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Thursday, March 11, 2010

WASPs honored in Washington. One was honored at Maxwell last year.

The women of the Women Airforce Service Pilots were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol on Wednesday.

More than 200 WASPs attended the ceremony, including Betty Wall Strohfus, who was an Eagle at the 2009 Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Of the more than 1,100 women who volunteered and flew every fighter, bomber, transport and trainer aircraft in the inventory 68 years ago, only about 300 are still alive, according to a American Forces Press Service story by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski.

Strohfus flew the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder bombers, as well as the P-39 Airacobra fighter.

“It’s almost unbelievable. We never thought this day would come,” she was quoted as saying in Buzanowski's story. “We were all just so grateful to have the opportunity to fly. But this was just such a lovely ceremony and so nice for all these people to come out for us.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award Congress can present to a civilian or group of civilians. Past honorees include the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000 and Tuskegee Airmen in 2006.

Here's my story about Strohfus from June 2009:

Elizabeth "Betty Wall" Strohfus

She's not a pilot. She's a woman pilot.

Strohfus was one of 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, during World War II.

The women helped the men train for combat and Strohfus piloted eight different aircraft during her years.

At 5-foot-3 she barely made the minimum height requirement with the help of extra socks, and she paid her own way to Sweetwater, Texas, for training.

Her love of flying started in her hometown in Minnesota when she met a pilot who took her up for a spin. He'd execute various maneuvers, and then, "He'd look around and say 'One more time?'

After 10 more 'one more times,' he didn't look around anymore," she said. "He didn't look too good."

After the flight, he told her, "You've gotta fly. Usually people I take on this flight get sick. You're the only one who's made me sick," Strohfus recalled.

When she heard about the WASP program, she saw that as her chance.

To join the program, women needed a private pilot's license or 35 flight hours. She didn't have the money for a license, so she got her 35 hours and headed to Texas. Half the day was spent flying, the other half in the classroom.

The students learned meteorology, which Strohfus didn't understand.

"Well, heck. I'd go outside and if it was a nice day, I'd go flying," she said. She didn't know much about engines either, except where it was supposed to be. And when it came to physics, she was lost.

"I thought it was something you took for a stomach problem," Strohfus said. In training, she flew aggressive maneuvers against the male pilots to prepare them for combat. They used live ammunition.

She didn't fly much after the WASPs were disbanded in 1944. But she did keep fighting -- for the WASPs to get veterans' benefits. It took until 1979, but with help, she did it.

This was her first time as an Eagle and she struggled to find words to say what it meant to her.

"It's hard to express," she said.

A trail blazer and role model for female pilots, she gave the students some advice.

"Follow your dreams," Strohfus said. "That's what's important."


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I grew up in the military. Mom was an Air Force nurse for a few years, dad was a navigator on B-52s, among other things. One grandfather served in World War II, uncle is retired Navy, other grandfather and great-uncle served in Korea and a cousin is currently serving in the Marine Corps. Currently, I'm the military reporter for the Great Falls Tribune in Montana. Previously, 

As a military kids, we moved all over. As an adult, I've traveled all over and moved for work. But now, I'm putting down roots in Montana with my boyfriend. We just bought a house and are slowly but surely making it our home. We have more land that we know what to do with at the moment. Now we're getting a garden started, tearing down walls and having loads of fun at what we call the Homestead.

In a part life, I did PR for the guy who built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, social media for the National Museum of Health and Medicine, before that, edited two military technology magazines for a publishing group in the DC area and before that, I was the military reporter (among other things) at the Montgomery Advertiser, covering Maxwell Air Force Base, the Alabama National Guard, veterans and anything else military related in the area. And in between all of that, I leave town, preferably the country, whenever possible. It all started when I spent a semester in New Zealand.

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