Sometimes events of a family member’s past can be swept away under the rug, or tucked away in a nondescript box, up to the point where no one really understands the true significance of what that family member had done.
This was the case, as with many families, for the maternal side of my family. I didn’t find out about my great grandfather’s contributions to World War II until I was 14 years old and, in fact, some of my cousins still don’t know about it.
It was 2014, I think, when my grandmother’s siblings decided to sell my great grandparents' house. We all pitched in to help remove all of the clutter and family heirlooms out of the house. My grandmother and her two sisters kept most of the family heirlooms, which included everything from antique dishes to photographs. Soon a room in the basement was filled with my grandmother’s parents’ belongings.
At some point during the summer, my grandmother and I decided to go through a couple of boxes from my great grandparents that were stored in the basement. Most of the stuff was financial records, receipts from stores and other trash-worthy stuff.
I innocently picked up a small envelope that was hidden away in a box filled with financial stuff from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Nothing could have prepared me for what I found within.
They were photographs of long rows of starved, tortured and deceased bodies of victims of the Holocaust; images now forever scarred in my mind. On the back of the envelope, written in the old traditional cursive my great grandmother was taught, was the sentence, “Concentration Camp Ed saw at end of World War 2.”
My grandmother had never heard of or seen the photos before. It was clear to me that she was shocked to see them and how real they were. My grandmother knew very little of what her father had done in the war but she did know that there was a photo album and other WWII related stuff her sister, Anne, had at her house. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I would find out the true extent of what my great grandfather did in the war.
My grandmother knew I was learning about World War II in American History class. She told me I could bring in the concentration camp photos, the album and other WWII-era artifacts. So we went to my great aunt’s house and retrieved the artifacts. I was completely amazed at what I was looking at.
Edward Joseph Hayes Jr. was a young 20-something that enlisted for the U.S. Army in early November of 1942. He became a cartographer and photographer for the 663rd Engineer Topographical Company of the U.S. Army. The photo album begins with his training in America and shows him and his buddies shooting guns, hanging out and learning vital skills to survive on the Western Front. It seems that, at this point, they had no idea of the horrors of what was yet to come.
Next, my great grandfather crossed the Atlantic for more training in England. While there, he took notes on what was happening around him. These notes were probably illegal because D-Day was a secret operation and those notes could have potentially fallen into the hands of the Germans.
The notes describe how he was training and went dancing in London or about how he ate hamburgers with his fingers. The photo album mostly coincides with the notes, with pictures of the house they stayed at called the Lyburn House and the training that he underwent. He was given rations, French and German currency and vomit bags for when they would cross the English Channel.
The next set of notes chronicle my great grandfather boarding a navy vessel, L.S.T. #292 and the journey to Normandy. He writes about how he felt brave for yelling at and calling German prisoners of war “Krauts” and how they ate rations that they were supposed to be conserving while on the ship. He also wrote about how he volunteered to do anti-aircraft duty.
He wrote how a ship in front of them cut them off because his ship was going slower while towing floating docks, only for the ship that took their place to blow up in front of them due to a German mine planted in the water. He states that his ship went around and collected the injured and how he had a hard time sleeping that night. It’s hard to imagine that if that other ship didn’t cut off my great grandfather’s, it would have been his ship to blow up. My family wouldn’t be here right now if that had happened, and neither would I.
My great grandfather arrived on the beaches of Normandy in the Second Wave of D-Day, a week after the First Wave. He notes that he was supposed to land at Utah Beach but drifted towards Omaha Beach instead. While offshore from Omaha Beach, he watched Germans drop 88’s on the beach and warships firing back. It took them a while to correct the mistake but he ultimately landed at Utah Beach by 7:00 pm and was met with plenty of enemy fire. They then moved inland towards the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, in which he saw a paratrooper who urged them to “kill every Kraut we saw.”
The last set of notes continues with the photo album, as it is written about his first night in France. He wrote how he was relieved to be able to get some sleep despite “the sounds of war filling the air,” and how he witnessed paratroopers jump from airplanes into a marsh, which he describes as such:
“A couple of the boys landed in a spot which had been used as a latrine. Bombs and shells have a knack of making you overlook such a trivial matter.” The notes cut off shortly after this, but the photo album continues to chronicle his journey.
The album continues with photographs of a USO show and the 663rd’s arrival in the newly liberated capital of France. It seems by looking at the photographs my great grandfather’s company took a break from war in order to tour the beautiful city of Paris. My great grandfather, like any other tourist would do, took photographs of animals at a Parisian zoo and of the many cafés that line the streets of Paris. He took photographs of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.
Soon enough, however, reality would hit and they would have to go to war again.
My great grandfather and his company continued to move through the French countryside, Belgium and into the enemy lines of Nazi Germany. The photos depict entire towns destroyed into rubble with American tanks rolling through them. Some pictures depict buildings as hollowed out shells; buildings that were once feats of European architecture.
Five empty spaces in the photo album show where five photographs used to be - the same five photographs I found hidden away in a box full of financial stuff, perhaps so no one would see the horrors they depict. Those photographs depict what my great grandfather saw as he helped liberate a concentration camp in Germany.
We don’t know what concentration camp is in the photographs, but by using other photos as a reference, the camp was located somewhere in between the German towns of Aachen and Leipzig along the Central Europe Campaign line. The five photographs depict American soldiers looking at hundreds of bodies of victims of the concentration camp. They depict the infamous striped pajamas and how the Jews were starved to death. They depict the cruel reality of Adolf Hitler's dictatorship and antisemitism. The five photographs depict what no one, not even a soldier, should ever have to witness.
In my opinion, we will never know why my great grandfather took pictures of the camp and its many victims – it very well could have been part of his duties – but I believe that today they can be a tool to educate people. They are an everlasting reminder of the atrocities that happened to the Jews during the Holocaust.
The photo album ends with more pictures of ruins and Edward with his army buddies. One of the last photographs in the albums is one of my favorites. My great grandfather took a photograph through a window of a destroyed building where outside is a ruined street surrounded by the rubble of bombed buildings. The only thing left standing is a lone phone booth; the last remnant of human normality that somehow survived the war.
After the war, my great grandfather went to work for Narragansett Electric where he met my great grandmother, Margaret Rilley. They settled in West Warwick and had three daughters, Elizabeth Hanson, Anne Paglia and Mary Chatelle (Mary being my grandmother), and three sons Robert, Dennis and Kevin Hayes. My grandmother and her siblings never really knew the extent of their father’s involvement in World War II. My grandmother did tell me that while growing up, her father never talked about being in the war or how he was part of D-Day, the Northern France Campaign, the Rhineland Campaign, the Battle of the Bulge and the Central Europe Campaign.
One can understand why he never talked about the war. Perhaps it was the sights and sounds of the battlefield or the scarring image of hundreds of dead bodies lined up next to each other at the concentration camp. My grandmother has stated, “I remember when we were young, we were allowed to look at a Nazi sword but not allowed to touch it. There was a Nazi helmet, too. I remember that we used to try that one on.”
My grandmother also has told me she remembers that, at some point, one of her father’s best friends, who was also in WWII with him, invited him and my great grandmother to go to Europe and visit the house they stayed at in England and to visit Utah and Omaha beaches in Normandy. My great grandfather refused to go, and his best friend went without him. He did send my great grandfather pictures of their trip, though.
Today, I try to teach my family members and my classmates about my great grandfather’s experience in WWII. The photographs and handwritten notes tell a story about what it was like to be a soldier during that era and what they experienced on the Western Front.
Even though my great grandfather died in 1985, way before I was born, and he never told his story to his kids, his photo album, notes and other WWII artifacts tell at least a part of his story shooting rifles and rolls of film on the front lines.