George M. Hayden, 76, decorated Navy veteran

April 22, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

George M. Hayden, a decorated Navy veteran who manned his battle station for 20 hours while his Liberty ship was repeatedly attacked during the World War II battle for Salerno, Italy, died Monday of lung cancer at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 76.

The longtime Canton resident was a 19-year-old seaman serving aboard a Liberty ship that was discharging cargo in support of the 1944 Allied invasion of Salerno.

A direct hit from an enemy airplane injured four of the Navy gun crew and caused extensive damage to the vessel. Two days later, as relentless attacks continued, a second bomb hit the ship, killing many of the crew and setting the ship on fire. The ship was ordered abandoned.

"Later, when the fires were extinguished, orders were given to assemble the master, crew and armed guard unit and place them back on the vessel," says a Navy commendation for "conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty."

"Seven uninjured members of the Navy gun crew were the only ones to respond to this order. As one of those seven, you resumed your battle station aboard the battered craft, and surrounded by death and destruction, valiantly carried on the fight against ever-present hostile aircraft until relieved 20 hours later," the commendation says.

His decorations included a Bronze Star, European Theater Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon and Victory Medal.

"Your courageous fighting spirit in this emergency was in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States naval service," the commendation concludes.

"He didn't talk about the war much and really didn't want to talk about what happened. When the ship blew up, it killed many of his good friends," said a daughter, Georgia M. Doherty of Littlestown, Pa.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Mr. Hayden was a graduate of St. Michael's parochial school. He worked for a year as a machinist for the Pennsylvania Railroad before enlisting in the Navy in 1943.

Mr. Hayden held a variety of jobs, among them as a roofer at Crown, Cork & Seal Co. and a factory worker Esskay's Highlandtown plant. He also worked from 1977 to 1982 as a warehouseman at Kmart's North Plaza Mall store. Most recently, he had been a security guard at Cambridge Iron and Metal Co. in Baltimore.

His wartime experience inspired one of his favorite pastimes.

"He was very patriotic and almost obsessed with collecting U.S. flags and eagles," his daughter said. "He had carved eagles made out of wood, metal, brass and other materials.

"He called it `junking,' and he'd go to yard sales, Fells Point antiques shops and walk the back alleys at 4 a.m. before the trash man got there," Mrs. Doherty said.

He also enjoyed repairing discarded electrical appliances, toasters, TV sets, watches and radios. He gave them to friends and acquaintances, family members said.

"He was a wonderful friend to everyone he met," Mrs. Doherty said.

He was married in 1950 to Beatrice Hayes, who died in 1973.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Michael the Archangel Church, Lombard and Wolfe streets.

In addition to Mrs. Doherty, he is survived by another daughter, Barbara Hayden of Stevinson, Calif.; a brother, Howard G. Hayden of Parkton; a sister, Eileen Varholy of Canton; two grandchildren; and a stepdaughter, Margaret Kiskis of Perry Hall.

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