OWATONNA — If you were to tell Elizabeth Strohfus of Faribault in the 1940s that the sky was the limit, she would tell you it wasn’t.
“I knew I had no limitations,” Strohfus said. “I was limitless.”
At least that’s how she felt above the clouds.
On the ground, there were boundaries because of her gender.
Since 1991, Strohfus has shared her story in 30 states to children in elementary school to college, and on Tuesday, she will speak at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Owatonna at the Veterans Open Roundtable program.
“I’m just hoping that the young people will really know what our women went through to attain what they’ve attained today,” she said. “It has been a struggle, but because I loved to fly, I didn’t feel too bad about struggling.”
Strohfus, formerly Elizabeth Wall, graduated from Faribault High School in 1937.
“When I was in school, I couldn’t take any classes except home economics or classes for working in an office like shorthand, typing and that sort of stuff,” she said. “We were very limited because we were women. It was kind of too bad because I wasn’t too interested in those things.”
After graduating high school, Strohfus started working at the Rice County Courthouse in the Register of Deeds office.
“Because I was a woman, I didn’t get the money men did. I’d get $50 a month, and they’d get $150 or $200 a month. That’s the way it was those years,” she said. “Women were supposed to get married, stay home and not go in the field of commerce.”
And one day everything changed.
“When I was working at the courthouse, some young man came up and he kept talking about flying, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to get above it all and see the beautiful world there,’” Strohfus said. “He asked me if I wanted to fly after he saw I was interested. I said, ‘Yes, I do. I’d love to fly.’”
Strohfus went to the local airport with the man, a member of the Sky Club, for an airplane ride after work.
“He went about 3,000 feet, and he went into a spin and he’d do that for people and he’d turn around to look at them and they’d say down. He turned around and looked at me and I said, ‘Oh could you do that again?’” she said. “After 10 one-more-times he didn’t look around anymore. He landed the airplane and he looked kind of ill himself. He said, ‘You know whatever you do, you’re going to have to fly. You’re the only one who’s made me sick.’”
That’s when she found her place in the sky.
“One day, one of the fellas had gone into the service — there were 18 fellas that belonged to the Sky Club — so they approached me and said, ‘Now you can join the Sky Club.’ I said, ‘Well good, what’s it cost?’ ‘Oh it only costs $100’, he told me. Heck, I never saw $100 in my life in one piece,” she said.
Strohfus took her bicycle to the local banker for a loan.
“I said, ‘I’m going to start flying, and I need $100 to join the club.’ He said, ‘Oh women don’t fly,’ and I said, ‘This one is going to,’” she said. “He took his papers out, co-signed my note and gave me the $100.”
Strohfus flew as much as she could, and in 1943, she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, commonly known as WASPs.
She was one of 1,800 women accepted into the organization out of 25,000 who applied.
“It was a very elite group. I was lucky to be among them,” Strohfus said.
Strohfus began ground school and flight school at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where she flew a variety of planes, including a PT-19 and a BT-13.
“We had to have 60 hours in each of the planes,” she said. “Oh, it was just wonderful.”
While in Texas, Strohfus had a boy from Sky Club propose to her, but he wanted her to leave the service.
“I went to my officer and told her I was resigning. She looked at my school records and looked at my flight record and said, ‘Oh, you’re doing so wonderful in flying,’ and she said ‘In fact, you’re excelling in flying,’” Strohfus said. “Oh, I loved to fly.”
Before signing her resignation papers, Strohfus’ officer asked her to fly an AT-6.
“Oh, I tell you that was a beautiful plane to fly,” she said. “After my flight, I got out of the airplane, took to the phone and called that boy up and said, ‘I’m not coming home.’ I fell in love with the airplane.”
That love would continue.
“In 1942, 1943 and 1944, the men who were flying were sent overseas for the war, so they were lacking pilots in our country. They needed pilots for ferrying and training,” Strohfus said. “That’s where I came in.”
Strohfus was sent to Las Vegas Airfield where she did instrument flying, training and diving for artillery practice.
“I loved that job,” she said.
Strohfus spent so much time in the sky that one morning she couldn’t get out of bed.
“They brought me to the flight surgeon and he gave me a physical examination. He said, ‘Physically there’s nothing wrong with you, maybe you’re pregnant.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not pregnant. I’m not married.’ He said, ‘I guess you’re not pregnant,’” she said. “He found out I had pilot’s fatigue from flying too often, and when he found out I was flying eight hours a day, he got really upset.”
Pilots were only supposed to fly four hours a day because of the stress of flying on the body, she added.
“I thought my body was fine,” Strohfus said. “I had to go on leave for two weeks.”
While on leave, Strohfus and 10 other women attended officers’ school in Florida.
“We all passed,” she said. “So when we got back to Vegas, we got back in time for me to do some diving, and then we were called in the office, ‘Thank you, girls,' this is the later part of 1944.' Thank you for what you did. Now you can go home and lead a normal life.'”
For many WASPs, including Strohfus, that was easier said than done.
“We were devastated, but they sealed our records for 35 years. They had not shown what we had done during the war,” she said. “All our girls’ records were sealed because Congress didn’t want anybody to know that women were flying airplanes.
“That was tough because we knew what we had done.”
Strohfus returned to working in an office.
“I could fly any plane the government had, but nobody wanted me as a pilot because I was a woman,” she said.
And after years of not being recognized as a veteran, in 1979, Strohfus was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force for her service during World War II.
Although, Strohfus’ time in the service was limited, she continued to fly.
Some of Strohfus’ fondest memories after serving as a WASP, include a 1991 flight in an F-16 in Duluth at 72 years old.
“Oh, I was so excited. We did so many acrobatics and so many maneuvers,” she said. “I really enjoyed it. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve loved all my flights. I just love to fly airplanes.”
Strohfus has received numerous recognitions, including a Congressional Gold Medal that she received in 2010, but she said what has meant the most is people remembering what she and the WASPs did.
“I really did enjoy it. I love to fly airplanes. I love to tell people about the opportunities,” she said. “It pleases me that there are so many opportunities for women to do the things that they were told they couldn’t do some years ago because of the boundaries we broke.”
For questions about the Veterans Open Roundtable programs, call Dave Thomas 507-451-9466.