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The Only Native American WASP

We celebrated Native American Heritage Month in November. The brave and patriotic woman has a chapter They Roared, which will be out next month.

Ola Mildred Rexroat was born in Argonia, Kansas, on August 28, 1917. Her father, Ulysses Stewart Rexroat, was an Euro-American and her mother, Clara Rexroat, an Oglala tribal member. The family moved frequently, making attendance at school irregular, though there is a record of Ola's attendance at public school in Wynona, Oklahoma for a brief period. Details about this time of her life are sketchy, but Ola refers to her mother and sisters often. (I found a record of two sisters and a half brother.) Ola was still very young when her family moved to South Dakota. She spent at least part of her youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she lived with her grandmother, who was Oglala/Lakota.

Ola graduated from St. Mary’s Episcopal Indian School in Springfield, South Dakota when she was fifteen, then enrolled in Chadron State Teachers College in Chadron, Nebraska. She thought teaching would be a suitable profession for her. However, before completing her degree at the teachers' college, she accepted a job with what is now the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

In 1939, Ola was awarded a full scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico. She was now twenty-two. After graduation, she went back to work for the BIA, this time in Gallup, New Mexico. When Ola left the BIA, she went to work for an engineering firm, building airfields. This is when the flying bug bit her.

When the U.S. entered WWII, Ola wanted to serve her country. She did not even have a driver’s license, yet she knew she wanted to fly. In an interview later in her life she said: “I didn’t even know how to drive a car. And I thought… if I could do something like fly…”Her first choice was to join the Marines. Ola sent a telegram to the local recruiting office requesting details and paperwork to join. The response was not at all satisfactory. But this was one strong woman whose determination ran deep, so she looked for other ways to serve her country.

Ola learned about the Women Airforce Service Project (WASP). She moved to Washington, D.C. with her mother and sisters. In an interview, Ola shared that her mother always called her “bull headed.” When asked why she thought that was, she laughed and said, “Probably because I was!” In D.C. she found employment at the Army War College. Ola began taking flying lessons in her spare time at a nearby airport. When she had thirty-five hours of flight time, she applied to the WASP.

Ola was accepted into WASP and trained in Sweetwater, Texas. She endured the strenuous training for eight long months and received her wings. The women cheered each other on during the rigorous training and her classmates called her “Sexy Rexy.” Ola’s assignment after graduation was one of the most dangerous. She towed targets in a T-6 airplane for aerial gunnery students at Eagle Pass Army Airfield, just north of Eagle Pass, in Texas. She also flew cargo and personnel transport missions.

When asked if Ola ever worried about being shot down, she replied: "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."

In December 1944, when the WASP was unceremoniously disbanded, Ola was very concerned that she would not be able to continue flying. This was a factor for many of the skilled WASP. Ola joined the Air Force. She served for ten years as an air traffic controller at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Her work as an air traffic controller continued for the Federal Aviation Administration. Even though Ola was not flying, she was still working close to aircraft, and she had a purpose. Both were important to her. Ola spent thirty-three years in service to her country.

Ola retired in 1973 and created original artworks in a variety of media and techniques. She served two terms as President of the North American Indian Women’s Association (NAIWA).

Captain Ola Mildred Rexroat was one of only six South Dakotans to serve in the WASP and was the only female Native American. Ola died in June 2017 at ninety-nine. She is survived by her son, Forrest McDonald of Oakland, CA, who, through an interview, offered some of the information about his mother. Just before her death, she was the last surviving WASP in South Dakota and one of the 275 living WASP out of the original 1,074.

A few months after Ola’s death, the operations building at Ellsworth Airfare Base in South Dakota, was named after her.

Ola was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007.

In 2009, along with her fellow WASP, Ola Mildred Rexroat received the Congressional Gold Medal for outstanding service to their country.

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