• Published
  • By MSgt Bianca Sellers-Brown
  • 307th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
I recently had the honor and pleasure of being selected to be a military escort for Mrs. Elizabeth "Betty" Strohfus at the 2011 Commemorative Air Force Air Show in Odessa, TX. Ms. Betty, my "WASP", is a very active and lively 91 year old World War II female pilot.

In August 1943, Ms. Betty was one of the few women selected to participate in a women's flight program freeing men pilots to report for military duty overseas. These women pilots and trainees were officially designated as WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots. Prior to this, the women ferrying planes from the factory line, mostly the P-47 thunderbolt, were known as WAFS, Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. Of the 25,000 women who applied to become WASPs, 1,800 were accepted, but only 1,074 received their silver wings.

Ms. Betty's love for flying began in 1937 with her first flight in a 65hp Piper Cub airplane. During her training as a WASP at Avenger Field in Sweetwater TX, she flew a 175hp PT-19, a 450hp BT-13, but her favorite was the 550hp AT-6, also called the Texan. It was the most famous trainer during WW II, earning the nickname, the Pilot Maker. During their service the WASPs flew all 77 aircraft the military had, including the B-29.

After graduating from WASP Program in Sweetwater, TX and receiving her silver wings, she and seven other WASPs were assigned to the training command at Las Vegas Army Airfield. Their job included training gunners on the ground and in the air by towing a long muslin sleeve behind a B-26 that was shot at with "live" ammunition by diving fighters. Sometimes they would also dive in at bombers in pursuit planes and the bomber crew would shoot at them with camera guns.

Ms. Betty and all the WASPs were living a dream, but sadly the dream came to an end on December 20th, 1944 when the WASP program was deactivated. The WASPs were told to go home and lead "normal lives". Devastated by the decision, they tried to keep their dream alive by volunteering to fly the military planes without pay; to their disappointment they were offered other jobs in the Army Air Corps, but being pilots was no longer an option.

However, the deactivation of the WASP Program did not keep Ms. Betty from flying military aircraft. In 1991, at the age of 72, she flew an F-16 while visiting the 179th Fighter Wing in Duluth, MN, and in 2001, at the age of 82, she piloted a B-17 belonging to the Gulf Coast Wing of the CAF, Confederate Air Force, from Owatonna, MN to St. Paul, MN!

But the story of the WASPs was little known before 1977. In 1976 a national newspaper headline announced that for the "first time" in history women were flying military aircraft in Panama. The WASPs knew this was not true, and after many years of silence some of the WASPs decided to go to Washington to tell their story of having flown every military aircraft during the years 1943 and 1944.

Finally, on March 8, 1979, after 33 years, they were recognized as veterans when it was announced by the Secretary of Defense that "the service of the WASP had been determined to be active military service for the purpose of all laws administered by the Veteran Administration." The first Honorable Discharge of a WASP was issued on May 21, 1979 and in May of 1984 the WASPs were awarded the WW II Victory Medal and the American Campaign Medal.

During their tours of duty in the WASP Program, 38 women pilots were killed. However, during their activation the military never made the WASPs an official wing of the Army Air Corps so they had no government insurance and they received no military burial honors, not even a flag for their coffins. The expense of shipping home "girls killed in the line of duty" was the responsibility of their family or the WASPs would take up a collection and one of them would escort the body home. These fallen pilots have finally received their American flag.

Since their official recognition in 1979 the WASPs have been invited to attend numerous military ceremonies, air shows and all types of civic and community events to honor them for their service and to tell their story. They continue to meet annually to stay in touch and to talk about their "flying days" as WASPs. And let's not forget, these ladies are all in their late 80s and early 90s! To be honest, I had a heck of a time keeping up with my WASP at the airshow!

Listening to Ms. Betty tell her stories of flying military aircraft with so much passion was exhilarating. Even at 91 years old, her memories are as clear as if she had flown yesterday.

I will always remember my weekend with Ms. Betty Strohfus, my WASP, and her traveling companions; her sister, CeCe Bell and her son Michael Roberts. It was an honor and the opportunity of a lifetime to personally meet a woman who has had such an impact on the history of women in the Air Force; someone who paved the way not just women pilots, but all women in today's Air Force.