Dora Dougherty Strother at Otis air base in Falmouth, Mass.

photo courtesy of the Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University


WASPs at Camp Davis in North Carolina

photo courtesy of the Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University


Dorthea Johnson Moorman and Strother with Col. Paul Tibbets and Dean Hudson, Civil Aeronautics Adminisration inspector, at the Modification Center for B-29s in Birmingham, Ala.

photo courtesy of the Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University



Moorman and Strother at a reunion last summer at Wendover air base in Utah

photo courtesy of Dora Dougherty Strother





Her head tipped back and eyes peeled for airplanes flying through the clouds above Long Island, 5-year-old Dora Dougherty Strother (SCS49) was enchanted in the 1920s by the contraptions that had mastered the skies.

For many years she and her family trekked every Sunday afternoon after church to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. "In those days we didn’t have movie heroes. We didn’t have rock star heroes," Strother explained on "Fly Girls," a PBS documentary that first aired in 1999. "We had aviators who were pushing back technology, who were doing fantastic things as pioneers."

After the United States entered World War II, it was in desperate need of trained fliers, and Strother became a pioneer herself by joining the third class of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots in 1943. A year later she was training male pilots to fly the B-29 bomber. Eventually Strother would become a respected engineer in the aircraft industry and a reserve officer in a military that for much of her life offered only grudging acknowledgment of the WASPs’ contributions. But at heart she always remained the same 5-year-old girl who was enraptured by flight.

None of her accomplishments would have happened had it not been for a civilian pilot training program that Strother took in the summer of 1940. This was after her first year at Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and the course was being taught at Northwestern — only a few miles from Winnetka, Ill., where her parents had moved from Long Island.

"The civilian pilot training program was designed to train people to fly who would then be a pool of [wartime] aviators for the country," Strother says. "If the public had known, there would have been an outcry. To keep them from the idea that it was premilitary, they enrolled 10 percent women. I was lucky enough to be part of the 10 percent at Northwestern."

The 30 people in the course — 27 men and three women — spent half their time in ground school in the Technological Institute learning about airplanes and engines, meteorology, navigation, radios, communication and flight instruments. The actual flight training took place at Palwaukee Airport in suburban Wheeling.

From the start Strother was hooked. "It was a thrill, although I was so busy that I didn’t think of my emotions," she says. "I think that a lot of the excitement is that it’s something new, that you’re in control and that the success of the flight depends on you."

Succeed she did, even though the flight inspector who administered her final test — on an Aeronca Champion — refused to speak to women pilots.
When Strother returned to Cottey in the fall, she spent her allowance to buy flying time at a little airport near the college. She wanted to boost her pilot’s license rating, which was something the small women’s college did not look upon with favor. "They confined me to the campus and sent a wire to my parents saying what a bad thing I had done," Strother says. "My parents wired back and said that it was fine with them and that I could go to the airport whenever I wanted."

After completing two years at Cottey, Strother, who is now retired and living in Fort Worth, Texas, enrolled as a junior at Northwestern in 1942.

One day she saw an article in the Chicago Tribune for a new Army program that would train women to ferry aircraft within the continental United States. The program was intended to free up male pilots for combat flying overseas.

Putting her academic career on hold, Strother went immediately to Palwaukee, where she worked as an assistant bookkeeper and took her pay out in flying time so she could qualify for the new program. Turning 21 that November, she vividly recalls taking her physical in an Army medical center in downtown Chicago amid hordes of men, all of them puzzled and more than a few resentful at her presence. ("My pulse was racing," she remembers.) Finally Strother received orders on Jan. 15, 1943, to report for duty. About 25,000 women had applied to be WASPs; only 1,830 were accepted.

Along with the 54 other women in the third class, Strother ended up at Avenger Field, a desolate spot in west-central Texas dubbed Cochran’s Convent after Jacqueline Cochran, the WASPs’ legendary commander. The regimen was tough, with hard physical exercise and 200 hours of flight training alternating with 400 hours of intellectually demanding lessons in ground school.

Cochran insisted that the women receive the same instruction and testing as male pilots. The sign on the barracks said it all: "Through these portals pass the world’s finest women pilots."

Strother, however, acknowledges she had a lot to learn. "The army way [of flying] was different than the civilian way," she says. "The stall sequences were different, there were different maneuvers and military aircraft react more violently than civilian aircraft, so we had to learn different ways of dealing with the airplane. It was a very exciting thing."

Other things were also exciting. On the first night in the barracks at Avenger, "we didn’t talk about engines," Strother recalled in the PBS documentary. "We didn’t talk about airplanes, we didn’t talk about men. We talked about snakes. Every type of poisonous snake that’s found in our country is found in the state of Texas."

Despite the conditions, the WASPs had the same washout rate as the males, about one-third. Still, although the women had exactly the same schooling as male aviators, they did not fall under the "Army Air Forces" title. Instead, Strother and the other women who received their wings on July 4, 1943, were still officially classified as civilians. (It wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs were "militarized," meaning they could be considered bona fide veterans. Strother testified before the U.S. Congress about the importance of the WASPs’ role in the war.)

After the flight training at Avenger Field, the women dispersed, ferrying aircraft to various bases throughout the country. It was a brutal existence in which they lived like vagabonds seven days a week and put in exhausting hours. The WASPs often went days without changing clothes and slept on top of their parachutes.

Almost immediately after her training Strother and 25 other women in her group were ordered to Camp Davis in Wilmington, N.C. The first WASPs to be given duties other than ferrying, they spent six months towing targets in the air so ground crews could familiarize themselves with their antiaircraft weapons. "The gunfire never hit the fuselage to my knowledge," Strother told the PBS-affiliated producers with a laugh. "I may have gotten my first few gray hairs there, but I was not aware that I got shot."

Other women were not so fortunate. Two were killed while she was stationed at Camp Davis. In all 38 WASPs gave their lives in the line of duty. Because they were technically civilians, the Army provided no benefits, no flags at the funerals, no gold stars for the families to hang in their windows. But, says Strother, there was nothing stopping the women in her squadron from continuing their duties.

"It’s difficult in these days to realize the mindset we all had," she says. "The country was at war, submarines were seen at our coasts. We were all motivated to do whatever we could to further the effort for peace, for our country to win the war."

After Camp Davis, the women in Strother’s group were sent to a restricted base at Camp Stewart, Ga., where they were taught to fly drone aircraft while they themselves were in other planes. She flew with four other women with whom she formed lasting bonds.

As the months passed and the WASPs proved themselves to be more than capable fliers, the Army further expanded their range of responsibilities. Many, in addition to towing targets, became test pilots, instructors, weather pilots, utility and cargo pilots, and trainers. In 1944 Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot who later flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, chose Strother and Dorothea Johnson Moorman to learn to fly the B-29 bomber and convince men pilots that the huge aircraft, which had a reputation for unpredictability, was reliable. Neither Strother nor Moorman had ever flown a four-engine plane, which was why they were given the task. Tibbets needed to prove that the B-29 could be flown by anyone — even women.

Strother and Moorman only received three days of training. On one occasion Strother was in the air with Tibbets when an engine started smoking. Reacting with aplomb, "She did everything just like the book said to do it," Tibbets said in "Fly Girls."

After gaining familiarity with the plane, Strother and Moorman flew it from Birmingham, Ala., to Clovis, N.M., where they took male crews on flights to show what the B-29 could do.

"It was an easy airplane to fly," Strother says. "We were surprised when we sat at the controls: It was so well engineered. I was impressed with the size of it; although it was a large plane, it was easier to fly than some of the twin-engine planes."

In 1995 she received a letter from one of those pilots, thanking her for helping him and the others overcome their hesitations about the B-29. "You were the pilot that day," he wrote, "and demonstrated your excellent flying skills."

By the end of 1944 men fliers began returning home as the Allies took increasing control of the skies. The need for extra aviators to ferry planes and perform similar duties was diminishing. Predictably, over Cochran’s strenuous objections, the WASP unit was disbanded even more quickly than it had been formed.

Strother returned to Northwestern in fall 1945 as a junior. "It was kind of strange," she says. "People were younger than I was, and students who were coming in had a different feeling toward the war. They weren’t ready to go out and sign up and join the Army."

She tried to join a war veterans’ group that was forming on campus, but the organization did not recognize her service and would not allow her to participate in its meetings.

Strother began ferrying aircraft left over from the war to New York. She would often miss class a week at a time. Realizing this arrangement was not going to work, Strother became a flight instructor at local airfields during the day and took night classes at the Chicago campus, graduating in 1949 (the Northwestern Alumni Association presented her with an Alumni Merit Award in 1968).

But flying was still her passion. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign she taught flying and worked at the school’s aviation psychology lab in a flight program sponsored by the Navy. It sparked something in her, leading Strother to earn a master’s degree there in applied psychology in 1953 and a doctorate in aviation education and psychology at New York University in 1958.

Strother worked as a human factors engineer for Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth until her retirement in 1986. At Bell she worked on helicopter cockpit design, pilot interface and human behavior — and also set women’s world records in 1961 in rotorcraft for altitude and distance. She received the Amelia Earhart Award that same year.

John Emery, who worked with Strother at Bell for 25 years, admires her dedication to aviation and human factors engineering. "Dora was a delightful lady," he says. "She was always true to following what she wanted to do."

While some males felt uncomfortable in the presence of such an accomplished woman, those who got close to her "knew she was wonderful," Emery says. "She was very down-to-earth, never aloof, never guarded about being a lady and she never used it to her advantage."

From Strother’s perspective, her gender was not a serious problem in her career. "The discrimination that I ran into all faded away once you could prove that you could do what you were supposed to do," she says.

Although the WASPs had not been recognized as veterans after the war, they were offered commissions. Strother took hers and stayed in the Air Force reserve, where she rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded the 9823rd Air Reserve Squadron.

In the congressional battle for militarization the WASPs performed with their typical competence and eye to preparation. "A lot of us did a lot of work getting verification," she says. "We provided examples of how we were promised that we would be put in the military and how we were treated."

And their efforts paid off. "Within the year we were recognized as having been veterans," Strother says. "We were given an honorable discharge and a military certificate that then allowed us to receive military benefits."

Indirectly the WASPs can take credit for introducing Strother to her husband, Lester, a journalist who passed away last year and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in November. In 1961 he interviewed her for a story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the group.

Indeed, Strother has always welcomed publicity for the WASPs. In addition to a collection of materials and information at the Texas Woman’s University archives and numerous Web sites and organizations dedicated to telling their tale, the PBS "American Experience" documentary was something of a capstone for the group’s members.

"We’re getting to an age when we may not all be here very long," Strother says. "I think that a lot of the women have raised their families, are now widows and love to relive the good old days. Now, there is a lot of attention paid to our group because women are holding prominent positions in the military, even in the war in Afghanistan right now. I think our group provided a link that proved to the military that women were capable of handling complex tasks like flying with skill and competence."

Strother is confident that her experiences as a woman pilot and in the field of aviation helped to clear the way for women pursuing professions in typically male-dominated fields.

"It was a magnificent opportunity," she says about her wartime experience. "I think that, aside from the thrill of it, anytime that any of the women pilots flew anyplace, they felt they were representing women worldwide and for generations to come. We knew we were breaking barriers, and we had to fly our best."

Negar Tekeei, a junior in the Medill School of Journalism, was a summer intern for Northwestern magazine. During the fall quarter she was a reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times as part of the Medill Teaching Media program.