My list of living heroes from the Greatest Generation continues to grow shorter. Wesley Hays was a classic member of his generation: modest, generous, fiercely patriotic, courageous beyond measure. Wes died last week shortly before his 97th birthday.
On the morning of 7 April, 1945, Lt. (jg) Hays was leading a flight of F4U-3 Corsairs as part of a massive air attack on a Japanese task force. The flagship of the enemy force was the super-battleship Yamato, the largest warship ever constructed at the time.
The weather was lousy, with a low ceiling and rain. The bomb-laden flights of warplanes became separated from each other and had to make dangerous, solo attacks on the enemy force.
When Wes’s flight broke out of the low clouds, they found themselves aimed almost directly at a massive warship, the cruiser Yahagi. Hays led his Corsairs down through heavy flak to plant their 1000# bombs on the deck of the enemy ship, then they opened up with their .50 caliber machine guns. Minutes later the Yahagi was sinking to the bottom of the East China Sea.
For his actions that day, Wes Hays would be awarded the Navy Cross, a medal second only to the Medal of Honor.
I met Wes and his squadronmates a few years ago at a VBF-10 reunion in San Antonio. With Wes’s encouragement, the old fighter pilots opened up with me, sharing stories, letters, photos, manuals. It was a treasure trove that would eventually become an award-winning book, The Twilight Warriors.
Wes became a dear friend. I came to love his dry, Texas humor and his razor-sharp recall of the tumultous events seven decades ago. He was one of my special heroes, and I salute him.