Bud Dalton: WWII: The war years in Hays

Staff Writer
Hays Daily News

We filed into the gymnasium at 12:30 on Dec. 8, 1941 to hear President Roosevelt declare war on the country of Japan. The war years began.

Eighth and Main St. was the center of the world. The crossing of Highway 40 and 183. Both highways collided in the middle of town.

Saturday was the busiest day of the week. All stores were open until nine. Everyone came to town. It appeared mainly to visit. The block on ninth between Main and Fort was referred to as “Berlin Avenue.” Only German was spoken. A woman approached two men visiting and indicated it was not patriotic to be speaking German. She was asked, “ how many sons do you have in the army?” She had none. He had five.

These were the war years and an exciting time to be alive! Military people were prevalent and they were an important part of our lives. On Saturday nights Mom and Dad were at the U.S.O. The clothing stores sold military gear. I convinced my parents to purchase the appropriate cap and sergeant stripes.

Downtown was full and busy! There were two movie theaters — the Star and the Strand. Movietone News gave us the score on our war. Saturdays were double headers. We had cartoons and serials. Hopalong Cassidy and Red Ryder were favorites. I missed one episode and Bobby Maupin next door told me Red Ryder had been killed! Even when I found out he was alive and well the trauma still remained.

Walker Army Air Field was created. Many of the Air Force people were married and their wives were going door to door asking if anyone would rent a room to them. Finally, I heard Mom say to Dad, “the next cute girl who knocks on our door is going to get our bedroom. We can move to the basement.” And so they did.

For the duration of the war there were five couples. And of course we became attached to all of them. They were given the run of the house and became family. Two were pilots, one bombardier, a navigator, and a waist gunner.

Tom Jones, our bombardier from Connecticut came home and announced “I bombed Las Vegas today!” I heard Santa Monica pilot Henry Wiegand leave about midnight. He returned that evening having” leveled” Seattle. These, of course, were training missions.

Don and Judy Becker were from Massachusetts. He was our waist gunner and only NCO. And, there was a story. While in his flight school trainer he spotted a farmer stacking hay. Overcome by temptation he buzzed the haystack spreading hay everywhere. The farmer got his number --- thus ending his pilot career. Don and I talked war stories. We were out shooting my .22 rifle and I asked, “if I’m up in a tree shooting the enemy, I don’t want to hurt my rifle if I have to drop it when I climb down.” Shaking his head Don asked “why would you be up in a tree in the first place?” They were an enjoyable couple and totally normal.

Going to the “base” was exciting. This included: inside airplanes, officers club, PX and driving a Jeep! I was the recipient of many treasures. Pilot Walter Mitchell gave me his helmet and goggles from flight school. Tom Jones gave me a “paratroopers” switch blade knife — at least he called it that. He said I would need it when I bailed out if the first chute didn’t open. I carried it all through grade school. That would not work today.

Henry Wiegand had his government issued .45-caliber pistol, and I wanted to shoot it. Along with Dad it was a short hop to the college farm. I missed the fencepost. Jack rabbits were everywhere and Henry hit one. He really wanted to cook it. Mom was away visiting grandmother, so Dad cleaned it and soaked it in salt water. The next night Henry, wife Margaret and Dad made dinner. It qualifies as one of the worst meals ever!

Two of our five were lost. Pilot Walter Mitchell was killed on D-Day, June 6, 1944, coincidental with the date. A crash landing coming back from a mission. Most of the crew were injured, he was the only one killed. His wife, Mary, had a son born after this date.

Bob Nelson was from Minneapolis, Kansas — actually a nearby farm. The parents of his wife, Betty, owned the movie theater in Minneapolis. The shortest way I can describe our relationship was we loved them as our own. Bob went from here to Saipan. Both wrote us frequently. Bob wrote he had tears in his eyes, they were clearing and burning palm trees behind his hut. Another time he wrote, “I think we should leave flying to God’s feathered creatures.”

Bob was navigator in the lead B-29 on a mission to bomb Kobe, Japan. We were told they were ordered to go over the target at 1500 ft. He and the tail gunner were the only crew survivors. We knew throughout the war he was a prisoner. The surrender document was signed on the USS Missouri. Our celebration was premature. We later learned he had been executed, probably after the surrender.

His wife, Betty, became a T.W.A. hostess. On one flight she met her future husband, married, and raised a family in California. Quite a few years later she wrote to us a very eloquent letter, essentially accepting and forgiving the Japanese. I could never do that. We stayed in contact until about 10 years ago. I can’t find her now.

Henry Wiegand flew missions from Tinian. He was there when Col. Tibbetts flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. He fulfilled a long career as an airline pilot. Due to the wonders of the internet I found him in Long Beach, Calif. about three years ago. His wife, Margaret, was in the Alzheimers wing. She had worked for my Dad in the Registrar’s Office at Fort Hays State when they stayed with us. Henry said he did remember the “jack rabbit dinner.”

Some memories of my war years in Hays.