During the first week of June, Charles “Floyd” Hailey Jr., 86, of Rock Hill, took the trip of lifetime. He went back to the beaches of Normandy, where he served 70 years earlier on D-Day.
Hailey died Wednesday morning, just two weeks after returning from that trip.
“It was his last hurrah,” said his son, Chuck Hailey, on Wednesday afternoon, as Floyd Hailey’s friends and family gathered in his house to share memories of the man they knew as “Dad” and “Papa.”
Born and raised in Rock Hill, Hailey was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the Navy, lying about his age with the help of his mother. He had to eat bananas and drink milk to put weight on his 98-pound frame before he was allowed to enlist.
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“I was sweet 16,” Hailey said while in Normandy earlier in June. “But they were taking anybody who could fight.”
Hailey was assigned to the LST-315, a tank landing ship. His boat made six trips between France and England during the invasion. They would take supplies to the beach, then bring wounded men back to the ship.
During his last few months, many of which were spent in hospitals, one doctor called Hailey a hero – a title Hailey rejected.
“He said, ‘I’m no hero. Those guys I put on my boat were the heroes,’” recalled his daughter-in-law Tammy Hailey.
After he got back from the war at age 18, Floyd Hailey began dating a girl with big green eyes. Her name was Nancy.
But their time together ended. They each got married. Hailey remained in Rock Hill. Nancy moved to Salisbury, N.C.
Then, 45 years later, the phone rang.
“He wanted to know if I still had those green eyes,” Nancy Hailey, now 83, said, recalling the love story that moves their family members to tears.
In the days before his death, Floyd Hailey talked of going on a vacation with Nancy. He wanted to walk on the beach and just relax after so many doctor’s visits and treatments. He even talked of going back to Normandy again, because he didn’t get any sand off Utah Beach.
“He didn’t think he’d even be able to go the first time,” Nancy Hailey said. She told him he was going to go and he was going to love it.
Nothing, not even cancer, was going to stop that trip. His daughter, Kathy Fran Hailey, went with him. In France, she said, Floyd Hailey and the other D-Day veterans were celebrated as heroes.
Hailey signed hundreds of autographs, with countless people coming up and telling him they wouldn’t be alive without him and his service. He would tear up every time he talked about his trip – and he was not a man to show such emotion, his family said.
The two years Hailey spent in the Navy were just the beginning of a long life, filled with a career, service work and hobbies.
Hailey, who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to go to war, took a few college classes to learn how to become a real estate appraiser, a job kept until his retirement in 1995.
At one point, he was the only commercial appraiser for five counties, Kathy Fran Hailey said. And the man who’d never graduated from high school even taught college courses on appraisal work at Winthrop University and York Technical College.
A lack of formal higher education never stopped Floyd Hailey from learning, his family said.
“If he didn’t know something, he got a book and he learned it,” Kathy Fran Hailey said.
Chuck Hailey recalled his father reading the dictionary, memorizing words he didn’t know, reviewing them at the end of each week. In 1976, he built his own computer, with Kathy Fran Hailey assisting him because he was colorblind.
“And that thing worked, too,” Kathy Fran Hailey said.
Outside of work, Floyd Hailey was active in the community. He helped establish the annual Come-See-Me festival in 1962, was active in the Rock Hill Jaycees and was a drummer in the bugle corps.
Hailey also was an avid photographer, coin collector, model airplane operator, pilot, fisherman and hunter. He never met a hobby that he didn’t take to, Nancy Hailey said.
Floyd Hailey is survived by his wife, Nancy, his three children, three grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
It was Floyd Hailey’s love for his wife and hers in return that made such an impression on his children.
When they were in France and everyone was raving about the food, Floyd Hailey told Kathy Fran Hailey that he really just wanted some of Nancy’s cooking. When he got back to the United States and got off the bus, the first thing he said was, “Where’s my baby? Where’s Nancy?”
Tears in their eyes once again, Floyd Hailey’s family members said the two of them always wrote the same thing on cards to one another: “To love is nothing. To be loved is something. To love and be loved is everything.”