By ANDREW GARDA
There are a lot of things one could say about Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu. She was a World War II pilot whose uniform is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
A trailblazer who helped her fellow female pilots earn recognition as members of the United States military, and who kept their stories alive.
An author and an inspiration to young girls and women. A winner of the Congressional Gold Medal.
To her daughter, Diana Potter, she was just Mom.
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Haydu, born and raised in Montclair, died Jan. 20 at age 100.
The family activities Haydu and Potter took on weren’t exactly normal for most people.
“It’s sort of interesting because both of my parents were pilots and I grew up under the wing of an airplane,” Potter said. “Summers would be air shows. And as I was the youngest in the family, my job was to polish the gear, make sure it was clean, get all bugs off and stuff. As our family grew up, because I had two older brothers, I was still the youngest and smallest. So I was still polishing that gear.”
Haydu began flying in earnest during World War II, but her love affair with flight took off earlier, after she graduated from Montclair High School in 1938.
Inspired by her brother, Lloyd, who had joined the Army Air Force, Haydu enrolled in aviation classes while she worked as a secretary. She soon discovered her love of flying, and when the war broke out, she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as the WASPs. The program ran from 1942 to 1944, first as the separate Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, later merged under the WASP name.
It was her service as a WASP that caught the attention of Steve Alpert, who was working on a portrait series called “Proudly She Served,” to be exhibited in 2022.
The series pays homage to women in the United States military — past and present — and features large-scale portraits of enlisted personnel from each branch of the service. Alpert’s work aims to convey a message about each woman’s courage, strength, resilience and selflessness. He said he and the project’s director, Linda Maloney, talked about including the WASPs. Maloney knew of Haydu because the latter had provided an accolade for Maloney’s book, “Military Fly Moms.”
Alpert said after talking with Maloney, he learned she was “pretty famous” in flying circles.
But “pretty famous” undersells who Haydu was in the years after her service during World War II.
She was a writer who penned a memoir of her time in the war called “Letters Home 1944-1945: Women Airforce Service Pilots World War II.”
Potter said her mom often gave speeches about her experience, and donated a lot of material to facilities including the Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, which houses the Women Airforce Service Pilots official archive. She gave an oral accounting of her time in the WASPs to the Library of Congress, Potter said.
Haydu and her husband, Joe, spent the years after the war flying in air shows. Their children — Joseph, Steven and Diana — were always along for the ride.
“It’s like the kids at school [would say], ‘You fly!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’” Potter said. “Because in our house, it was all about flying and airplanes and navigation.”
Other kids played card games; Haydu’s children learned to read compass headings.
“Our porch had a World War II [flight] simulator, so you could fly even though it’s snowing on the ground and track your course and do your navigation and all that kind of stuff,” Potter said. “So, what was normal to us was probably considered unusual by other people, but when you’re kids, you don’t notice that stuff.”
Haydu spent much of her life representing the WASPs.
The WASPs were considered members of a civilian pilots organization — not formally members of the military. They were attached to the United States Army Air Force to fly military aircraft.
Thirty-eight lost their lives in accidents, 11 died in training, and 27 died on active duty missions. But unlike male soldiers and airmen, a fallen WASP was sent home at her family’s expense and denied traditional military honors, like having a U.S. flag placed on her coffin. Service flags couldn’t be shown in their windows back home, as they would be for people formally in the military.
The WASPs suffered many forms of discrimination during the war, Alpert and Potter both said. They were disrespected by male pilots. There weren’t women’s bathrooms on bases. They’d be turned away from restaurants near their bases because they were wearing pants.
That never dampened Haydu’s love of flying or her country, her daughter said.
“So it was clearly not fair and not right, but that was the way it was,” Potter said. “And you look at it through the lens of this year and you’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ But back then it was the ’40s. So you can’t look through it for the lens of a millennial or anything. You have to look at it from the lens of someone who just came out of the Depression, and the country was at war, and Mom loved her country. She loved to fly and she loved her family.”
Haydu loved her fellow WASPs as well. So she, along with others from the group, fought to change their status for many years, seeking to have them recognized as members of the military, Potter and Alpert said.
While she was president of the Order of Fifinella — an alumni group for WASPs, named after a female gremlin designed by Walt Disney that the organization adopted during the war — the organization’s members were officially recognized in 1977 as veterans by Congress.
In 2009, Haydu was one of three surviving WASPs who were in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the members for their service.
“These magniﬁcent women pilots tested aircraft fresh oﬀ the assembly lines and delivered them to the U.S. Army Air Corps bases,” Alpert said. “In 1943 there was a shortage of men pilots, and so women from across the nation volunteered to ﬂy ﬁghters, transport and bomber aircraft. They asked not for anything other than the opportunity to serve.”
Haydu worked hard to raise awareness of the efforts of her fellow WASPs, speaking to many groups and working tirelessly to make sure the legacy of the group was known.
Her WASP uniform is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. There, it inspired at least one young woman to make history, pursuing her own dream of flying.
“So Nicole Malachowski, who was the first woman Thunderbird pilot, was in grade school, and her school trip was to the [Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum],” Potter said.
The Thunderbirds are the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, and until Malachowski joined, it had always been an all-male unit.
“So she went there [to the museum], and she saw my Mom’s uniform and she read the little [plaque] they have on the bottom, and back at school, the teacher said, ‘I want you to write what you want to be when you grow up,’” Potter recalled.
Malachowski wrote she wanted to be an Air Force pilot.
“The teacher said, ‘Honey, women aren’t air force pilots,’” Potter said. “And [Malachowski] said ‘Oh yes, they are. I saw them in the museum. There was a uniform in there about WASPs.’ And it’s funny, because she did become an Air Force pilot and she was an adviser at the White House.”