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Faribault's 'Betty Wall' remembered as an aviation pioneer, patriot

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Back in the days when Elizabeth Strohfus was still known as "Betty Wall," she loved nothing more than flying warplanes.

In fact her son tells the Faribault Daily News that when she got a look at a new fighter jet model during World War II, Strohfus was so excited she broke off her wedding plans so she could stay in the military and fly the AT-6.

Strohfus was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASPs – who flew training missions that helped their male colleagues be combat ready when they took off for World War II.

Strohfus, a Faribault native, died Monday at age 96.

Her hometown newspaper reports Strohfus learned to fly at the Faribault Sky Club, becoming its first female member in 1940.

After Pearl Harbor, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, then when the WASPs were formed she was one of the 1,074 accepted from among 25,000 who applied, Lillie News reported last year.

These were the days before there was a U.S. Air Force and the WASPs were based at Las Vegas Army Airfield (now Nellis Air Force Base). Strohfus first served as a co-pilot on bombers (the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-26 Marauder), towing targets that fighter pilots used for gunnery practice, the Daily News says.

Later, after jilting her beau in favor of the AT-6, she flew that plane in dogfight training.

But these were also days when some people were not happy to see women stepping out of a kitchen and into a cockpit. MPR News blogger Bob Collins says some of those angered by female pilots went so far as to sabotage their planes by pouring sugar in the fuel tanks.

After the war ended and the WASPs were disbanded, Northwest Airlines refused to hire Strohfus as a pilot and she later spent some time working as an air traffic controller, the Faribault paper says.

Later in life Strohfus began sharing stories of her days as a WASP pilot, often speaking to school groups. The Daily News says one River Falls girl who was particularly inspired by the story of "Betty Wall" got a chance to meet Strohfus again years later at Nellis AFB. That's where Maj. Caroline Jensen was serving with the Air Force Thunderbirds, one of the country's most elite teams of pilots.

Many things about America have changed since the WASPs had sugar in their gas tanks and rejection letters in their mail boxes.

In 1977 they were belatedly recognized as veterans, meaning they finally qualified for financial and medical benefits.

By 2010 attitudes had changed so much that the dwindling number of living WASPs, including Strohfus, received the highest honor Congress can bestow on a civilian – the Congressional Gold Medal.

When Betty Strohfus left Faribault to join the WASPs in Las Vegas, it was her sister Cecilia who took over some of her duties with the Civil Air Patrol, FOX 9 reports. The station spoke with both sisters last year when Cecilia, too, received a Congressional Gold Medal.

Recently, Strohfus had worked with U. S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on a campaign to allow WASPs to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

When Strohfus died Monday, Klobuchar issued a statement that read in part:

"While she herself wanted to be buried with her family, she stood up for her fellow WASP sisters and fought for them to have the same rights as other veterans and to be given the option to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the honors they deserve. My condolences are with her friends and family today.”

You can learn more about the WASPs through this National Public Radio story on them or by visiting the website of their museum or through the links available here.

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