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Woman who was a daredevil pilot with WASPs during WWII dies at 103

Women Airforce Service Pilots (US Air Force/Released)

About 30 people stood on the pavement of the Calvary Cemetery, looking toward the sky, waiting for World War II planes to fly overhead in honor of a woman who flew ones like them more than 75 years ago.

When they had to wait a little longer than expected, Julie Stranburg piped up.

“Mom wouldn’t have stood for this,” Stranburg said with a smile.

Dorothy Eleanor Olsen, Stranburg’s mom, died at 103 on July 23. She was honored with a Funeral Mass Monday at St. Charles Borromeo Parish and now rests at the Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma.

Olsen was part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) — a group of civilian volunteers who moved planes across the country, hauled targets for shooting practice and performed other flying duties. She was stationed at Long Beach Army Air Base, California from 1942-1944 and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

During her time as a WASP pilot, Olsen flew about 60 missions as part of the 6th Ferry Group, often alone, according to a report from the Chinook Observer in 2011. She also flew about 29 different aircraft. Her favorite was the P-51.

“Mom said the P-38 was an old woman’s plane. She said anybody could fly that,” Stranburg said. “She said that the (P-)51, you had to stay on top of that.”

She also didn’t care much for the bomber planes. Debbie Jennings, friends with Olsen since about 2003 and developer of a WASP exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, said her friend preferred the fighter plane because she was by herself and could do whatever she wanted.

Jennings said Olsen would get a kick out of scaring farmers on their tractors and fly right behind them. She would do the same at railroad stations just because.

Stranburg said her mom got chewed out by ranking officers for flying like that and once got reprimanded for using her landing gear at high speeds. One time she flew upside down and a piece of the plane fell off — but the landing crew never said a word, and Olsen’s son, Kim Olsen, has the piece to this day.

“She was like nobody I’ve ever known. So determined to do whatever she wanted to do,” Jennings said.

At the time, women and people of color were fighting for respect in the military.

According to NPR, during the last WASP training class, Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, said when the program began he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”

“Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” Arnold said.

Jennings said some of the male pilots were jealous of how many different planes Olsen was able to fly.

On two occasions, Olsen received v-mail, or victory mail, postcards from male pilots who had found Olsen’s name and address in the cockpit of a plane she ferried. In the last line of the postcard, one pilot from Italy wrote, “despite the fact that a woman once flew it, it appears to perform perfectly,” Jennings said.

“They were the first women to fly military aircraft for the United States.” Jennings said. “The women had to jump into any aircraft that needed to be moved, whether it was for training or for combat, and know how to fly it and fly it wherever it needed to go.”

WASPs were not recognized as veterans until 1977 under President Jimmy Carter.

Olsen grew up reading about World War I planes and flying in Woodburn, Oregon, in the 1920s, according to a report from The Seattle Times. She was inspired to pursue flight after reading ‘The Red Knight of Germany” by Floyd Gibbons.

As she pursued her pilot’s license, Olsen taught tap dance and continued to teach after receiving her certification. She was one of three women to get her private flying license in the Portland area by 1939, according to the Chinook Observer.

Once she joined the WASPs, she kept a pair of black DeLiso Debs and socks underneath her seat in every plane she flew, Stranburg said.

“She’d date a new man every night and go dancing, dump them and take off on her next plane,” Stranburg said.

When the WASPs disbanded in 1944, Olsen had to pay her own way from Long Beach back home.

Stranburg said after the war, Olsen got a job flying war-weary planes — aircraft deemed no longer safe for combat missions. She once worked with two other men and flew planes to Wyoming.

“They got into a snowstorm and were low on fuel,” Stranburg said. “The men wanted to turn back and mom said, ‘No, you’re taught never turn back.’”

She said they knew the airport was near, but weren’t sure where. The townspeople heard them flying over head and directed the pilots to the landing strip using car headlights.

“She had so many close brushes with death but managed to slide by so many times,” Stranburg said.

Olsen later married Harold W. Olsen, a Washington State trooper, and settled down in University Place.

Stranburg said her mom was always fair, particularly when Stranburg and her brother Kim would fight growing up. One time Olsen told her kids to clean up dog vomit in the kitchen, but neither wanted to.

“She walked up there, took her hand, and (split it in half). ‘You clean that, and you clean that,’” Stranburg said.

Stranburg said her mom didn’t fly after she and her brother were born and didn’t even think of flying commercial or private planes.

“She said, ‘Why would I want to fly a Cessna when I’ve flown a P-51?’” Stranburg said.

Olsen never lost her flying spirit, though. She often “drove with authority,” neighbor Duncan Foley said with a chuckle. “She drove like she was driving a fighter jet.”

According to her memorial obituary on the Edwards Memorial website, that spirit landed her a speeding ticket in her 1965 poppy orange Mustang.

Stranburg said flying was the highlight of her mom’s life, and that she loved to look at clouds and remember flying through them.

“Every sunny day when you see clouds, think of mom,” Stranburg said. “She’s up there doing slow rolls in a P-38.”

Before Olsen was laid to rest, Jennings read the poem “Celestial Flight” by WASP Elizabeth MacKethan Magid, which is “now required reading at all WASP departures.”

The first verse is:

“She is not dead —

But only flying higher,

Higher than she’s flown before,

And earthly limitations will hinder her no more.


© 2019 The News Tribune