From before I met Anna Mae Hays, I had been writing about war veterans and working on a book about my cousin who died in Vietnam. People I met in the process connected me to Hays, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., where I live, and was the first woman in the U.S. military to become a general.
I’d like to tell you about this, because it shows how friends and acquaintances can weave in and out of our lives, sometimes to surprising and wonderful effect.Hays died January 7 in Washington, D.C., at age 97. She had served the country overseas in World War II and the Korean War, and led the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War. After chronicling her life in The Morning Call, http://bit.ly/2CEa4qu, I heard from two friends I’ve been very fortunate to know.
“She certainly was a remarkable woman,” wrote Lynn Bedics, herself a former Army nurse, who went on to become the nurse manager at the Allentown VA Outpatient Clinic and is now retired. “I feel privileged to have met her when she was the speaker [to promote] the Korea-Vietnam Memorial.”
The memorial is on the campus of Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, near Allentown. Its U.S. Armed Forces Plaza was dedicated in 2005.
I’d met Lynn as a result of a War Stories project I edited at The Morning Call. Reporter Ron Devlin was interviewing vets for our Veterans Day 1998 special section. I asked him to include a nurse. He found Lynn and told me where and when she’d served – in 1969 and at the same Army hospital in Vietnam where my cousin Nicky Venditti died after a grenade accident. Lynn gave Devlin her maiden name. It matched a signature I found in clinical records of Nicky’s care.
So, Lynn had tended to Nicky in his last days. On top of this incredible coincidence, she lives in my neighborhood. Her account of her Army service in Vietnam takes up a chapter in my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, http://tragedyatchulai.com/
The other message I got was from Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. He met Hays, a retired brigadier general who had lived in Arlington, Va., since 1964, on one of the group’s bus trips to Washington. The trips allow World War II vets to see the National World War II Memorial at no cost.
“We had made arrangements to have our lunch catered by a D.C. veterans organization at the Women’s Memorial, which is next to Arlington Cemetery,” the Navy vet wrote, using the common name for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. “She joined us as our guest and interacted with many of the veterans. She was exceedingly pleasant, with great poise and genuine compassion for every one of those vets.”
Dick and I share a passion for getting war veterans to tell their stories so others will know their sacrifice and courage. We got to be friends at the monthly meetings of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, where he tipped me off to vets who had compelling stories. Regrettably, because of another commitment, I haven’t been to one of the lunches in more than a year.As far as my own contact with General Hays, it was sparse. I met her in 2002 at the funeral of a leading Lehigh Valley veteran, Martin F. Schaffer. The World War II and Korean War submariner was hit and killed by a car while crossing a street near Fort Dix, N.J., after buying a cup of coffee at a convenience store. He was 82.
Marty had founded the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Submarine Veterans of World War II and led the United Veterans of Wars, Allentown. He steered me to local vets he thought would be terrific interviews, sending me postcards with their names. Among them were B-17 pilot and POW Earl “Lee” Leaser and Robert Holden, who was on the sub that rescued downed Navy pilot George H.W. Bush.
At Marty’s funeral, Gene Salay came up to me and said General Hays was there and would I like to meet her. “Yes, of course,” I said, and he introduced us.
Gene was a former, longtime director of Lehigh County Veterans Affairs. I’d known him for seven years, ever since I set out to learn what happened to my cousin, a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot from Malvern, Pa., who survived only 11 days in Vietnam. Gene was the first person I called about how to get Army records on the accident that left Nicky mortally wounded. That was the start of our friendship.A Purple Heart veteran and POW of the Korean War, Gene had a troubling story of his own that kept him in counseling. He wouldn’t tell it, despite a few years of my nudging. I knew only that he had been shot and almost died in a battle near the 38th parallel just before the armistice, and was held captive by the Chinese.
In 2003, he changed his mind about an interview. The story ran in the newspaper as part of my series, War Stories in Their Own Words, and is in my book of the same title, published by The Morning Call, http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html.
Part of my interview with Gene, where he describes the July 1953 battle near Kumhwa in which he was seriously wounded and captured, was used by journalist Barbara Demick in her prize-winning book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
Gene was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. He died in 2010, with a bullet from 1953 still lodged near his heart.
His introducing me to General Hays at Marty Schaffer’s funeral was the only time I ever saw her. But she knew who I was and that I wrote the War Stories. In October 2013, she spoke with me by phone from her apartment in Arlington — an interview that became the backbone of my story on her death.
There’s one other thing about General Hays that hits home. She is in my book about Nicky, and it’s by virtue of a statistic she cited concerning the care given wounded U.S. troops in Vietnam. They were likely to survive, she once said, because of the work by combat medics and field-hospital staff. Only 1.2 percent of injured Americans who lived long enough to reach a hospital in Vietnam died after getting there.
Nicky’s misfortune was to be among the 1.2 percent.