "ha ha."

When finally allowed in the air, Strohfus said she flew a number of regular planes, combat fighters and bombers, expertly rattling off aircraft model numbers as pictures of planes appeared on the screen and riffing on the most mellifluous of the engine sounds they made.

"I loved to do acrobatics," she said, recounting dog-fighting practice in-between missions and fake forays that included "a couple close calls."

Strohfus said sometimes she and other WASP pilots would get lost and land on a road, using street signs to orient themselves. "It was a great time to fly because they didn't have all the restrictions" that are in place today.

For a while, WASP had no uniforms and wore clothes they supplied themselves. That changed when pilot Jackie Cochran financed uniforms for the whole group, made by Neiman Marcus.

"We felt very privileged," Strohfus said.

When a suitor back in Minnesota told her that she should come home to get married and settle down, Strohfus said she gave it some thought. But she made up her mind to stay with the WASP after an exhilarating ride in AT-6, a trainer plane that would be in use until the 1970s.

Life on the ground

Strohfus said the WASP flyers were brave, dedicated individuals who had a groundbreaking role in aviation.

All told, 38 WASP flyers died during training or while flying missions.

The paramilitary organization was disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944, and she said it was disheartening to be told somewhat dismissively, "Now you can go home and have a normal life," as she imitated the tone of some Army brass.

Upon receiving the news, she remembered sarcastically thinking, "Oh, thanks a lot."

Strohfus also joked about the restrictions put on the women pilots during the war, noting how they were not allowed to fly over water.

Yet they were allowed the dangerous job of towing targets behind their planes; targets at which male pilots shot live ammunition. "We couldn't do a lot of things, but we could be shot at!" Strohfus said.

Opportunities to fly professionally were limited after the war, Strohfus said. Northwest Airlines turned down her inquiry about piloting its passenger planes, and many WASP found private flying options a bit boring.

Strohfus remembered flying a Piper Cub, a light single-engine airplane, and being so underwhelmed by its power that she wondered if she'd even get it off the ground.

Files about WASP were sealed for more than 30 years and stories about the female aviators were often left out of official histories of domestic efforts during World War II.

In the late 1970s, Strohfus, along with six other WASP flyers, began lobbying Congress for the recognition the WASP deserved. Strohfus said with the help of Sen. Hap Arnold, who had a hand in creating the organization, and Sen. Barry Goldwater, WASP was granted full military veteran status in 1977.

Since gaining that status, Strohfus says she has had opportunities with the Air Force to fly some contemporary aircraft.

"They give me rides in all these different airplanes, and I'm a very appreciative old lady," she said, noting that she's piloted an F-16 fighter jet; "It's wonderful to fly." In a bit of acrobatics, she even said she was subjected to six times the force of gravity.

Strohfus, who went on after the war to marry and have five children, added, "Women were flying during World War II and I'm proof."

Other stories in the room

Chandler Place resident and World War II veteran Kawczynski said it's "very interesting" to hear other veteran's stories.

Kawczynski, 97, originally from Arlington, an hour southwest of the metro, was studying nursing before the war when the Red Cross came through her college recruiting for the U.S. Navy. She enlisted.

"I thought nothing of it until Pearl Harbor," she said.

By New Year's Day 1942, she was in San Diego, and 18 months later, she would be in Hawaii, stationed near Pearl Harbor through the remainder of the war. She wouldn't make it back to the mainland until the fall of 1945.

Kawczynski went back to school on the G.I. Bill and earned a master's in nursing education, going on to teach nursing in Hennepin County.

Resident Lorna Petersen, a member of the class of 1943 from Stillwater High School, said her late husband, Neil, was a member of the 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron.

"They felt they had something to offer," Petersen said of her husband, who had a science background, and others who joined the 34th, which made aerial reconnaissance photos over Europe.

Petersen mentioned her husband's eight-digit Army serial number, reciting it without hesitation — "1-6-5-9-1-1-7-8" — adding, "It sticks with you."

"It's just so great that someone cares," Petersen said of people taking notice of her and her husband's story, and the stories of other vets.

Strohfus said she continues to tell her story in order to inspire women. "There is something out there for you if you want it," she said, adding that during a recent meeting with the Air Force Thunderbirds, a female pilot in the group approached her and said she was inspired by Strohfus' war exploits.

Looking ahead, Strohfus said she'll continue telling her story until she's done.

Smiling, she said, "I want to die with my shoes on and my mouth open."

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.
 

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