SURFSIDE — “I just love to fly,” Dorothy Kocher Olsen said in May 2011 as she approached her 95th birthday and her first parade, the 51st Loyalty Day Parade in Long Beach.
Olsen’s death on July 23 at age 103 in University Place was covered by the Washington Post in a story largely based on one written by retired Chinook Observer writer Kevin Heimbigner.
“From the time I was a little girl and jumped from the top of our barn in Woodburn, Ore., and into the hay until the time I was flying night missions as a Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) over moon-lit Texas during World War II, I just loved to fly,” Olsen told the Observer in 2011. With her death, it’s believed 37 WASPs remain living.
Here are some excerpts from the Observer’s 2011 story:
Olsen, who is all of 5 feet tall and still fits her WASP uniform almost 70 years later, can’t decide which airplane is her favorite between classic fighter planes, the P-38 Lightning or the P-51 Mustang. She was one of only 12 night-certified women pilots during the harrowing days and some of America’s darkest hours from 1942 to 1944. She flew 61 missions as part of the 6th Ferry Group.
In 2009 Olsen was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the U.S. There were 1,078 women who earned their wings as a WASP during World War II and some felt discriminated against, but not Olsen. “Every man I met in the military treated us like little sisters. They were considerate and admired us. They wouldn’t let us fly overseas so I flew in every part of the United States and in Canada,” she says.
“The government didn’t treat us so well. A bay mate was killed in a plane crash and the rest of us had to take up a collection to get her body back home to Portland because they wouldn’t pay for it,” Olsen relates.
Olsen remembers, “Once I revved up the engines of a P-38 with the brakes on and when I peeled out that was a fun takeoff. A marine on duty said the nicest thing I’ve ever heard when he told me it was nice to see someone so vital. When I flew my last mission in a P-38 I almost cried."
Of the 25,000 women who applied for the Army Air Force, only 1,830 were eventually accepted. After instrument and pursuit school only 1,087 were able to fly and only a dozen, including Olsen passed the tests to fly at night. WASP pilots flew more than 60 million miles from 1942 to 1944. They towed targets for air and ground gunnery practice, tested new and refurbished planes, transported personnel and cargo, led simulated strafing missions, trained navigators and bombardiers on the ground, and like Olsen ferried planes.
“After the War I decided since I couldn’t fly any more I’d get married,” Olsen says. She married Harold Olsen, a Washington State Patrol trooper and they settled at University Place near Tacoma.
“Everyone wants live to be 100 so I figure that’s a good reason for me to go until 103,” she said in 2011. Heimbigner closed his story with a prediction that proved accurate: “the still very vital Dorothy Kocher Olsen will reach the Century Mark and then go flying past.”