The smile on 95-year-old Elizabeth “Betty Wall” Strohfus’ face never disappeared as she worked the crowd like a stand-up comic, telling her thrilling stories about being a pilot more than seven decades ago.
The Faribault, Minn., native was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), a group of about 1,100 women who took over military training roles to free male pilots to remain in combat during World War II.
With hopes of inspiring others to discuss gender struggles during the war, she has traveled the country sharing her story of overcoming adversity.
“They didn’t want women to fly,” Strohfus said Tuesday. “But that’s OK. I flew anyway.”
She shared her challenges in the male-dominated field of aviation with about 60 residents — mostly female — at Chandler Place Assisted Living in St. Anthony.
The facility was celebrating Women’s History Month, and leaders say events like the one led by Strohfus help bring residents together to share sometimes sensitive stories that might otherwise go undiscussed.
Strohfus served from 1943 until the WASPs disbanded in December 1944. She piloted eight different aircraft and taught flying skills to male aviators. While helping train the soldiers and airmen for war, she said her need for gender equality stuck out among her fellow female pilots.
At one point, she said she felt the urge to start a movement to bring awareness to the barriers the female pilots were facing. But her colleagues told her that effort would bring an end to the WASPs, so Strohfus held back initially.
The government didn’t recognize the women as veterans until more than 35 years later, when Strohfus’ lobbying efforts peaked. The WASPs received active military service status with the passage of a federal law in 1977.
Char Antoine, the facility’s life enrichment assistant, said that about 90 percent of Chandler Place’s 30 veterans served during WWII and that about half of the residents are military wives.
The Navy Nurse Corps called Dolly Kawczynski, now 97, to work in a hospital near the U.S. naval base where Japanese bombers had attacked Pearl Harbor just five days before.
“We could look out and see the ships in the harbor signaling each other at night,” the Chandler Place resident said. “It was a very interesting part of my life.”
And like Strohfus, Kawczynski said, she enjoys sharing her memories now.
“Oh, I had such a good time flying,” Strohfus said. “[And] I’ve been telling my stories since.”
Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.