28 April, 2016

Profile 120: "12" as flown by Bernice "Bee" Haydu, WASP

A few years ago, my daughter crossed swords with a WWII fighter pilot, Don Bryan.  She was just a little squirt back then but Don picked up on what my wife and I knew since day one—she’s fierce.  Suffice it to state, the double-ace and my kid became buddies.

Up until the moment Don died, he encouraged us—“(Your daughter) is living in a day where she can do anything she wants!  Your job is to help her do that!”

Don Bryan circa 1944.  He was a double-ace with the 352nd FG, ETO
Source:  U.S. Army Air Force photo
It meant something to him that our kid could become, again, “…anything she wants.”  But to my wife and I?  We never questioned it; for me, growing up with three FIERCE sisters, the idea that women were somehow “weaker” was totally alien.  In fact, I came to fear my sisters the way some people fear sharks and grizzly bears.  However, Don came from a time and place where women weren’t given the same opportunity as today.  It meant a lot to him to remind me that my daughter should not, could not be held back.  From anything.

Fast-forward a few more years and a patron asked me, “Have you ever drawn a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) airplane?”  I said no.  “You should.  Their story is really meaningful.  They overcame a lot of obstacles; when you do one, the first print is mine, ok?”

He explained that overcoming life’s obstacles is a common theme of his work and he thought a WASP print might inspire his patients. I should mention, this person is a male psychiatrist who leads the department of an extremely prestigious medical system.

The WASP Congressional Gold Medal awarded in 2009.  Notice on the left; the pilots are shown "stepping over the line"
in a symbolic gesture.   Design?  I'd love to source the designer—it's awesome (and it shows the "difficult to fly" B-26 Marauder, too!)

Fast-forward five more years…and have a look above.  It’s a Boeing PT-17 Stearman (also known as a Kaydet) biplane as flown by WASP pilot Bernice “Bee” Haydu.  How do I know?  The actual airplane still exists*—Bee flew it in the summer of 1944 while in the 7 month WASP training program.

Much has been written about these pioneering women.  But Bee gives a terrific briefing.

"The WASP were paid by Civil Service with the promise that if this experimental group proved successful, we would be taken into the Army Air Corps. It was successful but when the bill came before Congress, it was defeated due to the fact that male cadets wanted their jobs rather than going into the Infantry. It wasn’t until 1977 that we were belatedly recognized as veterans of WWII. After graduation we were assigned either to the Ferry Command or the Training Command.  (We) were not allowed over seas.  The Ferry Command is self explanatory, (but in) the Training Command, whatever base to which you were assigned, the aircraft at that base is what you flew."

"We served at about 150 airbases all over the country and held (many) different jobs from towing targets for the anti-aircraft to practice shooting with live bullets, night flying for the beacons to practice shooting, flying gunners so they could practice from a moving aircraft, engineering test flying, utility pilots, testing prototype jets. and on and on.  We flew every aircraft manufactured for the war from the smallest to the largest, including the B29."

Approximately 25,000 women applied to be WASPs but only 1,800 or so were accepted into the program with 1,074 actually earning their wings.  Do the math—we’re talking a 2% acceptance rate…and it wasn’t for lack of skill. You have to remember that, back-then, the world was different. “Women” didn’t have the career options and open-minded future that most of us enjoy today. The WASPs were simply a formalized realization of the fact that pilots were needed, regardless of gender.
Anyway, a while ago, “The Airplane Geeks” had a woman named Sarah Rickman on their podcast. She is the editor of the WASP News (published by Texas Woman’s University) and is also the group’s Oral Historian. Remembering the words of my doc buddy, I figured I could not only make a sale but finally get to meet one of these legendary women.

Ok. If you’re at all a reader here, it should be apparent that I’m not keen on asking common questions. I like to poke and pry in an effort to figure out what the person is really like. But before I get to that, you need to know a few facts about Bee Haydu. For one, she’s 95 but you’d never know it. And that isn’t me trying to assign some sort of cute charm to a little old lady. Bright, energetic and assertive, Bee explained her life with an easy humor that made me feel like we were sharing a beer at a bar.

Bee with her flight instructor, Charles Grieder, circa 1943.  I thought this was a cool picture because she was
raising the flag.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“It was 1938, I’d just graduated from High School and was feeling sorry for myself for not going to college.  So I looked at night courses and found one on aviation!  That was the start. After the course I started taking flying lessons.  We read in the newspaper that Mrs. Sheehy would be in Newark, N.J. recruiting for the WASP.  Myself and five others were interviewed and allowed to join the class of 44-7."

I could imagine Bee trudging out to #12, wrapped in parachute straps, leather jackets, helmet and goggles, ready to make sure the silver airplane was ready for the next crop of male pilots…the image was at once appealing as well as sad; they really broke fresh ground for aviation but it was too bad that they would eventually have their wings clipped that December 20, 1944. 

Pretty cool picture of Bee circa 1944.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“So what did you do afterwards?” I asked.  

“I loved flying so I tried to get any flying job I could.  I did some freelance instructing and started a business ferrying civilian airplanes.  That lead to me getting my own Cessna dealership.”

“You had your own dealership??”

“Yes!  And I joined 8 other veterans and we started a flight school - Ruscoe Flying Service."

“Where did you get this entrepreneurial spirit?  That had to be rare for a…”

Bee explained that though she understood women were discriminated against she wasn’t affected by it, at least not enough to dull her ambition and sense of positivity.

“Back then, I did experienced some (prejudice) but more because of my faith*.  But you know, there were six women in my Bay (WASP dorm room).  All six of us came from different religions and you know, we would discuss them.  But we never got angry or belittled each other.  Instead, we had respect.  I learned that (respecting others who were different) it could be done.”

It seemed like the right time to ask what never fails to provoke an interesting response, “So how are things different than when you were growing up?”

“Probably parenting.  I see a lot of parents doing for their kids what they should be doing for themselves.  My mom raised us to do things on our own.  She gave us the gist of something but then we had to do it ourselves.  We also learned it elsewhere.  I sold Girl Scout cookies.”

“My daughter did that, too.”  I felt a wave of pride in the knowledge that my wife and I weren’t part of the modern malady of helicopter-parenting and I was looking forward to Bee’s approval.

She waited a moment and then stated matter-of-factly, “We baked our own.”

(insert disbelief—home backed Girl Scout Cookies would never fly today)

Bee (middle) on the game show, "To Tell the Truth," Nov. 9, 1977.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“Where else do you see differences?”

“Well…”  Bee paused and asked, “Do you ever get those emails where people say that you should do something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I see it in the ones I get.  You know, they say ‘send this on’ or ‘you need to read this’ or ‘this should make you upset or something like that?”

“Yeah.  I know the kind.  I get them too.”

“Ok, good!  (Those emails) all want (the reader) to do something.  People seem to talk a lot about doing something.  But you know what?  Most people don’t do anything.  They’re telling someone ELSE to do it.  That’s not how anything gets accomplished.  Someone has to actually get out there and actually DO.”

Bee with President Obama at the signing of the proclamation for the WASPs to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.  Bee's on the far left and she's surrounded by other WASPs and current USAF pilots.
Source: USAF Public Affairs
break break

So, my daughter came home from school and in the little bit of pleasantries we exchange before she holes herself up into her room to stare at her phone, I mentioned that I was working on Bee’s airplane.

“Cool.  She sounds like someone I should know.”

“Why’s that?”—I baited her as I had a good idea of what she’d say but sometimes it’s good to get proof.  She didn’t disappoint.

“She gets stuff done and I like the inspiration.  You know this, dad…” she rolled her eyes in exasperation, readjusted her heavy book bag and disappeared down the hall.   And wouldn’t you know it, the little squirt contacted her.  And Bee replied...gawd only knows what will come of it; it's really up to our daughter to make something great out of Inspiration.  But, the past tends to repeat itself and I'm sure that somehow, someway, Bee's story will push her higher.

Nothing gets done if you don’t “Do.”

Our kid.  She's a bit older now, same determined face...and loves her heroes.
Source:  My wife and I.  
PS – Bee married Joe Haydu in 1951 who had been a Stearman Instructor in WWII.  The two owned three different Stearmans along with about 9 different other aircraft.  Bee was careful to point out that her husband, "...was a great pilot and we both continued flying until our late 70’s."

PSS - Bee wrote an interesting book on her life and the WASPs.  Click here

OH.  And if you'd like to buy a print of my artwork, signed by Bee herself, click here.

*MASSIVE thanks to Mike Porter, owner of the very Stearman that Bee flew.  It's now restored to stunning glory...but when I was looking for a shot from the specific time period, all we had was the picture below. 

Bee's Stearman circa 1944 and today (Mike won Best Stearman at Oshkosh, too).
Source:  USAAF and Mike Porter