by Logan Walker
For Ola Mildred “Millie” Rexroat, America’s 1942 declaration of war was a personal call to action, and the catalyst for a choice that would change her life and, quite literally, lift her miles above the classrooms and offices that dominated the working lives of so many women. Fearless, irrepressible, and, as her mother liked to note, particularly stubborn, she would become not only a WASP but the only Native American woman to serve in the organization.
Born on a hot summer day in Argonia, Kansas in 1917, her father was a publisher and editor who frequently moved his family between towns and her mother was an Oglala-Lakota Indian who grew up in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Rexroat spent portions of her childhood visiting her grandmother on that Reservation. When she grew old enough to attend school, her family moved to Oklahoma, and then to Springfield, South Dakota in time for her to graduate from St Mary’s Indian High School for Girls in 1932. After high school, Rexroat bounced from place to place, attending a teaching college in Chadron, Nebraska, then moving to a work study program at a school in Springfield before settling at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Following her graduation in 1938, she spent time working for The Bureau of Indian Affairs at a reservation in Gallup Texas and, prophetically, working with airfield engineers in El Paso. While this short term work might have opened her eyes to future possibilities; it would be America’s entrance into the Second World War that propelled her into the cockpit of a plane.
By 1942, Rexroat had moved with her mother and sisters, finding employment at the Army War College in Washington, DC. She felt she couldn’t stay on the sidelines of the unfolding war for long but recognized the route that she planned to pursue was unlike anything she had experienced before, noting, “I had some skills that I was pretty good at. But that consisted of typing and shorthand and other office procedures.” She was not one to let this stand in her way.
“I thought I should join the WAC, which was the Women’s Army Corps. And I didn’t really want to do that. Should I join the Navy? And I didn’t know enough about that. And I thought about the Marines, which I did think I would like, and I sent them a telegram.” When The U.S Marine Corps sent no answer, a new idea took shape in her head. ”I thought, if I had some background of doing something, maybe I could, you know, do something that really made a difference. And that’s how I happened to think about…if I could do something like fly.”
With a new goal in sight, Rexroat embarked on a series of $8 an hour flying lessons, knowing that upon the completion of 35 hours she would qualify as a WASP applicant. Her flight lessons completed, she would eventually be accepted into the program, but news of her success met a bittersweet reception. While her sisters were supportive, her mother was not. “My mother was totally against it. Even though I told her I was not going to really be in combat, she said nevertheless, it was training other people to kill other people…and that’s why she objected to it. Other than that it was dangerous.”
Rexroat reported for training in Sweetwater, Texas, graduating in September 1944. She was assigned to Eagle Pass Army Airfield where she towed aerial gunnery targets behind a T6 plane and made occasional trips ferrying military personal between locations. Rexroat had a genuine love for her new occupation even stating that on her list of favorite things in the world, “I’d put (flying) right up there, like number 1 or 1 and ½.”
Although trailing targets could be particularly perilous, she recalls, “You didn’t have time to be frightened or scared or anything like that. I was usually more concerned about my landings.”
She was regularly the near-focus of practice gunfire, but, in her own words, “I never gave it a thought. You couldn’t worry about things like that…You can’t live forever. They checked the target after we came down, and of course, it was to our credit if it had lots of holes in it, that meant we had been maintaining our altitude and heading.”
One of Rexroat’s gleefully remembered stories involves one of her Air Force superiors, who, after a training session, handed her the keys to a jeep so that she could drive it to retrieve a target. As she tells it, “This was a big problem for me, because I didn’t know how to drive. I had never learned how to drive a car. I don’t think anybody trusted me with a car, but I could fly a plane.”
Rexroat’s tenure as a WASP pilot would only last 3 months as the program was disbanded in the summer of ’44. Like many of her peers in the program, Rexroat was disheartened, noting, “We were devastated. I think all of us. Because we were enjoying flying. No matter what kind of duty we had, we liked it.” Her short career as a WASP had influenced her greatly and she went on to take a job in the Air Force Reserves, serving on active duty in the midst of the Korean War, and later working as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Commission.
Inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007, her plaque honors her nearly ten year career as an Air Force Reserve Captain at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Rexroat would also hold the title of President of the New Mexico chapter of the North American Indian Women’s Association. At 98, the former pilot who currently goes by the nickname “Millie” (a cozy sobriquet in comparison to her youthful nicknames “Rexy” and even “Sexy Rexy”) lives as a retiree at the South Dakota State Veteran’s Home in Hot Springs, the last surviving WASP in her state. Looking back at her time flying for the WASP, Rexroat, now 98, has no regrets.
“I’m glad I did it, glad I had the chance to do it. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing."
Recently she was honored by a National Native Women's Group. Traditional Lakota singers and guests gathered to acknowledge her service. Georgia Pedro, President of the North American Indian Women's Association (NAIWA) described Rexroat as a "loving, caring person with a wonderful sense of humor" and that as a member of the WASP, she carried on the Native American tradition of women warriors. "She was just a brave person...not even thinking 'I can't do something because I'm a woman'. "