Finding Bomb Boogie: A Daughter’s Search to Rediscover Her Father – the World War II Bomber Boy, Prisoner of War, and American Veteran
West Portal Press, 2023
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Finding Bomb Boogie is the story of a daughter discovering her father’s war history long after he is gone—the quiet World War II veteran and tail gunner on a B-17 named “Bomb Boogie” flying bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, the bomber boy of twenty-one years, scared of heights, parachuting twice out of a plane to his eventual capture by the Germans, the resilient airman held in a prisoner of war camp for twenty-two months who spent his twenty-fourth birthday on a forced march in one of the coldest winters in over fifty years, the daredevil who rolled down a hill during the march to escape detention in another prison camp, and the tired, emaciated young man who finally made it home, only to fight more battles. Finding Bomb Boogie will inspire anyone interested in breaking through their own sounds of silence to find their veteran’s stories before they quietly slip away. Lest we forget.
Maureen is a retired registered nurse specializing in adult critical care, neonatal critical care, and administrative nursing. She became a World War II history buff after she retired and had the opportunity to research her father’s war story. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and spends most of her time traveling between Lake Tahoe and Sonoma County. She is an avid skier and enjoys hiking and gardening when she is not busy writing. She and her husband have two grown children and two grandsons, whom Maureen buys model airplanes—mostly B-17s— for every chance she gets. This is her first book. She is working on a second book about World War II prisoners of war.
A True Veteran
Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it . . . it flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.
My father belonged to the Greatest Generation, a phrase used to describe the group of men and women who grew up in America during the Great Depression and actively served or made distinct contributions to their country during World War II. These remarkable men and women collectively displayed a powerful commitment to a common cause and a mutual determination to make the world a better place. In his book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw claimed these selfless attributes were “the legacy of this generation as much as the sacrifices made and victories gained during World War II.”
When my father, who served in World War II, passed away, an American flag was draped over his coffin, visibly validating his status as a veteran. He was buried at the local Catholic cemetery under a bronze gravestone provided by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. At the center of the headstone, a silver ring encircles a metal cross, prominently signaling his past military service. Below the emblem, an inscription reads Donald L. Hayes, US Army Air Corps, World War II, 1921–1986.
My father passed away on March 12, 1986, and I rarely thought about him for the next thirty-two years. Then in September 2018, the dam around my heart broke, and I let him reenter my world. Now, barely a day goes by when I do not reflect on his life and wish he were still around to tell his stories and answer all my questions. But more than anything, I just miss him and wish I knew him back then like I know him now.
For the past several years, I’ve been on a journey of sorts, rediscovering the truth about my father’s past, particularly his role during World War II, and it has given me a better understanding of who he was as a person. It’s been a therapeutic and healing process, and I’m grateful I took the time to do it. As I continue to unravel his story and learn more about his life, I’ve also learned more about myself and the power of forgiveness. I never dreamed that learning my father’s narrative would set me on a path toward freedom and genuinely accepting who I am, specifically concerning the circumstances of my childhood and growing-up years.
It is unimaginable to me right now, at this stage of my life, to admit that I did not always view my father as a true veteran. In fact, at his funeral service, when they draped the American flag over his coffin, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable thinking that my father wasn’t truly a veteran like the Vietnam vets I encountered in my young adult years. I thought to myself that World War II was so long ago. Can he still claim veteran status? It almost seemed fraudulent to me, like we, as a family, were trying to cheat the system and get recognition for something that wasn’t warranted, including free hospital care, an American flag, and a military plaque on my father’s headstone. I’m genuinely ashamed to admit I felt that way and was uninformed and absent for so long because my father was a veteran in the most fundamental sense of the word; it just took me most of my life to recognize it.
The following is my father’s story—as much as it is mine.
We remember those who were called upon to give all a person can give . . . all of them ennobled their nation as they became champions of a noble cause.
—Ronald Reagan, 40th US President
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Veterans Day and how we remember our veterans. I now look forward to this day, mainly because I have immersed myself in World War II veterans’ stories and finally understand the significance of this holiday.
Before I knew my father was a true veteran, I subconsciously thought Veterans Day belonged to the group of men and women who were actively serving in the military or had served at some point in the past. It was them, and it was me. I did not belong to that group nor believed I could be an active participant in anything related to veterans. I would walk right past the elderly soldier outside the grocery store who was displaying the American flag and selling his poppy pins or other knick-knacks decorated in red, white, and blue.
Occasionally, I would stop and buy something but never engage in meaningful conversation other than a brief hello and a thank-you for the item I had purchased. If only I had known all along I was a part of this veterans’ circle, not simply because my father was a veteran, but because I am an American citizen. I have also discovered that a person rarely has a family member or someone close to them who has not served our country and has a powerful story to tell—providing we take the time to sit and listen.
Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a Veterans Day celebration, including a parade, activities celebrating veterans, and a down-home potluck barbecue. I had never participated in a Veterans Day parade or celebrated the day in this full-blown fashion until a veteran involved in the Veterans Association in Fresno, California, invited me to attend. His name was Vern, and in a telephone conversation, he revealed that he landed in Normandy after the Battle of the Bulge and served in the 90th Infantry Division under General Patton. They were known as the Tough Ombres. He told me he fought from the Siegfried Line in Belgium all the way to Czechoslovakia until the Allies declared victory over Nazi Germany almost a year later. He was nineteen years old at the time.
He proudly reported that the Veterans Day celebration in Fresno hosts one of the country’s most prominent Veterans Day parades. I was thrilled to receive his invitation and inspired to meet Vern and hear about his World War II experiences. Vern knew my father’s good wartime friend, Toby, through the veterans’ organization in Fresno, and I especially looked forward to hearing more about those stories.
When I first contacted Vern to ask him about Toby’s experiences in World War II, ultimately hoping to learn more about my father, I hinted that I would be traveling near Fresno. Could we meet over a cup of coffee? Vern sounded delightful and quite welcoming during our phone conversation but said he first had to check his calendar. Luckily, it was open.
At ninety-five years old, Vern remained actively involved in World War II–related activities, which sometimes took him to conferences and speaking engagements across the country. Unfortunately, I had to cancel my Fresno plans last minute due to a family emergency. Regardless, I was awed by the privilege it was that Vern and others like him could still share their time with people like me interested in learning more about our veterans’ history. I made plans to attend the parade and celebration on a future Veterans Day. I prayed that Vern’s calendar would still be open.
The reality is that time is running out for our World War II veterans. There is a paragraph on the website of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans entitled “The Passing of the WWII Generation,” which poignantly describes the urgency of the situation. It states, “Every day, memories of World War II—its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs—disappear. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now in their late 80s and 90s. They are dying quickly.”
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics demonstrate that of the 16 million veterans who served in World War II, fewer than 200,000 will still be alive in 2022. These veterans are in their late nineties and the data forecast that approximately 300 expire daily. The entire World War II generation will ultimately pass by the end of the next decade. Tragically, they take their stories with them, some of which will never have the chance to be heard.
World War II veterans’ sons and daughters are also hitting their golden years and beginning to pass away. They are the ones who listened to their fathers’ stories firsthand and learned of the roles their mothers and other family members played in the war effort. Some children heard more than others and may have passed this information on to their children. Importantly, these stories conveyed to the next generation contribute to World War II’s general body of knowledge and portray what it was like for parents and family members to serve their country in the most devastating war in recorded history.
Now that I know my father was a true veteran, I permit myself to officially participate in Veterans Day and other military holidays to honor our veterans. I finally feel I belong. This Veterans Day, like all past, I put my flag on the flag pole outside the upstairs window. This year I am proud to be an American and the daughter of a World War II veteran. Other years, before I knew I belonged to this day, I raised my flag because I thought it was the right thing to do, and it made my house look beautiful, like the photos captured in decorating magazines. I am embarrassed to admit that fact. When I hang my flag outside the upstairs window this year, I remember my father and all veterans. This year, I also think of 9/11.
We were in Dublin, Ireland, at the time of 9/11, and the next day after this tragic and shocking event, Dublin closed all the pubs for the afternoon in a sign of solidarity and remembrance. Everyone quietly milled around in the streets in a state of disbelief. A palpable sadness was in the air, and American flags were everywhere. A few days later, when we traveled to London, we saw American flags displayed on buildings and hundreds of bouquets strewn across the lawns and sidewalks in front of the American Embassy. The immense support of the Brits for their cousins across the pond was moving and, at the same time, quite comforting.
A week later, when we returned to the US, I was equally overwhelmed by the dozens of American flags flying in our neighborhood and throughout the city. For some reason, I was surprised by this dazzling display, and I remember thinking, what an incredible show of support and remembrance for all those who suffered in this terrible disaster. To an American just arriving from overseas, it seemed to signify we were all in this together and would rise through this tragedy as one nation united.
Never Forget. I am writing these words on Veterans Day and again realizing how unenlightened I have been about veterans and World War II—the war in which my father fought and received his veteran status. This Veterans Day, the phrase Never Forget made the news on Saturday Night Live (SNL) and then on the national news stations. The SNL incident is what it took for those two words, Never Forget, to reach my world and the world of many people I know.
Dan Crenshaw, the Congressman-elect for Texas’s 2nd Congressional District, appeared on SNL to accept an apology from cast member Pete Davidson live on the air. During the midterm elections for the House race the week prior, Pete Davidson had mocked Dan Crenshaw’s appearance, specifically making fun of the black patch he wears over his right eye. Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, lost his eye while serving in Afghanistan. Pete Davidson and the SNL late-night show producers had received overwhelming criticism from Democrats and Republicans for this mockery. Hence, one of the reasons for the public apology on Veterans Day.
After a handshake accepting a sincere apology from Davidson, Crenshaw delivered a speech that suggested recognizing veterans by thanking them for their service and saying, Never Forget. He said, “Tell a veteran, ‘Never Forget.’ When you say ‘Never Forget’ to a veteran, you are implying that as an American, you are in it with them, not separated by some imaginary barrier between civilians and veterans but connected together as grateful fellow Americans who will never forget the sacrifices made by veterans past and present. And never forget those we lost on 9/11, heroes like Pete’s father.”
Never Forget—two powerful words that summon multiple meanings and memories. These two words can remind us of 9/11 and the destruction of the twin towers or stir up images of past wars, including the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazis’ evil regime. Additionally, this phrase can serve as a vow never to forget the past so we don’t repeat the same mistake of allowing a dictator, a psychopath, or an egomaniac to rise to power with empty promises to make life better for their followers—usually at the cost of others. I heard a story from someone whose Dutch parents were liberated during World War II who makes it a point to thank veterans for their service, “not only for our freedom but for the freedom of people you didn’t even know.”
My father would always say, “Nothing in life is free.” Now, I wonder if he was thinking about our freedom and others around the globe when he said this. Did his thoughts travel back to his fellow veterans who, regardless of their role, rank, political preferences, or under which branch they served, made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up their youth and lives so that we and others could remain free?
So Never Forget on this Veterans Day is a day that I begin to remember, begin to discover, and begin to acknowledge my father and his story—the quiet World War II veteran and humble hero, the tail gunner on a B-17 named “Bomb Boogie” flying bombing missions over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe, the young boy of twenty-one years, scared of heights, parachuting twice out of a plane to his eventual capture by the Germans, the resilient soldier held captive in a prisoner of war (POW ) camp for twenty-two months who spent his twenty-fourth birthday on a forced march in one of the coldest winters in over fifty years, the daredevil who rolled down a hill during the forced march to escape detention in another prison camp, and the tired, emaciated young man who finally made it home to get married and have five children, including me, his oldest daughter.