For a pair of dedicated, lifelong Riversiders, it may seem strange that Gordon Hay and Colleen Rooney got engaged in Rapid City, South Dakota.
But then, there really wasn’t any alternative. In November 1944, Hay was finishing up his flight training as a co-pilot in a U.S. Army Air Corps heavy bomber squadron. On Christmas Eve, he would ship out for England. He’d spend the rest of the war flying missions out of Kimbolton Airfield, about 50 miles north of London.
His first was a raid on Langendreer, Germany on Feb. 16, 1945 — just a day after his squadron was involved in the controversial bombing of Dresden.
Two months later, on April 16, 1945, the 22-year-old Hay was formally inducted into “The Lucky Bastards” club after flying 29 missions in a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber over Germany and one over France within two months.
On being inducted into the unofficial club, Hay was presented with a certificate announcing that “the fickle finger of fate finds it expedient to trace on the roll of The Lucky Bastards’ Club the name of Gordon C. Hay, co-pilot on the Flying Fortress ‘Thumper'” and that Hay brought “to Hitler and his cronies tons of bombs,” courtesy of the 8th Army Air Force.
At the time he didn’t know just how lucky he was. The April 16 mission over Regensburg, Germany was Hay’s last.
Nine days later, on April 25, during the 379th Bomb Group’s final mission of the war — a bombing run over Pilsen, Czechoslovakia — his plane, the Thumper, was involved in a mid-air collision with another B-17. All but one of its eight-man crew was killed. The survivor was captured and became a prisoner of war.
Hay, meanwhile, was putting together papers that would lead to a promotion from flight officer to second lieutenant and, once the war in Europe was over in May 1945, flying B-17s to shuttle American prisoners of war from Germany to France.
He returned to the United States that fall but didn’t return home until right around Christmas. He chose to take the train home from his base in San Antonio, Texas, rather than fly.
“I wasn’t taking any chances,” said Hay, according to Colleen, who was at the Riverside station along with Hay’s family when the train pulled into the village. The two would marry on July 12, 1947 at Riverside United Methodist Church and Gordon began a 40-year career as a salesman with Durkee Famous Foods.
Unlike many airmen coming home from the war, he chose not to pursue a career in the burgeoning commercial airline industry.
“He said to me that the job was no more than being a bus driver in the air,” said Colleen Hay, who is now 89 and living just down the block from the East Burlington Street home she and Gordon bought in 1959 and where they raised three girls, Meredith, Pamela and Lauren.
Meredith, who died in 2012, later lived in Lyons and dedicated the last decade of her life to her home-grown Operation Stars and Stripes organization, which collected and sent thousands of packages to servicemen and women overseas.
Gordon Hay died in 1998 at the age of 76. As a young man, he lived with his family in an apartment building on Lincoln Avenue near Park Place in Riverside. In 1941, he was attending Lyons Township Junior College in LaGrange when he met Colleen Rooney, a senior at Riverside-Brookfield High School, whose family had just moved to the Lincoln Avenue building.
She’d seen him around the building and had also heard a young man (whom she hadn’t seen) singing “Waltzing Matilda” in the building. One day while at Henninger’s Drug Store, Colleen saw Gordon and introduced herself to him, asking, “Who is it that’s always walking around singing?”
“He said, ‘It’s me.'”
Hay enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October 1942 instead of waiting to be drafted and risk becoming a rifleman in an infantry company.
“He told me, ‘I’d rather fly over the war than walk through it,'” said Colleen Hay.
While Gordon was overseas, Colleen read about the Allied air raids in Germany in early 1945, but she never got much in the way of information about them from Gordon’s letters home. He preferred detailing his excursions to London dance halls and riding The Tube.
“It was like he wasn’t over there in a war,” Colleen said.
But, of course, he was. It’s unclear how many close calls Hay and the rest of the crew of Thumper or Round Twip Wabbit (another plane Hay flew aboard) had. During a large raid over Berlin on March 28, however, his plane was hit and two crewmen, the tail gunner and the radio operator/gunner, were wounded. Hay left the cockpit to administer first aid to the wounded men, who didn’t fly another mission.
However, according to Lauren Cody, Hay kept most of it to himself.
“I don’t remember my dad talking about the war very often,” she said.
Instead, Hay preferred reading about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln and tinkering with things around the house.
“He was in his glory if the toaster was broken,” said Colleen Hay.