‘Leap and Hope You Grow Wings’: WWII Woman Aviator Speaks About Her Journey

wwii-woman-pilot-alyce-stevens-rohrer
WWII pilot Alyce Rohrer.

The thunder in her eyes matches her lion-like name: Alyce Stevens Rohrer watched the movers methodically pack up the fine china that miraculously survived two children, seven grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren. Not to mention the decades of cocker spaniels, bridge club gatherings, holiday festivities and socials that shook the house with activity and laughter. Her voice cut through all the commotion, “Be gentle with that. It means a lot to me.”  The mid-century home was nestled in Sierra Madre, the upper-class suburb of Pasadena, Calif., where she settled with her husband and two children after the war. 

“This isn’t the first time I’ve had to make such a change, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” Rohrer said, leaning back on her pastel green armchair.  She is referring to the time she left home to join the United States Air Force during World War II. 

Rohrer is one of the few living Women Air Service Pilots of WWII, and she still authors books and goes on speaking tours when her health allows it. We are not allowed to know her age. Birthday cakes have wished her a “Happy 39th Birthday” for several decades.

Grandma is what you call an old lady, and I simply don’t feel like I’m a grandma yet.” She paused for a moment, “Well, I have four great-great-grandchildren now, so I suppose I am ready to be called Grandma if need be. … They didn’t have birth certificates back then,” she said, “women had home births, and with so many children running around I’m pretty sure my mom may not have kept track.”

A birthday is concrete for most, but for Rohrer, it is simply a suggestion.  She has always been a rule-bender, rebel or trailblazer, depending on who you ask.

“I knew I would be a pilot one day, and no one could stop me,” said Rohrer, pictured here with one of her great-grandchildren. (Courtesy)

Rohrer grew up impoverished with two brothers and two sisters in Provo, Utah, squished into a two-bedroom home on a tiny farm. Everyone worked the farm as soon as they could walk. 

“I knew I wanted more,” she told me. “I wanted freedom. As a little girl I would work the fields and watch a plane fly over. The first time I saw one I lit up. I knew I would be a pilot one day, and no one could stop me.” 

Women were not allowed to fly commercial jets, but as a young teen she convinced the local town pilot to teach her to fly, to help crop-dust the fields.  Rohrer’s daughter says she has a timeless elegance and grace about her.  She moves slower with each passing day, but each movement is deliberately cordial. 

When the local newspaper announced in 1943 recruiting for the Women Air Service Pilot Program (WASP) in Sweetwater, Texas, Rohrer knew her calling had come. From over 25,000 women who applied to the program, she was one of only 1,830 accepted. Family members argued whether she ran away or had her family’s blessing.

“It was a difficult time,” she told me. “They simply had no room for me.” 

Rohrer as a child with her parents. (Courtesy)

Life as a WASP

Rohrer learned how to fly every type of military plane in Sweetwater, Texas. Women were not allowed on combat missions, but trained for high-risk jobs over which America would not risk losing a man’s life. This included test piloting aircraft for safety, transporting cargo and military leaders around the United States. 

Her most vivid memory was transporting an Air Force colonel to an important meeting at a base in another state. A large storm was coming, yet she was given the all-clear. She tried to fly around the worsening storm but couldn’t. The colonel started panicking, “That lightning is really close!  Isn’t that going to hit us?”

His panic was making Rohrer lose focus, so she lied, “Oh, this lightning? Lightning does not work like that.  It needs to be grounded in order to cause issues. We’re okay since we’re in the air.” She calmed him enough to find a small farm with a road long enough to land, and wait out the storm, never copping to her untruth. 

Rohrer operated planes that towed targets for anti-aircraft gun practice: “We would tow a target with some rope behind us and hope the guys shooting at us didn’t miss or had their eyes checked recently.” She laughed as she sipped her tea. “I was lucky, but others weren’t.” She looked away. 

Thirty-eight women lost their lives during the program. The military would not pay for their funerals; fellow WASPs sent around collection baskets to send their fellow pilots home.  

In an interview with the Grit Project in 2016 she said, “It sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t. We were just flying the training aircraft that were all beat up. … I enjoyed it because I loved acrobatics.”

The Dismissal

When the war ended, men wanted their jobs back, and the Women Air Service Pilots program was disbanded. Immediately. The program was classified, and all documents were sealed. They received no fanfare, no commendations, no bus fare home. Highly trained and skilled aviators could at best be offered a position as a flight attendant. They were forced to press years of adventure away like a wrinkle in freshly folded linens. Alyce Stevens met her husband James Rohrer on the airfield. He was a flight instructor who worked alongside her at Sweetwater Air Force Base.

They were married after the war and moved to California, to build their own home and raise their daughter and son. James was rewarded for his significant military record, and honored with awards, commendations and a job offer in Japan.  Mitsubishi wanted his expertise in aeronautical engineering and paid for his family to live in Japan for three years while their home was under construction. Alyce Rohrer grew into a strong and silent military wife, learning domestication with a hint of quiet indignation. She was a homemaker, then a high school English teacher, then finally an author once she had the freedom to share her view. 

She taught herself how to play the organ and piano.  The art that comforted her most, however, was her passion to write. Her first major book, The True Believers, outlined the life and days in the Mormon church.  It won her national acclaim.  She continued to write over five more books, eventually working up the courage to write about her time as a WASP. 

Girls of Avenger was the chance I had to finally tell our story,” she said. “It felt amazing to finally be able to do so.”

The Recognition

In 2009, 64 years after the end of World War II, the Women Air Service Pilots were finally honored for their wartime service by receiving the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama—the body’s highest expression of national appreciation. Only 300 WASPs survived to receive their medals, accompanied by family, friends and caregivers.

Obama said, “The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.” 

Rohrer was further honored by her member of Congress in a private ceremony in his office with close family and friends.  On New Year’s Day in 2014, the Rose Parade featured a float with eight WASP members riding on it.  Alyce proudly waved to the cheering crowds as her family cheered from the stands. 

The Pandemic

In April 2018, Alyce and her tediously-packed antiques moved to an assisted living facility three blocks away. A caregiver helped her with activities, kept track of her doctor’s appointments, and rolled her hair every week like she was used to at the salon. The dining area was furnished more like a family dining room than a cafeteria. She had no idea that move would save her life.

Rohrer with her family at home. (Courtesy)

The pandemic hit Los Angeles in February 2020. Alyce received a visit from her grandchild and great-grandchild on Valentine’s Day weekend. Days later they went into a complete lockdown. Her facility closed to visitors and kept as many staff as possible living on-site. Commuters needed weekly COVID tests. No deliveries were allowed in or out. When the supply chains broke down, no reliable way existed to get life’s little comforts.

“I didn’t know when I could get my food or medication, and I suddenly had to do everything on my own since my caregiver was no longer allowed on site.” Being a fiery rule-bender, she still found ways around the lockdown. Her caregiver dropped off items she could scavenge in small plastic bags near her door, sprayed down with bleach.

Then she received the news that her brother in Klamath Falls, Ore., and his wife were fighting for their lives in the ICU. His wife passed away from COVID shortly thereafter, and she wasn’t able to say goodbye.

Her hearing aid stopped working, and there were no mobile hearing aid repairs. She was stuck without any help or way to fix it, and could no longer communicate by telephone, her lifeline to the outside world. She learned how to use the computer with regularity to email her daughter and grandchildren. She used this time of silence and forced isolation to write. She edited her old books and continued to write new ones.

Rohrer at home. (Courtesy)

Eventually a grandchild was able to help her schedule a hearing aid appointment and also set up a new video conferencing platform called the Facebook Portal Plus for her. It was basically a tablet on a stand with a loudspeaker that had pre-programmed applications on it. Finally, Alyce just had to push a button or say the words, “Hey Portal, call my daughter” and it would ring through to her. She would finally be able to see video and loud audio enough to read lips and finally interact with the world again.

The Facebook Portal arrived on Christmas Eve. After 10 months of complete isolation, she was able to see her family for Christmas. The first day she spent over an hour on the video chat. The next day even more. Within a week other family members had worked together to set up a video chat between Alyce and her brother. She recounted that moment in time.

“I am so grateful, I just started crying. I never believed that I would ever be able to see my brother’s face again. He can’t travel, I can’t travel, we are just too far away, and I never thought I would see him again. But I did. I can’t be thankful enough for such a beautiful gift!”

Over the next few months, she started getting stronger again. She received the vaccination in January 2021, and once her daughter was vaccinated in March they were finally reunited once more, after 13 months without a hug or touching another loved one.

Things were looking up for Alyce, but unfortunately, while caring for herself, she fractured her spine. It took months for the doctors to figure out what was wrong while using telemedicine, but they finally managed to send an entire X-ray machine to the property to have her examined on site. She was told she would need to have a surgery that would inject a glue into her spine and seal up the cracks. A relatively minor back surgery, although nothing is minor in your 90s and during a pandemic.

When asked how she felt about the upcoming surgery, she simply said with that ever-glowing fire in her eyes, “Well dear, I’ll do what I always do. I’ll leap and hope I grow wings.”

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About

Shersy Benson is an infinitely curious writer, coach and problem solver. She is the chief operating officer and producer at The WebiNerd, LLC, where her team produces events and webinars for Fortune 500 companies. Benson is dedicated to improving women’s lives through advocacy and communication.