It saddens me to say that part of the human condition is that some of us have neglected to take the time to get to know an individual, usually because we are busy doing other things that we think at the time are more important. Sometimes, usually much later and when it is too late, we come across remarkable information about that person and we regret not having taken the time to sit down and talk to them. Such is the case regarding my father-in-law, the late Kenneth Hayes.
In 1970 I had pretty much decided that Lynne Catherine Hayes was going to be my wife. For reasons that to this day are unclear to me, she was interested in becoming Mrs. Michael Bolinger. Accordingly, it was decided that when school ended for the year, I would drive to Detroit, Michigan to meet her family and to announce my intention to continue to court their daughter.
On a Friday after exams I packed up my belongings in my 1970 VW Bug and headed to Detroit. The trip was uneventful, except for the fact that I had to take my pet duck, Turdina, with me. She traveled well in a cardboard box, sticking her head out the window most of the way. Quacking occasionally. She might as well meet the parents, too, right?
Of course, I did not think to tell Lynne's parents that there would be an additional guest for the night. One who quacked all night. And who would crap all over the basement floor. About a thousand times. Or more.
I was greeted at the door by Mrs. Evelyn Hayes, a former Army lieutenant-nurse, who kept a spit-shined house. I can only guess what she thought when confronted by a tall, skinny red-haired oaf, carrying a cardboard box, containing a large, very vocal, white duck with a collar and leash. (I can assure you that taking Turdina for a walk on a leash around Wheaton College campus was a source of great amusement.) Astoundingly, I was granted entrance to the Hayes home, presumably because Lynne had advised them that I was "the guy."
I was formally introduced to her mother and father and shown to a spare bedroom, while Turdina was put in the basement laundry room. She was not pleased with her accommodations and was vocal about it. Turdina was very social duck and liked human company. A dark basement just did not get it.
That night over dinner, Mr. Hayes asked me if I would like to see where he worked. Figuring that was his method of getting to spend some man-to-man time with me, I agreed. You need to understand that I had previously asked Lynne what her Dad did for a living. She simply said, "He goes to the office." No further information was forthcoming from her, despite my frequent inquiries, prior to my arrival at the Hayes household. You can imagine my astonishment when Ken and I arrived at a large plant that handled the chemicals for all of Chrysler in the United States. Mr. Hayes matter-of-factly stated that he had overseen the construction of the entire facility and that he helped run the purchasing division of Chrysler. Wow! So much for "He goes to the office."
From then on, I would see Lynne's parents maybe two or three times a year. Piece by piece, I learned more about this remarkable man.
He shared some common threads with rural farm boys during The Great Depression. His father and mother, along with their large family, helped many others in their community, with food and other aid. Ken decided to quit school around 10th grade, as he could be of use at home and didn't really see the relevance of Homer's Orations and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
He was knocking around on various jobs until he was old enough to join the Army because, he said, that was at least a steady paycheck. In 1940, just before the World War II began, he told me his first sergeant took him aside and said, "Ken, there is going to be a war soon and the Army is going to need good officers. How would you like to go to officer candidate school"? Ken accepted. What did the sergeant see in this marginally educated farm boy? Probably the same thing Chrysler management saw in later years.
Ken was commissioned a second lieutenant. The War began and he was in charge of training a reconnaissance company in the California desert. I heard tales about roaring off to the nearest town on Harley-Davison motorcycles with his buddies. The officers had been issued Jeeps, but Ken preferred his Harley, especially riding it at night way too fast. He also grew an Errol Flynn moustache. Very cool.
I once asked Lynne what her Dad did in the War. Lynne told me that he told her that he rode around in a jeep and that was about it. She told me that she asked him if he had been in combat. He told her that he had not, other people did that. Little did she know.
Ken, promoted to Captain, went to England for the build up for D-Day. He landed on Omaha Beach two days after the initial assault. He told me that bodies were still floating in the surf and there was still blood on the beach. He led his company off the beach and started his trek across France. (Ten years ago, my son and I stood in the surf on Omaha Beach as our private guide showed us exactly where he drove his Jeep off the beach between German bunkers to head inland with his company.)
Years after I first met Ken, I asked him about getting off the beach and fighting through France. Instantly, he said, "I hated those hedgerows. You couldn't see the Krauts, until it was too late. They would stick the gun barrels through those damn hedgerows, shoot and then pack up and move to another hedgerow. Time after time. It was terrible. My first sergeant was standing next to me talking, when an 88 shell took his head off."
When I was in my second year of ROTC at Wheaton College, I was discussing what we were being taught with Ken. Viet Nam was hot at the time and was where all second lieutenants were going. We got on the topic of the importance of following orders. I asserted that following orders was what the success of any military operation was based on.
Ken got a very serious look on his face and said, "Son, you will learn that not all orders are to be followed. You need to learn how to avoid bad ones." I asked how you could possibly figure out which orders were good and which were bad. Ken simply stated that "orders that will needlessly get your men killed were stupid and not to be obeyed." That, he said, was the difference between a good officer and a bad one.
Ken told me that his company's job was to operate as scouts in front of the main column of the army. He would frequently be given an order to send a jeep with a squad of men ahead to a crossroad to see if there were any Germans there. Ken said, "Of course the Germans were there," he said, "and anybody fool enough to drive up there and look was going to get shot." He then told me that he often directed his first sargent to turn the road sign 90 degrees, so that his lead element would head north or south instead of east. He told me that sending his men up the road got them killed often enough. He was not going to send a squad to a cross road just to "see if any Krauts were there."
Ken led his reconnaissance company across France and into Belgium, as part of Patton's Third Armored Division. His company fought in the Hurtgen Forest. When I asked if he had been there, he was surprised that I had read about it. He said it wasn't famous like other battles, but it was the worst fighting he had seen. He said the forest was so dense that he could not keep control of his company. No officer could. He said it was just groups of three and four men fighting similar groups at ranges less than ten yards. He said he was surprised anyone survived.
When I learned that he had been in Patton's army, I asked him if he knew him. He told me, "Not really, but I met him." Anyone who has seen the movie Patton, starring George C. Scott, might remember the scene during the Battle of the Bulge, where Gen. Omar Bradley says they need to get reinforcements to Bastogne, where the airborne troops were hanging on by their fingernails. Patton matter-of-factly states that he will be there in three days and would attack immediately upon arrival. Patton's men traveled over 100 miles in three days and they did not stop…for anything or anybody. Ken was there, riding in his Jeep, his men out front of the main group. He remembered driving through Bastogne. He told me that they saved the airborne troops, but they would never admit it to this day, which irritated him.
There is another old war movie, The Bridge at Remagen. I have watched it countless times. It is about the U.S. Army crossing the Rhine River into Germany over that bridge. I asked Ken if he had seen the bridge. He laughed and said he had been driven across it by his sargeant. I could not believe it. What is more, he did not tell me the whole story, either. For years after learning he was there, I would call him up and tell him "your movie is on". He would just laugh and thank me for calling.
Here is the rest of the story. After Ken died, his wife gave me a book about the Third Armored Division. At three am one morning I was reading it and came across a description of the crossing of the Rhine River. There, in black and white, was Captain Kenneth Hayes credited for giving the order for Lt. Larry Vipon to take an inflatable boat across the Rhine River with a squad and reconnoiter the other side. He had given the order for the first American troops to cross the Rhine into Germany. Unbelieveable! I awoke my wife and read it to her. She had no idea.
About 15 years ago, Ken was here to visit. He was sitting in my basement watching baseball on tv. When I came down the stairs to say hello, he handed me a shoebox and asked if I knew anything about small arms. I replied that I knew a little. He handed me the shoebox and asked me if I could "put it back together." Inside was a Belgium 9mm Hi-Power pistol, complete with German Wehrmacht markings. I was astounded. I put it together, since it was the same as a Government .45. I asked where he got it. He told me that a German Major had walked out of the Hurtgen Forest and surrendered his battalion to Ken. The pistol was the Major's sidearm. Ken told me he had taken in apart when his children were little, so they would not get hurt. The pistol is now with his son, Ken.
Captain Ken Hayes' reconnaissance company was given a Presidential Citation for their heroism in the Battle of the Bulge. Ken was ordered to hold a crossroad "at all costs." They were attacked at night by a German infantry company, supported by four tanks. Ken's men stopped the Germans ten yards from their lines. They knocked out two of the four tanks. They had no bazookas or other anti-tank weapons. How did they do it? I never got a got a chance to ask, because I never knew about the decoration, until after he died. To my astonishment, his wife and children did not know, either. Remarkable.
In closing, Ken Hayes was a real man to my way of thinking. He loved his God, his wife and family. He loved his country. I think the War made him appreciate them more. He was an excellent provider and he worked hard. He loved golf, baseball and the Civil War. He admired FDR. He liked big cars, particularly Chryslers, and he missed his Harley-Davidson. He loved his daughter "Lynney" and he let me marry her.
I should tell you that Ken was shipped back to the U.S. just before the War in Europe ended. He had developed bleeding ulcers, probably from the bad diet, danger and constant stress from being in combat. He fought continuously from Omaha Beach into Germany for nine months. Few men could do that. Few survived. He always said that he was "just lucky." Such courage. And modesty.
When Ken was shipped back to the U.S., he ended up in an Army hospital, where he was cared for by a tiny, but powerful, nurse, Lieutenant Evelyn Losen, who became Mrs. Kenneth Hayes. Is that cool, or what?