National Native American Heritage Month: Ola Mildred Rexroat, Pilot

Ola Mildred Rexroat, who achieved fame as the only Native American to serve as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, was an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She was born in Ogden, Kansas in 1917. Early on in her life, Rexroat moved with her family to South Dakota. She subsequently spent at least part of her formative years growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Mount Rushmore State.

After graduating from the St. Mary’s Episcopal Indian School in Springfield, South Dakota, in 1932, Rexroat enrolled in Chadron State Teachers College (since renamed Chadron State College) in Nebraska. She dropped out, however, to work for the Office of Indian Affairs (the present-day Bureau of Indian Affairs) of the U.S Department of the Interior. Rexroat eventually resumed her college studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico in 1939.

Rexroat then returned to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to work there again briefly. She also found work helping to build airfields, and this employment experience inspired her to want to learn how to fly. This goal became a reality as a result of the U.S. entry in World War II. She joined the WASPs and went to Sweetwater, Texas, for training in that women’s civilian pilots organization.

As a WASP during the war, Rexroat performed several key airborne duties. These included ferrying military officers to various locations, transporting cargo, and towing targets for both air-to-air and ground-to-air gunnery practice. “I did quite a bit of flying,” she later recalled.

Rexroat’s service as a pilot ended when the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, but her career in aviation continued long after World War II. This career included more than three decades altogether as an air traffic controller for both the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Administration and the present-day Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2007, Rexroat was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. She died in Hot Springs, South Dakota, just two months before her 100th birthday in 2017. At the time of her death, she was the last surviving WASP in South Dakota and one of only 275 living pilots out of the original 1,074 who had joined that wartime organization. Not long after Rexroat’s passing, an operations building at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota was named in her memory.

Additional information on Ola Mildred Rexroat is available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ola_Mildred_Rexroat

For information on other Native American female aviation trailblazers, please check out https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/native-american-women-aviation-pioneers

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