May 2006

Losing Friends & Neighbors at War

The following are excerpts from the oral history of Tom Hayes, taken by the town of Concord Oral History program. The complete text can be found at the Concord Free Public Library.

It went into the 454th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, 737 Bomb Squadron. Our mission was to damage German industry like the Ploesti oil fields. They felt if we could knock out the Ploesti oil friends that would cut down their war machine, because 90% of the German oil came from Ploesti. Even after we got done bombing the oil fields, the Germans came up with synthetic oil. They had places like Aschaffenburg, Germany, that was a synthetic gasoline plant and they had places called Brux. They were making synthetic fuel. Although synthetic fuel was not as good as ours, we had 100% octane gasoline. As good as their synthetic fuel was, it could never come anywhere near our octane. So as a result, the German fighters were nowhere near as good as our fighters in flying.

In getting Budapest, I was on that mission, and it was supposed to be an easy mission. As far as I was concerned, it was a milk run. A few weeks later I got a letter from Mrs. Caleb Wheeler (from Concord) telling me her son went down on the mission to Budapest on July 2. Well, hell, I was on that raid. So she wanted to know if I could find out anything.

So a kid called "Okie," because he came from Oklahoma, who was killed a few weeks later, and I hitchhiked up to Caleb's group near Foggia, Italy. I went into his commanding officer, told him who I was and where I was from and I had a letter from his mother and she wanted to know if I could find out any information. The commanding officer said he would like to tell me, but he couldn't tell me anything. I asked why and was told the information had already gone out. "If I tell you anything, it will probably be conflicting. I'd rather not tell you anything other than what Mrs. Wheeler has already got." I asked to talk to others that went on that mission and he said, "Oh, no, I can't let you do that either."

But in all fairness, they were probably a half-mile behind us in another group. I did see a B24 pull out of formation and I told my pilot about it and he said to keep my eye on it, and then all of a sudden, Bang, bang! And then the parachutes opening up. So I wrote to Mrs. Wheeler that it was an easy mission, but I did see an airplane that apparently got hit by flack, and I counted eight parachutes getting out of that plane. I wish I never said that because I think I may have given her hope. We only lost 1 or 2 planes in that mission, but none in our group at all. We landed and I didn't know Caleb was on that mission.

I came home awhile later, and I was shopping at the First National Store in Concord and I had the 15th Air Force patch on my jacket, and she (Mrs. Wheeler) came up to me and asked who I was and I told her. She introduced herself. Caleb was missing in action first. I can understand why they wouldn't tell me anything. If I told Mrs. Wheeler something, it might have conflicted with what they had told her. They had told Mrs. Wheeler that he was missing in action and more news would follow, but he was killed.

Recently I met his brother, Joe Wheeler. After all these years I was always going to go see Joe, and I went to see him on July 2, 2005, which was the anniversary date that Caleb was shot down. He got shot down on July 2, 1944. We were hitting railroad yards in Budapest and Joe didn't know that.

There was a Jewish boy named Rudy Haase. When Hitler took over in the 1930s, his family had a lot of money. The Jewish people with money had a chance to get out. They saw the writing on the wall, but they were only allowed to take so much money and so much baggage and everything else had to be left. The Germans took everything from them. So they went to England in 1934, and then from England they came to this country and they settled in New Jersey. Rudy enrolled at Princeton. Then he left college and joined the Air Force. All my 4 officers in my crew, co-pilot, pilot, navigator and bombardier, were all college men. The rest of us were all high school men. Rudy was always talking to me about when the invasion was coming. When was it coming? Well, he was killed 2 days before Normandy at Angio Beachhead. It was sad. He had more courage than any man I had ever met. He was very proud of his faith.

I said, "You know Rudy, if we should go down or get hit and bail out over Germany, the Germans are going to have to give us a hard time, but you being Jewish, they're really going to give you a hard time."

He said, "After what the Nazis did to my people, what more can they do to me?"

And he was so right. So we would turn the German news on, and Rudy would interpret for us.

I was called" Sparks" because I was a radio operator, too. You had two jobs and I was radio operator and gunner. In combat, you never touched the radios. You always maintained radio silence because the Germans could put a fix on it and tell where we were. On one mission somebody says, " Sparks, get some music on." It was so cold when we were up about 20,000 feet, it was about 40 below zero even though we had electric suits. I got the BBC from England and they were playing "Danny Boy." One of the crew had a beautiful voice and started singing along over the loud speaker. We loved it. I never forgot that. A week or 2 later, he got killed.

When I got back after my last mission and I got off the plane, I grabbed a hunk of the dirt and I kissed it. They always give you a shot of whiskey after the missions. The priest was there and he gave me a double shot and I said I wasn't going to take it today. I gave it to one of the other gunners.

For more information contact Dick Krug, director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, located at 105 Everett Street. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.