A wave and a smile

WWII vet Ed Hinrichs honored as grand marshal for Fourth of July Parade

 

A grand marshal in any parade has one main duty: to wave. That task will fall to Ed Hinrichs in next Wednesday’s Fourth of July Parade in Forest Lake.

Young Ed Hinrichs, far left of front row, poses with the rest of his crew in front of their B-17 bomber. The St. Paul native was part of the 8th Air Force, 45th Combat Wing, 452nd Bomb Group, 729th Squadron. He flew on the lead crew for over half of his 32 missions. (Courtesy photo)

It is fitting that a man whose life has been defined by his hands will once again put them to expert use while saluting tens of thousands of onlookers celebrating the nation’s independence. As a cabinet maker, wood carver and airplane engineer, Hinrichs has relied on his hands for his livelihood, and for life itself.

Beating the odds

The B-17 bomber and the nine men onboard were in trouble as they made their way back to base. The year was 1944 and the crew from the 452nd Bombardment Group had engaged with enemy planes after carrying out a bombing mission over Berlin.

At some point, the plane lost the power needed to compress oxygen into the engine. Suddenly, the fate of the crew fell to the hands of a young engineer from St. Paul. Ed Hinrichs inspected the plane from tip to tail but could not deduce what had happened. Finally, he noticed a small stream of light and his fear was confirmed – flak had ripped through the wall, tearing wires as it went.

Fortunately, Hinrichs was never without spare wire in his bag.

“Geez, I think I can repair this,” he thought.

The 22-year-old quickly went to work, counting four sets of clipped wire and twisting differently the ends of each to keep them straight as he began bridging the gaps. He knew right then and there that no Plan B existed.

“I thought, ‘Well I gotta do it,’ so I tightened it up and called the pilot. I said ‘Have you got any juice now?’ He said ‘No…Oh, oh hold it. Yeah!’”

Hinrichs had done it, and because his was the lead plane of the mission, the whole incident was radioed back to base in England before the B-17 touched ground.

“The guys always come out to see you come back in and they were waving,” Hinrichs recalls. “I didn’t put any connection to it until I got off and they tell me they were waiting for me because they knew I was the one that saved the plane.”

Though that incident was the scariest Hinrichs encountered during World War II, fear and danger were constants during active duty in the bomb group. He flew 32 missions from November, 1944 to April, 1945. Most missions involved strategic targets such as marshalling yards or aircraft assembly plants.

The group took part in the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance during a mission on April 7, 1945 in which 120 German planes were sent on suicide missions. The Germans lost 105 planes and the 452nd took the brunt of the attack, but only 18 B-17s were rammed. A suicide attack was never tried again.

Hinrichs would later determine that he had less than a 10 percent chance of survival as one who flew in the ‘Mighty’ Eighth Air Force.

His defiance of those odds earned Hinrichs induction into the “Lucky Bastards Club” and a plaque from his company.

“Boy, everybody wanted that, because if you got that you know you’ve still got your ass,” Hinrichs says.

A good life

Now 90, Hinrichs says the good fortune that helped carry him through the war has stayed with him.

“I’ve had such a good life,” he says.

Hinrichs was born May 23, 1922 as the fourth of nine children to Herman and Stella Hinrichs, both St. Paul natives. He took up woodworking, the occupation of one of his uncles, at a young age and attended St. Paul Vocational School to learn the trade of cabinet making. He eventually took a course in machine shop training and worked his way up to a salary of $1 per hour as a machinist prior to the war.

Hinrichs joined the Army in 1942, but was sent home from advanced flight training in Arizona for dog fighting. Though upset at the time, he looks back on the incident as a blessing in disguise because he ended up attending flight engineering school in Texas and catching on with the 452nd.

“I didn’t know we couldn’t dog fight, but a couple guys got killed [doing that] a couple of days earlier, and I guess we were a good example,” he says. “I’m glad it happened.”

Leading up to the war, Hinrichs had dated Yvonne Ranstedt. She served as a nurse on the USS Hope and they did not correspond during the war. However, she returned to St. Paul in the last week of May, 1946, and they wed the first week of that June. In between, Hinrichs learned that Yvonne was his father’s nurse before the war.

The cabinet-making business took the couple from St. Paul to California, Arizona and back while they started a family. Upon returning to Minnesota, Hinrichs became a construction superintendent and he remained that until he retired in 1980.

The Hinrichs bought lakefront property in Forest Lake in 1969 and Ed built a house fashioned after designs they took note of while living in California.

All the while, Hinrichs’s time in the service was never far from his mind. Yvonne, who had been the bookkeeper during the cabinet-making days, convinced her husband after retirement to take on a project he had long considered: documenting in detail his war experiences.

Years of research and writing resulted in the book “Missing Planes of the 452nd Bomb Group”, which was originally published in 1995 and later updated twice.

“My wife would say, ‘You know what you should do is write that all down..You have to get going on that book.’ I’m a lousy speller and am poor on my grammar, so she’d take it and clean it all up,” he says.

Yvonne passed away in 1997, while Ed continues to live at the house on North Shore Circle. He survived a scare two years ago when a fire started overnight. The interior was gutted and the roof was destroyed, but both occupants – he and one of his three daughters – escaped to safety.

A natural choice

Never one to be idle, Hinrichs has kept his hands on the plow throughout retirement. Besides his war documentation efforts, he dove back into the passion of his younger days and helped found the Lakes Area Woodcarvers Club. His carving subjects range from his daughters to a life-size carousel horse.

Hinrichs also remains a member of both the American Legion Post 225 and VFW Post 4210, which led him to be honored with the role of this year’s parade grand marshal.

Ed Hinrichs rode in the 2011 4th of July parade as the king of the Columbus Senior Center. (File photo)

Post 225 Commander Krista Goodyear says it was a natural choice to honor a member of The Greatest Generation given this year’s theme of “Freedom – The American Dream.”

“We were kicking around ideas and we decided to honor WWII veterans this year,” she says.

Hinrichs has donated a copy of his book to Post 225, as well as his replica bomber jacket, which is on display at the Legion hall. His cousin and fellow Post 225 member Dick Doyle recently accompanied Goodyear to the Hinrichs house to break the news about the parade.

“At first it didn’t sink in for him, but since then he’s been really excited about it,” Goodyear says of Hinrichs, who attended the Legion’s recent fish fry which raised funds for the July 4 celebration.

It will be two such honors in the span of a year for Hinrichs. He played the role of King on the Columbus Senior Center’s float in the 2011 parade.

Over 90 years, Ed Hinrichs has made friends and brought people together halfway across the globe, all over this country and throughout St. Paul and Forest Lake. “When you’ve had as many jobs as I’ve had, a lot of people get to know you,” he says.

Next Wednesday, he will meet thousands more.

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