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2014, Aaron Elson

 

   

Ed Hays

B-17 tail gunner, former prisoner of war

   

Ed Hays was a tail gunner in a B-17 named "Elmer's Tune." Gunther Sinnecker was the German fighter pilot who shot down Elmer's Tune over Denmark on Feb. 24, 1944, and whose Messerschmitt 109 was forced to crash land by Hays' B-17. In June of 1998, Hays and Sinnecker met in Berlin, this time with their families' present. The story of the downing of "Elmer's Tune" and its aftermath is told in "Rendezvous with Destiny," a new book by Fritz Ulrich, the son of the Danish farmer over whose fields the battle took place.

2014, Aaron Elson

Ridgewood, N.J., August 1998

    Aaron Elson: You grew up in Glen Rock?

    Ed Hays: That’s right. I went to Glen Rock elementary school. Of course they didn’t have a high school in those years, so we had to go to Ridgewood. After the ninth grade you went up to Ridgewood and started as a sophomore. I graduated in June of 1942 and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October of ‘42 and started on my way to my career as a tail gunner and a member of the 8th Air Force, 95th Bomb Group, in England.

    Aaron Elson: What was the feeling after Pearl Harbor?

    Ed Hays: Well, nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was, for one thing. We weren’t that well-versed in geography; the average citizen didn’t know where it was. But once we found out and knew what had happened, of course I was a junior in high school and everybody wanted to drop everything and run out and enlist, but my parents insisted that I graduate first. So I did. I enlisted as quickly as I could after. But a lot of my classmates left. I had one close friend, Jack Stolkin, who enlisted in the Marine Corps and was in the invasion of Guadalcanal, instead of staying on and graduating from high school. We had probably four or five from our class who did that. Some of them jumped the gun to get in there. A lot of people thought the war would end before they got in it.

    Aaron Elson: Your father was in textiles?

    Ed Hays: My father was in the textile industry, and his father, and I ended up in the textile industry. I went to New Bedford Textile after the war, in New England, and was in the textile business for a few years, until I went into the graphic arts, the printing end of it. So those were good years. It was exciting to be part of the Air Corps at that time.

    Aaron Elson: What made you choose the Air Corps?

    Ed Hays: I wanted to fly. Almost everybody wanted to fly. It was a glamorous part of the service; they played it up big in the movies and on the radio. I think the average guy wanted to be in it. I did. We went through about a year of training in the United States, various schools, airfields, and I went overseas in November of ‘43, and we were assigned to the 95th Bomb Group, part of the 8th Air Force, the Third Air Division, which was B-17s. There were three air divisions, the First, Second and Third, and the First and Third were B-17s. The Second Air Division was B-24s. And I flew my first mission in December of ‘43 to Ludwigshafen, Germany. That was quite an experience.

    Aaron Elson: Were you nervous?

    Ed Hays: Yes. On that particular mission we saw a B-17 break in half from a flak burst and the ball turret dropped out of it. The whole group saw that incident, and it was kind of a shock to everybody to be christened that way in combat, on our first mission.

    Aaron Elson: How far away was it?

    Ed Hays: It was in the next group flying with us, so it wasn’t more than a quarter of a mile.

    Aaron Elson: Did you think, there but for fortune that could have been your plane?

    Ed Hays: It could have, because flak was indiscriminate. Flying through flak was a pure matter of luck. You just sat there and gritted your teeth and hoped for the best. We did take some evasive action with flak, but once you got on the IP, the initial point to bomb, you were on there for three or four minutes with no evasive action. So to fly through fields of flak is, you just hold your breath and hope for the best. At least with fighters you could see them coming, you know where they are, which direction they’re coming from. You’ve got a gun in your hand. You could do something.

    Aaron Elson: How high up were you?

    Ed Hays: We varied, but we ran anywhere between 25,000 and 30,000 feet on each mission, depending on weather, depending on where your escort was, but it was high enough to be anywhere from 40 to 60 degrees below zero. Even with our heated flying suits, if you had any bare skin that touched any metal, it would stick to it.

    Aaron Elson: Did that happen to anybody?

    Ed Hays: Not in my crew, but it happened to a lot of people that had to clear their guns or had problems with mechanical instruments or anything where they had to take their gloves off. Anyway, it was very cold. And my plane had the open waist window. Later on the newer models came in with a closed window in the waist.

    Aaron Elson: But you were in the tail?

    Ed Hays: I was in the tail.

    Aaron Elson: Did you work in any other position?

    Ed Hays: No, I was always in the tail.

    Aaron Elson: You had the same ten people in the crew for all your missions?

    Ed Hays: Yes. We trained together in the States, came over, and we flew as a unit until we were shot down.

    Aaron Elson: Now, you had the first mission. Which mission was it that the seven planes were shot down on?

    Ed Hays: That was the Brunswig mission, on Feb. 20.

    Aaron Elson: So it was only four days before you were shot down?

    Ed Hays: Right.

    Aaron Elson: Were those planes shot down by flak or by fighters?

    Ed Hays: By fighters. It was one of the biggest air battles that we’d ever been in, our group. They knocked seven planes down in a matter of a couple of minutes. Two or three passes through the formation, and they were gone. The plane right alongside of us just was a mass of flames, and just rolled over. It happens so quickly that you can hardly blink an eye. Everything happens so fast, you’re there one minute and gone the next, so you really don’t have time to be really frightened. It’s just afterwards you begin to think about what happened to your friends, and you just thank God that you made it through.

    The day we were shot down we were the only plane shot down out of our group, in fact out of the whole division. We were flying a diversionary raid from England, up over Denmark, down into Poland, to bomb a target called Posnan. That was obscured by clouds, and being an occupied area you couldn’t drop your bombs through the clouds, so we came back, bombed Rostock in Germany, and then continued up over Denmark on the way home; that’s where we got hit.

    Aaron Elson: How was that a diversionary raid?

    Ed Hays: Because the rest of the 8th Air Force was flying to a target called Gotha and one other large target which I don’t recall. There were two divisions going to those targets, and we flew on a diversionary raid in order to draw possible fighter divisions away from those other two divisions. But we didn’t meet a lot of resistance, although we got shot down. It was just that one attack, and it was effective, as far as we were concerned. And the people that shot us down, there were two or three pilots involved in the attack, they did a good job on us.

    Aaron Elson: I thought it was four.

    Ed Hays: Yes, there were four fighters in a squadron.

    Aaron Elson: Explain, as best you can remember it, what happened from the moment you were first aware that you were being pursued or that you were hit.

    Ed Hays: We were being pursued for quite a while. There was a plane up above us quite a distance away that was radioing in our position, and we had tracked him for I would say an hour, so we knew something was going to happen. I can remember being on the radio constantly telling the guys in my plane to keep their eyes open. We were hit by a head-on attack when it occurred, and the four officers in the front of the plane were all wounded on the first pass, and several of the other guys in various positions were hit. And we started to go down. We left the formation, started to go down, and two of us bailed out. I was the first one out and my waist gunner followed me out, and the plane continued on.

    Aaron Elson: Do you know how high up you were?

    Ed Hays: We were probably about 15,000 feet when we began to bail out.

    Aaron Elson: What kind of training did you have to bail out?

    Ed Hays: You don’t have any training at all, except you know the procedure. The bailout bell rings, or you get a warning over the radio. But otherwise there’s no training. You’re told how to put a chute on and how to pull the cord and that’s it. Because you’re expendable. Once you’re shot down, you’re gone.

    Aaron Elson: As you jumped, what thoughts did you have?

    Ed Hays: My thought immediately was to get out of that plane, because the rear end of the plane was being attacked after the nose attack that came around from about the 7 o’clock position, and they were firing on the rear, and pieces of the tail and the horizontal stabilizer were flying apart. The bailout bell and the radio had been shot out, so there was no communication, but with the fire and the smoke and the continuing attack you knew it was time to get out.

    Aaron Elson: Now, you being the tail gunner, you must have done some shooting.

    Ed Hays: I did.

    Aaron Elson: Do you recall hitting anything?

    Ed Hays: I don’t recall whether I did any damage or not. I know this much, that out of the four planes, three of them were shot down. And Sinnecker’s plane was hit [Gunther Sinnecker was the pilot of the fighter that shot down Hays’ B-17], and he had oil all over his windshield and had to get down. And two others crash-landed, one of them quite a ways from the attack area and the other one in the immediate vicinity. We were by ourselves, with four planes trying to shoot us down, and it wasn’t much of a problem for them to do it, because we had so many wounded on board there wasn’t much retaliation, although there was some because three planes got shot down. So, so much for the criticism that many gunners received during the war that they made a lot of various claims about shooting planes down, but in our case, we were no expert gunners or anything, we were just average guys, but I think that was pretty good, to get three guys out of four.

    Aaron Elson: One thing that I’ve heard was that one reason for all of these bombing raids was to cut down the German fighter resistance before D-Day.

    Ed Hays: That’s right. In fact, that’s what we were doing that week. We were shot down during what they called The Big Week, from Feb. 20 to Feb. 25. We flew four of those missions. It was designed to wipe out the Luftwaffe, in a concentrated attack, day after day after day. And they succeeded to a certain extent, although the aircraft production actually increased for the first three or four months after that, but there was a big effort on the part of the 8th to do that, and I guess in reality they succeeded because as we increased our numbers of P-51s and P-47s over there they just wiped out the Luftwaffe. The last four or five months of the war there was no Luftwaffe up there. They had a few of the new jets, the 262s, but there weren’t enough of them to make any dent in any air force.

    Aaron Elson: Were you superstitious by this time?

    Ed Hays: Everybody was superstitious to a point. You did certain things. You carried certain things with you. You had little knickknacks.

    Aaron Elson: Like what? Did you have a picture of Joan?

    Ed Hays: Yes, I had the picture of Joan, which I shouldn’t have had with me, some other things like that that you’re not supposed to carry, but everybody carried something like that.

    Aaron Elson: Why is that?

    Ed Hays: They thought that they would be beneficial to the enemy when we were searched if we were shot down.

Interviews                       Ed Hays, Page 2