Ridgewood High School
Distinguished Alumni Award 2008
Edwin Walter Hays
Ridgewood High School Class of 1942
A lifelong resident of the area, Edwin Walter Hays was born in Paterson, N.J. on August 23, 1924. He was raised in Allendale and Glen rock and graduated from grammar school in Glen Rock. Walt then attended and graduated from Ridgewood High School in June of 1942.
A fun loving solid citizen at RHS, ‘Wally” or “Red” as his friends called him then, excelled as an athlete both on the gridiron and the diamond. Records indicate that Walt was a three time letter winner 1940,41,42 in baseball and was an honorable mention selection to the All Bergen County team of 1942. He also lettered in football in the fall of 1941 and was the starting right half back, in the then popular single wing formation used by the Maroons of that era. It was an outstanding team and Walt was one of the stars that shinned for Coach Jack Broomall’s eleven.
Walt was the third baseman on the 1940 and 41 DeRochimen (Coached by Primo Duke DeRochi an RHS legend himself). Those two teams captured New Jersey group 3 state sectional titles. He then moved over to second base during his senior campaign in 1942.
Four months after graduating from Ridgewood High School in 1942, Walt joined the U.S.Army Air Corps. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941 many young men at RHS were spurred on to action by a deep sense of patriotism. Walt (Also called Ed by many in his later years) was one of these young men. Walt actually tried to enlist along with his best buddy, Don Haldane, into the Canadian military during their senior year. They were too young to join the US forces at the time, so they planned a trip, but were stopped by their parents before they could act!
Upon entering the Army Air Corps in Oct of 1942, Walt went through numerous training environments and finished by going to aerial gunners school .In November of 1943 he was sent to England with the 95th Bomb Group of the Army’s 8th Air Force and joined the crew of the B17 flying Fortress named “Just Elmers Tune” as the tail gunner. The bomber was named in honor of its pilot Elmer Costales and was a reflection of a popular Glenn Miller song of the time.
On his 13th mission on Feb 24, 1944 returning from a massive bombing raid over Rostock Germany (a secondary target on the day. The original target was Pozen, Poland) “Just Elmers Tune” was to meet its fate. The bomber was flying in the formation as “Tail End Charlie” which is the plane furthest back in the rear of the formation (B17’s usually flew in formations of 21 bombers to a group). This was the position most usually attacked by enemy fighters in these types of situations.
Returning from the bombing run and completely free of its bomb load “Just Elmers Tune” was attacked by German fighters ( FW 190’s) over Haderslev, Denmark. The bomber was hit with an explosive 20 MM shell as well as an explosive missile, which went off in the instrument panel causing sever wounds to the pilot and crew. Walt Hays and the rest of the crew were throwing as much fire back at the attacking fighters as they could.
According to Capt. David E. Olsen who was the assistant operations officer of the mission flying in a different aircraft observing Hay’s plane under attack, he reported “Just Elmers Tune” was hit with a head on attack from a German FW 190. One engine was hit and half of the horizontal stabilizer was shot away. The bomber left formation under control and headed for the Danish coast. When last sighted the aircraft was still under attack as it went into the under cast. No chutes were seen leaving the ship.”
The pilot opened the bomb bay doors and ordered the crew to bail out. At the time “Just Elmers Tune” was heading South Southwest. The plane then changed course to West Northwest which caused it to fly over the village of Ostertep in Denmark.
Red Hays was throwing a life boat and ammunition boxes out of the plane to lighten the load when the bomber was attacked again. This time it is a group of German Messerschmidt 109’s one of which was piloted by German Lt. Gunther Sinnecker. This is the German pilot that fate will bring back into Walt Hay’s life more than a half century later! Lt. Sinnecker’s attack seals the fate of the B17 and at 10,000 feet Walt and waist gunner Norman Carnie bail out. Little did Walt and Norm know at the time that the return fire they could muster before they had to bail out disabled Lt. Sinnecker’s fighter to the point where he was forced to land his shot up plane in a field taken out of action.
After Walt and Carnie left the aircraft, the ship had lost considerable altitude and the rest of the crew had to get out quickly. Walt recalled how the tail section was hit. He said “it sounded like a huge clap of thunder, an unbelievable noise.” He had to crawl through the fuselage and jumped out of the waist door, which was located just in front of the vertical stabilizer. The B17 was now wobbling in decent and the flames were filling up the cabin spaces.
Others in the crew left, but when gunner George Pechacek pulled his ripcord, his parachute only partially opened. He was killed on impact with the ground.
Back on the bomber Lt.Clifford Sahner was trapped in the bombardier’s compartment and badly wounded. With the pilot Elmer Costales badly wounded and unable to jump as well as Sahner, co pilot 2nd Lt.Steven Kish made a decision to try to crash land the airplane. He was able to get it down in a field in Logumkloster, Denmark. Lt. Sahner was KIA (killed in action) and Lt Costales was dragged from the wreckage by Kish.
When Hays and Carnie hit the ground just avoiding high voltage wires, Walt’s ankle was broken and he suffered a fractured skull. The two men were convinced that they had bailed out over Germany.
Fortunately a young boy (Johannes Ulrich) had seen the plane crash land and decided to investigate. He found Walt and Norm in a field and showed them some Danish coins to help them establish where they were. With help from another farm boy, Ulrich put the injured 19-year-old Hays on a bike and pulled him to safety at a local farm.
A doctor was called and Hays and Carnie were transported to a local hospital. The other surviving members of the crew were also gathered up by locals and brought in for medical attention. All of the crew members would eventually be taken as prisoners of war by the German army.
On Feb 29,1944 Walt (Ed) Hays was delivered to a German interrogation center near Frankfurt, Germany. The Americans had bombed that same area very heavily just two weeks before. When locals could get near the American POW’s many let out their frustrations by throwing stones at them and hitting them with sticks.
After two days of interrogation Walt was loaded with many others into a boxcar to take a six-day train ride into uncertainty. Crammed with no room to move, stretch, or lie down, each POW was given one small Red Cross Parcel and told it would have to last. No one knew how long the trip was going to be and there were no other rations. Ten German guards signed to each boxcar made life miserable for hundreds of prisoners on their way to Stalag Luft 6 in East Prussia. Many were sick and wounded with no treatment available.
Upon arrival Walt along with hundreds of others were made to stand in the freezing cold in open fields. Many prisoners suffered for hours without coats or shoes. The men were moved to a processing center where they were stripped of their personal belongings.
Harassed by the guards, with no medical attention, and one Red Cross parcel every two weeks, the men survived on some horse meat, a few vegetables and watered down soup.
Snow continued into May and the prisoners had to burn their bed slats for heat. They slept on potato sacks stuffed with some straw. The meager rations were cut even further in July.
Later that month Ed Hays was to take part in a war crimes event called The Heydekrug Run. With Russian troops coming close to Stalag Luft 6, there were hopes for liberation, but the German high command had another plan for the POW’s. They would hold them hostage and use them as leverage when they made a separate peace with the Americans and English.
On July 10, 1944 Red Hays and the men of Stalag Luft 6 were told to start packing. They were being moved. The Germans gave them parcels they had been holding back. The men could not possibly pack all of it and were forced to leave most of it behind. The men were eating from their parcels as much as they could while they waited for their transfer. Because of there already malnourish and starving condition over eating (or normal eating) made many very ill. What was waiting for them was according to many to be the worst experience of their lives.
On July 14, 1944 two thousand three hundred and ninety seven (2397) Americans were taken to Heydekrug railroad station and loaded into boxcars (including Walt Hays). From there they went to Memel and were loaded onto two old rusty cargo ships called the Insterburg and the Masuren. Walt Hays was on the Masuren.
Walt recalled, “We stayed on board for two days without seeing daylight. 2, 500 POW’s were in the hold. Men were sick and vomiting all over themselves and each other. A bucket was used when relief was necessary and you drank from the same bucket after it had been washed out with sea water.”
After three days the ships entered the port of Swinemunde.
Taken to a railroad station, the men were handcuffed together, one mans right to the other mans left, and made to get in to boxcars for the ride to Stalag Luft 4 Kiefheide.
Upon arriving at the station, the POW’s were chastised by German officers and their naval cadets. The men were called murderers of women and children with their bombs!
Commands were given to the naval cadets and the still handcuffed POW’s were forced to run the gauntlet for two miles from the railroad station to the Stalag Luft 4 camp.
Walt Hays was handcuffed to one of his best friends from camp Bob Richards. In their free arm the men had to carry all of their belongings. The POW’s were made to run while the naval cadets harassed them along the route and the German watchdogs were set upon them to bite at their heels and legs. While running Walt and his partner went down twice and were badly beaten.
The naval cadets encouraged the men to try to escape into the woods where machine gun emplacements were waiting to cut them down. Many of the men were bayoneted trying to retrieve belongings they had dropped. Many lost clothing they were carrying. With a dreaded winter to come, this could be tragic.
Surviving the run, Hays and the others were made to sit in an open field in the hot blistering sun. They were then ushered by guards into their new home. The guards were permitted to strip the men of whatever they wanted from them! Stalag Luft 4 was to prove to be much worse than Stalag Luft 6.
Winter came as predicted with freezing temperatures and deep snows. Rations were cut again and Red Cross parcels rarely made it through. When they did four men had to share one parcel and one loaf of bread for a week. There was no meat or vegetables and no fuel for the stoves. The men were forced to steal anything that would burn. They again ended up burning their bed slats which left them to sleep on the cold floors using only a thin straw mattress and what clothes they had for warmth.
This deplorable condition lasted all winter. Add to it the plague of illness with no doctors and virtually no medical supplies and the development of emotional distress abounded. At night the men were forced to stand roll call outside their barracks. They then were herded back inside where windows and doors were locked and boarded so that the German goon squads and dogs could harass them all night long.
As one friend of Walt Hays stated, “By far the most important thing of all was just in learning to survive the prison camp.”
After Christmas 1944, the Germans knew the Russians were closing in and the men knew it because of secret wireless sets the radiomen could construct from contraband. Information was gained and spread throughout the camp quietly.
Walt’s German captors would tell their prisoners that the allies were loosing the war. They would promote their propaganda by making a spectacle of all the new prisoners coming in to camp.
On January 30, 1945 Walt Hays and 2,000 other POW’s were told to get ready to move. In the typical freezing weather, they were marched to then train and once again herded into small, cramped boxcars. Eight days later they arrived at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. Walt had survived another ordeal. Walt mentioned how sick the men were now. “You can’t imagine all the coughing”
Walt was lucky to be one of the 2,000 transported to Stalag Luft 1. The other 8,000 men were forced to march to their destination of 500 miles by foot across Germany. This terrible ordeal is referred to as “The Black Hunger March” The march took a month and there was virtually nothing to eat.
Walt Hays was to remain a prisoner in Stalag Luft 1 until April 25, 1945 when the Russian tanks literally arrived at their gate. They forced the German Stalg commander to surrender the post to them. One of Walt’s fellow POW’s remembers the last months in Stalag Luft 1 this way:
“We were deep in the heart of Germany up on a peninsula on the Baltic sea. The Germans were now starving with us. One loaf of bread for seven men had to last a week. With railroads destroyed, nothing was getting through, not even Red Cross parcels. The Germans handed out rotten fish paste for food.
The Germans would have the POW’s go over to the German compound to peel any vegetables they might receive. The men would stuff the peelings into the linings of their coats and raided the German garbage cans before returning to their barracks.”
Upon liberation Walt Hays and the men of Stalag 1 were mere skeletons. Walt weighed 90 lbs. He remembered that on April 30th 1945 the Russians brought food and vodka to the camp and entertained the former POW’s with Cossack dancers, singers and trained bears.
The bureaucrats arrived and started the huge task of identifying the prisoners and issuing a passport for each American. The Russians wanted the Americans to walk through Russia from camp Odessa on the Black Sea. This was a dangerous situation for the men in their weakened condition. The American POW commanding officer countered for the men (POWs) stating, “We flew in and we will fly out” referring to their status as airmen. A struggle of wills ensued, but the Americans, including Walt Hays were flown out of Germany.
On May 13, 1945 Walt and his fellow POW’s were airborne again. The eighth air force started the transportation of these valiant warriors home.
They were flown to a RAMP (Recovered Allied Military Personnel) in St. Valerie, France called Camp Lucky Strike. The men now had to stay in tents based upon their home state, before being shipped home in old Liberty ships.
Walt was actually transported home on the Queen Mary! Painted drab gray, it was refitted for the war effort as a troop carrier with all of its luxuries stripped out and gun emplacements installed on her decks.
This was the end of the Second World War for Walt Hays and the surviving crew of “Just Elmers Tune.” He and his fellow airmen had been through the whole register of human emotions and feelings. They had been shot at, shouted at, humiliated, starved, deprived, beaten, exposed to the elements and forced into inhumane living conditions. Walt Hays always remembered what this experience taught him about what freedom is and its price. It is a lesson he would carry with him and to others for the rest of his life.
Upon returning home, the GI bill allowed Walt to attend the New Bedford Textile institute. In 1947 he married his high school sweetheart Joan McFall, Ridgewood High School class of 1942. Her family resided on the corner of Beverly Road and Hermance Place.
When Walt parachuted out of “Just Elmers Tune” in 1944, he had a picture of Joan on him that he quickly discarded (buried) when he hit the ground so that the Germans could not use it as propaganda.
Walt made a living in the textile and paper industries. He ended up working for the Ridgewood Printing House until his retirement in 1982.
Walt and Joan made their home at 143 West Ridgewood Avenue in Paramus. In 1948 they bought into the property with Joan’s parents who at the time resided in the abandoned big house (while Walt and Joan set up shop in the little house on the six acre property). The big house was a historic Dutch colonial built somewhere around 1724 by one of Steven Zabriskie’s relatives. There are many accounts of it on local maps of the period and is referred to in many historical accounts of the times especially during the Revolutionary war. The house was in the possession of the Lutkins family then. Through her own research Joan attests to the fact that “George Washington never slept here” Although local history does bring him into the area surrounding the home many times!
Joan’s recollection in her account of the purchase of the home is that the area around the house and property were bordered by a river on one side and two country roads (Today East Ridgewood Avenue and Paramus Road on two sides.) She states, “Paramus of that time was an area inhabited by a large population of Polish celery farmers.” The total population of Paramus of that day was 6,000.
Joan and Wally eventually bought and moved into the big house and raised their family there. The Hay’s had three children Susan, Elizabeth and Donald.
Donald was named after Walt’s best buddy in high school Don Haldane who was a great athlete at RHS himself. Trained as a fighter pilot during World War Two, Don was tragically killed July 3, 1944 when the F6F Hellcat he was ferrying from Otis Field in Cape Cod to Jacksonville, Fla. went down in a storm near Callahan, Georgia.
Don received the Ridgewood High School Award for Excellence in Athletics as the outstanding athlete in his class (1942). On May 20, 2006 Don Haldane was inducted into the Ridgewood High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Don’s best buddy from high school, Walt Hays, made the nomination on his friends behalf and along with Don’s cousin, Lt General Robert Haldane (Ret) U.S. Army, himself a graduate of the RHS class of 1942, made the induction speech together. It was deeply felt by those in attendance and so well deserved by one of Ridgewood’s fallen heroes of long ago.
In recent years as a tribute to the Danish people, Walt would fly a Danish flag along with the stars and stripes outside his home. Joan Hays recounts that they had any number of Danes coming up their driveway to ask about the flag.
In 1990 Walt became involved with the American Ex-Prisoners of War Association (a national organization) in New Jersey. He would do some of his most important work for the Ex-POW’s and veterans of many conflicts. He fought very hard to make sure that these individuals received the maximum Veterans Administration benefits available.
There are 300 chapters representing 27,000 ex POW’s in the United States today. Walt Hays was named Commander of the New Jersey Chapter #1of American Ex POW’s and lived by the association’s motto, “We exist to help those who cannot help themselves.”
Walt made former American prisoners of war aware that they are eligible for special veteran’s benefits including medical care in VA hospitals and disability compensation for injuries and diseases caused by their internment.
Walt became a National Service Officer (NSO) for the American Ex- POW’s and helped many to claim their rightful benefits. Walt recognized that many former POW’s do not consider claiming all of the things that happened to them while in enemy hands i.e.; physical abuse, forced marches and beatings along with the mental abuse of prolonged questioning, solitary confinement, and other forms of torture. How were they (the POW’s) fed?, housed?, clothed? How did they manage upon returning home? Were there signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Walt representing the veterans would apply the association’s 20 presumptives to every case and then made every effort in assisting the veteran and their families gain fair compensation and treatment from the government. This, to say the least, was an arduous task!
Walt was part of a documentary film with six other Ex POW’s released in 2005. It was called “The Price of Freedom” it was a semifinalist in the category of historical documentaries at the Academy Awards.
It is the heart-wrenching tale of seven American World War Two prisoners of war (Walt being one of them). Each man was eager to fight for his country, but instead the men fell into the hands of the enemy. As POWs they talk about the brutal conditions they endured and bring to light their inner feelings of inadequacy and personal defeat. This is a phenomenon that is just coming to light today. They speak of fighting the stigma of shame and guilt they felt for being captured and how it haunted each of them for the next fifty years.
Because of this film many Ex-POW’s could drop their veil of shame. They have helped many American Warriors come together to tell their stories and claim their rightful place among the heroes of the Greatest Generation.
Many events surrounding the story of “Just Elmers Tune” and her crew began to transpire over the years. Unbeknownst to Red Hays and the surviving crew, a memorial was dedicated in Oster Hojst, Denmark to the crew of the aircraft. It was to thank them for their service in aiding in the liberation of Denmark. That dedication took place on May 5, 1950.
Carved in stone were the names of all the crew members on board that fateful day in 1944. The inscription read “Thank you for your deed.” Significantly it was erected by D.S.K.which was an organization of former Danish and Scheswig veterans from WWI that were forced to fight on the German side due to the fact that the Southern part of Denmark had been taken by the Prussians in 1864.
Amazingly in May of 1995 Gary Joyce (son of Walt’s crewmate Bob) set up a reunion of the surviving crew of “Just Elmers Tune.” Gary arranged the visit through the Danish consulate.
Johannes Ulrich, the boy who helped Walt in the field after he parachuted down heard of the reunion and contact Walt. The trip and reunion were on. It would bring Walt in contact with Bob Joyce (Turret Gunner) and Norm Carnie (Waist Gunner), once again.
On May 5, 1995, the group had a special welcome at Skrydstrup Air Base and were flown by helicopter on the same route that their B17 took over Denmark on Feb 24, 1944. They flew over the crash site and then attended a special ceremony at the memorial in Oster Hojst. It was part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the liberation of Denmark.
There they met Egon Johansen, police inspector (Retired). Without Johansen’s resourcefulness at the time of the crash and the following days, it would have been much worse for the badly wounded members of the crew.
Walt recalled that he thought it was going to be a small ceremony. He was amazed to find the park jammed with military bands and units of all services. There was also a large contingent of civilian spectators. Walt went on to say, “We were welcomed warmly. It was an overwhelming experience and many tears were shed.”
On the next day the returning veterans visited the crash site and actually found and collected pieces of ammunition and other small debris from the aircraft. The men were literally digging up their past, which they were allowed to keep as mementos. Walt described his feelings as “eerie.”
Walt and his wife Joan returned to Denmark in the summer of 1996 and were visiting with the son of Johannes Ulrich (Fritz) at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, when Fritz announced he was going to set up a reunion with the German pilot Gunter Sinnecker who shot Walt’s bomber down in 1944. It took a lot of detective work on Fritz’s part, but he located Gunter Sinnecker in Berlin.
Sinnecker explained he had been a pilot in the Luftwaffe during WWII with the rank of lieutenant and he acknowledged shooting down a B17 Flying Fortress in the same region that “Just Elmers Tune” went down in. Since it was the only B17 recorded being destroyed in that region, Fritz Ulrich soon found out that Gunter Sinnecker was the pilot that doomed Walt’s aircraft that day.
Walt was astonished when he received a report on the action from Herr Sinnecker as well as a picture of him. The reunion (of sorts) was on.
On June 27, 1998, the Sinnecker family welcomed the Hays family to Berlin. Walt recalling the evening spent at the Sinnecker home, recounted to news reporters on his return to the United States. “So much of the evening was just being friendly and getting acquainted.” He remembered that Lt Sinnecker made a toast before dinner to the fact that he and Walt had met in the air and that they were fortunate that they were there and able to talk about it.”
Neither man discussed their WWII encounter, but Sinnecker did relate to Walt about growing up in Nazi Germany. He also related that he too had been taken captive as a POW by an American unit at the end of the war. Walt pointed out, “I don’t think he (Lt. Sinnecker) forgets being shot down and escaping with his life.” (It was reported that Sinnecker escaped death three times being shot down on that many occasions during the war.) “He knows he is lucky to be alive and he hates war as much as I do, I can tell.”
The next day when Walt and his family flew home he thought it ironic that the first time he flew out of Germany he was in a B17 where he saw the ruins of German cities. This second time he was the guest of the German pilot that shot him down! Both men knew their stories could have had far more tragic endings and were both fortunate to be able to meet one another in peaceful times.
As the years rolled by Walt would speak and show slide shows regularly about his POW experience. He would often speak at classes for non-commissioned officers at the McGuire Air Force Base NCO Academy. He would also speak at school groups, civic organizations, and veterans groups throughout New Jersey and beyond.
As a friend of Ridgewood High School athletics, Walt could be seen regularly over the years attending RHS athletic events. He always took great interest in the student athletes and their coaches. He looked especially forward to following the baseball, softball and girls soccer team programs. His own grand daughter was an outstanding pitcher for the Paramus High School softball team in the mid 1990’s.Walt was also a firm supporter for the development of the Ridgewood High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
In the year 2000, the book “Rendezvous with Destiny” was written by Fritz Ulrich about the crew of “Just Elmers Tune” and what had occurred during his father’s boyhood days in Denmark. He was fascinated by the treasure chest of war items he would find around the farm he and his father grew up on. This led his father to recount to him the story of the flying fortress on Feb 24, 1944 and the story of his role in helping the crew members in peril that night.
As Lt General Robert Haldane (Retired) United States Army states in the forward to the book, “Fritz Ulrich has pulled together this fine story and the coincident actions of many Americans, Danes, and Germans. This is a work of love, but it is also invaluable as a record for posterity, facts that present and future generations should know and remember. They should not be unaware of the sacrifices of past generations.”
Walt Hays was a hero in many ways. As a husband of 60 years to his beloved Joan, as a father, ambassador of goodwill, purveyor of veterans rights, historian, teacher, outdoors man, environmentalist and friend.
Walt has been called an All American boy who gave us all lessons in courage!
This courageous hero was laid to rest with other American heroes at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. on February 22, 2007.
I would like to acknowledge portions of this account were derived through the historical accounts of events as described in Fritz Ulrich’s book, “Rendezvous With Destiny.” Other accounts as written by Jay Levin of “The Bergen Record” newspaper and Christopher Stout of the “Ridgewood News” were also used. Accounts as described by Walt Hays in his personal autobiography recounting his life from WWII and Joan Hays, “George Washington Never Slept Here” were also valuable resources. Newspaper accounts from various articles from the 1940-42 athletic seasons were also used as supplied through Walt Hay’s personal scrapbook.
Respectfully submitted for consideration to the Ridgewood High School Distinguished Alumni Committee.