Ola Mildred Rexroat was looking for a way to do her part in the war effort in the 1940s. Being a riveter seemed too dangerous, she said, so she opted for a different path: being a military pilot.
Rexroat goes by "Millie" today, but "Rexy," or "Sexy Rexy," as her old chums call her, served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, which flew noncombat missions so male pilots could train and deploy. The WASP pilots' story lived in obscurity for years because of stigma and secret records, and they were not officially recognized until 1977.
"I just did what I was expected to do and tried to do it the best way I could," Rexroat said. "If I did accomplish anything or add anything to the war effort, I am happy now, and I was happy at the time."
Now 93, Rexroat is one of only 275 surviving WASPs of the original 1,074. She is the last in South Dakota, and the Oglala Lakota is the only female Native American to serve in the WASPs.
Although she is losing her sight and hearing, Rexroat remembers details sharply and will keep an audience on its toes with her wit. She is set to speak at the American Legion next week in Rapid City at a women's veterans appreciation luncheon, open to the public.
Rexroat recently recalled time spent with fellow pilots while sitting in her home near Hot Springs. She lives with her former health care provider Barb Almich.
Almich urged Rexroat to tell her "driving" story Wednesday. After the two stopped giggling, Rexroat explained that a superior flipped her the keys to a jeep to retrieve a training target in a field after she landed one day.
"This was a big problem for me, because I didn't know how to drive," Rexroat said. "I had never learned how to drive a car. I don't think anybody trusted me with a car, but I could fly a plane."
WASPs collectively logged 60 million miles of flying and flew all types of planes used by the military, ferrying them from the factory to a base. Rexroat towed a target for other pilots to practice firing at.
Asked if she ever worried about the dangers of flying or getting shot, Rexroat shrugged.
"I never gave it a thought. You couldn't worry about things like that. ... You can't live forever," she said. "They checked the target after we came down, and of course, it was to our credit if it had lots of holes in it; that meant we had been maintaining our altitude and heading."
Reached in Texas on Wednesday, fellow pilot Mary Alice Vandeventer, 87, remembers going through training with Rexroat in 1944 in Sweetwater, Texas.
The tight-knit group has kept in contact with regular reunions, including a trip this spring to Washington D.C., to accept the Congressional Gold Medal.
"It didn't occur to us at the time. It was just something you wanted to do," Vandeventer said.
For years, the WASPs were not recognized as veterans. Not until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill making them a part of the Air Force, did they receive right to be buried with a flag, buried in a military cemetery and gain access to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
The youngest surviving members of the group are 87, and the oldest is 100.
"They are looked up to by the modern-day female pilot as pioneers," said Sharron Davis, executive director of the National WASP World War II Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
Currently, officials at Ellsworth Air Force Base said women make up nine of the 160 pilots, co-pilots and weapons systems officers on the base.
Women make up about 11 percent of the force in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Deb Eiring, spokeswoman for the VA Black Hills Health Care System.
"They can have some of the exact same medical conditions that men have; there are not gender-specific things. Simply being a warrior, male or female, has its own challenges," Eiring said.
Contact Nick Penzenstadler at 394-8415 or firstname.lastname@example.org