Ola Mildred Rexroat
Unique WASP Pilot
When Ola Mildred Rexroat joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) before World War II, she would not only be serving her country at an important time, but also entering history as the only Native woman to be a member of the WASPs. For she and her fellow women pilots, contributed to the war effort by flying vital aircraft, in ways that released male pilots to be available for combat duties.
Born in Argonia, Kansas in August, 1917, Ms. Rexroat was the daughter of an Anglo American father and an Oglala woman who was a member of the Lakota people (sometimes called the Sioux). Because of this part of her heritage she spent part of her childhood on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. She attended public school in Wynona, Oklahoma, and then graduated in 1932 from St. Mary’s Episcopal Indian School in South Dakota. Though she enrolled for a time at a Nebraska teachers’ college she later worked for the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, then after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1939, she again worked for the Bureau in Gallup, New Mexico.
As the U.S. entered World War II in the 1940s, Rexroat joined other Americans who sought to contribute to the war effort, but as a woman she did not have many choices. Many women went to work in factories, but she found that unappealing. “Being a riveter seemed too dangerous,” she said later, so instead she decided to become a pilot.
Her decision to learn to fly a plane came from when she worked with engineers building airfields. However, there was a challenge—to become a pilot she would have to own her own plane—or join the WASPs—the non-military organization called the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
At this time both before the war and after it started, it became evident that unlike in World War I, aviation would play a major part of the military response. And while American industry began to produce the aircraft that would meet wartime needs, naturally these planes needed pilots, and at that time that meant men. However, while there were numerous men to fly the bombers and fighters needed in combat, these male pilots were too valuable to do the other flying duties of the time. These positions didn’t involve flying into combat but operating planes in other ways such as ferrying air craft to locations where they could enter conflict, testing new planes and similar jobs. Yet if they needed all the male pilots to be available for combat then who could handle the non-combat flights? Why, women of course—and the answer took shape in organizations that led up to the formation of the WASPs—and even afterward. However, while these women pilots did do the flying that freed men for flying into combat, they were not members of the military but instead were federal employees.
With the goal of joining the WASP organization, Ms. Rexroat moved to Washington with family members to work with the Army War College then followed with pilot training in Sweetwater, Texas. As she completed her course and began to take on assignments, one of those was flying planes that towed targets, for gunnery students at local airfields. Then as she took on more duties, she flew both transport, and personnel airplanes.
The WASP pilots were out of a job in December, 1944 when the group was disbanded. However, Rexroat took on a flight related position as she became an air traffic controller at a New Mexico airbase during the later Korean War. Then for the next 30 plus years, Ms. Rexroat continued to be an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as to serve in the Air Force Reserves.
She died in June, 2017 at age 99. Just before that, she was the last surviving WASP pilot in her home state of South Dakota, and one of 275 living pilots out of the original 1,074. After her death an aircraft operations building at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota was named for her.
“I just did what I was expected to do and tried to do the best way I could,” Rexroat said later in life. “If I did accomplish anything or add anything to the war effort, I am happy now and I was happy at the time.”
She was also inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.