WASHINGTON - Betty Strohfus, 90, has never liked having her feet on the ground.

"As a kid, if I couldn't climb a tree, I'd sit on the roof," she said.

So Strohfus couldn't pass up a chance to fly during World War II, when she came across a brochure asking women to join the military's Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which was designed to free up male pilots for missions overseas.

Known in her flying days as Betty Wall, Strohfus, of Faribault, Minn., was one of nearly 200 WASPS who gathered in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to receive a long overdue recognition of their work -- the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.

More than 1,000 women flew non-combat missions for the United States during the war, including a handful of Minnesota women. Never commissioned or given benefits, the WASP pilots were not even recognized as veterans until 1977. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley paused in their other duties to bestow the medals.

Other Minnesotans were also recognized. Patricia McBride of St. Paul traveled to Washington to accept the honor on behalf of her mother, the late Anna Ross Kary Anderson. The medal was also awarded posthumously to Micky Axton, a WASP pilot who died in Eden Prairie last month. Honoree Ruth Roberts of Minneapolis was unable to attend the ceremony.

"It's so surprising to be recognized," Strohfus said. "It's true we weren't recognized for a long time, but at the time I didn't care, because I got to fly airplanes."

Love at first flight

Strohfus took up aviation after she overheard a man talking about flying while working at the local courthouse.

"It was love at first flight," she quipped.

To join the local flight club, Strohfus took her bike to the bank and put it up for collateral on a $100 loan. For the required 35 hours of flight time required to qualify for WASP service, Strohfus flew a friend on his commutes from Faribault to Mankato.

After graduating from training with the first class of WASPs in 1944, Strohfus was off to Nevada to train gunners. She flew every day.

"I loved every minute of it," she said.

On December 20, 1944, the Army deactivated the WASP. "It broke my heart when they said they didn't need us anymore," Strohfus said. "We wanted to fly for nothing, but they wouldn't let us."

When she returned to Minnesota in 1945, she tried to get a job with Northwest Airlines, only to hear "we don't hire women."

Strohfus did everything she could to try to get back into the air, but no one would hire her. Now she travels the country, speaking about her experiences as one of the first women to fly American military aircraft.

At Wednesday's ceremony, surrounded by friends and family, Strohfus could barely get through a sentence without being stopped by autograph seekers and other admirers.

One admirer, Marine Lance Cpl. Gia Prestonise, had never met Strohfus before this week but quickly fell in love with her warm, gregarious personality. Prestonise fought through the crowd Wednesday to find Strohfus and congratulate her on the medal.

"We're so proud of you," Prestonise said, taking Strohfus' hands in hers. "Thank you, ma'am, for all you've done for us. You gave me this uniform and you didn't even know it."

Hayley Tsukayama is an intern in the Star Tribune's Washington bureau.