LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. --
Black and white photos portray a strong, smiling young man preparing for war, a beautiful snow-covered Mount Fuji with B-29 Superfortresses flying by and aerial photos exhibiting the remains of war-torn Hiroshima.
Today the image is much different. Current photos of the man feature an individual who is much older; time had changed his face and had taken its toll on his health. Organs failing, the World War II veteran spent the rest of his days in hospice surrounded by his family. But in this man there lived a story, one of his service during World War II as a bombardier in Japan. His history changed the world’s history and he was the last one in his crew who could share the story.
In 1941, 21-year-old Ralph Richard Hayes joined the U.S. Army Air Forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The war started and I hitchhiked from California to Albuquerque,” said Hayes. “My brother was already there, and we decided I might as well enlist because we were going to get drafted anyway. They were drafting everybody.”
Traveling from two schools in Texas, one in Florida and one in Nebraska, then 1st Lt Hayes taught other aviators as a bombardier instructor and received additional training in radar school before leaving to employ his skills in combat. His squadron left on Christmas Eve of 1944 to Hawaii, then Saipan, an island in the Northern Mariana Islands and south of Japan.
Hayes was assigned to the 20th Air Force, Army Air Corps, 504th Bombardment Group in the 421st Bombardment Squadron. He was the bombardier on a B-29 with an 11-person crew including aircraft commander/pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, gunners, an engineer, and radio and radar specialists.
“Our 35 missions consisted of 14 precision daylight, 11 low-altitude night fire raids and 10 night mining missions in Japanese and Korean waters,” said Hayes.
Low-altitude night fire raids entailed firebombing major cities in Japan. The crew’s mission to Tokyo was the first mission executed at the low altitude of 6,000-7,000 feet. Hayes said he could see the light from the fires for hundreds of miles. In the end, firebombing left a fifth of Tokyo destroyed.
“The first raid on Tokyo was something you never want to see again,” recalled Hayes. “The fire was so intense you could see it for mile after mile. Seventeen square miles was burned right out of the middle of Tokyo.”
Some missions the crew completed supported the U.S. Navy, including destroying kamikaze airfields. Kamikaze pilots from the Japanese Special Attack Units were developed to counter U.S. advancement in the Pacific. Their mission was to fly their aircraft into U.S. naval vessels. During WWII, according to Britannica, Kamikaze pilots sank more than 30 Allied vessels and damaged hundreds more.
“When [the Navy was] getting ready to invade Kyushu, the kamikaze pilots were really killing them,” said Hayes. “We were assigned to bomb some of those airfields in Kyushu. Of course, I don’t think we did much damage they had so many kamikazes. They’d teach those kids how to take off but wouldn’t teach them how to land.”
Because Hayes had so much experience as an instructor, he said his squadron usually led the daylight missions.
“I always felt the responsibility,” said Hayes. “If you miss the target you put a hundred guys at extreme risk for no reason. You had to concentrate on what you were doing.”
Attention to detail paid off during one of his most memorable missions targeting a chemical plant in Koriyama.
“Our group destroyed 70% of the target and was the only group to hit the correct target,” said Hayes.
His group was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. Today, the decoration is proudly displayed amongst other medals and tokens from his time overseas — among them were small shards of metal — shrapnel that had been lodged into their B-29s during missions. Damaged aircraft were a regular occurrence and, he explained, when a B-29 was too damaged it was simply swapped out for a new one. He shared stories of gaping holes in the aircraft wing and treacherous missions home.
One mission over Iwo Jima was much worse than others.
“I couldn’t believe our airplane could fly,” exclaimed Hayes.
He said the aircraft had been hit hundreds of times and was littered with holes.
“The life rafts were blown out of the airplane and they hit the vertical stabilizer. Our hydraulics were shot out. The brakes were shot out. I don’t think anyone had been able to make a forced landing yet.”
Hayes’ crew made the harrowing flight from Iwo Jima to Tinian Island in their battle-damaged aircraft. He said the odds were against them because, even if the B-29 survived the 730 mile trip, their pilot would have to land the nearly decimated aircraft. Hayes said, through incredible skill and a miracle their pilot landed the aircraft safely.
“I’ll swear he’s an amazing pilot, Sid Hale,” said Hayes. “He landed that airplane with no brakes, no hydraulics. I still don’t know how he did it.”
While his squadron helped cripple Japanese combat lethality and disrupt enemy shipping, another squadron determined the outcome of the war.
“The 504th Bomb Group was put together in the United States and we had three squadrons within the group,” said Hayes. “They took one of these squadrons and formed the atomic bomb group. We went overseas with just two squadrons, normally it’d be three.”
The 393rd Bombardment Squadron, which dropped the atomic bombs, was in the 504th BG until September 1944, when it transitioned to the 509th Composite Group.
“We’d been overseas for about six months and here comes our other squadron,” said Hayes. “They set them up in a separate squadron on Tinian. We built an officer’s club so they’d come down there and start bragging, and we told them ‘you’re going to win the war, when we’ve been here winning it them the whole time?’ Finally, one day they did. They dropped the damn bomb then dropped another bomb and pretty soon after Japan finally gave it up and had the signing of the peace.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29, Enola Gay, flew over Hiroshima and dropped the first atomic bomb. Three days later the B-29, Bockscar, dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Shortly after, Japan surrendered and so marked the end of the war for Hayes.
According to Hayes, 150 Airmen from the 504th made the ultimate sacrifice during the war. Hayes left behind the chaos of war aboard a naval vessel on a three-week journey to return home.
Seventy-five years later Hayes remembered his experiences and recalled his crew, fondly knowing they were the reason he returned home safely and that he was the last of them alive to share their story.
“[Our] radio operator was scared to death all the time but did a hell of a good job,” recalled Hayes fondly. “We had a radar operator who was only 17 — really good-looking kid. We had one gunner who was the old man in the crew and the only guy I ever knew that enjoyed war — you couldn’t keep him out of the airplane. They all died several years ago.”
After the war, Hayes became a Reserve officer and served until Dec. 29, 1979, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was a father of five kids, grandfather to six and great grandfather to nine. His children explained their father never spoke about his time in the war until he visited reunions.
“He had one of his reunions and asked me if I’d go to it with him,” said Bill Hayes, Richard Hayes’s son. “I got to meet a lot of the people that were in his group and it was kind of an eye opener. They had some pretty hairy missions. My dad started talking about some of the missions, flying back with a plane that had a hundred holes in it, some of his diaries, he’d just sit and show you pictures.”
His children shared the pride they felt in their father’s history and the importance of telling his story.
“I think it’s important for everyone to understand what sacrifice is,” said Bill. “People made [these sacrifices] when they were 20 years old. I think us growing up we were very fortunate, none of us had to make any sacrifices like that.”
As Hayes relayed his stories, he showed remorse for lives lost, for his fellow soldiers, and for Japanese civilians and pilots.
“I think one thing that people don’t understand was there was a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was not diagnosed or treated, that’s why the war was never talked about,” said his daughter Mary Scherdnik. “He still carries that, the amount of killing. Even though it wasn’t face-to-face they all came home with some real scars that they carried around for 75 years.”
Despite the scars, as Hayes shared his WWII stories for one of the last times, he laughed at the drinking antics of his old crew and the interesting people he met, all the while his story continued. It continued until his last breath. At 100 and a half years old on Aug. 27, 2020, Hayes passed away peacefully in his home while surrounded by loved ones. He is one of the last to have actually lived what many people learn about. He is the history of this nation.