He fell in love with airborne machines of war, and they carried him through the conflict
Chris Brown and Jacob Granneman
VANCOUVER — Edgar W. Haley always intended to join the U.S. military.
Even with war raging in Europe as Adolf Hitler’s German troops blitzkrieged their way through the French countryside, and the United States faced increasing pressure to join the conflict, the 21-year-old was bound and determined to become a pilot.
Haley was born in Beverly, Massachusetts (“birthplace of the American Navy,” he’s quick to remind any audience), and soon developed a fascination with flying, and a deep love of the magnificent machines that could carry men into the skies.
Now 98-years old, Haley lives at the Van Mall Retirement community in Vancouver, but still carries with him a thick northeastern accent that turns bomber plane into “bomma plane.”
He also still recalls, with military precision, how each aircraft he had the chance to fly handled.
His favorite became the Grumman F6F “Hellcat,’’ which he recalled as “just a wonderful airplane.”
“I fell madly in love with it,” Haley recalls.
In 2017, he was able to travel to South Carolina, where he was a guest of honor on the USS Yorktown, a Navy aircraft carrier dubbed “the fighting lady” during the war.
Haley sat in the cockpit of the Hellcat and spoke warmly of his affection for the plane that carried him through some intense moments during the war.
There was one moment though, early in his military career, that Haley thought he might not make it.
His first landing on an aircraft carrier didn’t exactly go to plan.
Already short for a fighter pilot (he recalls his nickname was “stump”), Haley says he brought his Hellcat around, 90 feet above the water of Lake Michigan where they were training, but struggled to see over the cowling of the engine.
Suddenly, Haley says, he lost sight of the deck crew working to guide him in, so he threw the massive plane into full throttle and pulled up into a banking left-hand turn.
“There I am, taking left on a wave off,” Haley recalls, “and the cables got my tail hook. I went about as far as the cable went, and then stopped dead and went down probably 30 feet into the catwalk.”
Haley says he was pulled from the wreckage to see the landing gear had punched up through the wing, and the engine and propeller were hanging out on the deck of the carrier. He watched on, shellshocked, as the deck crew shoved the useless aircraft overboard.
“I said to myself, ‘here I am, all this work I went through and learned, and now they’re gonna throw me out for the crash,’” Haley recalls, chuckling. “They said, ‘no.’ They put me in another and one sent me up again.”
Haley once recalled chasing after a Japanese fighter known as the Zero, diving so fast out of the colder upper atmosphere that the defoggers in his Hellcat struggled to keep his vision clear.
“All of a sudden I see palm trees and I’m thinking to myself, ‘boy, I gotta get the hell out of here,’” he says. “I pulled back on the stick and went up again. I never fired. The Jap saw me over his head, nosed over, hit the beach, and boom. Strike one Jap plane, and I never even fired the gun.”
At the insistence of his children, Haley penned a coffee table book about his experiences in the war.
From Yellow Perils to the Big Blue Umbrella didn’t sell many copies, but it is filled with maps, pictures, and stories from another era. Even at his age, Haley still remembers the names of many of the men he served for and alongside.
Haley was discharged with honor from the Navy in Dec. 1945.
He is one of an estimated 325,000 World War II veterans remaining of the more than 16 million American men who served their country during that conflict.