Growing up on her family’s Oregon farm, Dorothy Olsen would scale the barn and leap down into a pile of hay for the thrill of those few glorious seconds when it felt as if she were flying.
“I just love to fly,” she recalled decades later to the Chinook Observer of Long Beach, Wash. “From the time I was a little girl . . . until the time I was flying night missions as a Woman Airforce Service Pilot over moonlit Texas during World War II, I just loved to fly.”
Mrs. Olsen, one of the few surviving WASPs, the long-unrecognized corps of female pilots who flew vital domestic missions for the Army Air Forces during World War II, died July 23 at her home in University Place, Wash. She was 103. Her daughter, Julie Stranburg, confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause.
Mrs. Olsen — then Dorothy Kocher — was working as a dance instructor in Portland, Ore., when she joined the WASPs in 1943, the year the program was established.
“World War II was a total war,” Molly Merryman, the author of the volume “Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II,” said in an interview. “And what that meant was that all men, women, children, citizens needed to have a war role.”
Mrs. Olsen, who through her 20s had scrimped to pay for the flight lessons necessary to obtain a private flying license, was one of more than 25,000 women who applied to be WASPs, one of 1,879 candidates accepted and one of 1,074 to complete the training program, according to Army statistics.
She traced her interest in airplanes to a book she had read as a girl, “The Red Knight of Germany,” about Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a German flying ace during World War I. For other WASPs, inspiration came from aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 made the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, or Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 during an attempted flight around the world.
“It was the adventure, the inspiration, and also the advanced technology of airplanes” that drew the women to flying, said Sally Van Wagenen Keil, author of the book “Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines: The Unknown Heroines of World War II.”
“It was something a girl could do,” she added, “if she could get somebody to teach her.”
The WASPs were formed by combining two earlier groups, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. WASPs were treated as civilians and were limited to domestic flights that freed more men to fly in combat. “There was a protective attitude on the part of the military,” Keil said.
But the women’s missions — which totaled 60 million miles, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — were of critical importance and sometimes of life-threatening danger.
The women ferried planes from factories to their points of embarkation for the war, performed test flights and towed targets for gunnery practice. In some cases, Merryman said, they flew German or Japanese planes that had been captured and transported back to the United States to be tested for vulnerabilities. A total of 38 WASPs died during the course of the program.
“The government didn’t treat us so well,” Mrs. Olsen told the Chinook Observer. “A bay mate was killed in a plane crash and the rest of us had to take up a collection to get her body back home to Portland because they wouldn’t pay for it.”
Mrs. Olsen, who said she flew more than 20 types of planes, became known for the moxie she brought to the sky. At least once, she flew her plane upside down for a thrill. Another time, the beauty of the night sky overcame her.
“The moonlight came over Texas, and I was able to get big-band music. It was the closest to heaven I have ever been,” she said. “When I saw the lights of Coolidge Runway, I was excited and I came in low and buzzed the base before landing. It was 11 o’clock during wartime, and I guess I woke up everybody. The commander had a few words with me.”
The WASPs disbanded in 1944, the year before the war ended. Only in 1977 did they receive full veterans’ benefits, and only in 2010 did they receive the recognition that their admirers thought to be their due, with the conferral of the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I was just doing what I loved. And I was lucky,” Mrs. Olsen told KOMO News in Seattle. “I loved it. Every minute.”
Dorothy Eleanor Kocher was born in Woodburn, Ore., on July 10, 1916. She became hooked on aviation after riding a biplane at a state fair and thereafter spent “all her available time and money” on flying lessons, her daughter said.
In 1945, weeks after the end of the war in Europe, Dorothy Kocher married Harold W. Olsen. After raising their children, she ran antique shops near her University Place home, where she had lived since the 1960s. Her husband died in 2006. Survivors include their children, Stranburg, of Beaverton, Ore., and Kim Eric Olsen, of University Place; a grandson; and a great-grandson.
There are 37 living WASPs today, according to Kimberly Johnson, the archivist and curator of the WASP archive at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Tex.
They and their late colleagues were “vitally important” — not only to the war effort, but “also for the impact they had on the experiences of women in future aviation” and other careers in engineering and science, said Merryman, who is also the director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at Kent State University in Ohio.
“They broke the mythology that women were incapable of doing anything that was technical or scientific,” she said.
Sometimes, before sending a plane off to combat, a WASP would leave a note for its next pilot, occasionally sealing the missive with a red-lipsticked kiss. In 1945, Mrs. Olsen received a letter, conserved by Debbie Jennings, curator of a WASP exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, sent from Italy by the pilot of a P-38 Mrs. Olsen had ferried.
“I thought I’d write a few lines,” the lieutenant wrote, “to let you know that despite the fact that a woman once flew it, the ship performs perfectly and is apparently without flaws of any kind.”