Finally, everyone knows story

The military asked Dorothy Olsen to fly fighter planes. It called upon Mary Jean Sturdevant to fly training aircraft.

They had to pay their way to their military bases. They had to pay bus fare home. They weren’t given military rank, nor did they receive veteran status for decades.

They were women doing a man’s job – or so went the attitudes in the 1940s – so all the records of the Women Airforce Service Pilots remained classified for 35 years.

“No one seemed to know who we were, what we did,” said Sturdevant, now 88 and living in Spanaway.

But more than six decades after the end of the program, the WASPs were honored March 10 in Washington, D.C., amid great fanfare. Each received the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor awarded to a civilian.

“It was beautiful,” said Olsen, 93, of University Place. “It seemed everyone knew us and what we were there for. I almost got hugged to death.”

The experiences of the WASPs, who flew stateside missions to free up men to fly in the Pacific and European theaters, first came to the public eye in 1977. President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that year granting them full military status for their service, and each member received the World War II Victory Medal in 1984.

Olsen and Sturdevant were among 11 Washingtonians who attended this month’s celebration at the Capitol. They met with senators and congressmen. Active-duty airmen escorted them around the city.

Fewer than 300 of the 1,102 pilots are alive today, and the survivors paid tribute at a remembrance ceremony at the Air Force Memorial.

Washington’s two senators paid tribute to the women. Sen. Maria Cantwell called them “trailblazers who had a tremendous impact on the role of women in the military today.”

Sen. Patty Murray said the women “took flight at a time when the idea of women aviators was thought not only improbable, but impossible.”

Even on the trip to D.C., the flight crew handed the women roses.

“It was such a lovely, lovely event,” Sturdevant said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

As a teenager growing up in Phoenix, Ore., Sturdevant was inspired by tales of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s trips to Germany in the late 1930s – and the intelligence on the Luftwaffe he collected during his trip.

She was a 19-year-old student at Southern Oregon College of Education when she enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an effort by the government to train more people to fly. Sturdevant received her instructor’s license but concentrated on ground classes because she couldn’t afford flight hours.

Several years later she taught aviation for the Army Air Corps at Washington State University in 1944 when an opportunity to join the WASPs opened. She reported for duty at a training base in Merced, Calif., where she flew AT-6 Texans and BT-13 Valiants.

“Some men obviously weren’t happy with what we were doing,” she said. “But among the WASPs, there was this great atmosphere. It was a feeling of, ‘Yeah, we can do this too.’”

As a child, Olsen read a book about Manfred von Richthofen, the German ace known as the Red Baron. The exploits of the World War I pilot thrilled her.

“I didn’t just want to fly,” she said. “I wanted to fly military aircraft. I wanted to fly fighters.”

She got her first taste growing up in Woodburn, Ore., when she attended the state fair and emptied her pockets for biplane rides. She later joined an aviation club – enrollment: 19 men, 1 woman – and earned her private license.

Olsen joined the WASPs in 1943 at age 26. She has a hunch she was assigned the duty of flying fighters – mostly P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs – because she was smaller than other pilots.

She often flew the planes from Long Beach, Calif., to New Jersey, where they were shipped to the European theater. But it wasn’t all business: She delights in telling the story of buzzing the airfield in Coolidge, Ariz., in the middle of the night.

Olsen was in the program for 22 months and later picked up a few assignments ferrying commercial aircraft. It felt like trying to fly a bus, she said.

“After flying fighters,” she said, “nothing else compared.”

Scott Fontaine: 253-597-8646