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65 years later female WWII test pilots finally recognized
by Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
St Paul, Minn - When Elizabeth Strohfus looked into the sky above her hometown of Faribault, Minn, during the height of the Great Depression, she saw a future that didn't involve working at the city clerk's office and struggling in poverty She saw the clouds and the open air, and she wanted to be up there
"It began as a young gal trying to climb as high as I could," she said "I had that feeling that I wanted to get higher"
Strohfus went to the bank, and took out $100 to join a local flying club She left behind her bicycle as collateral, and headed into the air
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she quit her job and signed up for the newly formed Women's Air Force Service Pilots, where she became one of the first women in the United States to fly military planes
The story of these women, known as WASPs, remains largely unknown They flew the biggest bomber planes One of the planes they flew, the Martin B-26 Marauder, was so dangerous that it became known as "The Widowmaker" They even attached a long piece of canvas to the back of their planes to allow men to practice hitting targets -- with live ammunition
A famous female pilot, Jackie Cochran, spearheaded the effort The military agreed to create the program in 1942, when they realized it would free up male pilots to go to war The WASPs flew in the United States, since Congress refused to send them into combat or recognize them as official members of the military
Last month, President Obama signed a bill to give the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award for civilians President Carter had previously granted the WASPs veteran status
Strohfus and another Minnesota WASP, Mildred "Micky" Axton, will travel to Washington DC in a few months to receive their medals
Sixty-seven years ago, Axton and Strohfus loaded up their suitcases, unsure of when they would return, and headed for Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas About 25,000 women applied for the program, and 1,800 were chosen
Axton, 90, recounted her story on a recent afternoon at her Eden Prairie apartment, her walls covered with framed WASP-era photos, her carpeted floor blanketed with cardboard placards pasted with war memorabilia
Unlike Strohfus, Axton had graduated from college with degrees in math and science She vividly remembers her first flight as a licensed pilot in Coffeyville, Kan Her great-grandmother insisted on being her first passenger
"She said, 'Tip it over, Micky, so I can see better,'" Axton said, laughing "I said, 'If I do that, we'll get killed' That settled that"
When her brother left to fight in the Pacific front, Axton felt like she couldn't stay home "There was no way to keep me from going," she said
Axton and Strohfus left for Texas, where they lived in military barracks and wore uniforms discarded by male pilots
"They were big," Strophus, 89, remembered "Yank 'em up, roll up 'em, we didn't care We wanted to fly airplanes"
The heat was sometimes unbearable One night, Axton and her roommates decided to escape the stuffy barracks and sleep outside, but they quickly returned to the barracks after encountering a rattlesnake
There were many close calls in the air The WASPs acted as test pilots for aircraft that had been repaired after being damaged in combat It was a job that didn't have many male volunteers, but the WASPs agreed to take on any job that allowed them to fly
Axton told a story of a time she was flying a repaired twin-engine B-25 bomber, with a male co-pilot who sat behind her
"We took off and it didn't act right," she said "I knew it was trouble, and I called the tower and told them I had to bring it in"
The engine was quickly failing, and ambulances rushed to the scene The male pilot started crying "He thought he was going to get killed," she said
Axton managed to bring the plane in "I was a little shook up, but I was tickled to pieces that I brought it in and didn't hurt anything It was a nice landing"
Her co-pilot did not share Axton's glee He was removed from the plane by a medical team and carried away in an ambulance, sobbing
The military knew that the WASPs would fly any plane, but male pilots had preferences Rumors circulated about the dangers of certain planes, and the military asked the WASPs to shame the men into flying them If a woman could fly a particular plane, the thinking went, so could a man
This was how Strohfus ended up flying a "Widowmaker," the B-26 The heavy plane had a short wingspan, which required pilots to land the plane at a dangerously fast speed
"Taking off or landing it was pretty iffy," Strohfus said "So you had to be careful You could crash very easily, but I thought it was great Once you got it in the sky, it was a great plane to fly"
In between flying, the WASPs cultivated a unique culture, complete with their own mascot named Fifi, a female cartoon character sporting wings and blue flight goggles On their way to the runway, the WASPs marched through the barracks, singing
At a recent air show, Strohfus stood behind a booth commemorating her service, and eagerly broke into song, to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy:
"We are Yankee Doodle Pilots, Yankee Doodle, do or die! Real, live nieces of our Uncle Sam, born with a yearning to fly Keep in step to all our classes, March to flight line with our pals Yankee Doodle came to Texas just to fly the PTs! We are those Yankee Doodle Gals"
But the mood was not always so upbeat One night, Axton stood next to the runway, getting ready to fly, when she looked up into the sky, just in time to see a plane descend rapidly and crash a few hundred feet in front of her
Several of the WASPs started to cry, but they were ordered to fly that night, or else leave the program
"We saw it happen," Axton said "We were right there waiting to fly Can you imagine?"
The pilot who died that night was one of 38 WASPs killed while flying Another was Axton's close friend and roommate, Gertrude Tompkins-Silver She took off in a P-51 fighter and crashed into the Santa Monica Bay in California Her body was never recovered
When WASPs died, the military refused to pay to send their bodies home, or provide a military funeral Instead, the women took up collections for the families to cover the costs
"They never did get a proper burial," Axton said "The families had to bury them themselves That's how those men in Congress were then"
The military disbanded the WASP program in 1944, before the war ended, and sent the women home Military officials said they had enough pilots, as fewer male pilots had died in combat than expected
A letter sent to the WASPs said, in part, "You have freed male pilots for other work, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteered services are no longer needed"
Axton went on to have a successful career at Boeing, and eventually moved to Minnesota The news hit Strohfus much harder
"When I got out, no one wanted a woman pilot," she said "I went to Northwest Airlines and showed them my credentials I had sea plane, I had a commercial rating, and I had 1,000 hours of flying time They were very impressed They surely would like me in their front office I told 'em what they could do with their front office"
The rejection stung "I wanted so badly to be out flying that it kind of broke my heart, but that's OK, because that was the way it was"
After the war, "nobody wanted to hear about women pilots," Strohfus said "They didn't even know we existed I had everything in my closet, my uniform, my pictures, my books I told the kids, 'When I die, put it in my coffin'"
But when the Air Force allowed female pilots to start training in 1976, Strohfus started going to air shows and schools to tell her story
When she was 72 years old, she asked the military if she could fly the F-16 as a co-pilot Her request was granted, and she flew with a male pilot over the skies of Duluth She took over the controls mid-flight
"I said, 'I'll just do a gentle turn,'" she said "I did 6 Gs He said, 'Take it easy I don't have a brown bag' I said, 'You can take mine I don't need it'"
Strohfus said she's glad to finally receive recognition for her achievements, but then she paused, grinned, and said, "The award is nice, but heck, I just like to fly airplanes"
Posted: 2016-06-22 09:31 AM CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. - Soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard and Norwegian Home Guard gathered together at the Camp Ripley Hanger Conference Center June 20, 2016, for the American Meal as part of the Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange. The exchange began in 1974 and is the longest-running military exchange partnership between any two nations.
The event, centered on the taste of American foods, shared the cultural and social experiences typically found here in America.
"It has been a pleasure to be here; we have a lot to learn from each other and it starts right here, with the young members of our two military organizations," said Brig. Gen. Sandra Best, chief of staff of the Minnesota Air National Guard.
Posted: 2016-06-21 10:13 AM FORT IRWIN, Calif. - "Earthpig One-Six, this is Bravo Six, you are clear to advance on the objective," is heard over the radio within the crowded, oven-like Bradley Fighting Vehicle operated by engineers of the 334th Brigade Engineer Battalion in the middle of the Mojave Desert on June 15, 2016.
The platoon, consisting of two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an Assault Breacher Vehicle, was preparing for a live-fire breaching mission utilizing the mine clearing line charge while in "The Box" during National Training Center rotation 16-07 for the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, at Fort Irwin, California.
"The 1st Battalion, 145th Armored Regiment, requested my platoon as an asset in an obstacle breaching lane where we used a mine clearing line charge, or MICLIC," said Sgt. Adam Clark, a combat engineer with A Co., 334th BEB. "We provide security for our ABV asset to be able to effectively launch the rocket and detonate the charges to clear whatever the obstacle may be."
Divided into two rotations and a rail operations team, nearly 500 soldiers of the RSG are spending their annual training at the National Training Center, providing life support for the 1/34 ABCT.
"Even though this is not a typical mission for our subordinate units, our teams (consisting of personnel from different companies), really came together to make this relatively large operation flow smoothly," said Maj. Ryan Koester, plans officer and rail officer-in-charge for the off-loading portion at Marine Corps Logistics Base, Yermo, Calif.
Posted: 2016-06-14 09:24 AM TAPA ARMY BASE, Estonia - Soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division joined units from 14 countries to support the Saber Strike 16 exercise taking place from May 27-June 22 throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The long-standing U.S. Army Europe-led exercise is designed to improve joint interoperability through a range of missions that prepare participating nations to support multinational contingency operations.
"Taking leadership roles in Saber Strike, Cooperative Resolve, Yama Sakura, Talisman Sabre, Austere Challenge and other international exercises sharpens our skills as soldiers and leaders, and reinforces the reputation earned by the Red Bulls who served before us," said Division Commanding General Maj. Gen. Neal Loidolt. "Through Saber Strike, we are strengthening relationships with our Allies to enhance international security, while broadening the capacity of the Minnesota National Guard to assist in future coalition operations."
During the exercise, the Red Bulls are demonstrating for partner nations, such as Slovenia, the capabilities a division headquarters brings to the battle. Soldiers from C Company, 34th Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion are also augmenting the communications capabilities of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.