Aaron Elson: Did you have anything like a good luck charm?
Ed Hays: I had a toy elephant that we bought out in St. Louis in 1943, and we decorated this toy elephant, we called him Dumbo, and we put ribbons on him, and I had an iron cross on him that my father had gotten from a German soldier in World War I. And he flew up in the cockpit in front of Costales [Elmer Costales] and Kish [Steve Kish], the pilot and co-pilot, for four or five missions, until finally Costy, my pilot, said, "You know, I dont think this is a good idea. If we get shot down and somebody sees that iron cross, there might be some trouble." So I took him out and put him up by my barracks, and when I was shot down, one of the guys in my barracks packed him up along with some of my other belongings and mailed him home, and Ive got him today. Ill show him to you. Hes beautiful. Hes all decorated, and hes got five missions. So that was sort of a good luck charm.
Aaron Elson: Were you aware of the last mission being your 13th?
Ed Hays: Yeah, of course. We didnt call it 13. We called it 12-B.
Aaron Elson: I notice that you say you had 12½ missions.
Ed Hays: Twelve and a half missions, because 13 was a superstition. But we were halfway home. We were right there. At that time, that was about the average for the 8th Air Force. Twelve, thirteen missions. Hey, a lot of my friends were shot down on their first mission, you know, all these ex-POWs that I know, youve met, a lot of them were shot down early, on their first or second mission. So you were fortunate to get to 13.
Aaron Elson: Who was the other crew member who bailed out with you?
Ed Hays: Norm Carnie was my waist gunner. He went out right behind me, and we landed in the same field, a couple of hundred yards apart. In fact, I have a picture here that I just took this month, of the actual field where I came down in. These are flaws in the development, they actually look like a parachute, isnt that something? This was taken by Johannes Ulrich, hes the boy that picked me up in the field. These are high-tension wires, right here, that I was trying to avoid as I was coming down. And I didnt succeed. I tried to pull the shrouds.
Aaron Elson: Those wires were there even then?
Ed Hays: Thats right. I barely missed the wires, and I landed right over here in front of those fir trees.
Aaron Elson: Now, you had said you hit part of the pole or the wires?
Ed Hays: No, but when I landed on the ground, I landed in a depression where the farmer had thrown all his rocks; hed been plowing this field. I tried to avoid it, but I landed right in it, and thats when I got hurt. But those high-tension wires are still there.
Aaron Elson: Did you know how to manipulate the chute?
Ed Hays: No. I tried to, but nothing happened. I was pulling and pulling. You know, the ground comes up awfully fast, and the high tension wires are only about 40 feet high, so I was right on top of them. Very luckily I missed them. And I crumpled up in that field, and Carnie landed about over here. Johannes was coming home from school and saw my chute coming down, and he hopped on his bike. It was about a half a mile run from his farm to where we landed.
Aaron Elson: He would have been what, 15 or 16?
Ed Hays: He was about 15. He had just taken his examinations in English and was coming home from school. When he picked me up he tried to convince me that I was in Denmark. I didnt know where I was. I could have been in Germany, anywhere, Poland. And he reached in his pocket and pulled out some coins with a portrait of King Christian the 10th on it, and said, "Here. Youre in Denmark." Id barely ever heard of Denmark. But at least I knew I was in friendly hands, temporarily.
Aaron Elson: Denmark was occupied by the Germans?
Ed Hays: They were occupied April 9, 1940, by German troops, until May 4, 1945. The night of May 4 they left, and they celebrated May 5th. They had a rather good occupation if you want to put it that way. Many Germans had lived in that area for years and years, and they had some rapport going, although when the German troops came in they were a different end of it. However, the Danish had a big underground. They didnt do the same damage that the French maquis did, but they had a terrific group of guys that did a lot of damage. They have a museum over there which they call the Underground Museum, which Ive been to, and theres just scores of pictures of young guys that were eventually captured and shot, but they did a lot of damage. They blew up ships and trains and ammunition depots. And the British used to drop supplies, the RAF; we didnt do any of that, we just happened to be flying over. We didnt have any direct assistance to the Danes, the United States forces. But theyre a very patriotic people and theyre fierce fighters, and theyre very proud of their country, just absolutely dedicated to Denmark, its unbelievable. I wish America had a little more of that today.
Aaron Elson: And it was Johannes Ulrichs birthday?
Ed Hays: No, it was Mrs. Lunds birthday; thats the farmhouse that Johannes took me to, Mr. And Mrs. Lund. She was celebrating her 40th birthday, and we sat down in their kitchen and we shared her birthday cake.
Aaron Elson: And where were you injured?
Ed Hays: I had a fractured skull and a broken ankle. I was taken to two hospitals.
Aaron Elson: When you landed, where did you land first, on your head or your feet?
Ed Hays: I landed on both. When I landed in that big hole in the ground, somehow or other I hit my head hard on those rocks. They X-rayed me, when I eventually got to the Tonder hospital. The problem was that we couldnt stay in that hospital very long. Carnie and I only stayed two days. They X-rayed us, threw us in a room for two days, and then they took us by truck out of there. But my pilot stayed five months in the hospital, being treated for his wounds. He had been shot right through the chest. And my co-pilot was there for three months. And then my pilot went to Germany and was in the hospital for three more months, so he spent a total of eight months in the hospital.
Aaron Elson: Tell me once again everything you can remember about the plane crashing.
Ed Hays: I told you, I bailed out, and Carnie came right after me, and we dropped into a field.
Aaron Elson: Did you count to ten?
Ed Hays: Im not sure. I knew that I was clear of the plane, and I pulled the ripcord. I pulled it I think rather quickly.
Aaron Elson: How did you find out what happened to the rest of the crew?
Ed Hays: It was not till that night. We were taken to the farmhouse first, and then a Danish doctor came to the farmhouse and transported us by his automobile, and we had to sit down in the back seat and hunch down so nobody would see us; he didnt want anybody to see us, and he drove us to the hospital, about a 20-minute drive, to the town of Tonder, and we were admitted to the hospital, X-rays, the whole bit, and assigned a room, with German guards outside. That evening, the rest of the most of the crew was admitted to that hospital. Not all of them. A couple of them stayed out all night in a haystack, and were captured the next day. And my navigator was killed in the burning of the plane, and my top turret gunners chute didnt open because he bailed out too low, so those two were dead. Eight of us survived, and six of us ended up in that hospital. Now all I saw after I hit the ground was smoke rising from the ground, which looked like three or four miles away, so I knew the plane was down and it burned, but I didnt know the fate of all those guys. And I didnt know even after the hospital experience there were still two men missing. That I never did get to know until we got eventually into Germany into a prison camp, and I found out what happened. So we knew where each person was. And I met my pilot, Costy, in Stalag Luft 1 at the end of the war. That was an officers camp, and I met him there.
Aaron Elson: Were you an officer?
Ed Hays: No. I was an enlisted man, but I was sent to Stalag Luft 1 by the Germans from Stalag Luft 4. About 2,000 of us were sent to Stalag Luft 1. The rest of the prisoners from my camp went on the march, 86 days. So I was very fortunate to go to Stalag Luft 1. I went with a bunch of, they wanted 2,500 sick and wounded to go by train to Stalag Luft 1. They didnt have 2,500, so we drew cards in each barracks room and the high card got to go, so I went with the sick and wounded even though I wasnt sick and wounded.
Aaron Elson: Did you help take care of the sick and wounded then?
Ed Hays: Not really. We were shoved into cattle cars, fifty or sixty guys in a car. Incidentally, I spent a total of 23 days in boxcars, in different travels around Germany, so I know what the inside of one looks like.
Aaron Elson: That must have been an awful experience.
Ed Hays: Its terrible, because youre so crowded, they dont let you out. They let you out once a day, and there wasnt any fresh water, no sanitary conditions. And I was two and a half days in the hold of a ship, under the same conditions, in darkness. And you know, every minute you expect some P-47 guy to come over and lay an egg on you. On the mind, its terrible. And we got out of that ship and went on what they called the Heydekrug Run. Youve heard about that?
Aaron Elson: I just read about it. Tell me about it.
Ed Hays: We evacuated Stalag Luft 6, which was in the Pomeranian section of Germany, and they transported us by train to a seaport and put us in the hold of a ship, the Mazarin, Ill never forget that name. Two thousand five hundred of us were put in the hold of that ship, with nothing. You get down there, they close the hatch. They put so many of us down there that they had to keep some people on deck, so there were some guys that got lucky and rode up above. We were down there for two and a half days with nothing. Theyd lower a bucket with drinking water, and when it went up it went full of filth and slop. And that was it. So when we got out of there we were pretty happy guys. But they put us on a little train and took us to a railroad station, and then handcuffed us together. Two men. My right wrist and my partners left wrist. I dont know why they handcuffed us, theyd never done that before.
My partner was Bob Richards from Chicago, a friend of mine, close friend, who had lost an eye and had a glass eye, which the Germans had given him. He had been shot down earlier than I was, and he had a badly dislocated leg. It just didnt work. I was handcuffed to him, but we thought we were gonna walk to the next camp. We started out, and we ran into a bunch of German guards and this wild Nazi captain who was completely out of his mind. He incited the guards to make us run, and if anybody stumbled they were beaten or bayoneted. They had police dogs on leashes, which they sicced on each guy. They were hoping to get us to break ranks on them, so that they could have an excuse to shoot us. They had a machine gun emplacement every hundred yards or so along that road, in the forest.
Aaron Elson: And you could see them?
Ed Hays: You could see them. So we were smart enough to know not to make a break. But two and a half miles is a long run with a pack, our belongings. Being handcuffed together you couldnt I went down with Bob. We fell down twice, and both times we were beaten.
Aaron Elson: When you say beaten, where were you hit?
Ed Hays: I was hit in the head, and I was hit in the shoulder and the collarbone, by rifle butts. We were lucky we werent bayoneted. We were lucky we werent bitten by the dogs. Many guys suffered dog bites and bayonet wounds, and we had several hundred badly injured men when they got to the camp. When we got there, they put us out in a field, and we sat there for the rest of the day in the hot sun while they processed us into the camp. And I never did get any medical attention. There were other guys that were more seriously hurt than I was, but we were both badly beaten. I consider myself lucky that I wasnt bayoneted. And although there was only one death this fellow died later on from bayonet wounds we were very fortunate. That got to be known as the Heydekrug Run, and the case was taken to the Nuremberg trials. Three men were indicted for that, the Hauptmann the captain and two German guards, but there was never enough evidence applied at the trial and in the indictment, so it was dropped. They had more important cases to take care of in Nuremberg, but nevertheless, they got those three guys into court. So there was some revenge. But that was a bad experience.
Aaron Elson: Can you remember in the boxcars, and in the hold of the ship, if there was any conversation? Was it pitch black down there?
Ed Hays: It wasnt quite pitch black, but it was almost complete darkness. When they opened the hatch to drop the pail of water down we got some light, but there was enough light to distinguish one person from another.
Aaron Elson: Did you turn to the next guy and say, "What are you in for?" Anything like that?
Ed Hays: No, but I mean there were a lot of jokes going around. We were, well, you know how Americans are, theyre always trying to make the best of a situation.
Aaron Elson: In a situation like that?
Ed Hays: Well, youve got to make some kind of a joke.
Aaron Elson: Tell me what somebody said that was even remotely funny, if you can.
Ed Hays: Well, all I know is the guys were making jokes about being bombed, and hoping that some jockey fighter pilot didnt come over and lay an egg on that ship. We couldnt imagine where we were going or how long wed be there. So it was just another case of guys getting incarcerated in boxcars like myself, for nine days at one time. Thats a long time to be in one spot, locked up with bodies next to you. So we tried to make the best of it. The jokes are not really funny, but theyre conversation. And theres nothing you can do about it, so most of it was fairly humorous.
Aaron Elson: If I were going to write a novel, and I was going to try to portray the conversation in one of these boxcars, can you give me some suggestion as to what I might write?
Ed Hays: I really dont recall any specific conversations, but I know there were a lot of nasty jokes and a lot of nasty remarks about Germans, and when are we gonna get out of here? But never once in all of those bad times I had did I ever see any panic, and Ive got to credit that with the American spirit. Not once. On that run they never panicked and broke, in the boxcars, all of that shit. You know, guys had been blown up in airplanes and had all kinds of bad experiences when they hit the ground, beaten up by German civilians, and SS, I mean, I was fortunate in my case to come down in Denmark and be with friends, compared to guys that were I had a close friend of mine that was shot through the mouth; a farmer walked up to him and fired a rifle, it went through his mouth, out here, took one tooth out of his head and that was it.
Aaron Elson: He survived?
Ed Hays: Yes, but he was a total wreck mentally for the rest of the war. You couldnt get near him.
Aaron Elson: He was in the camp?
Ed Hays: He was in my barracks room. Finally they had so many of us in that camp that they had to sleep on the floor. And then they built huts, little dog huts we called them, that could hold about four men, and put those between the barracks. Because it got kind of crowded.
Aaron Elson: Who was Big Stoop?
Ed Hays: Big Stoop was a German guard that took delight I first ran into him in Stalag Luft 6, the first camp I was in. And he came to Stalag Luft 4 as we evacuated 6, and he was also on the march, when they evacuated 4. And Big Stoop was a guy that didnt take any nonsense from American prisoners. He took great joy out of beating up prisoners whenever he could. If he got near you, you got hit. Hed clap you over the ears with his hands. He was a huge man, and he beat many a prisoner. I dont know what he did on the march, but I do know that they found his body at the end, and they chopped his head off. And I have two close friends in this group right here [the New Jersey chapter of the American ex-POWs] that will verify it. They saw the body. So they took care of him. But he was a mean man. Who knows what went through his mind, whether he had family that was killed in bombings or what. But he was a terror to Both Stalag Luft 6 and Stalag Luft 4 and on the march. A bad character. If he was in the camp walking around you went the other way. You kept away from him.
Aaron Elson: Of the guys in your crew, what happened to each one?
Ed Hays: Costales, my pilot, after he got out of those eight months in the hospital, went up to Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, where I eventually ended up. Steve Kish, my co-pilot, after three months in the hospital went to Stalag Luft 3, where the Great Escape was. The other guys all ended up in the camps I was in, Stalag Luft 6 and 4. Two of them went on the march, and the others were up in Barth.
Aaron Elson: And the four in the cockpit?
Ed Hays: The pilot and co-pilot and the navigator and the bombardier were all seriously wounded by that first pass from the fighter. The very first pass wiped out the whole front of the ship, and my navigator was badly wounded in the stomach. He was begging my pilot to shoot him. "Please, shoot me, Costy." He handed him his pistol. The navigator was Cliff Sahner, and Costy when they hit the ground, Steve Kish, the co-pilot, crash-landed the plane, and Costy came out of his coma and said, "Look, get out of the plane. Ill take care of Cliff." Steve climbed out and got on the ground. Costy went up in the nose and tried to get Cliff out and he couldnt get him out of the nose hatch because it was jammed. So he said to him, "Ill go out through the bomb bay and Ill come around the front and try and get the door open." He got as far as the bomb bay, and the ship blew up. And the next thing he knew he was on the ground, the plane was burning, and Cliff died in the ship. And Steve was lying on the ground with his pistol waving it around when Egon Johansson, the police commissioner, approached him and the police commissioner took the pistol away from him and put it in his coat pocket, and proceeded to get these guys in ambulances and up to the hospital. Later on Egon Johansson realized he had the pistol but he didnt have the holster, and he knew when the Germans found that empty holster that he would be under suspicion.
When we got to the hospital they took all our clothes off and put them in a great big pile in the hall, and Johansson went to the hospital and he got a nurse to go down and search that pile of clothing, and she found the holster. And she stuck it between her legs and she hobbled back past the guards, and she dropped it in front of Johansson, and he put it in his pocket. And he got away with it.
And then, years later, just after the end of the war, Johansson, who had been locked up by the Germans also the last three months of the war, they finally got tired of his nonsense and locked him up, but after the war they had a party to celebrate the end of the war, and Johansson brought out the pistol and the holster and he was telling the story, and the man whose home they were having the party in said, "Lets try that out." He takes it out the front door, and hes whipping off shots with it, and his fiancee was so upset by the sound of the gunfire that she ran out of the house, they had to drive her home and it broke up their engagement.
Well, about 15 years later they both got together and they were eventually married, and the pistol eventually was turned in by Egon at an arms collection, so the story went quite a ways. A very interesting story on the pistol.
Aaron Elson: Now you came home you dont weigh too much now, what did you weigh when you were liberated?
Ed Hays: I lost about 60 pounds. I weighed about 90 pounds I guess. I got it back very quickly. The Army was determined to fatten us up, so wed look good when our folks saw us. And thats what they did. They fed us hamburgers and cheeseburgers and milk shakes and candy bars, and they kept us at Camp Lucky Strike till we got a little robust, and then put us on a ship. Thats exactly what they did.
Aaron Elson: Now, you had said that the last camp you were at, you went past a concentration camp?
Ed Hays: We walked past the camp on the way to the airfield to fly back to France. It was a small camp, as I remember maybe half a dozen barracks. And we walked up and looked in the doorways in those barracks, and there were people in those bunks that were just emaciated. We didnt have time to do anything; we were on our way to an airfield to go home. And we didnt know it was there, the whole time we were in that camp. So its too bad that there wasnt something we could have done. And I dont know what happened because the Russians took over that whole territory. So Lord knows what happened.
Aaron Elson: Were you liberated by the Russians?
Ed Hays: We were liberated by the Russians. Hubert Zemke, the famous fighter ace of the 56th Fighter Group, was our CO at Stalag Luft 1, and a man who could speak fluent Russian, and he held those Russians at bay because they wanted to take us all back into Russia, and Lord knows what would have happened. So he was instrumental in keeping us there until the American forces could get in there and get us under control.
Aaron Elson: Did you know he was a famous fighter ace at the time?
Ed Hays: Yes, I knew of him. I didnt know of his background; he was a Russian liaison officer before the war. But he knew the ways of the Russians and their thinking.
Aaron Elson: Theres somebody in here, theres a story with a German name that I was wondering about. This one here, Major Speck.
Ed Hays: Major Gunther Speck was one of the fighter pilots that was attacking us. I got his name from Fritz Ulrich. He gave me a little background on the man. And Milt Stern, whom youve met, was over here on that aircraft carrier in the harbor here, the Intrepid; he was over there one holiday and met a man, Ive forgotten his last name. He said, "Id like you to come up to my high school and talk." Milt couldnt do it and he asked me, "Eddie, do you want to go up there and speak?" So I called this guy, and hes a teacher in Greenwich, Connecticut, High School. So I got talking to him and I said, "You know, I got shot down by a pilot named Gunther Speck." He said, "I know all about Speck." This schoolteacher is a nut on the Luftwaffe and all their workings. He gave me this whole history of the man.
Aaron Elson: So one of the fighter pilots had gotten the Knights Cross?
Ed Hays: This guy Speck.
Aaron Elson: Was he one of the ones that was shot down?
Ed Hays: No. He wasnt because he survived, and he finally ended up with something like, he got the Knights Cross, he was shot down several times but remained unwounded. He was killed Jan. 1, 1945, over Belgium. That was the last great attack by the Luftwaffe. They gathered all their planes together for one last sweep, I dont know what they were thinking. So hes quite a guy. I put this in here because its very interesting. Major Speck. He only had one eye. And so I used to have a lot of fun with my friends, Id say, "Hey, I was shot down by a one-eyed pilot." Theyd razz me. And that story went really good in my presentation down at McGuire. Id say that and Id get a big laugh every time. And then Fritz discovered the actual man that shot us down was Gunther Sinnecker. Fritz Ulrich is Johannes son, and he was brought up on the farm with the story. His father always told him, "When I was a young boy these two guys came down," and Fritz got caught up in the story, and hes writing a book. Hes in his early forties and a good friend of ours. He located Gunther Sinnecker.
Aaron Elson: Fritz Ulrich is hearing all these stories, right? All this stuff is going on in Denmark. You were liberated. You came home, and what happened?
Ed Hays: I came home. I got started in life. Got married. Went to college. Had three kids, and got on with our life.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever talk about your experiences?
Ed Hays: Well, my kids didnt know anything except that Id been a prisoner of war and was in the Air Force. That was it.
Aaron Elson: How much did Joan know?
Ed Hays: Very little. She didnt know much more. She didnt know anything about this story, the Heydekrug run and the ship, all that stuff. No details. She just knew I was a prisoner for 16 months.
Aaron Elson: How many years went by before you started talking about it?
Ed Hays: Well, Ill tell you how many years went by. That was 1945, and I heard from Johannes in 1995. Fifty years.
Aaron Elson: When did you get active in the POW group?
Ed Hays: Not until 1990. I was coming down Franklin Turnpike and Karnig Tomassian was behind me. He saw my POW plates, blew his horn and said, "Hey!" And we got talking. I didnt know anything about benefits and meetings. I went into the POW group and got involved in it. But one day in 1995 and that day was Feb. 24, the day I was shot down, the anniversary date, the 51st anniversary the phone rang, and it was Johannes Ulrich, the boy who picked me up in the field. And I wasnt home. And Joan answered. And he said, "This is Johannes Ulrich. Im the boy who picked your husband up in a field 51 years ago." So when I came home, I immediately called him, and he arranged for us to come back to help Denmark celebrate their 50th year of liberation. I went with Bob Joyce, my ball turret gunner, and his son Gary. Gary was responsible for what happened, because he had written a letter to the mayor of Tonder saying, "I would like to bring my father over here." He said, "I was brought up as a little boy looking at that picture," of the stone. He said, "Id like to bring my father over here and show him where he was." The letter got pigeonholed over there, and Johannes found out about the letter somehow. He wrote to the mayor of Tonder and said, "You must do something about that letter." They forwarded the letter to the mayor of Logumkloster, which is the neighboring town where we were shot down, and from that point on they arranged this get-together. Johannes called Gary and said, "Im the guy thats involved in this story, and were going to set up this celebration. We want you to come back if you can." And so Gary then called me. Bob and I and Gary went together and we left the wives home. We went for one week and celebrated the 50th year, the whole country went wild. Just unbelievable.
Aaron Elson: Had you been in touch with the crew?
Ed Hays: Only Christmas cards. I have to say, we never called each other. We never had a reunion. Carnie, my waist gunner, lived here in Long Island. I dont know what it was. I guess we were just so wrapped up.
Aaron Elson: And when did that stone go up?
Ed Hays: The stone went up in 1950. It was erected by the DSK, which is the World War I Danish underground organization, which is no longer in existence. They raised the money, erected the stone and had the names put on it. My co-pilot went over there in 1970, twenty years after that, and sent me a photograph. He and his wife were in Belgium and they rented a car, zipped up there, and found the stone. And that was quite an emotional thing. I have newspaper clippings of that trip there.
Aaron Elson: He sent you a photo?
Ed Hays: Yes, and I stuck it in my wallet.
Aaron Elson: He sent the photo to Joyce also, and thats how Joyces son came to see the photo?
Ed Hays: Thats right.
Aaron Elson: So you did know something.
Ed Hays: I knew there was a stone erected, but I didnt know any story about it. I stuck it in my wallet, and I eventually lost the photo, and that was that, until I got that phone call in 1995. And from that point on, all this has evolved.
Aaron Elson: So it was after 1995 that you found out about the one-eyed pilot, and then you found out about Gunther Sinnecker?
Ed Hays: The whole story. Everything that happened in Denmark.
Aaron Elson: When you got the name, was it Sinnecker who contacted you?
Ed Hays: No, it was Fritz Ulrich. Fritz researched it, located the records of the Luftwaffe which showed that a pilot named Gunther Sinnecker shot down a B-17 on Feb. 24, 1944, and the only plane shot down over Denmark that day was rather easy, once he had the records, to pinpoint. So he had the name Sinnecker. But then he said, "How am I gonna find him?" So he went through a lot of the large cities phone directories, and when he got to Berlin he found about 15 Sinneckers. So he took the first five and started calling, and on the third call he got Sinneckers son, who is a doctor. He said, "Oh! You want my father!" Fritz speaks fluent German, and Sinnecker speaks pretty good English, and German of course, so they got along great. Fritz set up the meeting. He said, "Look, Ive been in contact with the two guys that were in the plane, four guys, the four of us still alive, and Ed Hays keeps coming over here. Howd you like to meet him?"
He said, "Wonderful." He said, "Ill invite the whole family to my home." So then we set it up. And then it turned out at the last minute Fritz couldnt get plane tickets. He could only get four tickets and we needed six. He was going crazy because we could only do it this specific day and the schedule was so tight. But eventually he worked it out. He got six tickets. We flew to Copenhagen, and a day later we flew to Berlin, on Lufthansa.
Aaron Elson: What are you thinking as this is going on? Are you nervous?
Ed Hays: The whole time, I had from December until June to think about this. And all my friends would say, "What are you gonna say to this guy?" Id always say, "Whats he gonna say to me? And what are we gonna say to each other?" I said, "I think were just gonna look at each others eyes [he gets choked up here] and well just see. You know, and thats what it was. When we met him at the airport he and his wife had bouquets for the girls, and here he is all dressed up in a suit, a prosperous man, and I think he was shaking in his boots like I was. In fact, I know he was shaking, his hands were trembling as he was driving. So were mine. But we did have a cordial meeting. It got better as we got back to his apartment and they had a couple drinks and we had some food. We had the young people with us to help break the ice. It was a lot nicer to have a mixed crowd like that, rather than if Id have just bumped into him.
Aaron Elson: Who was with you?
Ed Hays: My great granddaughter, Vanessa, from California. Shes nine. And my granddaughter, Alison, who lives here in Paramus, shes 12. And my daughter Susan who lives in Medford, and of course my wife. I had four generations backing me up. So we had a wonderful meeting.
Aaron Elson: And what kind of family did Gunther have?
Ed Hays: We didnt get to meet all his family. He has two grown sons that are medical doctors, and I met his granddaughter, a very nice gal, shes 17. We got talking about war and philosophy eventually, we got talking about Vietnam, Korea, World War II, the whole bit, and she said, "Id go out in the streets, Ill march, Ill demonstrate. Ill do anything to stop wars." I thought that was pretty good. Heres a generation, this is like two generations after the war. So theres been a big change in Germany; theres a lot of skinheads there but theres a lot of people that, she was proud of her grandfather, what he did during the war. Its only a natural feeling. But shes seen pictures of the destruction and the ruins; she knows, that generation of kids knows what war is and what it does to a country. I got a nice feeling from that.
Aaron Elson: What did Sinnecker do after the war?
Ed Hays: He went to college, but he had a terrible time. The officer corps was looked down upon by not only the occupying powers but by the German people. They felt that they had been responsible for the war. And these guys couldnt get into college, they couldnt get jobs. They were ostracized. It took two years before he was able to get into college. He got his engineering degree and worked for Siemens, a large industrial firm. In fact hes living in one of their complexes now. And hes retired. They really take care of their workers over there. And believe it or not, he even went back to Denmark on business a couple of times. So he has a very successful business life, and from all I could see, hes made out pretty well. He has a beautiful apartment. He was driving a new Mercedes. He drove us around Berlin to look at some of the highlights.
Aaron Elson: And that was the first of the four times that he was shot down?
Ed Hays: Thats right, the first time. He was shot down he told me three, but Fritz told me he was shot down five times. It doesnt make any difference, but he was shot down at least three times after that, and he bailed out twice. And one time he was knocked down by a P-51 Mustang, crash-landed in a field, got out of his cockpit, and was crawling on the ground to get into the woods, and the bullets were flying all around, he was being strafed, and he said it was just a miracle he wasnt killed.
And then when the war was over, he was locked up by the American authorities in a prison camp for about a month and a half, and was released.
Aaron Elson: Did you have compassion for that, having been in a stalag?
Ed Hays: Yeah, I do, because I know how he must have felt. He must have felt terribly lonely like I did. With nobody thats gonna help him. He didnt know how long he was gonna be detained or what, and the conditions I know were terrible, they may have been even worse than ours in some cases. But he got out.
Aaron Elson: Did he talk at all about what led him to become a pilot?
Ed Hays: No, he didnt. Actually, we didnt get into a lot of that. We didnt have the time. So much of the evening was just being friendly and having a few drinks and getting acquainted, and then we had dinner. My daughter was videotaping; we were taking pictures. The only he did say that he made a toast before we started, he toasted the fact that he and I had met in the air, and that we were fortunate that we were here today to be able to talk about it. Later on in the evening he talked about his other experiences being shot down, what I just told you, but we didnt get into, he and I, and thats the way it should be because it was a fleeting thing, it was machine against machine really, although I have feelings, you know, Im not gonna forget, I can forgive to a certain extent, but two of my guys are dead. And I went through a lot. I lost a year and a half, and the bad experience in prison camps. So you dont forget those things and I dont think he forgets being shot down and escaping with his life. He knows hes damn lucky to be alive. And he, he hates war as much as I do, I could tell. I could tell by talking to him, the way he reacted to certain phrases, you know that hes a very happy man right now, and very lucky hes got a nice family, and the war is gone.
Aaron Elson: How old is he now?
Ed Hays: Hes three years older than I am. Hes about 77. And hes in good health. And Berlin is very prosperous right now, and hes living under retirement conditions. Though hes five flights up and hes got to walk up. No elevators. So it was an exciting trip but what Im most pleased about is the fact that my grandchildren were there, great grandchildren, my daughter. To let them be a part of this moment, which was not many people get this chance to meet your opponent; you could meet a German flier and say, well, I might have fought against him, but here was the guy. He felt the same way I did, I know he was very leery about what we should say to each other. And neither one of us said very much, truthfully, but we have this understanding, hes written me a couple of letters and Ive written him and I could tell from those how he really feels.
Aaron Elson: Do you have that note that he wrote when he sent you the picture?
Ed Hays: Yeah, I do.
Aaron Elson: Id just like to read that into the tape, and I want to look at that photo of you and him together.
"Dear Mrs. Hays, Dear Mr. Hays. Today I will send you the pictures of your visit in Berlin. I hope you will be enjoyed about this. Your visit was a great experience for myself and a great honor because our first approaching 54 years ago could have been bad for our selves. Now it was a wonderful day for myself and my wife. We hope that you have a good remembrance for Berlin and you shall be knowing to have good friends in this town. Many greetings also to your daughter Susan and the both girls."
Aaron Elson: So this was the first picture of the two of you.
Ed Hays: Yeah. That was two or three minutes after we met.
Aaron Elson: And you were feeling a little funny at the time?
Ed Hays: Yeah, I was standing out in another area of the airport with the two kids and my daughter and wife and we had to wait about five minutes while Fritz went in there and kind of prepared things, and then when he gave us a signal we walked into the room. It was like a little separate room, and we met for the first time, and of course the flashbulbs were popping.
Aaron Elson: But there were no newspapers or TV?
Ed Hays: No. He didnt want it. Hes still very sensitive about this officers thing I told you about. Hes still got a feeling of trying to keep in the background; they dont want publicity about what they did during the war. And because of the problems they had, the way they were treated by the four occupying powers after the war, all the officers corps, they were put to blame for the entire war and couldnt get back into the mainstream of civilian life, so its still instilled in his mind, and he didnt want newsreels. Fritz had set it up with a couple of TV stations, and there wasnt much point to it outside of when youre gonna get your picture in the paper. If it was that important to him I didnt want it, and so Fritz and I agreed to take pictures ourselves, and to keep everybody happy. And thats the way it worked out, to his satisfaction and mine. And thats the way it should be. Theres no point in blowing this thing up to the point where they were gonna write a story about one guy shooting down the other guy. I came away with a good feeling about it.
Aaron Elson: Is he active in any kind of group of veterans, the way you are?
Ed Hays: He is in some fighter pilot association. I asked him if hed gone to any reunions, and he hadnt been for quite a few years.
Following is the combat report filed by Gunther Sinnecker:
"Fliegerhorst Ludwigslust, Air base Ludwigslust, 02-24-44 a.m.
"In the morning of the 24th of February 1944 I visited my commander in the hospital. When I came back to the air base, the message arrived that an American bomber formation is coming from the east of the Reich over the Baltic course west.
"Belonging to the Night Fighter Squadron 2, Jagdgruppe 302, we had no day fighting experience and we were free to decide who would fight the bombers, as there were no fighters escorting the bombers (in the flyer jargon called "furniture vans").
"My at that time squadron leader Oberleutnant Seeler and I could get our fighters, Me-109G, ready to take off. I was still wearing my dress uniform, so the two of us took off from Ludwigslust in Mecklenburg, course Northwest. We were guided over the radio to a B-17 group, and we discovered it approximately 1,000 meters below our own position. In the west, we saw the North Sea and in the east the Baltic Sea. It was not possible to make a more correct navigation. The Americans were flying in box formations.
"Over the radio Squadron Leader Seeler announced that we would attack coming out of the sun from behind the top. We released the safety catch of our armament and flew with great speed to attack the last boxes. I was firing all of my guns and I could see that I made some good hits at a B-17. Some parts of the flying fortress were blasted away as my sight disappeared due to one or more hits in my oil tank. The oil covered my front windshield. I made a curve, and in an attempt to save my engine I was trying to find a suitable place to make a forced landing. I succeeded in landing on a field. Naturally I lost track of the bomber during this maneuver. It had crashed nearby on the ground.
"My comrade Seeler could reach Ludwigslust and he reported about the course of events."