top of page
  • Lea Schneider

WWII Pilot Katherine Applegate Keeler Dussaq, a Detective and Forensic Expert, Died in Crash

WWII Pilot Katherine Applegate Keeler Dussaq, a Detective and Forensic Expert, Died in Crash

Squadron Leader Katherine Dussaq lived an amazing life that reads like a fiction novel. She was a stowaway on a ship, a top forensic scientist and owned the first all-female detective agency. First, she was married to the inventor of the lie-detector machine and later she was married to a spy - code name of Anseleme. She was a Women’s Air Force Service pilot who gave her life during WWII. It all began when Kay, formally known as Katherine M. Applegate (later with the married names of Keeler and Dussaq) was born in Dayton, Washington[i] on March 14, 1905.[ii] Her father was Arthur McClellan R. Applegate, from Oregon, and her mother was, Clare M. Moritz Applegate, from Utah. Kay’s maternal grandfather had his own place in history as one of California’s earliest gold seekers.[iii] By 1910, when she was five, they’d moved a couple hours north to Lincoln, WA and her father was the manager at a mill.[iv] He was a Scottish Rite Free Mason.[v] By 1915[vi], the family has moved about 35 miles away and Kay is living in Harrington, WA with her father, the manager at Harrington Milling Company[vii], a flour mill, her mother and her siblings Lindsay Moritz, Alice Adeline, Dorothy A., Clare and Theodore. Katherine was the 4th child of the six.[viii] Her mother was active in the community, was a member of the Eastern Star[ix] and was vice-president of The Mother’s Club.[x] School must have been important to her for she made the newspaper with her perfect attendance.[xi] Kay was an active writer to the local paper even as an 8th grader. In 1917, she wrote “Why the American People Should Conserve Food.”[xii] In her junior year of high school, she was on the debate team. They won the county debate competition taking on the negative side of the debate. She also played on the school’s tennis team, winning the county tournament in girls’ doubles. As a senior in high school she was known as a stellar student and secretary-treasurer of the Natural History Club[xiii], a member of the debate team and the tennis team. In May of 1922, Kay won first place in the annual northeast Washington oratorical contest speaking on Universal Democracy[xiv]. On the same day, she won the girls’ doubles tennis tournament.[xv] The Spokesman-Review newspaper noted she was a prominent student, ranked first in her class and was twice the editor of the school annual.[xvi] It’s no wonder that her self-selected high school graduation motto was, “She had just as much fun as if she had good sense,”[xvii] stated an article remembering her in the Whitman Wire, the news from Whitman College. AFTER SHE LEFT HOME She graduated from Harrington High School, where she was valedictorian[xviii] and then attended, Washington State College in Pullman, WA [xix] where her oldest brother Lindsay had attended.[xx] At Washington State, she continued in oratory competitions representing the college[xxi] and she was a sorority member of Kappa Alpha Theta’s Alpha Sigma Chapter.[xxii] Interestingly, she is recognized by Whitman College, in Walla Walla, WA in a plaque that hangs on the wall there and in their newspaper as being an alumni although there is no official record of her attendance.[xxiii] She had a number of family members who attended Whitman[xxiv] including her older sisters, Alice and Dorothy.[xxv] After a year at WSU, she transferred to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree[xxvi] in psychology[xxvii] and it is little surprise she competed on Stanford University’s Debate Team.[xxviii] In 1924, she was elected President of the Wranglers at Stanford.[xxix] She was also the Assistant Editor for The Spout, a newsletter of the Y.W.C.A.[xxx] Kay made her college newspaper, The Stanford Daily, when she, and other women, took on the press, charging that newspapers used campus events for sensational advertising to sell copies. She said, “The generalizations of college life as given in “The Goose Step” and “The Plastic Age” are detrimental to the best interests of American Universities.” She shared concerns of decreased endowments and that worried parents may not be inclined to send their children to those institutions.[xxxi] The very next year, her own sensational behavior made front page news in the Santa Rosa Republican in California as one of the first trans-Pacific collegiate female stowaways.[xxxii] In the spring of 1927 she set sail for Honolulu, Hawaii as a stowaway on the ship Maui along with a cousin, Katherine Waters. Miss Waters was a student at the University of California and her father was the Mayor of Chico, CA.[xxxiii] According to California newspapers and the Stanford Daily, their caper was discovered two days into the voyage. The girls were given a cabin and freedom aboard the ship with the understanding that they would soon transfer the ship Matsonia, which was heading to the mainland. As the Matsonia approached, the girls came down with seasickness. The closer the ship got, the sicker the girls became. The ship’s doctor decided it was better to not try to transfer the ill girls. The newspaper article notes that as soon as the Matsonia disappeared, the girls recovered. “Identically dressed and smiling their farewell to Captain Johnson the girls left the pier, hurried to the post office and inquired for suitcases previously mailed by parcel post.” [xxxiv] The girls stayed in Hawaii for two weeks. “We were just looking for adventure,” Kay said when asked for an explanation of the escapade, reported the Stanford Daily on May 5th of 1927.[xxxv] Luckily, her parents purchased the girls’ tickets home.[xxxvi] She returned home to Walla Walla, WA, [1]where she was living, from her adventure on the ship Manoa arriving from Honolulu, Hawaii into the port of San Francisco, CA. She was 22.[xxxvii] As a punishment for the girls’ caper, Stanford University postponed giving her degree for six months.[xxxviii] She graduated in 1928.[xxxix] After graduation, she apparently headed back to Hawaii. In a newspaper interview in 1936, she stated that she worked as the forelady in a pineapple cannery, learned to fly an airplane and chauffeured a sight-seeing bus in Honolulu. When she returned to the states, she lived in Portland, Oregon for a time writing advertising for a department store.”[xl] Not everything was a lark for Kay. In 1929, her older sister, Alice Applegate Witt, died 15 months after marrying. She was just 28.[xli] After her department store work, Kay, in love with her future husband, Leonarde Keeler, “followed Mr. Keeler to Chicago.” The following year she started to work for him.[xlii] After that, Kay, who used Katherine as her professional name, trained as a forensic sleuth (crime scene technician) and later opened an all women detective agency in Chicago before joining the WASPs.[xliii] A professional woman, said to be tall, slim, and blond[xliv], Kay had a remarkable career at a time when most women didn’t have that opportunity. In a Chicago Tribune newspaper account of a trial, she is described as “handwriting-expert Katherine Keeler,” a blonde and attractive witness dressed in a modish black dress which was super-fashionably short.[xlv] Another description mentions her as a tall girlish blonde with blue eyes who appears too young and pretty to be associated with crime fighting.[xlvi] Despite the sweet appearance, she was instrumental in the solution of murders, kidnappings, bombings and fraud.[xlvii] Six months after she went to work for him[xlviii], on August 13, 1930[xlix], they were married in Chicago. Her husband was one of America’s leading criminologists[l] of the day, Dr. Leonarde Keeler, who was born Oct. 30, 1903 in Berkeley, CA. He is best known as the inventor of the polygraph test. [li] She met him in San Francisco.[lii] Katherine and Leonarde were two of the authors of the book Outline of Scientific Criminal Investigation and both are considered pioneers in the field of crime detection.[liii] Katherine carried the lengthy title of “Examiner of Questioned Documents of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory of Northwestern University.”[liv] In the book “The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession,” author Ken Alder writes that “Leonarde did everything he could to help Kay enter the lists of scientific crime-fighters.”[lv] She studied in a criminology class at the University of Chicago and did an apprenticeship. “In 1931, twenty-five-year-old Katherine Keeler became America’s first female practitioner of the world’s original forensic science.”[lvi] The summer of 1931 finds the young couple back at Stanford. They stayed with Leonarde’s parents while they did work in psychology at Stanford University summer session. Afterwards, returning to Northwestern University, where both are employed as experts in the criminal research laboratory, according to the Oakland Tribune newspaper.[lvii] She was the handwriting expert[lviii] for Northwestern Crime Detection Laboratory of Northwestern University.[lix] At her laboratory in Chicago, they specialized in identifying fraudulent documents. Her skill made her an expert witness, she appeared at hundreds of cases across the country.[lx] An example is First Galesburg Etc. Co. v. Federal Reserve Bank where she testified on the authenticity of signatures on contracts.[lxi] Dateline Chicago: In a wire story seen in many newspapers, Katherine Keeler is described as an outdoors girl who spends most of her time working with a microscope. “She doesn’t care for detective stories and avoids mystery movies, yet her own everyday life could supply plots for a dozen scare tales and screen thrillers,” wrote reporter Elizabeth Walker. She’s only 29 years old but listed as one of America’s outstanding women criminologists. By this time, Katherine is testifying on all kinds of trials from fraud in elections to working with the police on suspected documents.[lxii] It’s groundbreaking news in an era where few women had careers. Snippets about Katherine Keeler appear in “women’s sections” or “about women[lxiii]” of newspapers from coast to coast. Sometimes, its something as small as her job title or that she is a renowned handwriting expert. No matter how small the newspaper notice, Katherine’s job is big news. Kay and her husband, Leonarde, live in Chicago in a “fashionable sky-scraper apartment,” at 850 Lake Shore Drive[lxiv], that she furnished herself. However, the upkeep goes to a maid because Kay only has time for work. [lxv] When she has some free time, she spends it with her German Shepard puppy, watching wrestling and fencing matches and reading about aircraft engineering.[lxvi] In fact, her dog, Chief, accompanies her all day long but stays behind at the lab at night as a guard dog. It was reported that Chief met the glass elevator door with each visitor’s arrival. If they arrived empty handed, he let them in. If they arrived with a package or suitcase, he stood guard and didn’t let them in until a lab official checked the visitor out.[lxvii] Was her marriage to the famed criminologist Dr. Keeler the result of the unique career her opened for her, a reporter asked in 1936. “No! My career is the result of my marriage,” she replied.[lxviii] One of her biggest detecting jobs involved trips into the remote mountain areas of West Virginia and Tennessee to gather evidence on a kidnapping case that resulted in the conviction of more than 100 persons.[lxix] She was published in important journals of the time including the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1937 where she wrote about “Documentary Evidence Involved in an Election Dispute.”[lxx] It is said that she attracted extra attention from the press and clients due to her comely looks, her arcane skill and the foul deeds at issue.[lxxi] Her testimony is mentioned in numerous front page stories in a variety of criminal trials. Both Kay and her husband traveled, sometimes together but often separately to testify all over the country. By 1940, according to the census, Katherine Keeler, 35, is living alone in Chicago working as an examiner in crime detection.[lxxii] Her husband, Leonarde, reportedly was drinking heavily and the marriage was troubled.[lxxiii] In the Lie Detectors, author Ken Adler writes “Within a year Kay had left town with her lover, Rene Dussaq, a handsome Latin American adventurer with a pencil moustache and a colorful past.”[lxxiv] In 1941, Kay divorced Leonarde on the grounds of desertion. They had been married for 11 years. Five years after her death, he died of a stroke[lxxv] in Sturgeon Bay, WI on Sept 20, 1949. When she married for the second time, on November 20, 1942, she shaved three years off her age making her birthdate 1908 on the marriage record. She married in Washington D.C. to Major Rene Alexander Dussaq,[lxxvi] who was six years younger, but of course he must have thought they were only three years apart in age.[lxxvii] He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on May 6, 1911[lxxviii] but was schooled in Switzerland then later moved to Cuba where his father was a diplomat. Dussaq, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross and two Purple Hearts, served in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the elite 101st Airborne Division which included parachuting into Normandy for D-Day. In secret, Major Dussaq was actually an OSS agent, code name Anseleme, and trained to operate behind enemy lines which he entered by secretly parachuting.[lxxix] (After his wife’s death, Dussaq lived a remarkable life including participating in the Bikini Island atomic bomb tests, being recalled to serve during the Korean War and then working as a professor of military science at UC Berkley. At age 83, he parachuted into Normandy for a 50th anniversary event.[lxxx] Rene Dussaq is the focus of more than one book, article and website offering the theory that he was really a double-agent involved in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination[lxxxi]. He died in 1996 at age 85.[lxxxii]) The couple lived in Washington, D.C. until their enlistments.[lxxxiii] Kay’s marriage to Dussaq was a turning point in her life. The downside was that he was often gone, making for a long-distance and tumultuous marriage. The positive side was Kay was able to resume her life-long dream of flying lessons.[lxxxiv] HER MILITARY STORY Nine months after her wedding, Katherine, now using the name Kay Dussaq, entered the Army Air Force flight training at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas on August 9, 1943. In October 30, 1943, Kay Dussaq, and other WASPs appeared in a photo with W. T. Piper Sr., president of Piper Aircraft, on the runway at Avenger Field. Mr. Piper was there for an October graduation of a WASP class.[lxxxv] “Women and light airplanes started off together in this war. The Army Air Forces could see no need for either. But now the Cub “grasshopper” has proved its liaison value in every theater of war and the WASPs trained in Texas have won the admiration of all by their fine noncombatant flying record,” he said.[lxxxvi] Kay’s class graduated a few months later on February 11, 1944.[lxxxvii] She served as a squadron leader in the United States Ferry Command, also known as the Air Transport Command of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Her assignments were administrative.[lxxxviii] Kay was first stationed[lxxxix] at the Sioux Falls Army Air Base, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and then moved to Randolph Army Air Base, San Antonio, TX, and at the Flying Training Command Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.[xc] With the WASPS disbanding looming ahead on December 20th, less than a month away, Kay was busy working to make sure they stayed connected. She was working on both a WASP newsletter and an organization for former WASPs, called the Order of Fifinella.[xci] Around the same time, her husband had left France. He is now serving with the Special Allied Airborne Recon Forces (SAARF) where he was trained to jump in and liberate Prisoner of War camps and later served as an intelligence officer in Germany.[xcii] HER LAST DAY - NOVEMBER 26, 1944 On her last day, Kay must have had a lot on her mind. Kay, as the executive for the Training Command, was looking into employment opportunities for the WASPs. With this in mind, she had a meeting with Jackie Cochran and the CAA in Washington, DC. While she was there, she was able to get the CAA to grant commercial pilot licenses to all the active WASPs. After that meeting, she prepared to take off for her then base[xciii] in Cincinnati to meet with Nancy Love.[xciv] Kay was an experienced pilot with hundreds of solo hours in the AT-6.[xcv] As she prepared for her solo flight from the Maryland Army Air Corps military base[xcvi], she realized the weather was a slight problem. It was cloudy with light rain so visibility was limited and airframe icing a possibility.[xcvii] Since she felt there was so much to do, she decided she would fly around it in her trainer/combat aircraft. Just outside of New Carlisle, Ohio she developed a big problem as the engine quit on her North American AT-6 Texan. She crashed just 72 miles short of her destination.[xcviii] Her obituary stated that she ran out of gas and struck a treetop.[xcix] Either way, engine failure or gas depletion, the plane was doomed. She was not wearing a seatbelt and on impact, hit her head on the control stick.[c] COMMENDATIONS Congressional Gold Medal[ci] United States Aviator Badge World War II Victory Medal American Campaign Medal Army Presidential Unit Citation Army Good Conduct Medal[cii] MEMORIALS The Texas Woman’s University Woman’s Collection holds two of Kay Dussaq’s scrapbooks. These contain pictures and newspaper clippings of her time as a criminologist and pictures as a WASP.[ciii] The City of Dayton, WA received a bronze monument, three small flags and a brass emblem for the grave of Katherine Dussaq in honor of her sacrifice to our country.[civ] Katherine Applegate’s name is on a plaque honoring Whitman alumni killed in action during World War II. It hangs on a wall on the first floor of the Memorial Building. On that plaque are the names of 29 young patriots from the college whose lives were lost defending liberty.[cv] While there is no evidence she attended Whitman, her older sisters went there. HER GRAVE Katherine M. Applegate Keeler Dussaq is buried or memorialized at Dayton City Cemetery, Dayton, Columbia County, Washington.[cvi] ABOUT THIS STORY This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smart phone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen's name and read his/her story.

588 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page