Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Faribault renames airport honoring WASP Liz Wall Strohfus, who proved that girls can fly June 22, 2017

SHE WAS AN AVIATION PIONEER for women, an advocate for female veterans and an inspiration to many. And Saturday afternoon, local celebrity Elizabeth “Betty Wall” Strohfus will be posthumously honored with renaming and dedication of the Faribault Municipal Airport as Liz Wall Strohfus Field. She died in March 2016 at the age of 96.

 

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

 

Strohfus served as a Women’s Air Force Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II. In that job, she trained infantry gunners for battle, taught instrument flying to male cadets and ferried warbirds around the U.S. After her service, she lobbied and succeeded in getting active military duty status for WASPs and burial rights for these service women at Arlington National Cemetery. She is best known perhaps, though, for her inspirational talks primarily to students in 31 states over nearly three decades.

Commercial pilot Cheri Rohlfing, who was inspired by Strohfus, will be among several speakers addressing attendees during a 2 p.m. program at the Faribault airport. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, with whom Strohfus worked on WASP veterans’ issues, will speak first. Others scheduled to talk are Strohfus’ son Art Roberts and Terry Baker, who worked on restoring a BT-13 like the one Strohfus piloted. That plane will be on-site at Saturday’s 1 – 4 p.m. event. Eventually the bomber will find a permanent home at the National WASP Museum at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where Strohfus trained.

 

Faribault based Brushwork Signs designed and created this sign gracing the newly-renamed Faribault airport. Image is courtesy of Brushwork Signs.

 

The Faribault American Association of University Women, prompted by retired educator Gloria Olson, initiated renaming of the airport and has been planning Saturday’s tribute. “It fits our (AAUW’s) mission—recognition and support of women and girls, along with education of women and girls, which was important to Liz as well,” Olson wrote in an email.

In addition to the airport renaming and placement of new signage honoring Strohfus, a sculpture by renowned Faribault woodcarver Ivan Whillock has been completed just in time for the June 24 dedication. It will hang in the airport lobby.

Family activities and music are also part of Saturday’s celebration along with a display—including memorabilia, photos, posters and a continuously running video telling Strohfus’ story. After the airport event, the Village Theater in historic downtown Faribault will feature two free showings (at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.) of local filmmaker Steve Cloutier’s documentary, “Betty Wall: Girls Don’t Fly.”

Strohfus proved she could fly, joining the Faribault Sky Club and becoming the first woman to solo fly at the Faribault airport in 1942. She acquired a bank loan to join the club by putting her bike up as collateral.

Such tenacity impresses me as do this aviator’s numerous accomplishments. Among her many awards are two Congressional Medals of Honor and induction into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

 

Liz Wall Strohfus. Photo courtesy of Gloria Olson.

 

AAUW member Olson shared the importance of renaming the local airport in honor of Strohfus for “all her military accomplishments, what she did for women veterans, and women and girls in general, inspiring youth to follow their dreams, all her honors, Faribault icon, everyone’s friend, and…first local site of any significance honoring a woman.”

Strohfus will receive one more posthumous honor. The Faribault City Council recently passed a resolution designating June 24 as Liz Wall Strohfus Day in the city of Faribault.

Memorabilia donated by Strohfus’ son will be added to an exhibit on the aviator already in place at the Rice County Historical Society.

For a woman who was once told by a local banker that “girls don’t fly,” all these tributes prove she could. And she did. And on Saturday, Strohfus will be recognized in her hometown for her many accomplishments in the field of aviation.

FYI: Northfield-based KYMN radio (95.1 FM) will rebroadcast an interview with Strohfus at 10 a.m. Friday. The interview with radio personality Wayne Eddy originally aired on May 30, 2014.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos are courtesy of Brushwork Signs and of Gloria Olson

 

BibleSticks and battle prayers May 28, 2011

A tattered prayer book carried by my father to Korea, where he fought on the front lines during the Korean Conflict. Touching these pages, I feel the faith of my soldier father.

LAST SUNDAY AFTER SERVICES at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, we watched a brief video about BibleSticks.

Never heard of them? I hadn’t either, until viewing that clip.

“The Military BibleStick is a digital audio player that is pre-loaded with a dramatized recording of the entire New Testament,” according to the Faith Comes by Hearing website. The organization, dedicated to getting the Word of God into the world, “offers 557 Audio Scripture recordings in 553 languages reaching more than 5 billion people in more than 185 countries.”

Part of that outreach includes the U.S. military. Demand is great for the 3 ½-inch long, less than one inch thick, camouflaged, battery-operated BibleSticks, I learned via the video. For whatever reason, the BibleSticks must be processed through military chaplains.

With a $25 donation, we could give a slip-in-the-pocket, portable New Testament to military men and women.

Although I personally don’t know of anyone who has used a BibleStick, I do understand the importance of access to Scripture, especially for our soldiers.

Flashback to February 1952, when my father, Elvern Kletscher of Vesta, was drafted. Less than a year later, he found himself in the mountains of Korea, a U.S. military infantryman fighting on the frontline during the Korean Conflict.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, preparing to leave his Vesta farm home in April 1952, six weeks after he was drafted.

On February 26, 1953, he was struck in the neck by shrapnel at Heartbreak Ridge. Later, he would be awarded the Korean Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart.

During those combat days, when my dad feared for his life, when he was forced to shoot the enemy or die, he relied on his deep faith in God.

My Dad's worn copy of God Our Refuge.

And he carried with him a 3-inch by 4 ½-inch black book, God Our Refuge. A gift from the St. John’s Lutheran Ladies’ Aid of Vesta, the book includes gospel readings, devotions, meditations, prayers, hymns and more.

Within the pages of that volume, my dad found solace, hope and comfort in the face of constant death.

Now eight years after his death, I cradle the tiny book in my palm, brush my fingers against the brittle, black leather covers, open the curled pages that are loosening from the binding. I think of my father, how he carried this book in his pocket, how he flipped and read the 144 pages, how he prayed while trapped inside the cold earth of a foxhole, while engaging in battle, while lying inside his tent at night.

The inscription reads: To Elvern Kletscher with best wishes from the Lutheran Ladies' Aid at Vesta, Minn.

As I turn to page 117 of my dad’s tattered copy of God Our Refuge, I feel forever connected to him, my fingers touching the paper he touched, reading the words he read 58 years ago as a young soldier in battle:

“In Thine arms I rest me;

Foes who would molest me

Cannot reach me here.

Though the earth be shaking,

Every heart be quaking,

Jesus calms my fear.

Lightnings flash and thunders crash;

Yet, though sin and hell assail me,

Jesus will not fail me.”

HAVE YOU OR SOMEONE you know used a BibleStick? If so, I’d like to hear about your experience with this audio version of Scripture and what it meant to you.

My grandparents, Ida and Henry Kletscher, posing with some of their children, flank my father, Elvern Kletscher, who is about to leave for military service in 1952. My uncle Merlin is the youngest, standing in the front row wearing the bib overalls.

BEHIND EVERY PICTURE, there is a story, including stories about the images of my father and his family, above.

My uncle, Merlin Kletscher, found these two photos in the winter of 2010 while researching for a family reunion. They were tucked inside a worn copy of The Lutheran Hymnal, copyright 1941, published by Concordia Publishing House. That hymnbook belonged to my grandfather, whose name, Henry Kletscher, was inked in gold on the cover. He had taped the edges and binding of the much-used songbook.

The two photos were sandwiched between song 409, “Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus,” and song 410, “Jesus Lead Thou On.”

The latter was one of my Grandpa Henry’s favorite hymns, Uncle Merlin recalls.

“I have not found any other photos or negatives which leads me to think that these pictures were very dear to him,” my uncle says.

Now those photos are also very dear to me. When Merlin handed copies to me last summer, I teared up. Little did my father know then what horrors awaited him on the battlefields of Korea, how his life and death experiences would forever change him.

And my heart ached for my Grandma Ida, standing there beside her soldier son. I wish I had asked her how she felt, how they all felt. Now I have only these photos to show me the close love of a family sending their boy off to war.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Remembering my dad, a Korean War veteran November 11, 2010

 

 

Elvern Kletscher, my dad

 

I’VE JUST PULLED TWO FILES from a cabinet in my office. One’s labeled “Elvern K. (obit, death certificate).” The other is simply labeled “KOREA.”

Then I turn toward a chest of drawers, also in my office, and remove a shoebox from the bottom drawer. It’s tagged “Elvern Kletscher’s Korean pix, etc. Important stuff.” I’ve underlined “Important stuff” twice.

The contents of that shoebox connect to the contents of the files. All encompass my dad’s time serving with the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict.

 

 

Some of the items from my dad's time in the military, stored in a shoebox.

 

Sifting through the files and shoebox brings me to tears as I remember my dad, who fought on the front lines, was wounded on February 26, 1953, at Heartbreak Ridge and received a Purple Heart medal 47 years later. He died in 2003.

My father talked very little of his time in Korea. So other than generalities and a few shared stories, only his black-and-white photos and letters offer me a glimpse of the young man who was drafted and sent into combat.

In letters written to his family, my dad vents his frustrations and concerns. I’ll share snippets of a letter from Korea dated March 4, 1953, his 22nd birthday, and written days after he was wounded.

Dear Mother, Dad & all

Guess you’s have been snowbound for awhile. “Huh” Just got your letter today. Well I’m 22 now. Birthday is past by a couple hours. Sure isn’t much of a birthday. But guess I can’t expect much over here.

Then he proceeds to blast the draft board and politicians after learning that his younger brother, Harold, may be called to duty. I can’t quote everything he wrote, but let me tell you, my father is fuming. He writes, in part:

Do they know what this is like over here? Hell no. Why the heck don’t some of them come over here and look this over. They’d probably come to their senses…

In the third page of his letter, my father-soldier continues:

I didn’t get your package yet, but they will be here soon mail is awful poor in coming through. Nobody is getting any mail. I’ve got 17 points now I think. They pile up fast. Sure wish I had the 36 of them though. I still think I’ll leave Korea in August. So it isn’t too long anymore. I sure hope I get out 3 months prior to my discharge. That’s almost all we talk about in the day time is how many points each other has got and when we think we will leave this hell hole.

Those are two strong words: hell hole.

But the few war stories that my father shared were nothing short of hellish. He told of digging foxholes and praying that God would save him from death, of a buddy blown up before his eyes, of a sniper picking off members of his platoon until my dad picked off the sniper, of being pinned down for days in trenches under constant enemy shelling…

 

 

My dad brought this 7-inch by 9-inch cloth "RETURNED FROM HELL" patch home with him after serving for nearly a year in Korea.

 

Through the attacks, the combat, the deaths of buddies, all through his year in Korea, my dad held strong to his faith. He wrote:

Sure was good to go to church. I had communion. I always try and make every church service they got over here. Once a week the chaplain comes up here on the hill. It’s always good to go. Always makes a guy know he isn’t alone.

In concluding his 3 ½-page letter, my father tells his parents:

I’m feeling fine and don’t worry about me. I’ll write again. Love Vern

Not once in his 87-line letter does my dad mention that just nine days earlier he was struck on the right side of his neck by shrapnel from a mortar round.

 

 

Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his buddies in Korea.

 

TODAY, VETERANS DAY, please take time to honor a veteran, remembering all they have sacrificed for their country.

In conclusion, I wish to quote a few lines from a news release issued by former Second District Congressman David Minge on May 12, 2000, the year my dad received his Purple Heart for those wounds suffered on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

These two men are a prime example of sacrifice and service to our nation. For fifty years, Norman Kalk and Elvern Kletscher knew the truth that they had earned these medals. I am gratified that we could finally recognize their contributions and acknowledge the debt we can never repay.

#

A STORY WHICH I WROTE about my Dad’s service in Korea was published in 2005 in the book God Answers Prayers Military Edition, True Stories from People Who Serve and Those Who Love Them, edited by Allison Bottke. To read that story, “Faith and Hope in a Land of Heartbreak,” click onto the Harvest House Publishers website.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling