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Interview with Edwin W. Hays [4/3/2002]

Alice Healy:

All right. Today is April 30th, 2002, and we're recording at the Lyons VA Hospital. The name of the person is Edwin Hays, and attending are Alice Healy, and Claire Honniker (ph). Edwin served in World War II in the Army Air Force in the European theatre. Okay. Now I'm just going to let you tell your story.

Edwin W. Hays:

You're not going to ask any questions?

Alice Healy:

Yeah, we will.

Edwin W. Hays:

Oh, so--

Alice Healy:

Tell us a little bit about your background, where you came from and--

Edwin W. Hays:

Okay.

Alice Healy:

-- where you graduated high school and--

Edwin W. Hays:

Well, I was born in Patterson, New Jersey, in 1924. I went through the Glen Rock and Ridgewood schools in Bergen County. On December 7th, 1941, I was a senior at Ridgewood High School. And, of course, I wanted to enlist right away and get into the war. We felt the war would be over if we didn't get in right away. But my folks insisted that I graduate, so I did in June of '42; and in October of '42, I enlisted in the Army Air Force and began my career in the Air Force. I went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for basic training and then to Florida for gunnery school and after six weeks of gunnery school went on the Denver, Colorado, to armor school to learn about electrical turrets and armory work and then on to actual phase training, and we had three phases of flight training. And I was assigned to a group. Then we ferried to Washington, ten of us, from all different backgrounds. In fact, all ten members of my crew were from--from ten different states, and so we were an all-American crew in that respect. And we began training in June of '43, and we completed our flight training in October of '43 and left for overseas, and we were assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England, and I was assigned to a base called Horam, which was the 95th Bomb Group, 335th Squadron, and we began our combat duty and tour. And so we flew some practice missions in England before we were actually assigned to combat. And then in December of '43, I flew my first combat mission, December 30th, 1943, a target called Ludwigshafen, Germany. And that was a--a very spooky experience, to--to go on a combat mission. In that time of the year over there, we didn't fly that often because of the weather. The weather might be great in England but bad over in France and Germany, over the target area, so we only flew every--every few weeks. In fact, I started in November--or December of '43, and I was shot down February 24th, so I was only over there a few months. I completed 13 missions. And we had some bad experiences on a couple of missions where we lost a lot of planes; a lot of people from our--from our group were shot down. The day we were shot down, we were over Denmark, on our way home, back to England, after bombing a target in Germany, and we were very fortunate that we were shot down over Denmark rather than the--the Baltic or the North Sea, because at that time of year, if you landed in the water, you were only--your life expectancy was just a few minutes in that cold water, so we were lucky in that respect. And our car--our plane was badly damaged by an ME 109 fighter, and all four officers in the front of the plane were seriously injured. My pilot and co-pilot were really badly hurt, so badly injured that they couldn't bale out; they had to eventually crash-land, whereas the rest of us baled out at various interval--intervals as the plane came down. I baled out at about 10,000 feet with my waste gunner, Norm Carney, from Long Island, and we--we landed in a field together, a couple of hundred yards apart, and we were both rather badly injured. And a young Danish boy, although I didn't know it was Denmark--it could have been Germany. We didn't know where we were when we baled out, but it turned out we were over Denmark. And a young boy, Johannes Ulrich, coming home from school, saw our parachutes descending, and he hurried home and got on his bicycle and--and wheeled himself over to our field. And he put me up on the bike, because I was the most seriously injured, and he wheeled me into a farmhouse of a Danish family. In the meantime, he had convinced me that we were in Denmark by showing me a Danish coin that had a--a portrait of King Frederick X. And so we were taken into the farmhouse owned by Mr. and Mrs. Anton Lundt and their four daughters, and it happened to be Mrs. Lundt's 40th birthday. And so they--they took us into the kitchen and served us a piece of birthday cake and a cup of coffee. And I always maintained that no other airman who'd been shot down had a birthday party five minutes after he was on the ground, and so it was quite an experience. But the Germans knew where we were, that we were shot down about three o'clock in the afternoon and knew where we were, and so there was no hope of escape or evasion by the Danes to help us escape, possibly to Sweden, which was only a short distance away. And so a Danish doctor eventually came to the farmhouse in his automobile and took Norm Carney and me to one of the main hospitals nearby in Touner, Denmark. And eventually, all of my crew members ended up in that same hospital, except the two members who were killed. One member who baled out, a top turret engineer, Norm Pecachek, his chute didn't fully open, and so he was killed when he hit the ground, baled out too low. And my navigator, Cliff Sonner(ph), was so seriously injured he couldn't bale out. He crash-landed with the plane, and they couldn't get him out, and the plane burned and exploded, so he--he died in the plane. But the other eight of us ended up in a hospital at Touner, and Norm and I were put in the same room, with a German guard outside the door. And during the night and days, the Danish nurses would sneak into the room and smuggle fruit, vegetables and slip it under our pillow so that--and it was at great risk to their lives. If they'd have been caught by the Germans, they would have been shot, absolutely. So Norm and I only stayed in that hospital for about a week, and then we were taken on to the German prison camps in Germany. But my pilot and co-pilot were so badly wounded and injured, my pilot stayed in that hospital for five months and my co-pilot for three months. And Dr. Oholt, a German surgeon, was responsible for saving the life of my pilot. He argued endlessly with the Germans to allow him to treat my pilot and keep him in Denmark rather than send him to Germany, where he would have probably died from the lack of proper treatment, and so my pilot owes his life to the Danish surgeon. He spent five months in that hospital and three months in a German hospital later, so eight months in a hospital; he was very seriously injured. And so I went my way. We were sent to Germany. We went to Dulag Luft, which is the interrogation center for all Air Force prisoners; they all go through there. And depending how busy they were, that determined how long you stayed in Dulag Luft. Some people were there for as long as several weeks in solitary confinement and interrogated day and night. But the time period I was there was during--it was the busiest time for the Germans. There were so many American prisoners coming through there that they didn't have time to keep us there very long. So I was only in Dulag Luft for about three days, and then they shipped me by boxcar all the way up to a prison camp in Poland, the Pomerania section of Poland, Stalag Luft 6, which was a--an old prison camp. They had a lot of RAF, Canadian, all kinds of different nationalities were in Stalag Luft 6. And so my first five months of imprisonment were in Stalag Luft 6, and I arrived there in March of '44, just in time to learn of The Great Escape, which was an event where--from Stalag Luft 3, where 76 men had tunneled out. After months and months of digging tunnels, 76 men escaped through the tunnel. Three members were successful; they got back to England and to their homelands. The other 73 were captured throughout Germany, and they took 50 of those 73 and executed them in various sections of Germany where they were picked up, captured. They executed those men, and they sent their ashes back in urns to the camp, Stalag Luft 3. The other 23 were returned, and they survived that ordeal. But there were no Americans involved in that escape; they were all British, Canadian, South Africans, Australians, et cetera. So I arrived at Stalag Luft 6 scared and cold and lonely, just in time to learn of that Great Escape massacre, so it was a--it was a dark time for me. And then in July of 1944, as the Russian army advanced westward, the Germans evacuated us to a new camp, Stalag Luft 4. They took us by boxcar from Stalag Luft 6 to the Port at Stiteen, and they loaded us into the hold of a ship, 25 hundred of us, a ship named Mazerin(ph), and it was a coal steamer. And they put us down in the hold and locked the hatches, and we were there for two and a half days, and it was a very bad time. It was dark; it was hot, July of--summertime, and it was a nightmare, and we didn't know how long we'd be there or what; but eventually, after two and a half days, we arrived at a port, and they took us off the ship, took us to a railroad station. And at that station was the starting off point for what they called a heidekrug run, which was a run from that station up to the new camp, Stalag Luft 4, and it was a distance of about two and a half miles. And all along that run, we were harassed by police dogs, German soldiers and Naval cadets, also, with clubs, bayonets, police dogs. And they had handcuffed us together in pairs, which was very unusual; we'd never been handcuffed, and so we knew something bad was going to happen. And what they were trying to do was to get us to try and escape, make a break. They thought we would panic, being handcuffed and with our belongings just dropped along the way. It was a--really a bad--bad experience. Many men were bayonetted; many men were bitten by dogs, beaten by clubs. My partner, Bob Richards, from Chicago, and I--he was handcuffed to me. We stumbled and fell down twice. Both times we were--we were badly beaten by rifle butts, very fortunate that we weren't bayonetted. And so we survived that--that run, the Heidikug run, arrived at our new destination, Stalag Luft 4, and it was a very bad camp. Stalag Luft 4 was probably the worst Stalag luft in Germany, had the worst reputation for mistreatment and lack of food. And so we survived that Stalag Luft 4, and in January of '45, we were again evacuated. As the Russian army again approached our camp, the Germans evacuated us. At that point, about 80 percent of the camp went on a march, which lasted 76 days and about six to seven hundred miles. They marched from January to the end of the war, until about the end of April, just about now, right now. As a matter of fact, many men were liberated April 30th, 1945. And I was fortunate that I didn't know them that much. The Germans wanted to take 25 hundred sick and wounded men and ship them to Stalag Luft 1, which is entirely the opposite direction, way up on the Baltic Sea. Stalag Luft 1 was at Barth, Germany. It was an officers' camp. And so there weren't 25 hundred sick and wounded, and so we made up the difference between how many were sick and wounded. We drew cards to see who would go on the--on the railroad cars and boxcars to Stalag Luft 1. And I drew a high card, and I got to go, which is very fortunate, because I would have been on that 600-mile march. And so I stayed at Stalag Luft 1 until the end of the war. We were liberated by the Russians May 1st, 1945, and we stayed there until May 12th, before they--the Americans were able to bring in some B-17's at a nearby airfield and fly us all out, which they did. But by May 12th, the war was over. May 8th was V.E. Day. So we were still there and at that prison camp even after the war was officially over. But, anyway, at Stalag Luft 1, I met my pilot who had been so seriously wounded and spent all that time in the hospital, and so it was a nice reunion, to see him and see how he could walk around. He was reasonably healthy, although he spent the rest of his life in--in and out of veterans' hospitals. So I came home on the old Liberty ship, came back, had a big nice furlough, and I was discharged in October of 1945. And I took advantage of the G.I. Bill, went back to college, eventually got married. I had three children, a home and went on with my life, and 50 years passed, 51 years actually. 51 years to the day I was shot down, February 24th, 1944, my telephone rang, and it was Johannes Ulrich, the young Danish boy who had picked me up in the field. He had located me and called me up and invited me back to Denmark to help them celebrate their 50th year of liberation. And so I went back with my bowl turret gunner, Bob Joyce, from Texas, and his son, Gary, and the three of us went to Denmark for a week in May of 1995. So it was 51 years later but Denmark's 50th year of liberation. And we spent a wonderful week there with all the celebrations that went on in Copenhagen and all over Denmark, and the entire country had their flags out. In the evenings, everybody had a candle and they were singing, and it was marvelous. And then we went from Copenhagen over to Jutland, which is the area where we were shot down. We flew from Copenhagen to Jutland and stayed with Johannes in his home. And he's a vey prosperous pig farmer. He's got about--almost 60 acres of land, and he raises all the food to feed these pigs, and--quite a guy and a wonderful family, and--and so he was our host for that week and took us all over Jutland to various sites. On the next to the last day that we were there, he--he said, "I want you to come down to this little town of Logumkloster." He said, "I want you to see a memorial that was set up for your crew." And so we went there, and we thought, "Well, there'll just be a few townspeople there and a couple of kids," and, you know--and when we got there, the whole town was there, a military contingent; the Army, was there, the Air Force, the Navy, the Coast Guard and all kind of marching bands, and all the town was there, so it was great. And there was much music and speeches and talks, and Bob and I laid a wreath on the stone--

Alice Healy:

(Inaudible).

Edwin W. Hays:

It was very emotional.

Alice Healy:

Right. Oh, I can imagine.

Edwin W. Hays:

And it still is.

Alice Healy:

Of course.

Edwin W. Hays:

And so we did our duty there, and one of the marvelous things was that the money was raised by a World War I underground Danish group. They raised the funds to put up this monument, and I thought that was--that was quite nice, that they would do that. And so we--we did out duty there, and it was marvelous. We--we did our share of crying, and it was crazy. Then that afternoon, they took us up in a helicopter. Royal Danish Air Force took us up in a helicopter and flew us over the fields where we had parachuted down and where the plane had crash-landed. And Johannes had gone ahead and marked with white panels these areas where we had come down and where the plane crashed, and that also--we were up for about an hour in the helicopter, and I took pictures up there of the memorial park where the stone was. And then later that day, we actually walked into the field where the plane had crash-landed. The name of our plane was Just Elmer's Tune, which is an old Glenn Miller song. You don't remember that. And as we walked through this field, we could reach down and pick up pieces of our plane--

Alice Healy:

Really?

Edwin W. Hays:

-- bolts, 50-calibre machine gun shells and projectile--pieces of plexiglass, metal. All of this stuff kept resurfacing as the farmers plowed their field each year. And so here we were, picking up pieces of our plane from 51 years prior, so it was, again, another emotional event for us. And that evening--the last evening we were there, the Danes threw us a wonderful dinner at a fine restaurant and presented us with a photo album filled with pictures of Just Elmer's Tune, the plane that had crash-landed. And we never knew they existed, and so that was quite a nice thing for them to do. And it was so nice that when I got home, my wife said, "How was your trip?" I said, "Don't ask, because I can't talk." It was almost six weeks, I think, before I could really sit down and tell her what happened. So she--she said, "Well, we should go back," and we did; we went back in 1996.

Alice Healy:

Really?

Edwin W. Hays:

And we stayed with Johannes, and we went all over the same path that I had taken previously. And then in 1997, my daughter and son-in-law said they'd like to go, and so we went back again, and I took them. And on that trip, Fritz Burek, who wrote this book--he said, "Mrs. Hays, I'm going to find the German pilot that shot your husband down. She said, "That will never happen"; she--well, it happened, and he found him. And one of the reasons he found him and made it a little easier was the fact that we were the only plane shot down over Denmark that particular day, February 24th, 1944. And so by searching their Luftwaffe records, he was able to pinpoint this German pilot, and he actually found him; he'd been given credit for shooting Just Elmer's Tune down. And he said, "How would you like to meet one of the members of the crew that you shot down?" He said, "I'd love it." He was living in Berlin at the time. And so Fritz arranged the trip, and he invited us back. And this pilot's name was Gunther Sinniker(ph). He was quite a guy. He was shot down five times during the war and parachuted out three times. He was very lucky he was alive. There aren't many Luftwaffe pilots left, because they were almost completely wiped out by the end of the war. But he survived, went back to college, got his engineering degree and worked for Siemens, a large contractor in Germany, and raised two sons, both medical doctors. And so he invited us back, to come to Berlin and visit, and so I went back. And I went back--because I wasn't going alone. I went back with my wife, my daughter, my granddaughter and my great-granddaughter, and we ganged up on this guy. But, anyway, it was a very marvelous reunion. We met in the airport in Berlin, and Gunther Sinniker was there with his wife, Elsa, and presented all the girls with bouquets of flowers. It was really nice. And I have pictures of the exact moment we met in the airport. You know, he and I both had six months to think about this. And my friends used to say, "What are you going to say to him?" And I used to say, "What's he going to say to me? He shot me down. Two of my friends are dead, and I spent 16 months as a prisoner of war, so it's up to him to"--but, you know, we had shot him down that day, and he--he'd crash-landed and survived, and so we had shot each other down 54 years prior. So it was a momentous occasion, really; it was a closing of the circle for me and for him. And he took us all around Berlin and showed us the highlights of the city and then back to his home for an evening of fine food and drink and conversation. And so for my family, it was a real history lesson. They got to see where their--their father and grandfather were shot down over Denmark, met the Danes that had helped save my life and then got to meet the Germans who were responsible for the whole thing, so it was a great trip, and they'll never forget it as long as they live. My--my granddaughter Vanessa, from California--my great-granddaugher Vanessa, from California, was only 11 years old, and she'll never forget that, I know. They had such a wonderful time in Denmark and in Germany, so it was great. And on September 12th of--of last year, I got a phone call from Mrs. Sinniker, expressing her--her regret about 9/11, and I thought that was pretty nice. And then a week later, I got a letter from--that was forwarded to me, from one of his sons, who was head of the pediatric section in a German hospital, offering to adopt any orphan that came out of that 9/11 tragedy. He said, "Anybody that's been orphaned who wants a home, he can come to my home, and I'll raise him." He had five children of his own, another example of how things change. You know, at one time we were enemies and now after--after 54 years, I didn't hold any grudge against Sinniker, and I don't think he did against me either after we shot him down. He--he's a survivor, and so am I. And so it was a--a nice week. We didn't discuss the day we shot each other down. We discussed the whole philosophy about war, how we survived, how we hated it. And his granddaughter was there that evening, and she told me she would go out--she was about 17, 18 years old. She said, "I'll go out in the streets and march and demonstrate, do anything, to prevent wars." So there was another generation of Germans that you could see the change, you know. Sure, there were plenty of Nazis and plenty of--but you have to give a little, too, and that's what happened. And so essentially, that's my story. I'm still in touch with Sinniker. He has now purchased a computer, just recently, so I can e-mail him. And Johannes and Fritz in Denmark, I'm in touch with at least once a week. I pick up the phone and talk to them, or I'll e-mail them and ___+. I invited Fritz two years ago to come over here and stay with me, and he came over and stayed for about two weeks and got to meet all my family. And Johannes came over here in 1995. After that first trip to Denmark, he came back over here because my bomb group was having a reunion in San Antonio. And so he came, and he was a guest of Gary Joyce, Bob's son, in Texas, stayed down there with them for about a week. So we all went down, and we went to the bomb group reunion. And during a P.O.W. breakfast one morning, I introduced Johannes to the group, and he told his story, so it was good. And so, you know, I've--I've made some wonderful friends. And if you're going to get shot down, you should get shot down over Denmark, because they're wonderful people. And one of the nice things about Denmark is they all speak English, at least 90 percent of them. It's only the--the older people that have a little problem, but all the kids are fluent in English. They're taught--they're taught English in about the seventh grade, I think it is, so by the time they graduate high school they're fluent. So it's a great place to go, and I've been there four times, and I hope to go back again.

Alice Healy:

Did he--did the--did the family originally, when they helped you--did they get in trouble with the Germans?

Edwin W. Hays:

No, not that I know of; and I would have heard when I went back. No, we were--I'm not even sure the Germans knew we were in that farmhouse, because Dr. Oholt came in his automobile after about--we weren't there more than an hour, and transported us to the hospital, so I don't think the Germans really knew that we were there. They knew where we parachuted down, which is only about a half a mile from the farm, but I don't think they knew. 10

Alice Healy:

Nor did the--the doctor get into trouble either?

Edwin W. Hays:

No, no. You know, the Germans have lived in Denmark for many years. They have a common border. And so many Germans lived in Denmark, and it was--there were good Germans and bad Germans who lived in Denmark, so they got to know who the bad ones were. 11

Alice Healy:

Right. Your wounds, would you be able to describe your--

Edwin W. Hays:

Well, what I had, I'd broken my ankle, and I had a fractured skull. And when they took me to the hospital, they--we went through all the x-ray stuff and all that, and I was fortunate. But most of my crew members had been shot in the plane. There were only two of us that weren't actually wounded. And so that was one of the reasons why we only stayed in the Danish hospital for about a week, and then-- 12

Alice Healy:

And--and--

Edwin W. Hays:

-- they sent us on our way. 13

Alice Healy:

And all the eight surviving crew members, they survived the whole war?

Edwin W. Hays:

They survived the entire war. They were all--some of them were in the same camp I was in, but we weren't necessarily in the same compound. We used to wave at each other over the fence. But we all survived, got home. There are only three of us still alive. My waste gunner, Norm Carney, who parachuted down with me, he's in North Carolina. He has Alzheimer's. And the other boy, who was an engineer, is in Texas, and he's also in that same condition, so that's not too good. 14

Alice Healy:

No, it's not. Can you tell us a little bit about this book? I think--

Edwin W. Hays:

This book-- 15

Alice Healy:

-- you might need that one, but that's fine.

Edwin W. Hays:

Yeah. This book was written by Fritz Ulrich, Johannes' son. And he, as a young boy, was brought up on the farm with his father telling him that the Americans had landed near his farm and they had pieces of the plane and they had everything up in the attic, and he used to go up and play with all these pieces of ammunition and all that. He got enamored with this story. And then when we came over to Denmark in 1995, of course, he trailed along with us as we went--spent this entire week. So he got to know us, and he decided that he would write the story, and it took him almost five years to do it. And I sent him a lot of material, but he got material from other people also, and he did a good job. Here's a picture of my pilot, Elmer Costillas, right here, who lives in Fresno, California. He passed away several years ago. That's Bob Joyce down there in the bottom, who I went to--back to Denmark with, with his son Gary. And that's a picture of my wife Joan and I, and there's____? Monterro?. But there are many pictures here. It's quite an interesting book to--to go through. Another picture of my pilot, Elmer Costillas, great guy, really wonderful man. And so I hope you'll enjoy this. 16

Alice Healy:

Thank you, really.

Edwin W. Hays:

You're welcome. And so that's kind of the end of my story, although the story hasn't really ended. I'm still--I'm still learning new things about what happened. But the funny thing was that, you know, 50--51 years had elapsed, and my family only knew that I'd been taken prisoner, and they didn't know any details; neither did I. Frankly, I--I knew I'd been a prisoner, I'd been through those camps, came home. But it wasn't until I went back that I learned of all these people that were involved, the Danes, and all the intrigue that went with it, the underground people and the people that worked in the hospital that--that smuggled food to us and helped us out, and what--what they did for my pilot was unbelievable. They absolutely saved his life. He said the nurses were like angels to him all that time, and--and the doctors definitely saved his life. His whole chest had been--he'd been hit with a 20-millimeter shell in--in the chest and just--his lungs were gone, and he had gaping wounds in his back, and they saved his life; they just--and the Germans never would have done that. They would have let him die just there and then. And so all these people that I learned about when I went back that I didn't know about, so that's what's nice about the story, and-- 17

Alice Healy:

Can I ask a little bit--

Edwin W. Hays:

Yeah. 18

Alice Healy:

-- about what you're doing now?

Edwin W. Hays:

Yeah. Well, now I'm--I've been a member of the American Ex-Prisoners of War for ten years. I got involved with it, and I've been the Commander of Chapter 1 for two years. I'm a National Service Officer, which means that when we bring a new man in, we take him under our wing and help him gain the benefits that are available to him through the V.A. They set up the rules, and so we try and take advantage of those rules and steer a man through the process to get him a hundred percent disability, and that's our main purpose. We meet every Tuesday, right here, and our main objective is to help other P.O.W.'s, and that's what we do. And so I'm--I'm quite active, and I'm paying back for my hundred percent disability. Somebody helped me get it, so now it's my turn to pay back. And so I enjoy it, and it's-- 19

Alice Healy:

And it's also helpful for the men to share their experiences?

Edwin W. Hays:

That's right. And I do a lot of speaking, and I still-- 20

Alice Healy:

(Clears throat) My voice. It's sad--

Edwin W. Hays:

Sure. 21

Alice Healy:

-- that it took so long for--

Edwin W. Hays:

I know. You know, and I lived with it for 50 years, and then I--now that I'm involved with all this stuff, it's closer to me, and I--I'm not too sure whether it's good or bad. Sometimes I think, you know, it's bad, but I do more good than harm. And when I speak, I know I'm helping the younger generations understand what our generation went through to gain them their freedom. And that's what I stress-- 22

Alice Healy:

Yeah.

Edwin W. Hays:

-- that freedom is not free.

Alice Healy:

What price freedom.

Edwin W. Hays:

So that's it, ladies.

Alice Healy:

Okay. Well, thank you.

Claire Honniker:

Thank you very much.

Alice Healy:

It's such an _____+.

Edwin W. Hays:

Thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it.

Alice Healy:

Thank you.

 
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