2017-07-13 / Voices

Lakota Woman’s Biggest Dream Was To Fly


I first met Ola “Millie” Rexroat on a scorching summer day in 2009. In fact, it was the only time I would meet her. Yet moments from the experience are etched into my memory. That’s what can happen when we encounter a truly unique individual.

Petite, wearing a crisp striped blouse, white slacks and a white cap smartly cocked back on her head, Millie looked every bit the former World War Two pilot – still…at 91.

Wanting her to be as comfortable as possible during our interview I’d brought my wife along. Millie was blind, a woman and an elder. I was a stranger. I thought having a friendly, supportive voice present would help ease any anxiety she might have.

Little did I know how self-assured this Lakota warrior woman was.

Inviting us into her apartment, Millie offered my wife and I cool drinks, bantered a bit about the heat and then suggested we get to it – an indication of her direct, but amiable, manner.

Most conversations I’ve had with Native elders have been enjoyable and filled with humor. Millie’s was no exception.

For example:

“I was in the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. That’s WASPs.”

“Did you buzz?”

“Not often.”

Well-educated with a Bachelor’s degree and postgraduate engineering courses Millie explained that she’d found herself in Washington, D.C. at the start of World War Two in a clerical position at the U.S. Army War College.

Like thousands of other women Millie wanted to do something significant to help the war effort but was held back by her gender.

She began weighing her options for military enlistment. Not the Women’s Army Corps. Nor the U.S. Navy. Millie sent a telegram to the Marines but wasn’t impressed by their vague reply.

No matter where she served the bottom line was that Millie wanted to do something vital to assist in the war effort. Something bigger than filing or typing or shorthand.

Although she couldn’t even drive a car Millie had a startling revelation of what her role in this global conflict would be. As she recalled that moment of inspiration her mood brightened, a smile formed across her face and her entire small frame seemed to rise out of her chair.

“I thought…if I could do something like fly.”

The word trailed away into the room around us like a small plane lifting its wings - and Millie was there…back in the 1940s, climbing into her cockpit, revving her engine, soaring up into the clouds.

Millie found she could take flying lessons for $8 an hour - a lot of money in those days, but this was her dream. Once she accumulated 35 hours of flight time she applied to be an Army Air Force WASP.

After 8 long months Millie graduated training. Stationed at Eagle Pass, Texas in September 1944 her mission was the dangerous job of towing targets for aerial gunnery practice. She also performed “ferry trips” - flying military personnel from one location to another.

But Millie’s dream to serve her country was short-lived. The WASP program was disbanded in December 1944 - just 3 months into her flying career.

Like her fellow WASPs Millie was devastated, but recovered. Some women were able to continue flying after the war. Most found work in other fields. Millie became one of the first female air traffic controllers for the Federal Aviation Administration - a job she stayed with until she retired.

Only 1074 women earned WASP wings; 38 died in the line of duty. Although they served their country during the war, WASPs weren’t given the same benefits or rank as their male counterparts until 1977. On July 1, 2009 President Obama awarded each WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.

Millie became a role model for many women – Native and non. For her determination. For her drive. For her spirit. And for her unwillingness to take “No” as an answer.

She accomplished many goals in her long life but the one she was most proud of was proving to the US military that a woman can, in fact, fly a plane.

Ola “Millie” Rexroat passed on June 28 at 99 - just weeks shy of her 100th birthday. She left behind many examples of how to fulfill your dreams but the most striking was her belief that if you can see it, you can do it.

As a young woman, Millie said “if I could fly”, saw herself in a cockpit and then made that dream a reality.

The rest is aviation history.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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