The story of one of America’s first female military pilots
Elizabeth “Betty” Wall became a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during World War II after a loan from her bank helped her learn how to fly.
Elizabeth “Betty” Wall was a natural pilot. While working at the county courthouse in Faribault, Minnesota, in 1942, she met members of the local Sky Club who invited her to a nearby airstrip to fly for the first time. After a relatively quiet flight, the pilot offered to do a dive. Fearless, she agreed, and after the first dive laughed and shouted, “one more time.” According to the 2004 book, And Still Flying: the Life and Times of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Wall, 10 dives later, the pilot landed and declared, “Miss Wall, whatever else you do in your life, you have to learn to fly. I have made every newcomer who flies with me sick doing these stunts. You’re the only one who has ever made me sick!”
After that, Wall spent all her spare time at the airfield. One day, the 15-member Sky Club had an opening, and she was invited to join. Membership cost $100, though, and she only made $50 a month — with most of that going to help her family.
Wall knew banks gave personal loans for all sorts of things, so she rode her bike into town and walked into Security National Bank & Trust Company — today Wells Fargo. She approached the bank’s Vice President George Kaul and asked for a loan. She later remembered saying, “Mr. Kaul, I need $100. … I’m going to learn how to fly.” Kaul said, “I have loaned money to women for college, travel, fur coats, houses, and cars. But never for flying lessons, and besides, women don’t fly.” Wall replied, “This one’s going to.”
Kaul looked at her papers and asked about her collateral. Wall had never heard of such a thing. After Kaul explained to her that it is something of value used to guarantee a loan, Wall said, “Well, I have my bicycle.” He approved her loan, and Wall pedaled joyously to the airfield with the money. She found out years later that Kaul didn’t just approve her loan, he had actually cosigned it himself, securing the loan with his own name.
A new kind of pilot
During World War II, demand for workers and soldiers led to women taking new roles. They became welders and learned how to make planes. Some donned military uniforms, flew planes, and trained pilots. By 1943, all flight programs with female pilots consolidated to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.
In Minnesota, Wall saw a poster asking for women with flight experience to join WASP, and she quickly signed up. More than 25,000 other women applied, but Wall was one of only about 1,800 accepted into the training program in Sweetwater, Texas.
She graduated, earned her silver wings, and deployed with seven other women to become training pilots at Las Vegas Army Airfield. To prepare combat pilots, Wall performed dives that they learned to counteract. She even flew planes towing targets that soldiers practiced shooting at with live ammunition.
On one memorable occasion, Wall performed a flyby over a bunker while soldiers practiced aiming anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns. As she flew to their location, she realized they were preparing for her to come in from the north. To provide a more realistic experience, she flew in from the south, startling the soldiers inside the bunker. When she landed to refuel, a lieutenant berated her for trying to scare the soldiers. She responded by pointing out that the enemy wouldn’t give them advanced warning. Surprise attacks later became part of regular training, and that group of soldiers went on to have the highest gunnery marks in their division.
Between 1943 and 1944, the WASP program moved 89% of all new military planes from factories to bases, including transporting all P-47 fighters. They also had the distinction of flying every plane the military was using at the time, more than 70 varieties.
Although the WASP program was administered by the Army Air Forces, the female pilots were considered civilians and did not have military status. There were no military honors for those who died while serving, no veterans benefits, and no funding for bringing their bodies home to their families. As Wall later remarked, “It was as if we were not taken seriously, but how much more serious can you be than being willing to give your life for your country?”
Remembering those in flight
The WASPs were decommissioned in 1944. Wall tried to find work as a commercial pilot, but she discovered that no one wanted to hire a woman. She went through 15 jobs in three years before eventually settling down in Faribault, getting married, and building a family.
In the 1970s, newspapers reported on “the first women to fly military aircraft.” Members of WASP knew they had broken that barrier decades before, but their service had been forgotten. They organized and lobbied for the official recognition they had never received during the war. The secretary of defense officially labeled their service as “active military” in 1979, and after 33 years, Wall was finally able to call herself a military veteran.
Wall lived an active life. In addition to getting married two more times, she gave presentations and shared her wartime stories to keep the memory of the WASP service alive. She also returned to the air. In 1991, she was invited to fly in an F-16, a supersonic fighter plane. She was also invited to pilot a preserved B-17 bomber plane to an air show in Minnesota in 2001.
Wall passed away in 2016 as Elizabeth Strohfus, leaving behind a loving family and a legacy as one of America’s first female military pilots.