Women have been graduating from the Air Force Academy since 1980, and flying in combat missions since Operation Desert Storm, but before them were the World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
Bernice “Bee” Haydu, from Montclair, New Jersey, not only served as a WASP, but was president of the WASP organization in the 1970s and fought for them to be recognized as veterans. Now, the 95-year-old veteran speaks at military events and Boys and Girls Clubs events throughout the country.
Her brother, Lloyd Falk, who served during World War II in the Army Air Force in the United States, England and France, said he’s proud of his sister.
“When I learned my sister was learning to fly military aircraft, I was really amazed and proud of her,” he said. “But I was not totally surprised because she was always an innovator and in the vanguard of breaking away from stereotypical ‘women’s work.’”
Falk was a meteorologist who prepared weather forecasts for Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff and was involved in the weather forecast for the D-Day invasion of France. “My wife, Eleanor, and I especially admired her tenacity and ability in leading the group to their goal of procuring military status,” he said.
How it All Began
Born Dec. 15, 1920, Haydu said she had the advantage of growing up in a family where women enjoyed the freedom to work and help earn money for their families.
“They were independent and wanted to succeed,” she said. “They were not constrained by the Victorian idea that women shouldn’t work outside the home or that some occupations were available only to men.”
Haydu worked as a secretary after graduating high school. She wanted to go to college, but the family didn’t have enough money to send both her and her brother to school. She said she told herself, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something about it.” So she started taking night courses in aviation. “This began my long love affair with flying,” she said.
She went to Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, on weekends and trained on a Taylorcraft with a propeller you had to pull through by hand to get it started. She earned her nickname “Bee” because she “flew like a bumble bee.”
“I don’t know if this was a compliment but I’ll take it,” Haydu said with a smile. Her first solo flight was Aug. 1, 1943.
When she read in the newspaper that they were recruiting for the WASP program, Haydu and her friends took their log books and credentials to interview and were accepted.
“We knew the program was experimental,” she said. “They didn’t know whether women could handle the large military aircraft and whether they could adapt to military life. They said, ‘You’re going to get paid by civil service and if it’s successful, you will be taken into the Army Air Corps and have all of the benefits that service can render.’ Well, the program was deemed successful.”
Basic, Advanced Training
Haydu and five of her friends paid for their train ride down to Sweetwater, Texas, to basic training at Avenger Field for the seven months of WASP training. She was 23 years old. The qualifications were to have at least 35 hours of flying hours, be age 18 to 35, be at least 5 feet, 4 inches tall and pass the Army Air Corps physical. A written exam was added later.
Six women were assigned per bay in the barracks, and two bays each shared one shower, one sink and one toilet. Each woman was issued men’s coveralls, which they nicknamed “zoot suits.” Flying in an open cockpit aircraft in the winter, they wore heavy flying suits, goggles, a helmet, gloves and a parachute.
Haydu said basic training was “tough.” A typical day consisted of flying, ground school, calisthenics and marching, she said.
The usual method of training was to start in a primary trainer, then go to a basic trainer and finally go to an advanced trainer. “They wanted to experiment with the women to see if they could eliminate one of the phases of training, so we went from the Stearman, which is an open cockpit biplane, in primary [training], and after about 60 to 70 hours of that, we went directly into the advanced, which was the AT-6 [Texan] -- that’s 650 horsepower comparted to 220 horsepower,” she said.
The experiment was successful, Haydu said, and the male cadets adopted the same program.
Haydu graduated basic training March 11, 1944. She had to pass civilian and Army check rides in each of her training phases. She saw many of her friends wash out along the way, but she stayed determined.
Haydu advanced to instrument flight training in the Link trainer. She learned radio communication procedures and Morse code. She graduated advanced training Sept. 8, 1944, and went to her first active duty assignment at Pecos Air Force Base, Pecos, Texas, Sept. 24, 1944.
Haydu was assigned to work as an engineering test pilot and a utility pilot.
“If an engine was overhauled and needed to be flown in a certain manner for a certain number of hours before it went into regular service, I would do that,” she said. “If personnel had to be flown somewhere in the United States, I flew them wherever they had to go.”
She said the WASPs “flew every aircraft manufactured for World War II,” and one of the WASPs flew a prototype jet, so “we just did everything the men did.”
She flew the 225-horsepower Bobcat, variously designated as the UC-78 and AT-17, at Pecos and was looking forward to flying B-25 Mitchell bombers in January 1945, but the WASPs were disbanded.
“It came as a blow,” she said. “Army Air Force General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold went before Congress and said, ‘The experiment is over. It was successful. I would like these women to be taken into the Army Air Corps.’ Army General George Marshal went to General Arnold and said, ‘I need 3,000 men for the infantry.’ General Arnold said, ‘Alright, I can spare the next group going into cadet training.’ The next group going into cadet training was very upset and went before Congress, did a huge lobbying job and managed to have the WASP bill defeated. This is why we were disbanded Dec. 20, 1944, with no rank and no benefits whatsoever for our service. This was just devastating to us.”
A Lifetime of Flight
Since she knew the WASPs were going to be disbanded, Haydu started looking for a job in the aviation field as early as October. She even went to Los Angeles and crashed four movie studios and two movie sets, trying to get them to do a movie or television show on the WASP program.
“I started writing to companies and airlines, trying to get a job as a pilot and I never heard ‘no’ said in so many different ways,” she said. “I finally realized if I was going to stay in flying and make a living at it, I’d have to do it myself.”
Haydu went home to New Jersey, got her instructor’s rating and did freelance flight instruction. She wanted to continue flying and in 1945, learned that the government was distributing surplus training aircraft around the U.S. and selling them to the general public at greatly reduced prices. These had to be delivered from Air Force bases to dealers.
Haydu learned who the dealers were and contacted them, offering her services as a ferry pilot. She also was a flight instructor and since manufacturers were now producing aircraft for private use, she contacted Cessna and Aeronca to see if they wanted her ferrying services. One Cessna distributor liked her so much, he offered her a dealership with a commission, and she bought her first plane. She sold 20 airplanes in one fiscal year. She also became a part owner in a flight school, where many of the students were World War II veterans.
During this time, she met her husband, Joseph Haydu, who had been an Army Air Force flight instructor during World War II for almost four years. They went on to have three children, Joseph, Steven and Diana, and four grandchildren.
Fight for Recognition
In 1969, Haydu went with her family to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. She wanted to show her family information about the WASPs and was upset when she didn’t see anything on display about the program. Haydu contacted Paul Garber, the historian, and donated her dress uniform, which is still there on display. She sent out a call to her fellow WASPs, who also donated memorabilia to the museum.
The WASPs met over the years for reunions and in 1972, Air Force Col. Bruce Arnold, son of “Hap” Arnold, made the promise to the WASPs that he would try to help them attain the status of veterans. In 1975, Haydu was elected president of the WASP organization, the Order of Fifinella.
Fifinella is the good luck lady gremlin designed by Walt Disney to fly with the WASP in World War II, she said. “After we disbanded, we adopted her name for our organization,” Haydu explained.
It was during her two terms as president, from 1975-1978, that the WASPs made the first concerted effort to gain recognition as veterans from Congress. Senator Barry Goldwater, a pilot with the Air Transportation Command during World War II, introduced the bill March 1975, to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. It passed the Senate and went before the House of Representatives Sept. 14, 1976, but didn’t pass because at that time it was opposed by the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Haydu said.
Haydu wrote on behalf of the WASPs that “these women served in a military capacity, wore uniforms, were subject to military discipline and courtesy, flew every military airplane manufactured for World War II and served their country replacing men pilots for active duty overseas. They also risked their lives daily, and 38 of these women died in the service of their country.
“The WASP who lived on Army Air Force bases were paid less than flying Army Air Force officers and were not allowed military funerals or insurance or any other benefits given men who served,” she continued. “Needed now, not posthumously, is militarization that would give them the recognition they so justly deserve. The 850 remaining who are in need of veterans’ benefits should be given them through the militarization process.”
Haydu estimates there are fewer than 100 veteran WASPs alive today.
She said the WASPs lobbied and used publicity but it was thanks to the efforts of Bruce Arnold that they finally had the bill passed. On Nov. 23, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Section 401, giving the WASPs veteran status.
In 1984, the WASPs received World War II Victory Medals and for those who had served one year, they received the American Theater Campaign medal.
According to Haydu, Nancy Parrish, daughter of WASP Deanie Parrish and founder or Wings Across America, contacted Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski, the first female Thunderbird pilot, for help in getting Congress to honor the accomplishments of the WASPs. In January of 2009, she drafted a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs, the highest honor awarded to a civilian by the U.S. Congress, and it was introduced and unanimously passed in May 2009. President Barack Obama signed a Senate bill into law providing the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs. Many of the women pilots, accompanied by Air Force women currently serving, accepted these medals at a ceremony at the White House March 10, 2010.
Haydu said she was tremendously proud and happy they finally received their recognition. She was participating in an All Women’s Classic Air Race when she got the call about the Congressional Gold Medal.
“En route, we were fueling in Macon, Georgia, when Nancy Parrish called my cell phone asking if I could be in the Oval Office of the White House by 4 p.m. the next day to witness the President sign a bill awarding WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal,” Haydu said. “We returned our race plane to Keystone Heights, Florida, where fortunately, Christy Smith had left her plane. We then flew to her home, and I purchased a commercial airline ticket for D.C. for the next morning. I made it.
“We entered the White House by a western entrance and were escorted to the Roosevelt Room, adjacent to the Oval Office,” she continued. “When it was our turn, the door opened and much to my surprise, we were greeted by President Obama, who had something complimentary to say to each of us. We stood behind his desk and chair to witness the signing. The desk is the same one that had been used by President Kennedy.”
Haydu added, “As President Obama approached, I had the pleasure of pulling out his chair for him. He used four pens to sign and gave each of the three WASPs one. He said, ‘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.’ We visited for about 10 minutes. He was a very gracious gentleman.”
Family of Fliers
When Haydu wasn’t fighting for WASP rights, she was sharing her love of flying with her children. She and her husband purchased a restored PT-17 Stearman and they would take their family for rides around the country and would attend and fly at airshows. They also bought a Link trainer and put it on the back porch.
Haydu said she made sure all her children received flying lessons, and they would take turns flying in the Link trainer like it was a toy.
“They grew up with it, and we saw to it that all of them had lessons. My middle son loved it but then he got married and had children. It’s expensive, but I know he’s going to go back to it one day. He really loved flying,” she said.
Over the years, the family bought different aircraft and flew in different airshows. Haydu entered her first airplane race in May 1965, the Angel Derby. She came in second in her class. She then flew in two Powder Puff Derby races and other races along the way.
The scariest and luckiest day of Haydu’s life was in August 1971, when she and her husband flew to an air show in Ottawa, Canada. They met a friend Ken Henders, who was there in a World War II-era Fairchild PT-26.
She flew with him when he was doing a fly-by for the audience. He was supposed to fly straight and level. He had pulled up, dissipating speed and then without warning, started into a roll within 300 to 400 feet above the ground. They were in a partial bank. Coming down, they hit telephone poles and finally landed in a newly plowed field.
She blacked out and when she came to, she undid her seatbelt and opened the hatch. Both ran from the plane. She had a broken arm and needed 25 stitches but she was OK.
Sharing Her Story
Haydu said she enjoys talking to current women service members and to children who could potentially join the military in the future.
“I admire the women who fly today. The navigation has changed so much,” she said. “There have been huge improvements. All women crews are just fantastic. They do every job, from the loadmaster to the navigator to the pilot, to every job that there is to be done in the aircraft. It just proves that an airplane knows no sex. It doesn’t know whether a man or a woman is flying it.”
Haydu recommends the military.
“The best training you can get in anything, not just flying, is given by the military,” she said. “They have absolutely the best training. It’s strict but it’s good.”
Haydu said children write to her and tell her she inspires them. She said speaking to the children gives her life purpose.
“It kind of gives me a mission in life,” she said, her eyes watering. “Some like to be a mechanic, some like to be the pilot. They’re just wonderful youngsters.”
Haydu said she stresses equality during her speeches.
“It’s not what sex you are,” Haydu said. It’s what you can do, and if you can be successful at something that should be all that should matter. You should pursue whatever it is you want, and you should not allow people to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ Just do the best you can and I hope you can make it.”