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Stories of Honor: Recollections from local war veterans

Jan 30, 2024Jan 30, 2024

For years, The Buffalo News has been telling the stories of Western New York veterans who served our country in the armed services in World War II and beyond. Here's a look at some of them.

It was easy, for so long, to think the stories would be there.

There was the cedar chest in the attic, which held my father’s battered Army cap, his scrapbooks and a pair of ornate sandals he brought home for my mother, from the war. There were the black-and-white photographs on the mantel and the medals on a bedroom dresser, which my parents always talked about maybe framing up, but never did.

There were the moments when my dad and my mom spoke across the table of lighter memories, of the camp where my father would swim each day to the cabin they rented on the side of a small nearby lake, of their long and separate train rides to New York City not long before my dad went overseas – with Manhattan their closest point for meeting in the middle.

World War II had shaped the trajectory of their lives, which was pretty much the same for the parents of many kids I knew at school. It was that way for my uncle, who came over to drink coffee with my folks, and for the guys my father worked with on the coal pile at the steam station, and for the man in the white shirt behind the counter at the corner store.

Even now, the generation that endured the war carries the memory of “V-J Day” with a mesh of joy, relief and sorrow.

They had all been in "the war," a reality and seemingly casual reference that was as present in our collective lives as the weather that swept in off the lake, even if my parents did not spend much time talking about it.

Yet I learned early – a realization in my gut long before I consciously worked through it, in my head – that there were things you did not ask, and places you did not go, because whatever answers you hoped to learn at 10 or 15 or 20 seemed certain to be offered someday, someplace, when it was the right time.

What I learned late was that life moves like lightning, and many things that seem forever disappear long before you are prepared, in any way.

I went to college, met my wife-to-be, graduated and started moving around as we built our lives. My parents both died while I was in my mid-20s, gone before they had much of a chance to take the breath they had worked so hard to earn. Moving toward 35 years later, I still contemplate mysteries I wish I had asked about when I had the chance.

Even after they were gone, many of their siblings and their longtime friends were still around, and I figured there was time to learn some answers.

George and Corrine Klein of Amherst make annual pilgrimages to remember their high school friend who was killed in the siege of Iwo Jima.

That is a dangerous assumption. You raise your kids and go to work and do each day what you need to do, and you wake up one morning and you are 61, gray-haired, with the recognition that the end of World War II is now as far from us in the American past as the end of the Civil War was to my parents, on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Once, the daily rhythm of every community in the nation was dominated by generations shaped by those war years. Today? After lifetimes that encompassed cascading national struggles, the demographic that came of age in World War II had already dwindled to a sliver – even before the women and men who so vividly recall the war were among the most vulnerable and isolated, in the pandemic.

According to reports, only somewhere beyond an estimated 100,000 veterans are still with us from the 16 million people who served in the American military during World War II, which equates to less than 1%.

If we are going to listen, our last chance is now.

That is the point of today’s special section in The Buffalo News, which includes portraits of veterans who served during that time. But it is also a truth I try my best to remember in daily life, with the tiny group of mentors, relatives and friends whose memories of those decades of great change now translate into the greatest kind of civic treasure.

Conscious of the swift passing of her generation, Holocaust survivor Sonia Klein fears what happens without the sharp edge of eyewitness memory.

Buffalo sent thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines off to war, many departing by train from the Central Terminal. Most – but in an aching way, nowhere close to all – returned to the embrace of family in that same echoing place, some dealing with wounds that in many ways would take lifetimes to heal.

For the most part, they were working people who had endured the trials of the Great Depression, then were thrust into a war that claimed an almost unfathomable number of lives around the world. They left a community that went into rationing and an anxious vigil while they were gone, a community where thousands of women took wartime jobs in places like Curtiss-Wright or Bell Aircraft, where my mother worked – a workplace shift that would accelerate vast changes in the American landscape.

There is something in the wording – in a voice that somehow captures both a battle-worn officer and the younger brother, far from home – that makes it eternal, Kirst says.

In the decades after the war, those who returned and those who had done their own service at home ran school bingo games and were elected to city councils. They worked in hospitals and schools and on the floors of factories. They built Little League fields and neighborhood veterans posts.

Still, what I learned – a lesson I suspect was shared by many of my friends – is that certain things came up only at rare flashes in time, maybe on some gentle morning when sunlight cut through steam from perking coffee on the stove. For whatever reason, at those quiet moments, my parents felt a need to talk.

Like countless families, we had our own loss during the war. Sitting at the kitchen table, my mother might speak of the toddler daughter – my sister – who died of encephalitis while my dad was in the Pacific, grief that never totally went out of our house. Maybe she would bring up a brother whose grave we sometimes visited in the veterans’ section at Forest Lawn – a guy she loved who survived combat and then came home, clearly suffering, to take his own life as a young man.

As for my father, he would listen to our childhood questions about the war and use humor as a strategy to quickly shift to something else. He was a quiet guy, and only once did he speak to me of what he saw in combat. He stood on the sidewalk beyond my mother’s hearing, always his chosen place when it was something that was not easy to say, and he responded to a hard passage in my own life by sharing a glimpse of what he witnessed in the surf, during a landing.

It was enough to make me realize that so many of these people I encountered all the time – doing their jobs, raising their kids, waiting in line at Tops – went home at night to silent rooms and similar visions.

Suddenly, now, all of that is so long ago. The impossible truths you are warned about when you are young – that years can seem to vanish as quickly as a sunrise – are, as we each learn, inevitably true. Even the youngest of the “kids” who went into the service as teens, near the end of World War II, are well into their 90s – if we are lucky enough to have them here, at all.

They are the bearers of firsthand witness no one else can share again, reminding us of how one of the most profound acts of tribute is also a fundamental measure of respect:

It is simply to listen, to hear every word, while we still can.

WWII Army Air Force veteran Raymond E. Clancy, 97, flew many missions over the skies of Europe. This was in Hamburg on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

On Christmas Day 1944, Raymond E. Clancy made an important holiday delivery – a delivery of gasoline for Gen. George S. Patton's tanks during the Battle of the Bulge.

"We had to land in a little cornfield" in the Belgian town of Bastogne, the 97-year-old Army Air Forces veteran said. His C-47 Skytrain delivered hundreds of metal jerrycans full of fuel, then returned to France. "We took off as soon as we could; we didn't want to get stuck there," he said.

Clancy remembered flying about a dozen missions as an aerial engineer and crew chief with the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron of the 439th Troop Carrier Group.

He was born in Buffalo, the oldest child and only son of Edward and Florence Hickey Clancy. He grew up in the Kensington-Bailey area and graduated from St. James grammar school. He studied auto mechanics for two years at Burgard Vocational High School before enlisting.

"Do you know when I got my diploma?" he asked with a chuckle. "I was 70. My son went over to the school and showed them my honorable discharge papers and they made out a diploma for me."

Before leaving for basic training at Greensboro, N.C. – where "it was hot, hot, hot," he recalled –- he had met a neighborhood girl, Elizabeth "Betty" J. Spizzano. From chatting at a neighborhood playground, he started walking her home and eventually met her parents.

"Then when I enlisted, she wrote to me almost every day," he said. "No matter where I was stationed, the letters would catch up to me. I wrote back whenever I could."

With his training in car repair, Clancy was assigned to aircraft mechanics school. His first post was to Burbank, Calif., where he trained on the P-39, a Bell Aircraft product. He was then transferred to Gulfport, Miss., where he was assigned to the C-47 Skytrain. After completing training as a specialist mechanic, he flew to England at the end of 1943, serving at the Balderton and Upottery Royal Air Force bases.

Clancy's C-47 could tow two G-4 gliders filled with paratroopers or transport supplies or vehicles.

"Those poor paratroopers," he said, "they didn't know where they were, they didn't know anything, but they had to drop out, get under cover and start fighting."

After the Germans were driven out of France in late summer 1944, Clancy and his men moved to Alencon, France. "We lived in a tent city there," he said. "The Germans had left lots of small hand grenades and other things like ammunition" capable of injuring or even killing people, he said.

When they made the fuel delivery during the Battle of the Bulge, his plane flew into a battle area. But "they kept the airplane landing zone free and clear of ground fire," Clancy said. "They unloaded it real fast and we got out of there, and they were so thankful to get that gas."

During his missions, "we got shot up a couple of times where new metal had to be used for repairs," he said.

While he was in France in October 1944, Clancy, a corporal, wrote a letter asking Betty Spizzano to marry him. She said yes.

He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in October 1945 with an Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a Distinguished Unit Badge and the European, African and Middle Eastern Ribbon with six battle stars.

WWII Army Air Force veteran Raymond E. Clancy displays his medals at his Hamburg home on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

He and Betty married on Jan. 16, 1946, in St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church. They had a son, Robert, and a daughter, Kathleen.

With a job history that included working in gas stations, driving a taxi and selling everything from college football programs to used cars and fences, Clancy resumed work. "I never collected unemployment in my life," he said proudly. After a few years, he was hired as a brakeman by the old Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Co., then worked for Conrail. His 37 years included working as a freight and passenger conductor before retiring in 1985.

The couple lived in Cheektowaga for many years until Betty Clancy died after 73 years of marriage, and almost two years ago, Clancy moved into Elderwood in Hamburg. There he has his medals in a frame and a large bald eagle with stars and stripes on his wall, a testimony to his service.

Over the next month, The Buffalo News will continue to tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Let us know by calling 849-4444, emailing [email protected] or submitting a name at buffalonews.com/news-tip/.

***

Roy E. Kinyon saw both the majestic and the morose aboard the USS Shoshone.

The Niagara County native witnessed the iconic moment when Marines raised the U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

He also watched fallen Marines buried at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

The World War II veteran, who enlisted in the Navy in November 1942 at age 20, turns 99 today.

"I seen a lot of good things and a lot of bad," Kinyon said.

The Shoshone, an attack cargo ship, carried smaller boats used to transport Marines and supplies.

Kinyon's job aboard the ship was maintaining and repairing engines. In this three-plus years in the Navy, he rose to the rank of chief motor machinist's mate.

He was among 14 chiefs on the Shoshone, which felt pretty packed when the 366-person crew was joined by 350 Marines and their 15 German shepherds.

Born in a farmhouse in Appleton, what Kinyon remembers most about the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima is the bullets flying overhead, he said.

A kamikaze pilot attacked the boat just ahead of the Shoshone during the invasion.

"Boy, was that a blast," he said of the explosion.

The Marines who went ashore the first day could barely get off the island's black beaches, Kinyon said.

On the second day of fighting, Marines used blowtorches to clear tunnels of Japanese troops. After a scorching fire, they would send the dogs in.

As a young man, Kinyon grew up on a farm and excelled as an athlete. He grew up playing sports with his older brother, Ralph.

In 1941, while playing for Barker High School, Roy Kinyon was a two-sport star. In baseball, he led the Niagara-Orleans League in both batting average and, in basketball, scoring average, according to newspaper clippings his mother, Jennie, kept. He was captain of the baseball and basketball teams that each won the league championship that year.

Before he enlisted, he played semi-professional baseball for a team in Olcott and was invited for a tryout with the Buffalo Bisons.

While Roy Kinyon picked the Navy, his brother signed up for the Army Air Forces.

Roy Kinyon, 99, a Navy vet who served in WWII and recalls hitting the beach transporting Marines during the the Battle of Iwo Jima, talks about how he repeatedly prayed the Rosary as the invasion continued. This was his grandfather's rosary set.

Roy Kinyon's talent and love of sports helped him get through some of the monotony of his time in the service, his family said. While at a training base in Florida in 1944, he convinced the base commander to let him try out for a baseball team comprised of professionals and college players.

He made the Fort Pierce Commandos, playing left field and second base, and traveled around the state playing other military teams.

He got back from the war in 1946. The following year, he broke his leg in a fall from a piece of equipment while at a job in Barker. He spent three months recovering at Buffalo General Hospital, which is where he met a nurse named Theresa.

They got married in July 1948, had four children and were together 64 years. Theresa Kinyon died in 2013.

Roy Kinyon now has 14 great-grandchildren.

He spent 35 years working at Harrison Radiator in Lockport. He prays the rosary daily and remains an avid sports fan.

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, the crew of the Shoshone ferried food and ammunition for the Marines between the ship and the island "all day long," Kinyon said.

It was quite a moment when the Marines raised the flag on the fifth day of the battle.

"That's when I had chills going up and down my back when all the ships started blowing their horns," he said. "It was unreal."

Roy Kinyon, 99, displays an image collection of his grandchildren at his Lockport home.

In May and June, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Let us know by calling 849-4444, emailing [email protected] or submitting a name at buffalonews.com/news-tip/.

***

During his time as a communications officer in the 3rd Infantry Division during World War II, U.S. Army Sgt. Arthur P. Miller of Buffalo cultivated a broad range of memories from triumphant to tragic.

As he sat under a gazebo on the grounds of the Brothers of Mercy campus in Clarence more than 75 years later, surrounded by his medals and memorabilia, it was the happier moments about which Miller chose to reminisce.

They included sharing a bottle of scotch with a couple of U.S. citizens who were stranded in Rome prior to the liberation of Italy by Allied forces; sharing a 200-pound wheel of Limburger cheese with an entire village in Austria; and sharing a poignant encounter with a German soldier in which they both managed to avoid killing or getting killed.

Miller's youngest son, Paul, who now lives in Houston, said his father has been brimming with these long-ago memories in recent years.

A young Arthur Miller, right, with his French Medal of Honor.

"That's his whole life now. He never talked about it for years, but that's the biggest part of his life now," said Paul Miller.

His father was eager to share and genuinely humbled by those taking an interest in his stories, including staff at the Brothers of Mercy Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the 96-year-old veteran has been a permanent resident for three years.

Staffers Nicole Eckert DeSantiago, left, director of nursing and administrator Teresa Dillsworth visit with Arthur Miller on the campus during a walk.

Miller was born on June 28, 1924, in Buffalo, and grew up on the East Side. He attended St. Stanislaus Catholic Elementary School and was a 1939 graduate of Seneca Vocational High School before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.

As a result of his background in radio and telephone technology, Miller said he requested that service be in communications.

"I told them I wanted to be in electronics. So I wound up being in charge of telephone and telegraph," he said.

Miller said that did not spare him service on the battle lines, though.

He served in North Africa, Italy, France, Austria and Germany. Miller joined his men on the Appian Way to Rome in May 1945 for the liberation of Italy. Miller said he and his Jeep driver, Pablo Garcia, encountered an American husband and wife in Rome who had been trapped in the city since the start of the war and were grateful to see him.

"The nice part about it was that the woman had a big, American flag. She wrapped it around me," said Miller.

"Naturally, I was crying and she was crying," he said, dabbing his eyes with a tissue.

WWII 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller wipes a tear as he discusses the war.

The husband broke out a bottle of Haig & Haig scotch that the couple had been saving, vowing not to open it until Italy was liberated.

"So we all had a little drink out of that bottle, and they welcomed us and I welcomed them ... So, that was a happy day," Miller said.

He even found something pleasant to remember in dealing with one of the enemy, during a chance encounter in Germany, in which either of them could have wound up dead.

"I made friends with people who were ready to kill me," Miller said.

How did he manage that?

"Very easily. I just talked them out of doing it," he said.

"He was the same age I was. We were both 19 or 20, and he carried a rifle, and I said, "I don't like you carrying that rifle. Why don't you put it on the ground? And he said 'why?' And I said, 'because it's making me nervous.' And so he finally laid it down,'" Miller said.

Miller spoke to the German soldier half in German and half in English, and asked him: " 'Why do we want to kill each other?' I said, 'why don't we go home. You're as old as I am. You probably have a girlfriend or a wife. You can have a family. You can raise your family and forget about the war,' " Miller said.

The two men saluted each other and walked away.

"There's only one thing I feel bad about and that's I didn't get his name," Miller said.

He recalled the time a German air force officer surrendered to him in Austria near the end of the war.

"We were taking German prisoners down the road, a back road, and I noticed this little white thing coming out of the forest. So I told Pablo, my driver, 'why don't you stop.' It looked like someone was waving a little white flag. So he stopped .... and I waved him on and he came in," Miller said of the German officer.

"He was the sharpest soldier I ever saw in my life," Miller recalled, describing his long chamois leather coat and boots.

"The only thing he could see is that I had a .45 on my side and a .38 on my shoulder holster," said Miller.

In the midst of war, Miller still marveled at the beauty of Austria.

"I stayed there with my men for a whole month, and we ate a lot of Limburger cheese, Swiss cheese and drank a lot of beer. And it was very easy because ... we found out after a few days, hey, there's a little brewery here, and a little cheese factory," Miller said.

"Now, the only way I could buy the cheese was in a 200-pound wheel that they made," he added. "We gave the people that lived in this town the cheese. They did a lot of stuff for us. They became our family and we became their family. It was wonderful."

After 3½ years of service, Miller was discharged in 1945.

He earned the Bronze Star, and during a 2011 ceremony in New York City, Miller was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the president of France for his participation in the liberation of France.

Miller cherishes a framed black-and-white photograph he took of Allied soldiers in the shadow outside the Eagle's Nest in Anzio, Italy.

He married the former Madeline Marie Bokowski in 1950.

They had three children, now in their 60s: Gretchen; Timothy, a retired New York City-based actor; and Paul. The couple had two grandchildren.

They were married for 65 years until her death in 2015.

Miller was a mechanical engineer for the Sylvania Company in Batavia for 30 years.

WWII 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller discusses the war in the European theater.

World War II 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller.

WWII 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller.

WWII 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller wipes a tear as he discusses the war.

WWII 3rd Infantry Division veteran Arthur Miller removes his mask to speak.

A young Arthur Miller, right, with his French Medal of Honor.

A photo Arthur Miller shot when he and other troops were touring Hitler's Eagle Nest in Austria during the war.

Arthur Miller's bronze sat medal, left.

Arthur Miller's dog tag that he wore in Anzio, Italy; North Africa; and Paris, France.

Arthur Miller's French Medal of Honor medal.

Arthur Miller blows a kiss to a passing staff member.

Staffers Nicole Eckert DeSantiago, left, director of nursing and administrator Teresa Dillsworth visit with Arthur Miller on the campus during a walk.

Arthur Miller's favorite hat from the 3rd Infantry Division, nicknamed the Rock of the Marne.

In May and June, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Let us know by calling 849-4444, emailing [email protected] or submitting a name at buffalonews.com/news-tip/.

***

As an artilleryman, Theodore W. Balliett saw nearly a year of combat in France and Germany and won a Bronze Star for courage under fire.

Today, as he prepares to celebrate his 98th birthday in June, Balliett says his wartime experiences were no big deal.

"I had a job to do. I was called to do the job. I did the job. The job is over and we came home," Balliett said during an interview in his Buffalo home. "The World War II veterans, as a majority, did not come home and talk about the war. I don't know why. We just didn't."

He said he never thought he would be killed, unlike some of his buddies who expected to die – and did. Balliett survived several incidents without a scratch.

"I'm not a hero. The real heroes are dead," said Balliett. "It was still combat, but it wasn't as bad as infantry combat."

World War II veteran Ted Balliett at his home in Buffalo.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Balliett's 344th Field Artillery Battalion landed on Utah Beach, by far the more lightly defended of the two beaches American forces assaulted on the German-held Normandy coast.

"They missed the initial landing area, is what I heard. I didn't know they missed it because I didn't know where it was anyway," Balliett said.

Casualties were light at first.

"The first time we went forward, it was quiet and peaceful. We were supposed to dig a foxhole," Balliett said. "If you've ever been to Normandy, you can't dig a foxhole like you see on television. You had roots, you had rock. It was just enough to lay down, but it's not really protecting you."

That's where Balliett survived a "tree burst," a shell that struck a tree and turned the wood into shrapnel, killing the soldier in the next hole. And it's where he successfully fled from a barn the Germans obliterated with shell fire while he was trying to sleep there.

After the Germans retreated from Normandy, Balliett and his buddies checked out what their guns had done in the Falaise Gap, an escape route the Allies cut off.

World War II veteran Ted Balliett at his home in Buffalo.

"They took us artillery people on a tour. That sounds good, huh?" Balliett said. "You could see the bodies burnt. It stunk. It made me sick to my stomach, all these bodies of the Germans. We wiped them out there."

He earned his Bronze Star Feb. 1, 1945, near Heckhuscheid, Germany.

The citation says Pfc. Balliett "assisted in establishing an artillery observation post and traversed an open field through intense shelling to lay the necessary telephone wire. On three occasions he advanced through unrelenting fire to locate and repair breaks in the line."

"They say three occasions. I have no idea. It could have been three, could have been two, could have been five," he said. "All I remember is we ran out and made the splice."

World War II veteran Ted Balliett shows his Bronze Star and other awards at his home in Buffalo.

Balliett, a Buffalo native who attended School 45 and Lafayette High School in 1941, was drafted and assigned to the artillery during basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C.

He crossed the Atlantic aboard the USS John Ericsson, which had been a luxury liner before the Pentagon requisitioned it.

"By the time you got to England, you were worn out," Balliett said. "You only had two meals a day because there were just too many men. By the time you got to stand up at the table – you didn't have to sit – you didn't feel like eating. It wasn't that good. The Red Cross gave us a package containing soap. It didn't lather like it was supposed to. It never cleaned you."

After arrival in England, the men ran for the showers on shore. "Ice-cold water," Balliett said.

World War II veteran Ted Balliett holds an old photo of him from his days in the Army.

After the war, he returned to Buffalo, married the former Bernice Twist, who died in 1989, and had two daughters, Suzanne, who is deceased, and Jo Ann Michael. He worked 39 years at Western Electric.

It's possible none of that might have happened if President Harry S. Truman hadn't ordered two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan in 1945, making it unnecessary for Balliett and his buddies to invade that country after the Germans surrendered.

"That's why I have a Truman calendar," said Balliett, pointing to the wall of his home.

In May and June, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Let us know by calling 849-4444, emailing [email protected] or submitting a name at buffalonews.com/news-tip/.

***

The Army's regimented life was a shock for some after they entered the service.

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

It was old hat for World War II veteran Elmer Wienclawski, who spent most of the war on a Northern Mariana island.

Wienclawski, born in October 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic, was raised beginning at age 5 in a German Catholic orphanage in Buffalo where discipline was strictly enforced. He and four siblings were sent to live there after the death of their parents.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the signature New Deal programs to get through the Great Depression, and where Wienclawski spent two years prior to the Army, was also regimented.

"I was always disciplined and in the Army it was the same way," said Wienclawski, 101, who recently spoke about his life and military service from his Town of Tonawanda home.

He credits the orphanage for teaching a lot of life skills that served him well, though he said it was also like living in a jail since home and school were under one roof and leaving was restricted.

At the recommendation of an older brother, Wienclawski joined and flourished in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a two-year program that hired single men to work in parks, forests and other public lands.

"You learned everything. Everything!" he said. "I learned how to chop down trees, I worked as a surveyor, I learned how to drive a truck, operate a bulldozer, how to grade hills."

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, displays a high school photo that he keeps. That's him in the front row far left. This was at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

President Biden has cited that program as an inspiration to call for a Climate Conservation Corps.

Wienclawski was put in charge of supplies when it was discovered he had taken bookkeeping, typing and shorthand at Riverside High School.

"I learned everything about ordering supplies, from truck parts to charcoal furnaces," Wienclawski said.

It turned out to be perfect training for the four years he spent in the Army.

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, looks through a scrapbook including pictures of himself during the war. This was at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

When his time was up, Wienclawski went to work as a crane operator at American Brass. He got his draft notice in 1942 and reported to a Niagara Falls induction center in 1943.

Within a short time he was made a supply sergeant at a base in Portland, Ore. On furlough, he returned to Buffalo that October to marry Amelia Boblak, who he met in his teens when they were frequent roller-skating partners. They were married for 76 years until her death in February 2020.

Wienclawski was transferred the following month and was a supply sergeant in Saipan, an island under Japanese control.

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, thumbs through photos of his tour of duty in the South Pacific including this one with his war buddies. That's him with the cigar in Saipan. Photo taken at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

Among Wienclawski's photos is one of him posing shirtless with three of his military buddies, a cigar dangling from his mouth.

He was there during the three-week Battle of Saipan that began June 15, 1944. More than 3,400 Americans died and over 10,000 were wounded. An estimated 29,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. Civilian casualties were heavy.

A wall in Wienclawski's living room displays two painted handkerchiefs made by civilian prisoners of war who lived on the barracks. He also keeps two dolls with kimonos made by another Japanese prisoner from rags dipped in cosmolene oil to clean rifles.

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, displays two dolls that were gifted to him from a Japanese POW. He donated rags they used to clean rifle parts and the dolls were made by the rag remnants. This was at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

Wienclawski remains deeply touched by the works of art and the people who generously made them.

"I believe in judging people the way you would judge yourself," he said, adding that he fought against German and Japanese soldiers who "didn't want to go against us anymore than we did."

"So you don't want to hold anything against them, and I don't," he added.

Wienclawski left the service in 1946 and returned to Buffalo, where his bride was waiting for him and his siblings still lived. He finished high school at a school for veterans and was rehired at American Brass, where he oversaw molten metal furnaces for much of his 45 years there.

The World War II veteran is a member of the Milton J. Brounshidle American Legion Post 205 and the Harry E. Crosby VFW Post 2472.

WWII Army veteran Elmer Wienclawski, 101 years old, displays framed medals and mementos on a wall at his Tonawanda home on Monday, May 3, 2021.

He was a longtime volunteer with the Brighton Fire Company.

Wienclawski is grateful for the life he's led despite the loss of his parents and the hardships that came after their deaths.

At the same time, there are wartime memories he would just as soon forget and is reluctant to discuss.

"I don't like to watch movies of the war," Wienclawski said. "That brings back memories that you don't want to keep remembering."

Over the next two months, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Let us know by calling 849-4444, emailing [email protected] or submitting a name at buffalonews.com/news-tip/.

***

World War II veteran James Maier at his home in Tonawanda Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

The Army regiment Jim Maier served with during World War II, the 314th Infantry, boasted a couple of thousand soldiers at the height of the war.

Today, said Maier, who was one of its youngest members and regularly attended the regiment's annual reunions, he thinks he's one of just a handful of survivors left.

But when the 94-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident thinks back to his wartime service, he most often remembers "the guys that didn't come back."

He recalled the signature boom of the Germans' 88-mm field artillery, a sound that would send soldiers scrambling for cover. One day, weeks before the end of the fighting in Europe, a fellow soldier, a married man in his 30s, died when a shell landed directly in his lap, Maier recalled.

"I think he was the last guy killed in our outfit," Maier said during a recent interview. "Those are the guys I feel sorry for."

Maier was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army through a specialized training program that sent him to study at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He had grown up in Racine, Wis., the only child of a machinist father and homemaker mother.

World War II veteran James Maier holds his Army uniform at his home in Tonawanda Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

"I'm a lone star," Maier said. He attended a high school named after the original patent holder for malted milk and, in recent years, has provided $3,000 in annual scholarships to its graduates.

As a child, he built model airplanes using the wood from the boxes that held 2-pound blocks of Kraft cheese, a hobby that sparked an interest in flying.

"I wanted to become a pilot. But my eyesight was 20-400," Maier said.

He moved up his graduation from high school and, by February 1944, was on campus at Madison, where the members of his training program included future Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

The group was supposed to spend four years there, but when D-Day came the Army ended the program in order to get more soldiers into the war as soon as possible.

Maier went to basic training at what was then Camp Hood, in Texas, and by fall 1944 was on a troop ship heading to Scotland. He then joined the 314th, part of the 79th Infantry Division, in the Alsace region of France, where they replaced other units depleted by combat.

The 79th faced fierce resistance in eastern France and while crossing the Reine River into western Germany. "We pushed the Germans out of there," he said.

A photo of World War II veteran James Maier taken on a German bunker in Étretat, France, copied at his home in Tonawanda Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

He made it through the fighting, including marking his 18th birthday, without being wounded. But the exposure to combat, and to his fellow soldiers from across the country, was eye-opening to a teenager.

"You grow up fast," said Maier, noting he learned how to swear in Spanish.

By V-E Day, which marked Germany's surrender, Maier's unit was in Dortmund, Germany, guarding a brewery.

"To keep people away from what was left of the beer," he said with a laugh. "The only people that got any beer was our company."

His regiment was preparing to join the fighting in the Pacific theater when word came of Japan's surrender.

The devastation wrought by the war was apparent, Maier added. "We went through Nuremberg," he said. "Nuremberg was rubble."

Maier earned a Bronze Star medal for meritorious achievement, a recognition he modestly downplayed.

World War II veteran James Maier holds the Bronze Star he earned during his years in the service at his home in Tonawanda Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

"As far as I'm concerned, I didn't do anything," Maier said. "I think they just had a bunch of Bronze Stars they had to give out."

He came home in June 1946, returning to Madison to earn an engineering degree.

When Bell Aerosystems recruited him to join the company's plant near Niagara Falls, Maier remembered thinking, "Oh boy, I'm back on airplanes again."

Maier met his future wife, Lucille, in January 1951 in Bell's employment office. Maier had his hat on the chair next to him in the crowded waiting area when she approached and asked if that seat was taken. Lucille Maier died in 1999.

Maier was a development engineer at Bell and head of its accelerometer group. Some of the components his team worked on were incorporated into NASA's lunar module.

He left Bell in 1972 and joined Teledyne Taber in North Tonawanda, working as a chief engineer on aviation instrumentation, before retiring in 1980.

"I'm obsolete now," he quipped.

***

Read previous Stories of Honor:

During the next 10 weeks, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served our country in the armed services in World War II and beyond.

Know of a veteran's story we should tell? Contact The News at 849-4444 or email [email protected]

***

Army veteran Paul Woods barely escaped injury when his truck was blown up while he was delivering ammunition to the front lines in Australia during World War II.

He also was one of the troops deployed from a landing craft in an amphibious invasion of the Philippines. The soldiers were under fire for three days and three nights as they waited for the tide to subside before they could reach the beach.

Woods earned three Bronze Stars and a Philippine Liberation Medal for his military service in the Pacific Theater. But those accomplishments still were not enough for the Black veteran to secure a seat on a bus headed to his home state of Alabama after the war.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Woods, 98.

World War II military veteran Paul Woods, 98, served in the Army in the Pacific Theater.

“The bus was loaded. I had my uniform and all my medals on and was going to get on the bus, and the ole bus driver said, ‘No, you can’t get on the bus,' ” Woods said.

A white lady offered to give up her seat, but the driver prohibited it, and Woods had to get off the bus.

“It was a segregated country when it came to Blacks. Joe Louis was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and he couldn’t eat in a white restaurant,” he said.

A medal depicting his three Bronze Stars, left, the World War II victory medal, center, and the Philippine Liberation Medal reflect Paul Woods' wartime sacrifices on behalf of the United States.

But triumph clouded by hardship was already familiar to Woods.

Born in 1923 in Bazemore, Ala., he recalled having to walk 10 miles to get an education in a one-room schoolhouse.

His father died when Woods was only seven. He and his 13 siblings and half-siblings were split up at his father's gravesite and raised by various relatives. Woods went to live with a wealthy uncle, who had owned a Model T Ford when most African Americans didn’t even own a horse.

Still, they could not get gasoline at filling stations that posted signs like, “Gas only for white people,” he said.

In 1941 at age 17, Woods joined a segregated U.S. Army and served for four years, discovering that war itself does not discriminate.

Paul Woods, a 98-year-old World War II veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, was just 17 when he joined the Army.

“Everyone was brothers on the battlefield at all times,” Woods said. “A bullet knows no rank, no color, no status. It doesn’t care how rich you are or how poor you are. It doesn’t know you.”

Woods and his wife, Mary, moved to Buffalo in 1953 with their three young children.

A year later, he started working at Bethlehem Steel as a chipper, cleaning the steel to roll it. To feed his growing family – which eventually included 15 children – he worked two, sometimes three, shifts daily for 31 years until the plant closed.

“We were never on welfare,” he said proudly. “I always taught my children charity begins at home.”

Along the way, the family built a home from the ground up on five acres in Angola in 1966. They were the first Black family in the neighborhood, said daughter Paulette Woods, a Buffalo School Board member.

“The neighbors asked us if we were there to start a race riot,” she recalled.

All of Woods’ children went to college. He has 28 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. He and his wife also were licensed foster care providers through Randolph Child and Adolescent Services, and in 1997 were honored as Foster Parents of the Year.

In a February ceremony, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins honored Woods, the World War II coordinator for Jesse Clipper American Legion Post No. 430, with a flag and proclamations.

He was transported by Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in April 2012 to see the World War II Memorial, where he met retired Sen. Bob Dole, another World War II hero.

World War II Army veteran Paul Woods holds a 1944 photo of the Warwick Farm Racecourse in Australia, were he and other Black soldiers slept in tents in the infield while white soldiers were housed in barracks.

And when Woods returned to Australia four years ago, it was a very different experience compared to his previous time there.

Back in 1942, he and thousands of Black soldiers were relegated to living in tents set up in the middle of a racetrack for horses. The white soldiers stayed in barracks, Woods said.

In December 2017, he went back to the Warwick Farm Racecourse once more and was presented with a picture of the tents the Black servicemen stayed in at the racetrack. He also met with the U.S. consul general in Sydney.

Woods said he’s glad to be in the land of the living, given what he’s gone through in war abroad and in dealing with racism at home.

“It was worth it,” he said. “After all this segregation stuff I went through, I’d rather be here in America than anywhere else.”

They are heroes who seldom seek the limelight.

Many of the hundreds of veterans I have interviewed wonder why I want to talk to them. Some start out by saying, "Do you really think I have a story worth telling?" It's mostly their friends and relatives who suggested I call.

But after listening to hundreds of stories of military service – from storming the beaches of Normandy during World War II or nearly freezing to death in the Korean War or getting a hand blown apart in Vietnam – I have found every word of great importance.

Listening to them, at times, has caused me to choke up as I typed their stories from the safety of our newsroom. Hearing such humility can do that.

So I’d very much like to take the credit for coming up with the idea of Saluting Our War Heroes, this weekly feature that has appeared almost every Monday since March 2010.

But I can’t.

It was late publisher and Air Force veteran Stan Lipsey’s idea to pay tribute to the many local veterans who put their lives on the line to preserve our freedom.

If not for the veterans, whether they served on the front lines or in support roles, I might not have been able to write this. The tyrants and dictators of the world despise freedom of the press. Our veterans willingly have and continue to take up the call to defend America where our First Amendment is a cherished right.

As a boy, I frequently quizzed my dad, a World War II veteran, about his war experiences. He never talked about the horrors he saw. Instead, he marveled at all the places his military service took him: northern Africa, Italy and the South Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. The closest he got to anything heavy was when he once told me, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

Decades later, when Lipsey suggested saluting local war heroes, I embraced the assignment, picking up where I'd left off with my father. It gave me a broader opportunity. I could talk to veterans from all the different wars and those who served in "peaceful" periods.

Odd as it may sound, it provided me with a weekly respite from the mayhem of crime reporting. But I know why it worked for me: the veterans. They possess special qualities – gratitude that they survived, an enduring sense of loss for those who never made it home and a true appreciation for our country.

Nearly a decade later, The Buffalo News has published more than 475 pieces on veterans and turned the weekly feature into a book. The Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park also incorporated the salutes into a kiosk exhibit.

The plan initially was to write abbreviated portraits of each veteran, but it quickly became clear their stories deserved a more complete telling.

In 2015, Alvin Hardy told me that, as he charged to the shores in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, he was frightened but death never entered his thoughts.

“There were five beaches, and we landed at Utah Beach. There was a lot of noise. All the shells going off and that stuff. Some of the soldiers were hit and floating in the water,” Hardy recalled. “You just kept on going forward.”

Norman J. Zimmerman also remembered Normandy.

“I landed seven days out from D-Day at Omaha Beach. It was very bad, very bad. There were a lot of dead soldiers. The Red Cross was there. We were in hurry to get out of there,” Zimmerman said four years ago.

Weather dogged American troops in the Korean War. Vets who were no strangers to winter in Buffalo told me how they froze in a place called the Chosin Reservoir. That earned them a special name, the "Chosen Frozen.”

"I ended up with frostbite, shrapnel in my left ankle, and my left knee was cracked when I got knocked down in an explosion," Tom Wagner told me in 2010.

In the 1960s, Americans were back in Asia, some 3,000 miles south of the Korean peninsula fighting in the jungles, rice paddies and highlands of Vietnam. Unlike other wars, this one turned into a political nightmare back home. There were major protests against the war and returning service members often suffered the brunt of the peace movement's anger.

Sometimes lost in the memories of those troubled times are the sacrifices of so many young Americans who willingly served. Chuck "Sully" Sullivan is one of them.

Sullivan lost his right hand and sight in his left eye when an enemy grenade he was disposing of prematurely exploded. That did not stop him from returning home and living a full life.

His indomitable spirit was on full display in April when he told of how doctors equipped him with a hook for everyday use and prosthetic hand for special events like weddings and funerals.

The doctors also wanted to outfit him with a glass eye, but he refused.

“I said I have too much artificial stuff already. When they said I would one day scare my grandchildren with my blind eye, which looks a little funny, I told them, ‘I want to scare them,' ” he laughed.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, America went to war against terrorism. That took our troops to the searing deserts of the Middle East and unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan.

Retired Air Force veteran Karen Schultz Chapman served not only in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also the First Gulf War after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Proudly describing herself as a “grease monkey,” Schultz Chapman served in Afghanistan as a flight chief in charge of 40 mechanics who not only repaired A-10 Warthog attack jets but loaded them with bombs and 30 mm Gatling gun ammo.

Describing Afghanistan, Schultz Chapman said in 2018, "You could see in the distance adobe homes with no electricity or running water. I would see people going down to the river and getting buckets of water.

“At night, you would see fires going. You got a real good appreciation for being an American. When you see people living like that, you say, 'Wow, we do live in the greatest country.' "

Schultz Chapman is not alone in undertaking multiple deployments. Other members of the military in recent years repeatedly answered the call. Among them was Edwin L. Garris.

He served in the First Gulf War, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. And you might say he was living the dream. Ever since his boyhood, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his four older brothers, who were all members of the military.

In his deployment to the Iraq War, Garris told of how the enemy had taken to fighting unconventionally.

"The vehicle I was in was hit on different occasions by improvised explosive devices. It happened at least twice and we were able to push through. We were in an armored Humvee and that armor saved a lot of soldiers' lives," Garris recalled last year.

Asked if he would deploy a fourth time, he answered without hesitation: "My bag is always packed. I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States."

As I mentioned, his and so many other patriotic stories might never have been told were it not for their families and friends encouraging them to share their experiences with me and other reporters.

But time has taken a toll with the passing of veterans, particularly from WWII, Korea and even Vietnam. We have fewer veterans. In Erie County, their numbers dropped by 28% from 2005 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The News remains committed to highlighting the stories of local veterans, though Saluting Our War Heroes will soon shift from weekly to monthly.

So keep sending us recommendations on veterans to feature at [email protected] or call me at 849-5594.

What I've learned from interviewing hundreds of veterans is that their stories help us all understand the sacrifices they made.

Mel Szymanski of Lancaster flew 28 missions during his time in the Air Force while serving in Korea, and documented every one them right after each bombing run.

Like a meticulously kept diary, Szymanski "penciled in" details of the mission in blue or black ink and supplemented the narrative with photographs and maps, which he has kept in a binder for nearly seven decades.

"I kept notes after each mission," the 88-year-old veteran recalled recently at his dining room table inside a neat, yellow ranch house on a modest street lined with old oak trees.

"Each time we flew a mission, I penciled it in, the location, the date and the target as we went along. This was not something I did at the end. I had notes all the way through everything," Szymanski added.

Szymanski confessed to having no idea why he was compelled to document everything, but it appears to comport with his basic character, even today.

*******

Name: Mel Szymanski

Birth date: Aug. 17, 1930

Hometown and residence: Lancaster

Branch: Air Force and Air Force Reserves

Unit: 343rd Bomb Wing Squadron

Occupation: B-29 aerial gunner

Years of Service: 1951 - 1955

Rank: Airman First Class/ Staff Sergeant

Medals: Air Medal; Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Medal; Korean Service Medal; U.N. Service Medal; Republic of Korea Medal; New York State Conspicuous Service Cross; New York State Conspicuous Service Star; Gunner's Wing; Air Crew Member Wing.

*******

Born in Depew – "in a house, not a hospital," he stressed – Szymanski did not harbor dreams of flying an airplane while growing up. Still, the 1948 Depew High School graduate made the choice to enlist in the Air Force at the start of the Korean War.

"See, the Air Force did not draft. The other three branches were drafting at that time ... including the Navy and the Marine Corps. And I wanted to be in the Air Force," Szymanski recalled.

After his eight weeks of basic training at Sampson Air Force Base, near Seneca Lake, south of Geneva, Szymanski was transferred to Lowery Air Force Base in Denver, Colo., in May 1951, where he initially trained to repair arsenals on B-29 planes but wound up becoming an aerial gunner aboard one instead.

"It was great," he said. "I think I would have been very bored with my service time if I didn't fly. When you flew, you didn't know what you had to do during the day. You could wake up here and have dinner across the country, or stay there overnight or for a couple of days."

Szymanski's first mission on Aug. 18, 1952, the day after his 22nd birthday, was among his most memorable – and dangerous. He and his crew took off in stormy weather at 9:20 p.m., headed for Nakwon, North Korea. About 5 miles from their target, they ran into intense anti-aircraft fire, which he meticulously documented hours after the mission.

The bomber plane took a direct hit to one of its engines, which lost all of its oil. The plane took more hits to its left engines and suffered damage to the fuselage. Upon returning to base, while over the Sea of Japan, the crew checked the bomb bays and discovered five unreleased bombs.

"We were unable to salvo them, so the central fire control gunner went into the bomb bay and stomped on them until they fell," Szymanski wrote at the time.

"It happens once in a while," Szymanski casually recalled almost 67 years later, sitting at his dining room table.

"I had to do that one time. You just hang on and stomp," he said.

On that first mission, his plane was diverted from Yokota Air Base in Japan, because of dense fog, and forced to land 35 miles away at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo with enough fuel for one landing attempt, which Szymanski described as scary. Ultimately, the plane landed safely about 10 hours after the start of the mission. Once they exited the aircraft, they discovered numerous holes and dents in the fuselage.

"One large hole was directly under my seat," Szymanski said. "The plane was not flyable, so we were bused back to Yokota."

None of this gave him pause or caused him any trepidation about subsequent missions, said Szymanski, who was later dubbed "the Polish Ace."

"When you're that young you don't really realize or think about the consequences. I mean, I was there. I did what I was supposed to do and when it was over, I'm still here, and I'm ready for the next one," Szymanski said.

"My whole life I just cross a bridge when I come to it and I don't think about it," he added.

One subsequent mission on Sept. 12, 1952, was especially deadly, when they lost three B-29 bombers during fighting near the infamous MiG Alley, the name given by the United Nations pilots during the Korean War to the northwest portion of North Korea, where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea.

One of the three B-29 bombers was shot down over the Sui-ho power plant and dam in Yalu on the border between North Korea and China. Another suffered flak damage and crashed in South Korea, and the third disappeared without a trace.

"Yeah, we never knew what happened to it," said Szymanski.

During a third memorable mission that took them back to the MiG Alley on Nov. 18, 1952, Szymanski lost two very good friends in battle, who were gunners on another plane.

About MiG Alley, Szymanski said: "You flew anywhere in there, you were in big danger from enemy aircraft, MiG fighters. We flew in there quite a few times."

His tour of duty ended in December 1952. Upon his return to the States, he and his unit were stationed outside of Sacramento, Calif. Then the whole unit was transferred to the air base in Mountain Home, Idaho, about 40 miles from Boise. There they were retrained to be atomic bomb carriers.

Another standout moment for Szymanski was seeing an atomic mushroom cloud.

"On March 17, 1952, my crew took part in an atomic bomb test at 5:20 a.m. at Yucca Flats, Nev. We flew at 20,000 feet altitude about a half-a-mile from ground zero. It was a terrific sight. The colors were very bright from one end of the spectrum to the other. The cloud must have risen 35,000 plus feet. We all wore dosimeters (to measure the radiation) on a cord around our necks, but we were never told how much radiation we were exposed to," he logged in his journal.

Szymanski was discharged from the Air Force on March 19, 1955.

"My four years in active duty – I was one year in the Reserves – was like a high point in my life, to be honest. I don't ever regret being in. I'm proud of being in. It was a good part of my life," he said.

"I don't know that I would ever want to do it again but, at the time, it was great. The fact that I'm still here talking about it made it greater," Szymanski added.

After his service, Szymanski returned to his job as a research analyst at DuPont in Niagara Falls, where he remained for 11 years. He later sold insurance and worked at a chemical plating plant. In 1971, he went to work for Erie County in the Environment and Planning Department, from which he retired after 25 years in 1995.

His wife of 54 years, Barbara, died in 2011. The couple had three daughters and a son. His eldest daughter also died several years ago, Szymanski said.

Aside from his journal and flight logs, the most memorable things from his time in the Air Force was the camaraderie he developed with his fellow gunners, Szymanski said.

You took care of each other. You did everything together. My crew was together for better than three years, basically the same 11 guys all the time," he said, adding that some became lifelong friends.

"The gunners were like brothers. The rest of the crew was more like cousins," he said.

After graduating high school in a small town near the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey, Daniel Figueroa wanted to expand his horizons.

When a buddy suggested they enlist in the Army, Figueroa said he was on board.

“I enlisted the next day, but he didn’t,” said Figueroa, who was 18 at the time. Why his friend put it off, he does not know, but he says he is glad he didn’t wait.

If he’d delayed and gone in with his friend a couple of years later, Figueroa says he might have been wounded with his buddy in Vietnam.

“My friend got pretty banged up with shrapnel,” said Figueroa, who served in Vietnam but was spared battlefield wounds.

His first stop with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was helping quell the Dominican Republic’s civil war in the spring of 1965. He was familiar with the Caribbean, having lived in Puerto Rico until he was 9, when his parents moved to the states.

When his commanding officer realized he could speak Spanish, Figueroa’s bilingual abilities were put to work as an interpreter.

That did not spare him from the hazards of war.

“We were assigned to Santo Domingo to take back the government. We were going house to house searching and I kicked in a door and shot and killed a man who came at me,” Figueroa said.

After three months, he returned to the United States, but not for long.

“On Christmas Eve in 1965 I was in Saigon. It was hot and humid,” Figueroa said. “My mother was worried because my older brother was also in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division.”

Figueroa says he never had the chance to utilize his parachuting skills in Vietnam, but he and other members of the 82nd 1st Cavalry played a role in the aerial side of the war.

“We would send out spotters and then radio in the location of the enemy so that our planes could bomb them,” Figueroa said.

The unit also assisted patrols that came under enemy attack.

“We’d go out when patrols got in trouble. One time I remember that we had to keep on firing our weapons all night just to stay alive,” he said. “We’d gone out too far into a rice paddy and were surrounded by the enemy. The enemy kept coming at us all night. Some of our soldiers were killed.”

At dawn, another unit arrived and pushed back the enemy to allow the pinned down units to escape.

“That showed me what life was all about and I appreciated it more,” he said.

Even though he was in a war zone, Figueroa demonstrated his sense of right from wrong.

“One time when we went into this village, a soldier stole a cow from an old man. I put my rifle in the face of the soldier and told him to give the cow back. He said, ‘But we’re going to have steaks tonight.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not. Give the cow the back. We didn’t come here to steal from people.’ ”

Honorably discharged in 1967, Figueroa worked in Princeton, N.J., for a manufacturer of cameras utilized in the nation’s space program. Two years later, he received word that Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna was hiring.

“I took a chance and drove up on a Friday and by Tuesday I was working at Bethlehem Steel,” he said.

The ambitious war veteran advanced from laborer to crane operator at Bethlehem. In his personal life, he married the former Elba Rivera of Buffalo’s West Side. They would go on to raise three children.

When layoffs hit the steel plant around 1971, Figueroa decided to follow a friend’s advice and move to California, where police departments were hiring Spanish-speaking individuals.

“But there was a knock at my door. It was someone from the Veterans Administration saying that the Buffalo Police Department was looking for bilingual officers. There were no Spanish-speaking officers.

“I took the test and came on first as a peace officer. It was myself, George Melendez and Raul Russi. We were the first Hispanic officers.”

Among his proudest moments as a police officer was when he saved a man who jumped into the Erie Basin Marina in a suicide attempt.

“I jumped into the water and my partner threw me a rope and we got the guy out. The police commissioner gave me a medal for that,” Figueroa said.

Another proud moment happened when he was assigned to a security detail protecting President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, during a Buffalo visit.

“I got separate pictures of myself with the president and with his wife,” Figueroa said.

In 2006, Figueroa retired as a detective sergeant from the homicide squad.

Service in the military and Buffalo Police, he says, has provided him with lots of memories.

“My military experience taught me how to survive,” Figueroa said. “As a police officer, I helped everybody, whether it was a junkie or anyone who needed help. That gave me satisfaction.”

*****

Daniel Figueroa, 74

Hometown: Cidra, Puerto Rico

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Spec. 4

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: Enlisted, 1964 – 1967

Most prominent honors: Vietnam Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Infantry and paratrooper

James R. Heck III of Amherst served two years as an Army officer, but never saw any combat.

The 87-year-old retired Buffalo Public School administrator served in the military during a peaceful period, between the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

For Heck, it was a good time to be in the Army.

Aside from the country being at peace, when Heck arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., it had been a little less than a decade since President Harry S. Truman had desegregated the armed forces. African-American soldiers could serve right alongside their white counterparts.

"I enjoyed my military service. I really did not see any overt prejudice or segregation because Harry Truman made sure of it when he wrote that order. When you get an order from the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, you damn well better obey it. OK?"

Heck said his brother, Rhomie Jr., who is six years older, was not quite so lucky.

"See, my brother was drafted in 1942, I think it was. You had no choice. When you became 18, in his case, automatically, you went in because World War II was on," Heck said.

"My brother fought in a segregated army. I don't think I would have fought in a segregated army, because it's so wrong and so stupid. My brother said the only time he saw white soldiers was when he saw the white officers who were over them in his company. I don't think my temperament would have allowed me to do that," he added.

Heck recalled hearing about his Uncle Harry who voluntarily enlisted in the Army during World War I and served in a segregated unit while stationed in France.

"In France, black soldiers could fight side by side with French soldiers against Germans, but they could not fight side by side with white American soldiers. That doesn't calculate in my head and, if it doesn't, I can't go along with it, I just can't participate in that. I think I would have done a Muhammad Ali," Heck said, referring to the black heavyweight boxing champion who famously refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War in 1967.

"Or, I would have fled to Canada," he added.

Born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1931, Heck was no stranger to segregation. The youngest of four children, he was raised in Suffolk, Va., until he was 11 years old, when his father, a minister, took an assignment at a church in Carlisle, Pa.. Before the move, Heck said his father sat his children down for a talk.

"He said: 'I want you to know something. You're not going from Suffolk, Virginia, to the land of freedom, where black folks are free to do whatever they want.' He said, 'there isn't much difference between Suffolk, Virginia, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania,' and he was absolutely right," Heck recalled.

"I went to a segregated school in Suffolk and I went to a segregated elementary school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The only reason I went to a white high school is because there was only one in town," Heck said.

After graduating from high school, Heck attended West Virginia State College, then a historically black institution.

"At West Virginia (State), you had to spend your freshman and sophomore years in Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC. That was required for male students," Heck said.

"Then, after spending two years in the ROTC, you might as well go ahead do the other two years and graduate with your commission as second lieutenant. You get your second lieutenant bars and your degree at the same time. My degree was in business administration," he said.

After graduating from West Virginia State College in 1955, he was assigned to the 39th Field Artillery Battalion at Fort Benning. Heck was able to enter the Army as a junior officer.

Right before he entered the Army, Heck had married Shirley Johnson of Buffalo, who he had met at West Virginia State.

Heck never served overseas while in the Army. After his discharge in 1957, Heck and his wife settled in Buffalo.

Heck spent two years active duty in the Army Reserves after his discharge.

"I had to serve another 6 years, either in the active reserves or inactive. I chose not to be active, but I could have been called back to war, back to duty, anytime during that six-year period. That was a part of my contract as result of my participation in ROTC and becoming an officer," said Heck.

"That was a good plan, because you had a ready-made Army waiting. All you had to do was reactivate them. A lot of my friends stayed in the active reserves while holding another job," he added.

After a stint operating a grocery store and selling real estate, Heck earned degrees in elementary education from Buffalo State College and began teaching at School 78, before becoming director of school integration for the Buffalo School District in 1972.

During that period, Heck remembered meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader spoke in 1967 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Heck said he believes everyone between the ages of 18 and 25 should be be required to spend some time serving in the military.

"Including the sons of the top 2 percent and 10 percent, or whatever," said Heck.

"There should be no outs for anyone. You shouldn't be able to buy your way out of that service. The reason I feel that way is because that's what you call equality. People of different races, backgrounds, ethnicities get to know each other. It's such a pattern for life. You'd have less racial strife, in my opinion. You would learn discipline. You would learn duty, and you would learn about other people," Heck added.

****

Name: James R. Heck III

Age: 87

Hometown: Suffolk, Va.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: U.S. Army

Rank: First Lieutenant

Assignment: 39th Field Artillery Battalion

Years of service: 1955 to 1957

Wayne Baumgartner enlisted in the U.S. Air Force right out of Kenmore East High School and served his country for nearly eight years.

But he hasn't ever really stopped serving.

Baumgartner, who was a staff sergeant in the Air Force and Vietnam War veteran, has continued his work for the greater good in several capacities in his native Town of Tonawanda.

"We owe it to the country to serve," said Baumgartner, 75, who is the chairman of the Town of Tonawanda's Community Emergency Response Team and a longtime leader of the American Legion Milton J. Brounshidle Post 205 in Kenmore.

Baumgartner joined the Air Force out of high school in July 1961 and worked at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. He joined with two high school friends who "didn't make it six months," he said. Baumgartner largely served as an administrative specialist, including a two-year tour in Germany. He reenlisted early at Niagara Falls in 1965. A year later he was sent to Vietnam.

"Vietnam was just building up around '64-'65, and I went in '66. I didn’t think they needed administrative people over there as much as fighting soldiers, so it was a surprise," Baumgartner said. "I was kind of excited in a way. I wasn’t looking for a way out, I wanted to experience it firsthand, and I don’t regret going."

Baumgartner was based at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, a Republic of Vietnam Air Force base near Saigon in South Vietnam. It was a major base for the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.

His duties involved documenting plane and troop movements in and out of the country. There were 10 Air Force detachments in Vietnam, and each had to account for itself via monthly reports. Sometimes, a detachment wouldn't send their information to the base, and Baumgartner would travel around the country to retrieve the report.

"If they didn't send them in, I'd have to hop on a plane and go get them," he said.

One time that meant a trip to Tay Ninh, a base about 60 miles northwest of Saigon. He was transported on an Army Caribou cargo plane.

"The pilot told me he'd be there 20 minutes, so I told him I could probably run there and run back in five minutes," Baumgartner said. "I get to the building, and I hear them taking off. I was stranded overnight. There wasn't a plane until noon the next day."

There was only a four-person detachment at Tay Ninh. The group decided to head into town.

"We're driving along in our blue Air Force truck, and the side mirror gets shot out," Baumgartner said. "He kept driving like it was a daily thing. It didn't faze them at all, they said it happens all the time. All I had was a 30-caliber revolver with six rounds. That’s all they give you when you leave the base."

•••

Wayne Baumgartner, 75

Hometown: Town of Tonawanda

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Air Force

Rank: Staff sergeant

Specialty: Administrative specialist

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1961-69

Most prominent honors: Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal with one oak leaf cluster (which represents a second award), Republic of Vietnam Medal

•••

Baumgartner is proudest of his Air Force commendation medal, awarded to members of the Air Force who distinguish themselves by meritorious achievement and service.

Because he reenlisted early, his service amounted to less than eight years. He served seven years, seven months and seven days.

"I wouldn’t change it for the world," Baumgartner said of his military career. "Military people are a different breed. They have your back, all the time. It could be a stranger you don’t know, but if you need something, bingo, you’ve got it."

After his military service, Baumgartner worked two years as a steamfitter apprentice before working for J.C. Penney in the Boulevard Mall for 35 years, retiring as a maintenance stock manager. He and his wife of 57 years, Sandra, raised two daughters and three sons, including two who followed their father into public service: David, a recently retired Town of Tonawanda police captain, and Michael, the supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda's paramedics.

Throughout his post-military career and his retirement, Baumgartner has been active in the community. He is a 50-year member at Brounshidle Post, where he served as commander. He has been involved in post fundraisers, including efforts to provide Christmas gifts to needy veteran families.

As the chairman of the Town of Tonawanda's community emergency response team program, Baumgartner heads the initiative that has educated 500 residents about disaster preparedness and trains them in basic disaster response, including skills in fire safety, search and rescue and extrication. The program has 137 active members.

"We train people to take care of themselves, and each other," said Baumgartner, who also organizes the annual charity hockey game between the town's police and firemen.

Baumgartner's two paths of service came together this summer when he was honored by State Sen. Chris Jacobs as part of the Veteran of the Month program. He was told there would be a group picture during the event and to bring some of his formal military wear.

"We were having a legion family picnic, and I'm running it, making all of this food, and someone says change for the picture," he said. "I walk out there, the senator is there, my family and everyone. It was quite a surprise."

James T. Kelley Sr. has a warm smile that quickly turns to laughter.

It is a character trait that appears to have served Kelley well throughout his 93 years and, including his two years in the Navy during World War II and 1 1/2 years in the Navy during the Korean War.

"I just liked the Navy — the water, the boat, the camaraderie," Kelley explained.

A lifelong South Buffalonian, Kelley attributes his affinity for most things marine-related to having grown up near Buffalo Creek and not far from the Buffalo River. In fact, he was ready to enlist in the Marines soon after the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941. The problem was, he was only 16.

"The neighborhood guys were all looking to join and did, but my dad was adamant that I finish high school first," said Kelley.

After graduating high school in 1943, Kelley went to work for Worthington Pump on Roberts Avenue off Clinton Street, until he was drafted the following year. He and a few other guys from his neighborhood went downtown to the U.S. Post Office on Ellicott Street, determined to enlist in the Marines.

Unfortunately, the Marine recruiters informed Kelley that they had already filled their quota of volunteers. So he went to another line and a Navy recruiter approached him.

“The officer says to me, ‘I hear you want to be a Marine.’ I told him all about how I grew up near the Buffalo Creek and in the river. So I said, ‘If I had my druthers, I’d rather be in the Navy.’ He took me down, put me in line and said, ‘Put this lad in the Navy' and, bingo, I was in,” Kelley cheerfully recalled.

Kelley said it was a bittersweet moment seeing his high school sweetheart and future wife, Rose Marie Esposito, and her father in the distance from a train window as he rolled off to his new adventure.

"We were leaving from the depot down in lower Main Street, and the train ran by my father-in-law's outdoor market, and they were out there waving to me when I was going to boot camp," Kelley said.

After his training as a Navy electrician, Kelley wound up as a gunner aboard a small warship sailing with much larger destroyers in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Japan. He said his most tense moment of combat was firing at an enemy plane that seemed determined not to go down.

"It was zeroing in on our ship, and I could see the tracer bullets from the gunfire. There was a period of time there where I wondered, why doesn't it fall? Why doesn't it stop?" said Kelley.

Both exhilarated and scared, he watched as the plane flew closer towards the ship. Though only minutes had passed, it seemed like an eternity before it fell.

"Eventually, about one or two football fields away, boom! It was in the ocean," Kelley recalled.

Kelley returned to the States and was discharged in 1946. He married Esposito the following year. They had two children, a girl and a boy, before the Navy recalled him, much to his wife's chagrin.

This time, Kelley ended up spending most of his time in Europe and at ports in the United States.

“It was like a vacation, that year-and-a-half,” he said.

“Oh, I went to Cherbourg, France. I ended up in Paris, down to Portugal and got up to see — what’s the shrine there? — Our Lady of Fatima,” said Kelley. “Why the ship went there or why it went to Cherbourg, I have no idea.”

When his tour was up, the ship's commander tried to talk Kelley into signing up for another four years in the Navy.

"I liked the service. My wife changed my mind. 'You come home,' she told me," Kelley said.

Kelley went to work for the Buffalo Fire Department and the couple had two more daughters.

Kelley also moonlighted as a counselor for the Father Baker orphanage in Lackawanna. He retired from the fire department in 1983 after 27 years. He also worked for the New York State Office of General Services. But he still found time for recreational sports.

“I love to play ball, softball. I played a lot of softball. Up until I was 50, I played three nights a week. I played for different taverns,” Kelley said.

A catcher, Kelley was inducted into the Western New York Softball Hall of Fame in 1983.

He and his wife were married 69 years until her death in April 2017. Kelley's son, veteran Buffalo News sportswriter Jim Kelley, died in 2010.

He is still cherished and doted on by his three daughters, Cathy Dengler, Carol Murphy and Karen Heck, six grandchildren and several great- grandchildren.

"I've been very fortunate in my life," Kelley said.

• • • • •

James T. Kelley Sr., 93

Hometown: South Buffalo

Residence: South Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Electrician Mate 2nd Class

War zone: Pacific in WWII, Europe during Korean War

Years of service: 1944 - 1946, 1951 - 1953

Most prominent honors: Silver Star

The Battle of Soui Tre was one of the most intense, one-day battles fought in Vietnam.

It started in the early morning hours of March 21, 1967, as a search and destroy mission by U.S. military forces in the Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam.

Eugene Hackemer, of Angola, was 18 years old, having enlisted in the Army only a few months earlier, after dropping out of Lake Shore High School. Hackemer was now a member of a mechanized infantry unit that was mainly charged with repairing and maintaining armored personnel carriers.

While Hackemer was back at the base, a night patrol operating outside the defensive perimeter reported waves of Viet Cong infantry firing off weapons.

"One of our artillery units was getting overrun...and we were called out about maybe 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning, to help," Hackemer recalled. "They needed a lot of help there."

Despite the U.S. forces having several 105-caliber howitzers pointed directly at the enemy, the Viet Cong just kept coming, Hackemer said.

"They were just coming from everywhere, they said. And they were kind of hollering all over the radio. So it was kind of bothering us guys that we couldn't get there quick enough. Then we ran into an armored outfit and we were stuck in the woods. We had to get around them, their tanks, and they were having a hell of a time getting through the woods," said Hackemer.

"When we broke the wood line, which was about, maybe, an hour later from where their position was, man, they were everywhere. They had jets already called in, helicopters coming in. There were gunships," he added.

The American forces eventually overtook the enemy and claimed nearly 650 Viet Cong casualties. Thirty-six U.S. servicemen were killed in the battle and 190 were wounded.

Though combat was all around him throughout his time in Vietnam, the Battle of Soui Tre was the most memorable event, Hackemer said.

"It made the newspapers," he said of the battle. "It stayed with me for a long time."

Hackemer said his early days upon returning to the United States also stuck with him.

"Afterwards, when we came home I was stationed in Fort Meade, Md., where they sent us to Washington, D.C., during the riots. Being back from Vietnam and seeing all this was horrifying," he said.

Hackemer met his wife, Barbara, at Fort Meade. They were married in 1968.

"We had two little girls. One's 49 years old now. She was born on my birthday, so that was kind of cool," said Hackemer. "My other daughter was born with a cranium bifida and she has passed away since then. She had a lot of problems."

Hackemer thinks his exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange may have contributed to his daughter having been born with the condition. He believes the herbicide may also have been responsible for his own health battles.

"I had a heart attack already about five years ago and they believe it was from Agent Orange. It was the same kind of heart attacks that a lot of veterans were having after they came back from Vietnam. So I get a little bit of a pension from them for that. I have post-traumatic stress. I get that. Yeah, it was quite an experience being in the military," Hackemer said.

After 28 years in the track maintenance division of South Buffalo Railway, Hackemer is retired.

"I've been retired for about 20 years now. I got off when I was about 48 years old. I'm 69 now," Hackemer said.

Much of his time since retirement has been spent at the American Legion Post 928 in Derby, where he served as commander from 2007 to 2014.

"Some guys I met, we all joined the post and started marching with them and going to parades and what not," Hackemer said.

At first he was drawn by the easy camaraderie, which grew into an abiding concern about veteran issues.

"You see (volunteer) firemen who join fire companies. They stay with them forever. And we kind of do the same thing, us guys in the military. We kind of like to stick together. We all talk the same way. We have the same lingo. We still laugh about different things that happened to all of us and we all went through it. It kind of brings back memories. And, yet, you talk to them, seriously – when it got serious – you also knew problems were occurring with some and we could help them, you know," said Hackemer.

As his interest grew, so did his penchant for taking on leadership roles.

"That's what kind of made me go for commander in American Legion in Derby. It was a new building. They were just about bankrupt and I got about seven or eight guys to come along with me, a bunch of volunteers, and we went in and kind took over the whole post and got it on its own feet. Now I'm helping a VFW post for the same reason. They were closed and I got them back open again," Hackemer said.

"I guess you would call it a never-ending battle with helping each other out here," he added.

****

Eugene "Babe" Hackemer, 69

Hometown and residence: Angola

Branch: Army

Rank: SP5

War zone: War Zone C, Vietnam, Battle of Soui Tre

Years of service: Enlisted December 1966 - December 1968

Most prominent honors: Presidential Unit Citation, Army Commendation Medal

Specialty: Mechanized infantry division

In the late 1930s, Stephan H. Lewy and other Jewish kids were once locked in a Berlin synagogue by Nazi soldiers who cut a gas line, leaving the children to die and suffocate. An older boy helped save them.

Fearing for his life, Lewy embarked on a nearly 4,000-mile journey in 1939 after obtaining safe passage on a Kindertransport to France, and eventually a visa to the United States.

He was just one of tens of thousands of German Jews seeking refuge across the Atlantic. But he didn’t realize he’d soon be traveling back to Europe to fight against the Nazis.

“I got a letter from Uncle Sam,” Lewy, now 93, said.

After arriving in New York City, Lewy was drafted and sent across the ocean as an interpreter and interrogator in the U.S. Army’s 6th Armored Division.

He didn’t want to go back. Lewy had been forced out of his Berlin school because he was Jewish. His father, Arthur, had been taken to a concentration camp in 1933.

“We just had to make sure that we stayed alive,” recalled Lewy, during a recent interview at the Montabaur Heights senior living facility in Clarence, where he resides.

Lewy was terrified about returning to Europe in 1944. But he would help liberate the infamous Buchenwald death camp and later be honored as a war hero.

The 6th Armored Division was a personal favorite of Gen. George S. Patton. It landed on Utah Beach in war-ravaged Europe shortly after D-Day, and the Army warned Lewy to be careful. If he was captured as a refugee by a Nazi officer, he would be sent straight to a concentration camp.

“Some of our soldiers, German refugees like myself, were caught in battles. And some of them didn’t make it,” he said. But Lewy was never recognized, and lucky.

His division cut across France, south of Paris. It would eventually cross the Maginot Line into Germany during the late fall of 1944. Lewy’s division fought on the front line amid gunfire and bombings, and he spoke to German prisoners captured by American forces.

It became an art in identification. Lewy was trained to match German insignia to different generals, battles and injuries. By looking at a uniform’s patch, he could provide a brief history on any given soldier.

He would often travel by Jeep, and as the “Super Sixth” division pushed through Germany, soldiers would offer civilians chocolate or cigarettes.

Everything changed when he reached Buchenwald.

Buchenwald, or Konzentrationslager in German, was one of the largest concentration camps in the country, just northwest of Weimar. Lewy’s division was the first to reach it.

“We forced them to bury the people that were killed by the Germans,” Lewy said of the camp's civilians, who claimed they had no idea Jews were being killed in Buchenwald.

Lewy and the rest of the division found emaciated, dying Jewish prisoners. Young Elie Wiesel was there. He would later document the moment in his book, “Night.” Soon after being liberated, Wiesel looked at himself in a mirror. A corpse looked back, he wrote.

“It’s a very difficult situation. Because you are angry, and you want to do something about it,” Lewy said. “And on the other side, they were denying it existed. So it was an internal battle.”

He shipped back to the United States after the war and was reunited with his his stepmother, Johanna, and his father, Arthur, who had escaped a concentration camp after suffering a heart attack in 1933.

Lewy attended Northeastern University, married his love, Frances, and worked for years as an accountant.

But he has never forgotten the bloodshed. And he has never forgotten Buchenwald.

****

Stephan H. Lewy, 93

Hometown: Berlin, Germany

Residence: Clarence

Branch: Army

Rank: Staff Sergeant

War zone: European Theater, World War II

Years of service: 1944-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, French Legion of Honor

Specialty: Interpreter and interrogator

Chuck W. Harvey, 81

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Town of Lockport

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: corporal

War zone: Korean War

Years of service: enlisted, February 1952 - February 1955

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, Korean War Medal

Specialty: infantry, and drum and bugle corps

As they climbed down rope cargo nets on the side of the troop ship, the sergeant barked at the Marines.

“Don’t look down and don’t step on your buddies hands below you.”

Eighteen-year-old Chuck W. Harvey, carrying all of his fighting gear on his back, managed to follow orders and dropped into a landing craft without incident.

He was one of 5,000 Marines arriving on Feb. 5, 1953, at Incheon, South Korea, to fight against the North Koreans and Chinese in the Korean War.

Harvey’s heart was torn.

“Every Marine received advanced combat training, but I played the trumpet and had also received four months of training with a drum and bugle corps. Four or five day before we landed, I was told I was going to be transferred to a front-line outfit.”

As the landing craft motored toward shore, Harvey realized he might never return home to Niagara Falls.

“I had quit Gaskill Junior High School when I was 16 to become a baker at Niagara Fancy Bakery on East Falls Street but it didn’t work out and I went back to school for a short time. I quit school again to join the Marine Corps.”

He remembers what the school principal told him.

“He put his arm around my shoulders and said, ‘You know, Charles, this isn’t what an educator is supposed to say, but I think this is the best selection for you.’ It was comforting to hear that. I was still basically a kid.”

Harvey’s mother, Harriet, had signed the early enlistment papers so he could join at 17.

Once ashore at Incheon, he and the other Marines boarded a northbound train “headed as far as the train could take us to the front lines.”

Then they climbed into northbound trucks covered with green canvas roofs.

On the way, he started talking to another 18 year old, Herbie Moore from Wisconsin. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.

“When we got out of the trucks, we walked and all I could hear was artillery, machine guns and mortars. The mortars were the worst damn things,” Harvey said.

Members of “Item Company,” 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Harvey and Moore climbed a steep hill to their bunker, relying on a rope so that they would not lose their footing in the mud and darkness.

Inside the bunker, Harvey and Moore made friends with other Marines and familiarized themselves with the 3.5 rocket launchers they would be operating.

“We would climb out of the bunker and over the top of the hill and into the trenches on the front lines. We were multi-taskers. We replenished ammo, fired our rocket launchers and repaired our bunkers,” Harvey said of the combat routine.

Daytime was rough, but nighttime was even worse.

“We’d go out on night patrols and it was hard to see.”

That, he said, increased the chances of stepping on less-than-lethal “shoe box mines” intended to blow off a foot or break a leg.

“The enemy knew if they just injured a Marine, three or four others would come to his assistance and do whatever they could.”

The enemy also sought kills with “Bouncing Betty” land mines.

“The shrapnel hit you in the stomach,” Harvey explained. “You were cognizant of these things, but you couldn’t let it interfere with what you had to do.”

There were different types of night patrols.

“In combat patrols, we went out looking for trouble, in reconnaissance patrols we gathered information and we also had listening patrols. You could literally hear the enemy talking,” he said. “We could also smell them sometimes. They ate garlic and smoked opium.”

Occasionally, Harvey said, all was quiet “and you could almost rest and that was a blessing.”

Toward the end of his war duty in July 1953, he recalled catching a break with mess hall duty. But it was short lived. He remembers the night of July 8.

“We had just gone to sack, maybe 11, 11:30, and we could hear our guys firing 4.5 Charlie rockets at the enemy and the rockets were going over our tents. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t good.”

Suddenly somebody ran into the mess hall crew’s tent.

“‘Grab your weapons, we’re going up.’ We boarded the trucks and the road we took was ‘76 Alley.’ That was the weapon the Chinese fired at us and they were accurate.”

One of the guns knocked out the truck in front of Harvey’s and in a flash, he and other Marines leaped into a nearby rice paddy.

“You just react. That’s what adrenaline and training can do.”

They continued on foot.

“A lieutenant took charge and a bunch of us were taken to outposts Berlin and East Berlin. They’d been run over by thousands of Chinese.”

A combination of artillery, mortars and additional troops succeeded in pushing back the enemy, although it was far from safe.

“I was on Outpost Berlin and the word was passed to ‘fix bayonets.’ That’s when everything I had experienced up to 18 years old was going through my head at a billion miles an hour. I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m not going home.’” But Harvey was spared hand-to-hand combat. The Chinese did not return.

Yet Harvey was not out of the woods.

In mid-July 1953, he was back on the front lines.

“We knew the armistice was going to be signed and the position we were holding was the gateway to Seoul and the Chinese wanted to break through it,” Harvey said of a last advance expected by the enemy.

On the night of July 19, he felt the brunt of it while out on patrol.

“In a heartbeat, I thought the world was coming to an end. Several rounds were landing per second. I went flying through the air and my rifle was gone. Shrapnel hit my right leg. I was bleeding from my ears from the force of the concussions,” he said, overcome with tears from that 63-year-old memory. “We managed to crawl into a bunker.”

Eventually, his patrol was rescued.

After recuperating, Harvey received orders to return to his unit on Aug. 2, which was several days after the war had ended.

“I was waiting for a truck to take me and I heard all this racket and I asked someone what was going on. It was the drum and bugle corps practicing. So I got permission and went over to see them. All my buddies in it asked where I’d been.”

Harvey shared his war stories and the corps’ sergeant, whom he knew all the way back to his days at boot camp on Parris Island, asked if he would like to return to the music-making unit.

“I said ‘yes.’ It was about the best thing that could happen to me under the circumstances. There was good food, you could drink beer and watch USO shows.”

And while that may sound like a happy ending, Harvey says he has suffered from post-traumatic stress from his war experiences throughout life.

“I see my behavior specialist at a VA clinic in Lockport and he helps me talk things out,” the 81-year-old bachelor said. “It’s difficult, but it is very comforting.”

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The Rev. Thomas M. Conway survived the Japanese torpedoes that sank the USS Indianapolis in the waning days of World War II, and he and other survivors floated in the Pacific Ocean waiting for rescuers. He died on the third day.

Crewmate Frank J. Lucca also survived the attack, and after four days adrift, he and 315 other survivors were rescued.

The Navy records 883 crew members of the Indianapolis killed in the initial sinking or dying in the days later, waiting for rescue.

Next month, a Hollywood movie will tell the story of the sea disaster, and how naval brass turned the skipper, Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, into a scapegoat. “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” is set to be released on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, starring Nicolas Cage as the captain.

Conway and Lucca are Buffalo’s connections to the story. Father Conway, a Connecticut native and the son of Irish immigrants, served in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese before joining the Navy.

Lucca was from an Italian family on the West Side. After the war, he returned to Buffalo, married and raised a family. He died in 1999, with his three grown children at his bedside, at the age of 73.

Conway is memorialized with a South Buffalo park named after him and records of his military service and sacrifice in the diocesan archives.

Their stories converge on the tragedy of the Indianapolis.

The 610-foot cruiser had been on a secret mission to deliver the final components for the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, when the second bomb hit Nagasaki, the war was over.

But the USS Indianapolis had already been sunk.

Two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck the ship late Sunday night July 30, 1945, in the Philippine Sea. At least 300 crew members were killed immediately. An estimated 900 others, including Conway and Lucca, escaped the ship before it sank 12 minutes later.

Lucca was topside when the torpedoes struck, and he was able to abandon ship as the cruiser quickly sank. He stayed afloat with a life belt, and in the days after, resisted drinking saltwater as the unrelenting sun beat down. Others did not resist, and they paid the consequences.

As survivors bobbed about in the shark-infested waters wearing life jackets and life belts, clinging to debris and sharing the few life rafts floating atop the oil-slickened water, Conway plied about offering hope and prayers to the groups of sailors over three days before his strength gave out.

On Aug. 3, a pilot spotted the survivors, and the rescue operation began.

Frank Lucca

Halfway through his 16th year, Lucca tried to enlist, but the Navy rejected him because he was too skinny. The 5-foot-4 teenager ate pasta and bananas for a year. The Navy liked the results and with parental permission, he set off to sea.

Lucca’s cousin, Fran Lucca, also was in the Navy during World War II, serving aboard the USS Burrows DE 105. The cousins crossed path in August of 1945, 10 days before the Indianapolis sank, but they did not see other.

Fran Lucca, now 91, shared letters with The Buffalo News that he wrote from Pearl Harbor to his parents. They help to tell the Indianapolis’ story.

In one dated July 20, 1945, Fran Lucca wrote:

“As we were pulling into port today, a slick and powerful heavy cruiser zoomed past us very close ... and I looked at the number and guess whose ship it was? None other than Frankie Lucca, Uncle John’s kid. He’s tied up a little way from us and I’ll try to get in touch with him. It sure will be swell seeing him again. Tell Uncle John that I will try.”

Five days later, Fran sent another letter updating his parents: “I tried to contact Frank Lucca. My signalman sent word that I would like to meet him ashore for a couple beers. The return message was ‘Sorry cousin ... will be pulling out within three hours.’ I sure wish I could have seen him.”

After word reached Fran of the Indianapolis’ sinking, he wrote a somber missive dated Aug. 16, 1945:

“I just heard the official word on the tragic end of the Indianapolis, Frank Lucca’s cruiser. Has Uncle John heard any word yet? I guess there are only a couple-hundred survivors out of about 1,200. They say the ship blew up in a million pieces and sank within 15 minutes, so he had one chance in a million to survive. I pray that he is safe.”

Frank Lucca’s son, also named Frank, provided the details of how his father beat the odds.

“He’d been working in the engine room, and when he went up to his bunk to go to bed, it was too hot and he decided to sleep topside. He brought up a blanket and laid underneath one of the big guns. He was there only a few minutes when they were hit. He was on the high side of the ship when the order to ‘abandoned ship’ was given. He had to jump about 90 feet into the water. He was wearing a life belt and floated around on his own for two days until he met up with a group of guys that had a raft.

“The injured were on the raft and the rest were in the water hanging onto it. He told me they would cup their hands and hit the water when the sharks came to scare them away. The real danger wasn’t sharks but drinking the saltwater. He told me he forced himself not to give in and drink it. He was a tough guy.

When he was rescued, he had sores on his body from being in the saltwater. He had trouble with his toenails his whole life from the saltwater because he wasn’t wearing shoes when he jumped.

“You know, I think about what my father experienced at 19 and what I experienced at 19. I was in college drinking beer and chasing women,” he said. “It was pretty wild what he went through.”

An obituary in The Buffalo News filled in additional details of Frank Lucca’s time in the water:

“Lucca was one of the sailors cited for his compassion for fellow crewmen. Members of the crew took turns resting on debris and lifeboats in the water. But Lucca, who was not injured in the attack, stayed in the water, giving up his turns to the injured or just plain worn-out fellow crewmen,” the obituary stated.

Father Conway

Conway was an assistant pastor at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in South Buffalo when the war began. He repeatedly asked Bishop John A. Duffy for permission to join the Navy as a chaplain. Duffy was inundated with requests from other priests wanting to do the same, but he relented when Conway pointed out that he had made his request long before other priests.

Conway’s days of sailing on Lake Erie in his little boat were over.

In Thomas Helms’s book “Ordeal by Sea,” Conway’s ordeal in the aftermath of the sinking is recorded.

“Father Thomas Conway ... burned himself out keeping up a constant patrol among the men, ministering to the dying, talking reason into others who had become momentarily deranged and calming the frightened with prayers until all at once he reached the limit of his endurance and his life drained away.”

A crewmate held Conway’s head above the water and cried out, “He’s dead because of us. He used up his life helping us. He prayed for everybody, not for himself but for me and you and you.”

Only after a prayer was said did the shipmate let go of the chaplain.

“When the prayer was finished, the young sailor slowly and gently removed the jacket and committed Father Conway’s body to the depths,” according to Helms’ book.

Conway’s sacrifice is remembered in different ways in Buffalo.

A park off Ohio Street in the Old First Ward is named after him, and a South Buffalo Veterans of Foreign War post carried his name until 1952 when it closed.

Ten years ago, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, along with other religious and military officials, gathered in Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park at Canalside to unveil a bust of the priest.

Accounts of his military service are found in diocesan archives. A Father William F. Frawley, chaplain at Base Hospital 20 on Peleliu island, told of how a survivor from the Indianapolis crew member told him that Conway had once spent his leave visiting the homes of nine sailors who had been killed when a Kamikaze plane struck the ship near Okinawa.

That attack resulted in the Indianapolis returning to the states for repairs, before it sailed off on its secret mission to deliver parts for the atom bomb.

Another item in the archive is a 1955 Saturday Evening Post article written by Navy Medical Corps Capt. Lewis Haynes, who recalled the chaplain’s devotion when all seemed lost:

“... All thoughts of rescue are gone and our twisted reasoning has come to accept this as our life until the end is reached. A life with nothing but the sky, a shimmering horizon and endless wastes of water. Beyond this we dare not imagine. But we have not lost everything. To the contrary, we have found one comfort, a strong belief to which we cling. God seems very close. Much of our feeling is strengthened by the chaplain, who moves from one group to another to pray with the men.

“The chaplain, a priest, is not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seem to have no limit. I wonder about him, for the night is particularly difficult and most of us suffer from chills, fever and delirium.”

Father Conway died on the night of Aug. 2, 1945, when his strength finally ebbed.

email: [email protected]

-----

Rev. Thomas M. Conway, 37

Hometown: Waterbury, Conn.

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: lieutenant

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater, died in the days after the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed

Years of service: enlisted 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Buffalo park and Veterans of Foreign War post named in his honor

Specialty: chaplain

Frank J. Lucca, 73

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Mentor, Ohio

Branch: Navy

Rank: F-1

War Zone: World War II, Pacific Theater, survived the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis

Years of Service: enlisted 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: fireman

Norman Blatner

Hometown: Buffalo

Last residence: Getzville

Branch: Army

War zone: Germany

Dates of service: 1943-45

Rank: Corporal

Prominent honors: Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal

Specialty: Infantry

By Michelle Kearns

News Staff Reporter

The honor came too late for Norman Blatner, who no doubt would have been embarrassed by the attention.

But for his family, perhaps more important than his war medals, was the public telling of the story of how he may have been spared from death in a prison camp because of a German soldier’s connection to the Blatner family grocery on Greenfield Street in Buffalo.

Last week, about 30 family and friends were present for the posthumous awarding of his war medals at the North Tonawanda Council chambers. Congressman Brian Higgins helped arrange for the ceremony.

Norm Blatner, the youngest of his three sons, remembered how his father, a man with a booming voice and a knack for making people laugh, was reluctant to talk about the war or receive recognition.

The elder Blatner would threaten to walk out if someone in the family tried to get a news reporter to talk to him.

“He was not one for fanfare,” the son said. “We tried to do this when he was alive.”

Norman Blatner died a little more than a year ago, at the age of 97.

But his family, with the help of Higgins, shared his story.

Blatner was a young father and gas station worker when he was drafted into the Army on Dec. 20, 1943.

The next year, he was captured during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

As a prisoner, Blatner spent some of the winter at Stalag 2a that held 25,000 prisoners in northern Germany. Captives worked every day, and food was hard to come by.

But for Blatner, things changed after a guard asked if he was related to the Buffalo Blatners who ran a grocery on Greenfield Street.

They were his aunt and uncle, he replied. They were also German-Americans and friends with the German guard’s Buffalo aunt and uncle.

The German soldier had visited them in Buffalo before the war.

“The two never spoke again,” Brian Higgins said of Blatner and the guard.

But Blatner was soon transferred to a prison farm where meals of potato skin soup and grass sustained him until the war ended.

“God bless that guy for doing what he did,” Blatner’s nephew Bob Gugino, 82, said of the prison guard.

In June 1945, Blatner returned home to his wife, Theresa. They were married for 71 years. She died in June.

About two years after the war, Blatner opened one of the city’s larger Texaco stations at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Best Street, where he employed family, including Gugino.

“He never liked to talk too much about it. You had to catch him off guard,” Gugino said of his uncle and World War II.

Last week’s recognition was cathartic.

“You have a sad feeling in your heart,” he said. “I’m happy to be bringing it out.”

Norman Blatner didn’t say much to his granddaughter Maria Blatner either, but his story inspired her.

Her grandfather, who did not graduate from high school, told his grandchildren to go to college and avoid military service that could lead to war.

“He didn’t really want us to join,” said Blatner, 21, now studying medical anthropology at SUNY Geneseo. “I always knew it was by chance that he got out … I was so proud.”

Her father, Norm, the son born after the war, said he plans to put the nine medals, including Bronze Star, and badges in a shadow box for people in the family to take turns keeping at their houses.

At the end of the ceremony, Norm Blatner felt humbled. This commemoration of his father, he said, was the best kind of Christmas present.

“It adds more meaning to his life than we ever thought,” he said.

email: [email protected]

A former Buffalo City Court judge and lawyer for the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Paul Volcy recalls that he was hungry for adventure at 18 years old.

He had completed one semester at the University of Puerto Rico, but studies, he said, just weren’t providing enough satisfaction for the young man who, two years earlier, had moved with his family from the rough and tumble of the South Bronx to Puerto Rico, his mother’s homeland.

“I had spent a few days in the island’s rainforest, El Yunque, and I realized I could function very well there. So I decided to join the Army and go to Vietnam, and I eventually ended up in the Vietnamese rainforest,” Volcy said.

But before heading to Southeast Asia, Volcy’s ability to speak English and Spanish attracted the attention of military brass, and he was sent to a Vietnamese language school in El Paso, Texas.

“I was there three or four months and learned to speak rudimentary Vietnamese,” he said, adding that he had also successfully attended officer candidate school.

He arrived in Vietnam as a first lieutenant in January 1969 and worked at headquarters in Saigon, serving as a liaison with members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Soon promoted to captain, he was reassigned to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Advisory Team 7, which worked with a South Vietnamese infantry division along the Cambodian border.

“I was a troubleshooter and scrounge for the colonel in charge of the team. If we were short of supplies, then I would go to Saigon and find the right Americans in the supply system and convince them to make a special allocation,” Volcy said.

When asked how he managed to persuade the rear echelon bureaucrats to open the supply kitty, he said he had discovered their weakness for battlefield souvenirs, which, of course, they did not have direct access to.

“On my way to Saigon, there was this village, and I would have some of the villagers manufacture Viet Cong flags, and then I would say to the supply people, ‘Look, we got these flags from dead VC after a firefight. Do you want them?’ Often a flag or two would do it, and we’d get the supplies we needed.”

Sometimes, it was bandages for the team’s South Vietnamese counterparts; other times the supplies were as simple as pens and paper so that American soldiers could take notes during briefings or write home to their loved ones.

“Once I went shopping for a jeep, but I needed three North Vietnamese SKS rifles and could only get two,” Volcy recalled.

And though his duties often took him outside harm’s way, he was by no means spared the deadly realities of war.

“I would go out with a company-level advisory team. A lot of times it was into the jungles, other times rice paddy country, and we’d encounter ambush situations or sniper fire, and then there were the booby traps. We didn’t go out often after dark because [the Viet Cong] owned the night,” Volcy said.

There was also the occasional mortar and rocket fire the enemy showered on U.S. encampments.

At times out in the field, Volcy was able to put his Vietnamese language skills to work. “If we encountered local inhabitants, I would ask them if they had seen the enemy, but I never got anything of consequence, and I realized we had others with much better language skills. All of the interpreters that I ran into were Vietnamese. They were excellent.”

At the end of his yearlong tour, he was awarded the Bronze Star and soon completed his military service.

His appetite for adventure more than satisfied, he returned to the University of Puerto Rico and earned his bachelor’s degree. A year later, in 1974, he began his education to become a lawyer at the University at Buffalo Law School.

After graduation, he began practicing law in Buffalo and would soon meet his wife to be, Susan Grace Stocks, a Buffalo special-education teacher who had moved here from Greenville, N.C., and the daughter of a mother and father who had both served in the Navy during World War II.

The Volcys raised a daughter, Suzanne, who works as a mental health counselor.

About a decade ago, then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello appointed Volcy a City Court judge, a position he held until he ran for office and lost. Prior to that, he worked in the Buffalo Corporation Counsel’s Office for five years and then spent two years in the Attorney General’s Office.

After the election, he returned to the Attorney General’s Office, where he litigated civil cases and ultimately retired from that position last December.

When asked how he fills his days, he said, “I’m reading a lot and spending a lot of time with my wife.”

One of his goals, he says, is to put aside the memories of Vietnam.

It has proved impossible.

“I think about it every day.”

Today is a special day for Ralph E. Januale.

Not only is the 85-year-old World War II veteran happy to be alive and celebrating another Veterans Day, but he is especially grateful that in a matter of weeks, most of America's military will be out of Iraq.

A recipient of the Bronze Star who took six German soldiers prisoner, he looks forward to displaying the American flag outside his Depew home every Veterans Day.

"We had something to do, and I was there. I once caught a glimpse of Gen. George Patton. We called him 'Old Blood and Guts.' Our blood and his guts," said Januale, who was quick to add, "I'm no hero."

His self-effacing attitude is typical of those who belong to the Greatest Generation, who sacrificed everything to protect America and are reluctant to say much about it. Now halfway through his ninth decade of life, Januale -- who survived the Battle of the Bulge -- knows he is one of the lucky ones to still be alive.

Veterans born of that time rarely talked to their families about their war experiences. Some families learn of what their loved ones had endured by reading through papers and letters only after the veterans had died.

Some had regrets about killing. Some had nightmares.

And while old warriors are generally reluctant to publicly share their memories, rarely does a day go by when The Buffalo News does not receive an email, phone call or handwritten letter suggesting that one of them be recognized in the newspaper's weekly feature "Saluting Our War Heroes."

The names of the honorees come from relatives and friends who have personally heard about their patriotism. Telling those stories, according to loved ones of the living and deceased vets, can be an inspiration, especially for members of younger generations who might not realize the steep price of freedom.

Take Donna Koch Winnick of East Amherst, for example.

She wrote The News telling how the memory of her deceased father lives on in her.

When he was 75, World War II veteran Donald R. Koch had recalled his service as a navigator aboard the B-29 Superfortress.

"Donna," Koch said, "I've killed so many people."

She was shocked to hear her father speak of a chapter in his life he had kept secret.

"But Dad, we were attacked," Winnick responded. "You were just following orders and defending our country."

Tears formed in his eyes, she recalled, as her father looked down.

"I guess you're right," he said.

Two months later, on July 16, 1998, he died.

"Like so many other veterans from the Greatest Generation, he had buried his emotions after valiantly serving his country in a horrific yet necessary war," Winnick said.

Just this summer, she and another relative discovered a trunk her father had stored in his son's garage.

"It contains over 100 items, including a 502nd Squadron bulletin published in 1945 praising my father's crew for 'nine consecutive perfect bombing missions' over the Japanese islands," Winnick said.

"This trunk has revealed a time in my father's life that he was so reluctant to share. I just wish he was still with us, so I could ask him about each of these treasures."

Another of the unsung heroes is William L. Yuhas, who earned the Army's second-highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, for combat in World War II with an anti-tank crew.

As with many of the soldiers who served in the mosquito-infested jungles of the Pacific, he came down with malaria during his four years of service and for a decade after the war suffered from the disease.

Although he died in 2002, arrangements were finally completed late last summer, and his remains were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery.

His war story begins with the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. He had been stationed there when the attack occurred Dec. 7, 1941. Yuhas fought in numerous battles, including Guadalcanal and the Northern Solomon Islands.

"He was shipped right away to the Philippines. He served for 39 months without coming home," said his 88-year-old widow, Ethel L. Yuhas, a retired Grand Island teacher and former Kenmore resident.

On Dec. 18, 1943, in a battle on the Solomons, Yuhas noticed a wounded soldier on a shoreline and crossed through heavy enemy fire to rescue him.

He pulled him into the water and floated him to safety. Other soldiers watched the courageous act unfold, and that enflamed their fighting spirit "to repel the enemy," according to the citation that came with the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to Yuhas.

When Ellie Yuhas visited her late uncle's home, she was amazed to see the "memorial" set up in his honor.

"It had all his medals. I was overwhelmed to discover the extent of his contributions. Few of us knew of his service to America and his many awards -- the Distinguished Service Cross, the Combat Infantry Badge and three Bronze Stars," Ellie Yuhas said.

Even the heroism of those who served in World War I is still sometimes remembered by folks who contact the newspaper.

Marge Davis, 93, of West Seneca, recalls with pride two letters she found after her father-in-law, Harry McBride, a lifelong Buffalo resident, died in 1973.

The first letter comes from the commander of the Army's 78th Division, Major Gen. J.H. McRae, dated May 30, 1919, thanking troops for their fearless service. The second and more touching was written in 1925 by one of McBride's comrades.

"Dear Harry, Sorry it's taken all these years to get around to writing you. I want to tell you right now that I have only to close my eyes and I can see your own good self along with Schlicher, Coppola and Dullote coming out from Chevriers [France] on that miserable morning of October 10th.

"I knew you were coming for me for I was the only one there aside from our poor old friend Ervin who was called upon to make the great price. There you come out step by step and I felt every minute would be your last, Harry, for I had already twice attempted to come into the village, but they machined me back each time. Hence [I] did not feel you boys had a chance in the world."

The words belong to Ben Danford, who recalled how he tried to motion McBride and the others to return to safety.

"But no, you all had that supreme something in you which would not permit you to place your own personal safety above the rescue of a fallen buddy. It is mighty hard for me to tell you how much I value your task that day in my behalf. Words are so weak to express one's appreciation of what might have been such a sacrifice as far as you four boys were concerned."

Danford's letter had a lasting impact on Davis regarding her father-in-law.

"In all the time we had known this special man, he had never spoken of this event to any of us. It was only after his death that I came across this tribute to this special person he was," Davis said.

His example of selflessness, she says, can serve as "a beacon of all the good in man."

And today, perhaps more than on other days, the example of McBride and the many others like him will shine even brighter, as the nation pauses to offer its thanks to veterans.

That is certainly the case for West Seneca resident Frank Calieri.

He wrote The News to tell of "three incredible men" -- his mother's brothers, Harold Wohlfeil Jr., an Army vet; Richard Wohlfeil, who served in the Army Air Forces; and Raymond Wohlfeil, a Navy veteran.

"How incredible it is to me to have these three men in my life to have as benchmarks and life mentors. Each of them served their country, came home and built wonderful families and have all been married 50 years or more," said Calieri, who is married and has three young children.

As for Army veteran Januale, his public service continued long after World War II, serving for 33 years in the Buffalo Police Department and retiring as a captain at the Hertel Avenue Station in 1986.

Explaining that he has arrived at what is probably the "last hurrah" in his long life, Januale said he will gaze at the American flag on his house today and give thanks for the U.S. troops in Iraq who will soon be coming home.

If his own experiences of serving in war have taught him anything, he says, it is that there is no place like home.

"Everybody wants to be home," he said. "It is there that you have friends and safety."

email: [email protected]

Editor's Note: Richard F. Cotter died Thursday, before this story in the Saluting Our War Heroes series could be published.

***

Richard F. Cotter had three older brothers already serving in the Army Air Forces in World War II when he gave his father an ultimatum.

Either Edward M. Cotter would sign papers to allow him to join up with the Merchant Marine early or Richard would run away from home.

It was a big demand coming from a 16-year-old ablaze with patriotic fervor, but his firefighter father agreed, and his youngest son was off to become part of the wartime world.

When he boarded his first supply ship, the SS Sparrows Point, Cotter informed the first mate that he lacked proper gear: a knife, a flashlight and a life preserver.

"The first mate told me, 'Don't worry, you won't need a life preserver. You're going to need a parachute because that's where you'll be going,' " Cotter recalled.

There was good reason for the first mate's aerial allusion. The Merchant Marine often delivered high-test gasoline for warplanes and boats.

"We transported 165,000 barrels of this fuel per boatload," Cotter said.

And during his maiden voyage to England, Cotter found out just how dangerous it was to be in the Merchant Marine.

"I happened to be on deck watching as a German submarine came up beside us. An American destroyer came behind the sub and shot its tower off, and I watched it sink," Cotter said. "I pray for those German sailors every day. They never had a chance."

He also gives thanks that he and his shipmates were spared.

After that first fuel delivery, Cotter and his mates picked up another load of fuel from Aruba in the Caribbean Sea and then passed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific.

"We went to the Philippines and built a dock at one of the islands for a gasoline station to fuel PT boats. A PT captain who was a brother of one of those I was with in the Merchant Marine asked if any of us wanted to go up to Manila.

"I volunteered, and as we went into the harbor, a Japanese troop ship had just been sunk, and the bodies of Japanese soldiers were floating all over the harbor. The captain maneuvered his boat through the bodies. He had great respect for the bodies," Cotter said.

When the war ended, he returned home to Buffalo for a vacation, intending to make a career out of the Merchant Marine. Romance intervened. He met Kathleen O'Donnell and promptly tossed overboard his plans for a life on the high seas.

"I met my sweetie, and we've been married 64 years," Cotter said.

To support his wife and the six children, he enlisted in another form of public service, the Buffalo Police Department, where he worked for 23 years, retiring as a detective sergeant.

Cotter then worked for 20 more years in private security in downtown Buffalo and elsewhere.

If the name Cotter sounds familiar, its because the Buffalo Fire Department's fireboat is named for Richard's father, Edward M. Cotter. His father established Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing city firefighters.

Richard's son Edward M. Cotter, namesake of his grandfather, is a Buffalo police detective.

Two other sons also are in police work, West Seneca Lt. Richard F. Cotter Jr. and Erie County Sheriff's Deputy Brian J. Cotter.

As for his wartime service, Cotter said he took pride in knowing that Congress in 1993 designated anyone who served in the Merchant Marine in World War II as a veteran of that war.

"We deserved it," he said.

***

Richard F. Cotter, 83

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Merchant Marine

Rank: Engineer 2nd Class

War zones: Atlantic, Pacific

Years of service: 1944-45

Most prominent honors: Atlantic War Zone Medal, Pacific War Zone Medal, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Medal, combat bar with two stars, Victory Medal

Specialty: Engine room

They put themselves in harm's way and fought to defend our freedoms. There are hundreds of veterans in Western New York, and in this new feature, "Saluting Our War Heroes," every Monday, we will tell their stories of war and of life after they returned home.

The idea of taking a train ride through the Italian countryside might sound like an inviting escape from everyday life, but not for 87-year-old Edward P. Feigenbaum.

Sixty-six years ago, he was a prisoner of war who managed to escape from a train the Germans were using to transport him and other Army Rangers who had surrendered at the Battle of Anzio, which began in January 1944.

Inside the boxcar, Feigenbaum said, he and a buddy, Frank Duffy of New York City, found that some of the sideboards were rotting, so they pried the boards loose. After a couple of train stops, the two were able to open up a hole big enough to squeeze through and drop to the ground.

"The train was moving about 20 miles an hour when we escaped. For a week after that, I was picking cinders from my skin," he said of slamming onto the gravelly rail bed.

Other soldiers in the crammed boxcar did not join in the escape, Feigenbaum recalled, because the cold February weather might have been too harsh to survive.

Those soldiers ended up spending the next 1 1/2 years in German prison camps, while Feigenbaum and Duffy joined up with the Italian Resistance and continued to take the battle to the occupying Germans.

Feigenbaum says he had plenty of motivation to fight.

When he was captured outside Anzio, he said he and other POWs were taken to Rome, where they were marched through the streets to face the scorn of civilians.

"They paraded us for propaganda purposes. They lined us up at the Colosseum, then marched us. They took pictures of us," Feigenbaum said. "The young punks threw stones at us and spit on us. It was terrible."

As members of the Resistance for 5 1/2 months, he and Duffy participated in attacks on German outposts and hid in mountainous terrain between raids. Instead of using a submachine gun as he had with the Rangers, Feigenbaum was given a rifle and said he made the most of it. He also took lives with his bare hands.

"We strangled some, and we shot others," he said. "Everything like that is tough."

By the middle of June 1944, Feigenbaum and Duffy were able to return to the Rangers.

"We crossed the lines and rejoined the Americans," he said. "We were debriefed and later sent back to the States."

Long retired from companies long gone from Niagara Falls and living beside a creek in the Town of Wilson, the combat veteran flies an American flag on the front lawn of his home every day and takes heart in his service to the country.

But even more than that, Feigenbaum says, is the fact that his son has followed in his footsteps.

Army Lt. Col. Edward P. Feigenbaum II currently serves in Texas and has seen action overseas, including in the Iraq War.

"He's a real soldier," the father says. "He's my pride and joy."

***

• Hometown: Niagara Falls

• Residence: Wilson

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Corporal

• Areas of combat: Africa, Italy

• Years of service: Enlisted 1942, honorably discharged 1945

• Most prominent medal: Bronze Star

• Branch: Special Operations; a member of Darby's Rangers

***

Tuesday: Our ninth new feature for "30 in 30" is "Where Are They Now?" This occasional series will bring you up to date on Western New York sports heroes you may have watched as a kid, or heard about from your grandparents.

Eighty-seven-year-old Frank Mooney may be known to many as the "mayor of Coca-Cola Field" for his schmoozing with ballpark fans, but there's another side to him that dates from Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur keeping his promise of "I shall return" to citizens of the Philippines.

Mooney served as a Navy frogman in Special Operations, which later became the Navy SEALs. In the Pacific during World War II, he and his fellow frogmen had the unenviable job of clearing underwater obstacles, such as mines and concrete pyramids with protruding steel rods to puncture landing craft.

"We had fins, swimming trunks, a sheath knife and goggles; no fancy underwater suits. We also wore a belt with mine detonators and we towed other explosives on a rope to be used in the destruction of the obstacles," Mooney said. "Sometimes we put grease on our bodies because the water was so cold."

Mooney, a member of Underwater Demolition Team 11, got to know the shoreline waters of numerous Pacific islands from 1943 to 1945, when he and his fellow frogmen carried out countless missions.

Among the islands, now in the pages of history, were Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, to name just several where Mooney and his fellow frog men blew up the submerged obstacles planted by the Japanese.

In performing their job, there were always worries about sharks and mines.

"Fortunately, in my unit, only one guy out of 80 was killed by a mine," he said. "If there was a school of sharks, the ship we were on would throw over a lot of meat to attract them away from us before we would swim."

The work of the frogmen paved the way for troops from the Army and Marines to land safely with their vehicles and supplies.

Frogmen often swam a total of three miles on each mission.

"We were in good shape -- no smoking, drinking or women," Mooney said, with a bit of a mischievous chuckle.

During preparations for the invasion of Okinawa, Mooney said, he had "the honor" of being in the same boat with famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle shorty before he was killed in action.

"Just before we went into the water, he watched us receive Holy Communion. It was Easter Sunday 1945," Mooney said. Seventeen days later, Pyle was dead.

Another major moment for Mooney occurred when he and three other frogmen cleared the shore waters for MacArthur's famous return to the Philippines.

"We cleared Leyte Gulf. He'd said 'I shall return,' and that's what he did. I was about 25 yards from him when he came ashore. It was quite an honor to be there and welcome him.

"He said, 'What . . . are you guys doing here?' and we said, 'We're clearing the beach for you, general.' Then we were ushered away. He had all his staff with him."

Mooney also cleared Tokyo Bay for an invasion that never happened because of the Japanese surrender prompted by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These days, Mooney, a Ford stamping plant retiree, is in the midst of his 26th year of a second career as an account executive selling season and group ticket packages for the Buffalo Bisons, where he has come to be known as the "mayor of Coca-Cola Field."

***

Frank Mooney, 87

Hometown: Plymouth, Pa.

Residence: Angola

Branch: Navy

Rank: Chief machinist's mate

Served: World War II

Combat zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-46

Most prominent medals: Four Bronze Stars

Specialty: Special Operations, including underwater demolitions as a frogman

Raised in coal country in Forest City, Pa., John G. Sapuder didn't see many choices for a job when he graduated from high school in 1938.

"Unless I wanted to work in a coal mine like my father or at a women's dress factory, there were no jobs, so I joined [the Army Air Forces]," he said.

That decision eventually took him into the skies above Tokyo Bay on the day the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II.

Sapuder, even at 90 years old, still finds it hard to fathom that he flew above the USS Missouri at dawn on Sept. 2, 1945, just a short time before the surrender documents were signed on the deck of the battleship.

He was a maintenance crew chief for a B-29, and he was invited by the captain of the Superfortress to accompany him on this final mission because the chief mechanic had kept the plane in top-notch condition for the many bombing raids.

As crew chief supervising four aircraft mechanics, Sapuder led by example, often toiling throughout the night to make sure the plane was able to fly the long distance from Guam to Tokyo.

"Tokyo was 1,500 miles away, and these planes were designed to fly 3,000 miles without touching down," said Sapuder, a Riverside resident. "The bomber carried a flight crew of 11 members, 10 tons of bombs and 6,500 gallons of gasoline."

But because these heavy bombers were rushed into production, they were prone to mechanical problems, particularly with the engines catching fire. And, of course, there was routine maintenance and repairs of the damage caused by enemy flak.

Many of these aircraft flew only six to eight consecutive missions before a mechanical mishap occurred in midair, and the pilot would have to abort the mission and turn back.

Not so with the B-29 under the care of Sapuder and his crew.

He and his crew members worked side by side many a night, with a generator providing power for spotlights, often working until dawn to make sure the plane was airworthy for missions, which were flown every two or three days.

"I got to the stage where I pitched a pup tent beside the plane," he said. "Our living area was four miles away from the plane, and I just didn't feel like hitching a ride back and forth to it. I'd just plop down and go to sleep."

His dedication paid off.

Their plane, named Pile Driver in honor of its pilot, Capt. Sterling Pile, carried out more than 13 bombing runs over Japan before mechanical difficulties caused a mission to be aborted. In total, the plane flew 31 missions.

The brass took notice of Pile Driver's performance and awarded Sapuder the Bronze Star for his high level of performance and devotion to duty.

But his incentive for working hard was more than just a solid maintenance record; rather, it was keeping the flight crew alive.

"We were like a family," he said. "They told me it was the maintenance crew that brought them back each time."

While it was an honor to receive a Bronze Star, Sapuder said his most memorable moment came when he was invited to join the flight crew on the Sept. 2, 1945, mission to Japan for the surrender.

The U.S. military wanted every plane available above Tokyo to make a strong show of force, according to Sapuder.

"They didn't trust the Japanese because of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor," he said. "There must have been over 400 B-29s in the air that day," the same type of plane that in August had hastened the end of the war by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As Sapuder flew over Tokyo, he said, he was deeply moved by the devastation he viewed below from the B-29 firebombing raids that had lasted for seven months.

"I'd asked Capt. Pile to show me the places he'd bombed with the plane. He flew at a real low altitude, and for blocks, you'd go without seeing any buildings," he said. "Everything was burned out. You couldn't believe it. You'd see one chimney here and there."

The flight crew became so engrossed in looking over the ruins and snapping photographs, that the plane drifted out over Tokyo Bay, he said, and before anyone realized, it was directly above the Missouri.

The signing of the surrender papers would not occur for at least an hour, but the B-29 flight crew knew that it was in a no-fly zone.

"I was up front, right behind the pilot. I said, 'Get out of here before we're shot down by our own Air Force.'

"I looked above us through the glass, and there was a fighter plane about 10 feet above, almost sitting on top of us, and I said, 'We're going to get shot down. The war's over, and we're going to get shot down by one of our own.' "

Pile made a hasty retreat from the restricted airspace as he worried aloud that he would be court-martialed.

"There were orders to court-martial anyone who got near the Missouri," Sapuder said.

But a court-martial never came about, the retired U.S. Postal Service mail carrier recalled, because the fighter pilot conveniently forgot the name on the B-29 and its identification number when officials on the Missouri later asked who had violated the airspace.

Among Sapuder's prize possessions from the war are photographs that were snapped from the Pile Driver showing the Missouri that morning before Japanese officials signed the documents of surrender.

"The Missouri was huge. I have a picture of it sitting right in Tokyo Bay early in the morning," Sapuder said, still amazed at his perch high above a vessel -- and an event -- that would be so important in history.

***

John G. Sapuder, 90

Hometown: Forest City, Pa.

Residence: Buffalo

Rank: Staff sergeant

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: November 1939 to November 1945

Most prominent medal: Bronze Star

Specialty: Repair crew chief, B-29 bomber

Beverly J. Busenlehner does not have a Silver Star or a Bronze Star from combat in World War II, but she was in the stateside trenches fighting for the country in its time of dire need.

Busenlehner would take on any job, unafraid to break through the gender barrier, and later would fight for fellow disabled veterans to obtain benefits and recognition.

Even at 86, she remains a warrior at heart yet carries a song in that heart and on her lips.

Her journey in the military began as a young woman living in the Town of Tonawanda. She enlisted in the Navy and received training as a pharmacist's mate as a member of the Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES, at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia.

But when an opening occurred in the mortuary service, she volunteered, becoming the first woman in the 5th Naval District to take on work normally reserved for men.

"I witnessed an autopsy, and I got sick. Then, I said, 'Why should I let something like this bother me?' It wasn't going to get me down."

She stuck with it, learning mortuary skills to give the last measure of devotion to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Though it may make others shudder, she recalls how the mortician who taught her also helped her conquer her fears as they readied a deceased Navy seaman for his funeral.

"The undertaker said to me, 'He won't hurt you. Here, hold his hand.' And I did," she said. "We had a raft of service people, drowned and killed. There were so many."

Busenlehner's goal was to be sent overseas, or at least up to Alaska, but because of her versatility, she says, she was denied a transfer.

As a pharmacist's mate, she not only dispensed medications, but also worked in the hospital wards packed with the wounded, often working late into the night attending to their needs.

But there was merriment along the way. Because she could carry a tune, Busenlehner performed with the local Navy and Coast Guard bands as a singer.

"Every Friday night, we'd have a band dance at our station," she recalls. "For special shows, we went over to Norfolk Naval Base. I sometimes performed with Kenyon Hopkins."

A music legend, Hopkins later worked as the musical director for "The Odd Couple" and "The Brady Bunch" television shows and wrote scores for Hollywood movies.

When the Navy was asked to provide bands to star at a show in New York City's Carnegie Hall, Busenlehner was among the musicians called upon to perform on the stage of that storied temple of music.

But her story does not end there.

She suffered injuries to her feet dating from her time in basic training and would, in her years after the service, undergo more than 30 surgeries that left the soles of her feet looking like "road maps" from surgical scars.

When she first went to the VA Hospital on Bailey Avenue in the 1950s, she was turned away.

"This woman met me and said, 'Well you can't come here. Women are not veterans.' She certainly wasn't versed. But a couple days later, I was admitted and treated," Busenlehner said.

She was married to a Marine Corps veteran of World War II who died in the Town of Tonawanda Lucidol factory explosion of 1953, which left her to raise four young children on her own.

As the years passed, she became active in the Disabled American Veterans and twice served as post commander of Chapter 142 in Dunkirk and Chapter 47 in Jamestown.

She also fought for legislation that in time allowed disabled veterans to collect their regular military pension as well as benefits for the disabilities they suffered in war.

Her accomplishments also included leading an effort to have Route 20 from Irving in Erie County all the way to Massachusetts designated the Disabled American Veterans Highway.

In addition, Busenlehner worked at getting legislation passed that provided education benefits for the children of veterans who lost limbs in the service, along with securing handicapped parking.

She became one of Western New York's go-to people for the rights of disabled veterans and, at one point, served as legislative chairwoman for the Disabled American Veterans' New York State Department, and was the first woman to serve as commander of the Chautauqua County Veterans Council.

Even with a deep sense of pride in having served the country, she says she has no illusions about war.

The injuries to her feet are constant reminders. She walks with a cane and uses a VA-provided stair-lift to get to the second floor of her home.

"War makes me sick," she said. "It just goes on and on and on."

***

Beverly J. Busenlehner, 86

Hometown: Dunkirk

Residence: Dunkirk

Rank: Seaman

Branch: Navy WAVES

Years of service: January 1943 to August 1945

Decorations: Several ribbons for World War II duty

Specialty: Pharmacist's mate

In the summer of 1939, Stanley C. Blake was a Polish teenager eager to begin college.

At 17, he could speak four languages and possessed a passion for geography and history. The future looked bright, when suddenly history came knocking at his door.

The Germans invaded Poland, and Blake joined the Polish Resistance, with a burning desire to defend his homeland.

Serving with the Resistance was dangerous, to say the least.

"Your own friend could be speaking to Germans behind your back, and you could end up arrested. But we had some friends in the City of Kielce who could be trusted, and we went out into the woods where we tried to hide as much as possible," the 86-year-old Lancaster resident recalled.

Beneath the cover of night, he and others destroyed railroad tracks "and whatever we were able to get at" in order to frustrate the enemy. But with a bit of pride mixed with humanity, Blake said, they avoided killing people.

"We'd capture Polish policemen who were working with the Germans and we'd take away their weapons, undress them and tie them up to a tree," he said.

After a little more than two months, Blake and about 20 other partisans were betrayed.

"The police and Germans captured us and put us on a train and sent us to northwest Germany to an induction camp, and we were separated into groups -- Jews, Poles, Ukrainians," Blake said. "Then we were sent to work on German farms."

Able to speak German fluently, in addition to his native tongue and Russian and Czech, Blake quizzed the farmer's children, found out where they were, and escaped not once but twice from German captivity before being sent to Welzheim Concentration Camp in Germany's Rems-Murr district.

"Then we were put to work clearing a German highway," Blake said, "and I was able to find out where we were again because I spoke German. I said to a friend, 'We have to make a move and escape back to Poland.' When we reached the Polish border, we had to wait two or three days because of German patrols."

In Poland, he received a nasty surprise.

"There were a lot of people going to Germany of their own will to work on farms," Blake said. "There was no food or anything in Poland. We had a choice, either we go back to Germany as volunteers to get food and a place to sleep or stay with the rest of the Polish partisans."

He and his friend Stefan Grundzien decided to stay and fight on, this time managing to remain free until November 1944.

But when he was sent to Austria to gather intelligence, he was captured by the Gestapo and interrogated.

"I was hung by my feet upside down," he said. "They asked who my contacts were. I knew I was going to be shot, anyway, so I didn't say anything."

Taking a gamble, he told the Germans he was an auto mechanic by trade, and the ruse spared his life.

"I was sent to Ebensee Concentration Camp in Austria," said Blake, who though eager to try and escape once again, never got the chance. He remained there until American troops liberated the camp in May 1945.

After the war, Blake lived in Liverpool, England, but eventually moved to Pittsburgh in November 1951 with money sent to him by an American GI, Ziggy Plucinski, whom he befriended during the liberation of Ebensee.

For Blake, America was not the land of milk and honey -- at least not initially. Unable to find work, he ended up sleeping in public parks and eating at a Salvation Army soup kitchen.

Out of desperation and a desire to make good on a promise he had made to himself to somehow repay the United States for freeing him from the concentration camp, he enlisted in the Air Force and by the winter of 1953, he was serving at a supply base known as K-55 in Osanin on the Korean peninsula.

"We saw a lot of wounded troops there. They were sent to us from North Korea," Blake said. "I served in Korea 12 months."

It was ugly.

"I'd see youngsters who went hungry, had no clothes and lived in holes in the ground," he recalled. "Only a person who has been hungry can understand what hunger is. I had gone hungry in World War II."

While in Korea, though, Blake experienced one of the most joyous moments of his life.

"I was summoned to Seoul to appear before a U.S. judge, and I was given my American citizenship and then sent back to K-55," Blake said.

The world, he said, no longer appeared dreary, even if he was still in a war zone.

"I tell you the colors around me at the base were different. My dream was fulfilled. I was given a second life."

Fifty-seven years later, Blake, a retired lithographer, says he still feels the same joy he felt that day so long ago when he became an American citizen.

***

Stanley C. Blake, 86

Hometown: Wloszczowa, Poland

Residence: Lancaster

Rank: Polish 2nd lieutenant and U.S. airman first class

Branches: Polish Resistance, World War II, and U.S Air Force, Korean War

Years of service: Sept. 1, 1939, to May 7, 1945, and Feb. 19, 1952, to Feb. 19, 1956

Most prominent medals: Partisan Cross and Concentration Camp Medal from Poland, and United Nations Medal, National Defense Medal and Korean Service Medal

Specialties: Polish intelligence officer and U.S. warehousing specialist

In the thick of a firefight, lying on his belly as close to the ground as he could press himself, Harvey A. Burton Jr. lifted his rifle sideways and shot blindly in the direction of the enemy.

He and thousands of other soldiers were caught in the middle of a massive, last-gasp German offensive -- the Battle of the Bulge, a turning point of World War II in Europe.

The enemy would end up depleted and in retreat, but as the war raged on from mid-December 1944 to nearly the end of January 1945 in a bitter cold winter, it certainly didn't feel anything like victory for Burton, a 19-year-old soldier from South Buffalo.

Two of his closest friends, Paul Gentile and Tommy Swinscoe, died in that battle. As boys, the most dangerous projectiles the three had encountered were grounders and fly balls playing the infield for their church baseball team at St. Simon's.

Burton fought the enemy not only with a rifle, but with a bazooka and a flamethrower during that brutal winter in the dense forest of the Ardennes Mountains in Belgium.

"We weren't prepared. We didn't have proper equipment. At one point, I had trench foot, it's from being wet and cold all the time, and your feet turn white. I was taken to a hospital in Luxembourg. Another time my feet froze," Burton recalled.

While in the hospital, soldiers actually feared visits from their commander, the Third Army's Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

"He'd say 'What's wrong with him?' There'd be two doctors with him. You'd break out in a sweat. There were some guys who were phonies," Burton said of individuals looking to stay off the front lines because of battle fatigue.

At one point, Burton suffered a flesh wound from shrapnel to one of his hands. It was so long ago, and the scar has since faded, that he cannot remember which hand.

But he has never forgotten the horror of war.

Lying in the snow in one especially horrific battle and barely able to return fire, he says, he dared not raise his head for fear of getting it blown off. Instead, he and other soldiers raised their rifles sideways above them and fired in the direction of the enemy.

It was during this fight, Burton said, that he made a promise to God that if he got out alive, he would one day have a family and raise the children in the Christian faith.

After making the promise, he said, "a peace came over me."

He then came face to face with a Nazi concentration camp in Austria.

"I arrived a couple days after two camps had been liberated, and I was put on patrol to watch over the prisoners until medical personnel arrived at the camps, Mauthausen and Gusen," he said. "Before going to the camps, I was told, 'Boy, you're not going to believe what you see.' "

What Burton saw seared his mind:

Piles of dead, naked bodies. Long trench graves dug by prisoners who were no more than walking skeletons. They were so malnourished, Burton said, they often stumbled and fell to the ground.

"We collected as much food as we could and brought it into the camps," he said. "They were so grateful, they would cry. They tried to kiss us. We were warned by Army doctors not to give food that was too rich because their systems couldn't handle it. We cut up loaves of bread and fed them.

"It was really, really atrocious. Some of the people barely had any clothes on, men and women. I wrote home to my mother and father about it, and they hadn't even heard about it. When I came home, I saw that my letters had been censored in large sections. I told my parents, but they couldn't believe it."

But Burton had returned home with indisputable proof of the Holocaust.

A Jewish soldier, the only one in Burton's platoon, had given him two rolls of film documenting the conditions of the death camps.

" 'Years from now, if someone says this didn't happen, show them these photos,' " Burton said of what his Jewish friend told him.

Over the years, Burton has followed that advice when he has encountered Holocaust deniers, who refused to believe what happened in the death camps.

"I've said to them, 'Like heck it didn't happen,' and I'd go and show them the pictures."

Then, he said, they believed.

***

Hometown: South Buffalo

Residence: Hamburg

Branch: Army, 11th Armored Division

Rank: Private first class

Years of service: Summer 1943 to summer 1946

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Infantryman Badge, three battle stars

Specialties: Bazooka, flamethrower

Ruby L. McCrea's road to a field hospital in Anzio, Italy, and a brush with death during World War II as a registered nurse took many turns along the way.

The now-95-year-old Southtowns resident says that she was raised on a 153-acre farm "way out in the country" in Missouri and that if her father needed her to work out in fields, she did just that.

If her mother needed her to work indoors keeping up the household, she did that as well.

"If we wanted to eat chicken, we raised them. If we wanted to eat bread, we baked it," said McCrea, who was the middle child of three in her family.

The chance to go to high school did not present itself to her until she was a young adult.

"There was no high school around where I was born," she said.

But by the time she was in her early 20s, McCrea left the family farm and found a job as a housekeeper in a town 30 miles away, Cape Girardeau.

"The family I was working for was interested in education, and they talked me into going to high school," McCrea said. "I worked very hard at it, then after high school, I went to Columbia, Missouri, to nursing school."

By time the United States entered World War II, McCrea was a registered nurse and decided to enlist, answering a call of patriotism. Uncle Sam wasted no time putting her valuable medical skills to work.

"I was sent to England and then to Africa and then back to England," she recalled. "Sometimes you worked in a hut, sometimes you were working out in the open. Soldiers came with fresh bullet wounds and sometimes wounds from hand-to-hand combat."

In time, she met her future husband, Paul McCrea, a soldier, in Africa. Though the details of how they managed to strike up a relationship in a war zone are now foggy, she says that they married shortly after the war.

But what she is certain of is that her future husband was wounded and received a Purple Heart. And why is she so certain?

"He had a Purple Heart, and so did I," McCrea said.

McCrea was wounded at a field hospital during the 1944 Battle of Anzio, part of the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

"I was working in the hospital when I was hit by a piece of shrapnel in my right wrist," she said. "Others were wounded at the same time, and some of them died. I was very lucky. The shrapnel is still in my wrist. I was told it was in a spot where there are a lot of little bones, and if they tried to remove it, they would probably do more damage than help."

An old newspaper article provides chilling details about the attack.

"It says the field hospital was bombed, and five soldiers were killed and 34 wounded," said Michele McCrea, a daughter of the veteran.

After the war ended, Ruby and Paul quickly began their life together as husband and wife, marrying in France before returning stateside and taking up residence in Buffalo, where Paul McCrea had relatives and found work on the South Buffalo Railway.

The couple became the parents of seven children.

"My husband died many years ago, but all our children are alive and well, and so am I," McCrea said.

Reflecting on her wartime service, she says it's something that she remains very proud of.

"I'm glad to have served my country," she said.

As for farm life so long ago in Friedheim, she says she returned home at different points in her life and, most recently, several years ago for the funeral of her older brother, Clarence Hoppe, who continued to work the family farm "until he died."

***

Ruby L. McCrea

Age: 95

Hometown: Friedheim, Mo.

Residence: Blasdell

Rank: First lieutenant

Served: World War II

Years of Service: Enlisted in Army in 1943, served until around the end of 1945

Honors: Purple Heart

Specialty: nurse

After spending 28 days on a troop transport ship out of Newport News, Va., 19-year-old Richard A. Gillette arrived in India and figured he would get a chance to recuperate from the long journey.

No such luck.

"We were put on a train the same day and spent four days on it. Then we were transported by truck for two hours to a remote airfield and flown for 2 1/2 hours to an airstrip in Burma," he said.

During the 1944 flight, he learned that a few of the 28 soldiers on the plane with him did not know how to shoot an M1 rifle.

"I was teaching them how to load it on the plane. The main thing was to get your thumb out of the way, or you'd lose part of it," Gillette said.

As it turned out, the inexperience of his comrades was the least of their worries. The plane, they were told, stood a good chance of being hit by bullets or mortars as it came in for a landing. Or it might strike a hole in the runway caused by Japanese field artillery.

"Before we landed, someone came out of the pilot's cabin and said, 'If we can't fly the plane and you hear the engines roar, brace yourself. We're going to run it right off the runway so that other planes can land.' "

"It kind of gave me the idea we were in trouble," Gillette recalled.

His hunch proved right.

"The plane was hit by bullets but was able to land. When we got out, the Japanese were on one side of the runway, and there were a few Americans on the other side," he said. "Enough of us got in, and we were able to secure the airstrip."

That was the first of many battles he would face.

"We'd go out and hit three or four villages in one week where Japanese soldiers had been spotted by our Air Force," he said.

Gillette remembers the resistance as the Americans progressed toward Myitkyina, the third-largest city in Burma.

"We began encountering banzai waves. The Japanese would come out of the jungle and, depending on how fast they came out, there would be a horizontal line of 15 to 20 of them, and they'd charge. They'd scream and yell, and bugles were blowing. They thought that would scare us more. It made it seem like there were more of them."

Gillette, who manned a 30-caliber, water-cooled machine gun, says he was fortunate.

"I only had one make it to my foxhole, and he was dead when he fell into it. One of my own soldiers was designated to take care of anyone who wasn't wanted so that I would not be interrupted operating the machine gun," he explained.

Suicide banzai waves of Japanese forces, he said, were a move of desperation by the enemy to try to break the will of the Americans.

"We were closing in on the city, and they were trying to break our backs," he said.

During those fierce battles, he said, he and his fellow soldiers made a pact never to be taken alive. In other words, they would prefer to die fighting.

"I told my crew this way, 'I don't want you wounded, and I don't want you killed. You protect yourself first, then you protect your buddy.' It goes right around a circle and back to you," he said.

The motivation behind not being taken alive, Gillette explained, was firsthand viewings of U.S. soldiers who had tried to surrender.

"We saw how they had been tortured and killed," he said.

After months, Merrill's Marauders, named for Gen. Frank Merrill, at last took control of Myitkyina, "and it was a big relief." The Marauders were then broken up, and the 475th Infantry was formed.

Gillette was hospitalized for three weeks to be treated for "jungle rot" on his feet, and eventually he was promoted to sergeant and worked as a liaison with the Chinese army in Burma and later China.

"I was the go-between with our headquarters and the Chinese headquarters. I was with 3,000 Chinese soldiers. My young age was kind of an obstacle. In China, they go for older age and experience, but they found out what kind of a soldier I was, and then there was no trouble. I got along pretty well with them," Gillette said.

He and his Chinese allies participated in a number of battles, mostly on the Chinese mainland.

"I was with the Chinese until the end of the war," he said.

For years, Gillette said, he could not bring himself to talk about his war experiences, but at the 50th anniversary of World War II, he began sharing the memories, especially at reunions with fellow Marauders.

He says he has nothing but deep respect for Frank Merrill.

"They wanted to name a bridge for him up in New Hampshire after he died, and his wife said you name it for his people," Gillette recalled, breaking down in tears.

***

Richard A. Gillette

Age: 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Hamburg

Rank: Sergeant

Served: World War II, Merrill's Marauders, forerunner to Army Rangers, Special Forces

Years of Service: 1943-1946

Honors: Decoration from Chinese Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese army

Specialty: machine-gun operator

Robert "Bob" Sommer was busy keeping the books at the old Iroquois Brewery on Broadway at Pratt Street in Buffalo when he gave up that safe berth for flying combat missions over Europe's occupied territories in World War II.

At 21 years old, he signed up to become a bomber pilot and started his training at a small airfield in Ocala, Fla., at the Southeast Training Command.

Upon completion, he headed north to Columbia, S.C., where he trained on B-25 bombers. Then it was off to Europe.

"They needed a body, and I was it," the 92-year-old recalled.

The truth is that many pilots were needed because there were heavy losses of planes in battling the Germans above Holland, Poland, Austria and, of course, Germany.

"They would lose up to 60 bombers a day, and there were 10 men to a plane, so the losses were astronomical," said Sommer, who served in the 8th Air Force's 342nd Bomber Group. "The losses continued until we brought in fighter planes to control the skies. They would fight the Luftwaffe [German air force]."

He explained that the B-17 bombers, known as the Boeing Flying Fortresses, flew in huge formations and were sitting ducks in the sky for the more agile German fighter planes during the final 15 to 20 minutes of the bomb run portion of the flight. "What it amounted to is that you could not take evasive action as you were flying to the target in the bombing run," he said, explaining that the coordinates had to be exactly maintained, if there was any hope of hitting the intended target.

Fifty percent of the U.S. bombers that flew out of England never returned.

"I knew my chances of surviving were pretty crummy," Sommer said.

Yet he defied the odds and ended up successfully flying 42 missions, some of them taking him over Germany's industrial heartland, Berlin and Frankfurt.

But with a return to Buffalo in his sights, Sommer said, his final mission nearly killed him.

"My last mission was on the German-Polish border, and we were bombing a small airfield that had enemy aircraft, and we were under attack by German fighters.

"All of a sudden, my tail gunner started screaming at the back of the plane that a U.S. P-51 fighter got above the German fighters as they were queueing up to attack us and took out six fighters in one pass. It probably saved a lot of our lives."

In that mission, Sommer was the lead bomber, with 52 more following. That was small compared with some of the missions he led.

At one point, he said, he and a general flew the lead bomber ahead of 2,500 other four-engine bombers. Two months later, with a different general, Sommer flew the lead bomber with 3,000 planes behind him, he said.

"It's like swarms of mosquitoes in the sky, and the lead was a dangerous spot. The enemy always tried to knock down the lead. It wasn't a great place to be," he said, speculating that because he had never lost a crew member, it had earned him the dubious honor as lead plane with the generals.

That's not to say the planes Sommer flew escaped enemy fire.

"I came back from one mission with 400 holes in the plane from antiaircraft flak," he said.

He recalled that one his friends Bill Lawley, another pilot, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for successfully flying a bomber back to base after the co-pilot had been killed.

"The co-pilot was hit with a 20-millimeter shell in the head, and Bill had to urinate in his handkerchief to clean off the windshield of the co-pilot's brains. I guess you'd call that the rougher side of war," Sommer said.

Eventually, Sommer made it home.

"I surprised my wife. I had a baby nine months old, and that was when I first saw him," he said.

In time, Sommer also returned to the brewery and received a promotion to sales manager, a job he worked at for years before advancing to another area company and retiring in 1989.

But thoughts of the war, so many decades later, he says, are never far away.

"I have a couple pilots I still stay in touch with," he said. "It was an interesting time in my life."

email: [email protected]

***

Age: 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Rank: First lieutenant

Served: World War II, Army Air Forces, forerunner to modern-day Air Force

Years of Service: Enlisted 1942 in the Aviation Cadets and served until 1944

Honors: Distinguished Flying Cross

Specialty: B-17 bomber command pilot

Even before John Printup and his fellow Army Rangers stormed the beaches of Normandy, their lives were in peril.

High seas spilled into their small landing craft, and the vessel, overloaded with weapons and ammunition, started sinking as they approached one of history's most famous battles, the Allied Invasion of Europe, aka D-Day, on June 6, 1944.

"We took our helmets off and bailed water. Guys were getting sick. We were being showered with rockets," the 89-year-old Printup recalled recently in the living room of his home on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in Lewiston.

It didn't help that these 5th Battalion Rangers were navigating through waters infested with underwater mines. From a distance, they could see their fellow Rangers from the 2nd Battalion climbing a steep hill toward the entrenched Germans.

The 5th Battalion was supposed to assist the 2nd, but an order crackled over the radio, redirecting them to help

the 29th Infantry Division, which was pinned down on Omaha Beach, taking heavy casualties.

"I could hear the machine gun bullets hissing by my head, and I thought: That's close," Printup said, recalling how he and other Rangers jumped into the water and waded past the bodies of wounded and dead soldiers.

The Rangers gradually made their way to a breakwater topped with razor-sharp concertina wire, when they encountered Brig. Gen. Norman Cota Sr.

"Cota asked who we were, and we all shouted, 'Rangers,' and Cota said, 'Rangers, lead the way,' and that's how the Rangers got their motto, 'Rangers, lead the way!'," Printup said with pride as he pointed to his living room walls filled with Ranger memorabilia and medals he earned.

But at that crucial moment at the breakwater, Printup and his colleagues were more interested in breaking through German defenses.

"We blew holes through the concertina wire with bangalore torpedoes," he said.

As he scaled the breakwater, Printup slashed his left leg on the wire, only realizing later that he'd sliced open his limb, mistakenly thinking the wetness on his leg was from the seawater.

"We all got cut on that wire, a bunch of us," he said, downplaying the injury.

The Rangers clawed their way up the steep hillside and managed to subdue the enemy machine guns, he said. The battle progressed inland over the coming days, and on two separate occasions Printup captured a total of six Germans.

"The first time was in daylight in a hedgerow by the city of Brest. I took five Germans. I ran up to them fast and surprised them before they could do anything. I spoke to them in German and told them to put their firearms down. We'd learned to say that in German."

"The second time was at night. I caught him after I'd shot at him. I missed, and he surrendered," Printup said.

But not all of his experiences were so glorious.

Sometimes at night, there were extremely close calls.

"The German planes flew so low you could see the pilots, their silhouettes. They dropped butterfly bombs on us. The bombs would swirl around before they hit the ground and detonated. That was in Cherbourg peninsula."

Was Printup frightened?

He said he was more concerned for his fellow Rangers.

"You wondered if someone else would get hurt," he said.

His extensive training, he said, helped to steady his nerves.

"We were trained to fight, and we were there to fight."

***

Age: 89

Hometown and lifelong residence: Tuscarora Indian Reservation, Lewiston

Rank: Private first class

Served: World War II, Army Rangers

Years of Service: 1942-1945

Honors: 10 medals, including Bronze Star, three presidential citations and American Order of the French Croix de Guerre

Specialty: Light machine gunner

As a boy, Frank M. Stout played in Thomas Edison's laboratory at his estate in Fort Myers, Fla.

Young Frank had every right to be there. Edison was his godfather, an honor the great inventor had accepted because of his friendship with the Stout family.

"He ignored me most of the time. He was busy inventing, working on generators and all kinds of electrical equipment. I would play with the phonographs. He probably had 15 or 20 different models in his laboratory," Stout said.

Such a lofty playroom for Stout could only inspire him to want to head off to college. And that was his plan, until Uncle Sam sent Stout a draft notice in 1943 ordering him to join the Army.

But realizing that Stout had a good head on his shoulders, the Army placed him in its Specialized Training Program to become an expert in civil engineering. Upon completion, he would receive a college degree and a commission as a 2nd lieutenant.

However, there was a pressing need for additional troops in Europe, so the program was unexpectedly terminated and Stout was assigned to the 11th Armored Division, part of the 3rd Army.

In the Battle of the Bulge, Stout ran into another historic figure who, by all accounts, was nowhere near as tolerant as Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park.

"We called General George Patton 'Old blood and guts.' Our blood and his guts. He was a brilliant tactician and the Germans feared him the most of any of our generals," Stout said.

"He had his ivory-handled pistol strapped to his waist, and he'd be standing up in his tank saying, 'Forward men. Let's get them,' " Stout recalled of seeing Patton as they headed into battle. "He thought he was immortal."

Stout found out no one is immortal, especially on the battlefield.

"I got a little lead poisoning from a German artillery shell. We were attacking a German position in a wooded area in Belgium, and we were in the open crossing this field. The Germans had zeroed in.

"There was about two feet of snow on the ground and no cover, and when the Germans opened fire, there were an awful lot of casualties," Stout said. "I was hit in the right shoulder. I laid there in shock. A sergeant said, 'I think you'll be all right, Frank. Wait for the medics.' "

Stout, sidelined a week, turned down a safer assignment.

"I said 'No way, I want to go back with the people I trained with' and they let me. I got a ride back up to the front."

He says he never regretted the decision.

"We had a lot of combat after that, and some of it was pretty messy. When you run a guy through with a bayonet, you never forget it."

You also never forget shooting down an enemy airplane.

"This German reconnaissance plane was flying over us, checking our positions, and I'd just cleaned my 50 caliber machine gun. It was loaded with armor piercing bullets and tracers, and I put a bead on the plane and shot. It crashed about a mile away."

The lesson of war, he said, is "it's either him or me."

As for famous personages, Stout in recent years has become an acquaintance of Patton's family through his activity in the national reunion of the 11th Armored Division Association.

"I've met Joanne Patton, the general's daughter-in-law, visiting her home, and we exchange e-mails," he said. "She's a very gracious lady, very much on the ball and she runs the show."

***

Age: 85

Hometown: Fort Myers, Florida

Residence: Lockport

Rank: 1st Sergeant

Served: World War II, Army

Years of Service: Drafted July 1943, completed active duty January 1946; served in Army Reserve one year and later joined Army National Guard, serving as a 1st lieutenant for more than a decade

Honors: Combat Infantry Badge, Purple Heart, Bronze Star

Specialty: Platoon sergeant in 11th Armored Division

Efner Davis was 16 years old with a rifle slung over his shoulder as he strolled down Arcade's East Main Street. He was coming home from fox hunting when the chief of police stopped him.

The teenager's immediate reaction was to quip, "I'm innocent, and I didn't do it, chief."

But the chief was in a serious mood that day, Dec. 7, 1941.

"It's a good thing that you're an excellent shot with a rifle. You're going to need it," he said. "The Japanese just attacked Pearl Harbor."

Davis recalled feeling a strong sense of patriotism, wanting to serve his country, though he was too young to enlist. He compromised and worked out a deal with his parents that as soon as he graduated from high school, he could head off to war.

But when he joined the military, the 18-year-old didn't get the chance to put his dead-on aim with a gun to use. Instead, he became a healer. As a Boy Scout with the first-aid merit badge and his certification as a Red Cross first-aid instructor, he proved a likely candidate for medic.

He had dreamed of being a paratrooper and landing in the thick of battle, where he would fight his way out with his rifle. But the job of medic, it turned out, proved even more daring.

"A captain said to us, 'You guys think you're pretty tough, but when someone gets shot, you're going to double-time to them, carry them back and take care of them,' " Davis recalled, quoting how he got an introduction to what would be expected of combat medics.

In the Pacific Theater, Davis and his fellow medics soon realized that in battle the Japanese went against international conventions and shot at the medical personnel. In fact, medics were the first who felt the wrath of the enemy.

"Here's why they shot at us first," Davis explained. "If you get wounded in the jungle and you don't get treatment pretty darn quick, you're going to get infected badly. So the idea of shooting the medics is, if there is nobody there to patch up the other wounded, they are going to be knocked out of operation."

Though Davis narrowly escaped becoming a casualty, bullets, artillery shells, grenades and the enemy charging him with bayonets and swords all too often came within inches of striking him down, he said.

"After a while, it went through our outfit that I was one lucky son of a -----, and that's how I got the nickname 'Lucky,' " said Davis, who was a member of the 37th Infantry Division's 14th Corps.

But Davis' biggest break was yet to come.

As the U.S. forces sailed past Manila, he said, they came under harsh attack by Japanese Kamikazi pilots.

"I was told the [Japanese] dove 44 planes into our fleet. It was like Fourth of July fireworks multiplied many times," he said.

When at last Americans were able to land during the battle of Luzon, Davis again found himself in the thick of it, with many wounded civilians hit by friendly fire.

As he wrapped bandages around the foot of a Filipino whose heel had been blown off, a newspaper photographer asked Davis if he could snap a picture.

"If it will help our relations with the Filipinos," Davis recalled answering the photojournalist.

The rest is history.

The photograph appeared on the front page of countless newspapers in the United States, including The Buffalo Evening News, showing Davis doctoring the injured man.

As a bonus, Davis said, his parents, Callie and Clifford, found out exactly where their son was serving in the Pacific -- the Philippines.

"During that period of the war, things were pretty sticky, and the military didn't want any information going out. Censorship was very tight, and our address was 'Somewhere in the Southwest Pacific,'T" Davis said.

As for his 15 minutes of fame, he said, it quickly faded, and he forgot about the famous photograph until a few months ago when he was asked to contribute to a World War II display in the Amherst Senior Citizen Center.

***

Age: 85

Hometown: Arcade

Residence: Amherst

Rank: Sergeant

Served: Army, World War II

Years of service: 1943-1946

Honors: 10 medals, including Bronze Star and Combat Medical Badge

Specialty: Combat medic

Robert P. Heine and his fellow crew members had accomplished their mission, dropping bombs on a German factory, and were headed back to England when flak hit one of the B-17's four engines.

Unable to keep pace with the rest of the squadron, their craft lost altitude and was no longer hidden above the cloud cover as it made its way across southern Germany and into France.

"All was well until I noticed machine-gun tracer rounds flying up at us," Heine said. "We had unknowingly flown straight over a camouflaged German airfield."

As the bombardier, he had a ringside seat in the clear plastic nose of the plane.

Until that mission on March 16, 1944, Heine had been flying on the wings of luck. He had successfully completed 15 missions, despite 60 percent odds of being shot down.

But on this day, luck ran out.

The plane crash-landed and was quickly surrounded by German soldiers.

Interrogations at a prisoner of war camp in Frankfurt were cut short after a British bombing raid severly damaged the camp and city. Heine says he and the other prisoners were marched through the streets of Frankfurt to the train station. On the way, they faced the wrath of the local citizens.

Insults, stones and bricks, he said, were hurled at them.

"We were only saved by the German guards who told the mob that we were Russian prisoners and not those responsible for the bombing," he said.

At the next prisoner camp, Stalag Luft III, Heine says, he noticed the guards seemed a bit edgy over security.

"I quickly learned the reason just before we arrived, 76 Brits had attempted to escape through tunnels dug under the walls. The Germans made it clear with machine guns that they weren't about to have another such escape."

A classic World War II movie, "The Great Escape," was released in 1963, detailing the escapades of the British airmen.

"Almost every night, I would dream of freedom, only to wake the next morning still within the prison walls. This went on for months and months, as if to cruelly remind me of the freedom that I might never see again."

But at 11 p.m. Jan. 27, 1945, Heine and the other prisoners were suddenly on the move, marching for what would be four nights through the bitter cold to Spremburg, where they were placed in a train for four more days and nights of travel.

At Stalag 7A in Moosburg, with the Germans now badly losing the war, conditions were similar to those in concentration camps -- no heat, barely any food and deplorable sanitation, Heine said.

"Moosburg was a hellhole. As prisoners kept arriving, we were eventually moved out and put into giant circus tents, which were erected on the parade ground. Hay was strewn on the bare ground for our beds, and holes were dug for latrines," he said.

This went on for three months.

"We were suddenly liberated by the 14th Armored Division of Patton's Army," Heine said.

A week later, he was flown to Camp Lucky Strike in France, and his time as a prisoner was over, though he has never been able to escape his POW memories. "It will never leave me," he said. "It's an experience that gets burned into your memory. You never forget."

***

Age: 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Rank: Second lieutenant

Served: 8th Army Air Force, 384th Bombing Group

Years of Service: July 1942-October 1945

Honors: Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Prisoner of War Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Medal

Specialty: B-17 bombardier

Louis J. Harasty arrived in France in early February 1945 to chase the last of the German soldiers who, by this time, were on the run as World War II was winding down.

He and fellow artillery unit members raced through France to Belgium, where they searched out snipers, who were no longer much of a threat because they, too, were interested in saving themselves.

When Harasty and his comrades reached Germany, they liberated concentration camps and helped the captives -- "Jews, Gypsies and Christians" who, he said, had been scheduled for transport to death camps.

"There were railroad spurs into these smaller camps, and the prisoners were going to be shipped to Auschwitz and Dachau for extermination," Harasty recalled. "But when we arrived, the Nazis took off like birds."

It was horrible, he said, to see how inhumanely the prisoners had been treated.

"We placed these people into what we called displaced persons camps," he said. "I served as a Hungarian interpreter because I spoke that language. My parents were immigrants from Hungary."

The experience of liberating people from the edge of death, Harasty said, gave him a great sense of gratification.

Before arriving in Europe, he had been assigned to security along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. After his service in the war zone, he returned to the United States for a 30-day leave, before shipping out for the planned invasion of Japan.

But after President Harry S. Truman decided that atomic bombs should be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered. "The war was over," Harasty said, "and there was no need for an invasion."

In 1962, when the former president visited Buffalo, Harasty says he got to thank Truman.

"I was the photographer for Democratic headquarters in Buffalo, and when Harry Truman visited here to receive an honorary degree from Canisius College, he was seated in an easy chair in a Jesuit lounge, and I approached him. It was just the two us," Harasty recalled.

"I told him he saved my life, and he asked, 'How so?' I said if he hadn't dropped those atomic bombs, the Japanese would not have surrendered, and I would have been in the invasion force along with a lot of other guys.

"He told me he regretted dropping the bombs, but because the Japanese kept shelling our ships with the suicide pilots, he had no choice. He said he'd warned them on a number of occasions to stop."

At the conclusion of what Harasty says was "a nice conversation," he asked Truman to autograph the back of his press pass.

Truman obliged, requesting the names of the veteran's children. At the time, Harasty had five children (he and his wife would have three more). Truman wrote, "To Mary Joan, Joseph, Barbara, Peter and John Harasty, best of luck, 3/2 6/6 2 from Harry Truman."

And while the autograph isn't exactly a World War II memento, Harasty says, his service in the war made possible the conversation and the keepsake.

"I treasure that autograph," he says. "It's hanging in my living room."

Louis J. Harasty, 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class and acting supply sergeant

Unit: 69th Infantry Division

War zone: Europe

Years of service: March 1943 to March 1946

Most prominent honors: American Theater Campaign Medal and European Theater of Operations Medal

Specialty: Supply

Dominic Zanghi is the last man standing in his family to serve in World War II and tell of the sacrifices he and his three brothers made while defending the country.

At 87, he has outlived his three brothers -- John, who fought in Europe; Horace, who fought on various islands throughout the Pacific; and Anthony, who served in Hawaii in the years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese also took control of a portion of the chain of islands known as the Aleutians, part of Alaska and viewed as a strategic gold mine.

It was feared that the enemy might use the islands as a jumping-off point for aerial attacks on America's West Coast.

When the Japanese first began their invasion of the Aleutians in June 1942, they overwhelmed the Allies and were hopping from island to island, but secret efforts were under way to halt their progress.

Dominic Zanghi arrived in April 1943 for Army duty on a mountainous island near the Aleutians where Americans were building a secret base to halt the advance.

"You couldn't see more than 200 feet straight in front of you because of the mountains and the weather," he said of the site of the secret base. "We have bad winters in Buffalo, but the snow and rain were treacherous there. The ground was so saturated, it was spongelike, and everything was built on stilts and camouflaged."

As the Japanese moved closer to the mainland, warships from the United States and Canada, docked in waters not far from the secret installation, began shelling the Japanese.

"That's what the surprise was," Zanghi said. "They were advancing and advancing, and we had this secret base. And with our ships, we trapped them like rats. They were slaughtered."

But at one point, the Allied warships stopped firing because of a dense fog and inability to spot the enemy on the neighboring Aleutians or in their small transport boats used to get from one island to the next.

"I said to my captain, a close friend of mine, 'Why have we stopped shelling? Why don't we continue shooting?'

"Think of it as if you were at a carnival arcade shooting at the little mechanical rabbit with your rifle. With dozens of rifles shooting at the little rabbit, you can't miss, and it's the same way with the guns on the ships. We're bound to hit the enemy, even if we can't see them."

The advice, Zanghi says, made its way up the chain of command, and with the fog not lifting, the big guns on the ships resumed their barrage.

When the fog eventually did lift, Zanghi said, the enemy was no longer capable of getting a toehold on the continent.

"That," he said, "was the end of them."

As for Zanghi's second-oldest brother, Horace, he was the first to shove off to war, leaving behind Buffalo's West Side and their parents, Louise and Joseph. He engaged with the enemy in many battles, often hand-to-hand, on the islands of the Pacific.

For one day, Horace was taken prisoner by the Japanese but managed to escape with a friend, according to Dominic Zanghi, who was the second of his brothers to leave for war and the third-oldest.

John Zanghi, the oldest brother and married with an infant son, was the third to serve in the war. He, too, had direct contact with the enemy.

"A German soldier kicked him in the head on a battlefield in France to see if he was dead, and Johnny played possum," Dominic Zanghi said. "A few hours later, he got up and ran to freedom. That's something, isn't it?"

As for the youngest of the Zanghi brothers and last to serve, Anthony, he was stationed in Hawaii, where the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

All of this collective military service in the Second World War, Dominic Zanghi says, amounts to but a grain of sand when compared with what their parents experienced.

"Can you imagine how our parents felt every day wondering where and how their sons were?" the retired U.S. Postal Service letter carrier said. "My brothers and I agreed that Mom and Dad were the real heroes. Their children were scattered around the world."

Dominic Zanghi's brothers have been deceased for years, and he sometimes wonders why he has lived so long, now speculating that maybe it was to share this story of family patriotism.

"I'm proud to tell of what the Zanghi boys did," he said, "and how my parents often went to bed wondering."

***

Dominic Zanghi, 87

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Asiatic-Pacific Theater, World War II

Years of service: December 1942 to November 1944

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Victory Medal, Sharpshooter Badge

Specialty: Infantry

Frank Malone knew there was always the risk of being killed by a Japanese kamikaze pilot.

Word had spread quickly among the U.S. armed forces in the Pacific that the Japanese were desperate and were sending their pilots on suicide missions to sink American warships.

At about 11 a.m. Nov. 12, 1944, aboard the SS Thomas Nelson, anchored off the Philippine island of Leyte, the 20-year-old Malone awaited transfer to an airstrip servicing B-25 bombers.

He just happened to take a swig of water from his canteen and looked at the sky, noticing a plane headed directly toward him on the deck of the Liberty ship.

"There was an ambulance truck chained to the deck, and I dove behind it, thinking I would be protected," the 86-year-old Malone recalled.

That proved not to be the case.

"All I know is that I woke up in the water. I got blown off the ship," he said. "Can you believe it? I started swimming [fast] away from the ship. I thought it was going down. There were bombs stored in the bottom of the ship."

As it turned out, the Nelson remained afloat, though 111 service members perished.

"They picked me up in one of those little 'duck' [amphibious trucks]," he said. "Several others were picked up, and we were taken ashore. I was put in an emergency room in a tent. I remember the doctors picking shrapnel out of my back.

"They kept saying, 'Well, you won a trip home.' I was severely burned on my right side. Getting blown off the ship into the water kind of saved me."

Malone didn't go home. He was shipped to a hospital in Hollandia, a port in New Guinea, where he spent three months and was awarded a Purple Heart.

"They told me, 'Boy, you're healing fast,' and I was given the opportunity to return to my outfit, and I did at San Marcelino in the Philippines," he said. "My hands were still bleeding, and they put me in headquarters answering the phones. I couldn't get my hands in gasoline."

Malone found that he was not one for riding a desk.

He managed to get himself assigned to running a rest home in Manila, helping air crews decompress after rotating off bombing missions.

But that wasn't good enough for Malone. After about three months, the skin on his hands had healed enough that he could again pick up a wrench and other tools to work on airplanes.

He was assigned to Ie Shima, an island near Okinawa, and, in his spare time, he visited the grave of the war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

"Everybody wanted to see his temporary grave," Malone recalled.

Then there was the news that the war was ending. The world's first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and the second, on Nagasaki, three days later.

"When I was told by some guys that the war was over, I said, 'Ah, you're kidding me.' They said, 'No, they dropped a bomb, and it wiped out a city.' Shortly after that, I was told another had been dropped and another city had been wiped out."

But Malone was doubtful, unable to imagine a bomb capable of flattening a city.

He soon became a believer.

"My outfit was charged with escorting two [Mitsubishi] 'Betty' bombers with Japanese emissaries to discuss terms of surrender," Malone said of how his doubts were erased.

Yet he was unable to grasp the historic importance of the moment.

"I was young and couldn't wait to get home," he said.

Back in North Tonawanda, he found work as a shipping clerk at Columbus McKinnon but wanted more action.

In 1951, he joined the North Tonawanda Police Department and worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming police chief for 15 years and often smoking "at least" 12 cigars a day.

He now has been retired 25 years but says he never expected to live beyond five years in retirement.

Frank Malone has been wrong before.

"Over there in the Pacific," he said, "every day was like a crapshoot, and I didn't expect to live."

***

Frank Malone, 86

Hometown: North Tonawanda

Residence: North Tonawanda

Rank: Sergeant

Branch: Army Air Forces, 345th Bomb Group, 498th Squadron, aka "Air Apaches"

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: April 1943 to January 1946

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart; Philippine Liberation Medal

Specialty: Mechanic for B-25 bombers

After a stop in North Africa, Alfred DeMart set foot in Naples, Italy, on New Year's Day 1944.

He would have landed Dec. 31, 1943, but the Germans had sunk all of the transport boats in the harbor at Naples. Once ashore, he was sent to a "repo-depo," officially known as a replacement center, where new troops worked until they were given a permanent assignment.

The 20-year-old was then assigned to the 36th Division and found himself in the midst of the Battle at Monte Cassino, where a strategic monastery atop the mountain was at stake.

DeMart operated a small artillery piece, a 75 mm pack howitzer, round-the-clock.

"We'd fight during the day and most of the night. It was just to keep the Germans going, keep them awake so that they didn't get much sleep," recalled DeMart, now 87. "We were at the bottom of the hill shooting up."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had given orders to conduct aerial bombardments, DeMart said, recalling that B-25s repeatedly dropped bombs onto the monastery, followed by small dive bombers unloading their munitions.

It was a sight he has never forgotten, not necessarily because of the American air power on display, but because the enemy proved so resilient.

"It was interesting to see, but it didn't do any good," DeMart said. "You could see the tracer bullets from German machine guns firing up at the dive bombers in the early morning. The Germans were so dug in."

The lengthy battle continued, and infantry losses were heavy. Finally, in May, another major assault, known as "The Big Push," took place with Allied forces "shooting everything we had all night long, and that broke the Germans back," DeMart said.

But for him, the most memorable moment of the war occurred after the hard-fought mountaintop victory, when DeMart tracked down an older brother, Joseph, who was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit in Italy.

"I told my captain I had a brother in the area someplace," Al DeMart said, "and the captain located him for me and then gave me a 10-day pass so I could spend time with him.

"It was in the evening when I finally got to Joe's outfit. The sergeant showed me what tent he was in with about six other guys. I walked in, and I didn't say anything. They all kept looking at me, and they said, 'Who is this guy?'

"I looked at Joe and said, 'Huh? You don't know your younger brother?' That's when he jumped up. He'd never seen me in uniform. He'd been in the service since 1940 and hadn't seen me in more than three years. I probably did look different."

That special moment of brother seeing brother still fills the younger DeMart with emotion.

"Oh, boy, we had a ball," he said, his voice breaking.

After spending those 10 days together, Al DeMart returned to his camp, and Joe was shipped to Corsica.

Al DeMart also had two other brothers serving in World War II: Dominic, a sergeant, stationed in Louisiana for most of the war; and Michael, a private first class, assigned to the Pacific.

The third-youngest of nine siblings, Al DeMart, along with his brother Dominic, 93, are the last survivors in their family from service in World War II.

***

Alfred DeMart, 87

Hometown: North Tonawanda

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: North Africa, Europe

Years of service: March 1943 to October 1945

Most prominent honor: European Campaign Medal

Specialty: Field artillery

There's the story of how Robert G. Schneider earned a Silver Star for valor in World War II by stringing radio cable while under German fire and how the comic strip "Li'l Abner" saved his life when he returned from the night mission.

But that tale will have to wait a moment while the 89-year-old retired sales manager pays tribute to an old friend from the war.

"There was a Jewish young man who loved his camera. He was nuts about that camera. Every time he could get ahold of some film, he was taking pictures. Then one night, he was assigned to guard duty," Schneider said.

"He told me, 'Bob, I'm going to die tonight,' and he gave me his camera, his greatest worldly possession. I said to him, 'We all have those thoughts. Go on your duty, and when you come back tomorrow morning, I'll give you your camera.'

"He said, 'No, Bob, I'm positive I'm going to die.' He was very calm about this."

The night in Germany got off to a bad start, Schneider recalled. German soldiers lobbed an explosive device beside the house where Schneider, then 21, was resting inside. The explosion knocked out the windows and, worse, destroyed the camera hanging from a hook on the wall.

When dawn broke, Schneider was exposed to the darkest of news.

"I was informed that the guys on guard did not return from their patrol," he said. "It was just terrible. It cast a pall on the few of us that were there."

Since that day, Schneider has never forgotten his friend from New York City.

"As a matter of fact, I just visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and I remembered him right there," Schneider said.

Before his friend's grim premonition, Schneider, a member of the 104th "Timberwolf" Division, had experienced his own brushes with death.

On Nov. 24, 1944, a couple of weeks before he would participate in the Battle of the Bulge, he was given the risky job of stringing radio communication cable across an open field under the cover of night.

However, night proved to be of little protection.

According to the citation he received with the Silver Star, Schneider's progress "was held up by enemy machine-gun fire [and] he laid his wire aside and stealthily moved to a position from which he eliminated the enemy gun crew with well-placed grenades.

"Returning to his wire, he then crossed eight hundred yards of open terrain and completed his mission."

But he was soon confronted with another harrowing problem.

Schneider had begun his mission before receiving the password of the day that would allow him safe return to the rest of his unit, which was taking cover in an abandoned house at the edge of a village.

"A new kid was guarding the basement of a house that I was trying to enter. He said, 'Who is it?' when he saw me crawling. I said, 'American.' He asked what the password was. I said, 'I don't have it.' The kid said, 'I'm going to have to kill you.' His machine gun, honestly, was rattling right beneath my nose."

Thinking fast, Schneider recalled reading the "Li'l Abner" comic strip earlier that day in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.

"I asked the kid if I could tell him what happened to Li'l Abner that day, would he let me in. He called back to his commander in the basement, and they said that would be OK."

Schneider quickly recited the goofy comic character's doings and was spared death.

So what happened to Li'l Abner on that long-ago day?

Schneider says the passage of decades has erased that recollection.

But he hasn't forgotten that later on the same day, he once again drew upon his ability to talk his way out of jams when he convinced several Germans into thinking twice before attacking him.

When the enemy entered the basement of a house where Schneider was guarding two German prisoners behind a partly damaged stone wall, he uttered enough words in German to make the enemy understand they were going to have a serious standoff, if they engaged.

The German troops were cautious, in part, because they knew he had two of their comrades. In fact, the Germans had used concussion grenades earlier rather than deadly "potato masher" grenades when attacking the house, so as to avoid killing the prisoners.

Schneider's bantering bought enough time, and American troops arrived, frightening off the Germans who outnumbered him.

That, too, contributed to the Silver Star he earned, according to the citation.

But all that heroic action under intense stress, Schneider says, does not match the sacrifice his young Jewish friend made.

In his mind's eye, there is an image of the long-dead soldier who loved to snap photographs, and, Schneider says, that image "will always remain."

***

Robert G. Schneider, 89

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Cheektowaga

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Master sergeant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1941-45

• Most prominent honors: Silver Star, European Campaign Medal

• Specialty: Infantry

Charles J. Liarakos twice visited Greece, his parents' homeland, but neither was a sentimental journey.

When Liarakos and 11 other members of a special operations unit parachuted into the German-occupied country during World War II, their mission was to cause as much havoc as possible.

It was tough going. They often went without supplies and scrounged their existence off the land.

In one instance, Greek partisans, desperate for food and ammunition of their own, fleeced the American soldiers of their supplies, but the Americans always managed to overcome hardships by locating secret British stations tucked inside monasteries throughout the Greek countryside.

"They would radio back to headquarters in Italy and coordinate drops for us," recalled Liarakos, 89, who was chosen for the Office of Strategic Services because he spoke fluent Greek.

As the OSS unit moved across Greece on foot and mostly at night, it blew up bridges, German radio transmission stations, convoys, train stations "and anything we could."

For months, this band of brothers compromised the Germans.

"One time, we hit a 15-vehicle convoy carrying troops and supplies. There was another kid named Aggie, who was also a sniper, and we were at either end of the convoy, hidden up on a hillside," Liarakos said.

"We fired at the convoy, and the Germans started firing back. Word came to evacuate, but Aggie and I never heard it, and we just kept on firing. All of a sudden, we realized we were there by ourselves and took off."

After some fancy footwork that included dodging machine gun fire from a German halftrack, they rejoined their unit.

"We got back to the rendezvous area and had a very, very frank discussion. We said, 'Why didn't you get ahold of us? You left us there by ourselves.' "

Before he and Aggie fled for safety, they had caused some serious damage, firing their rifles several times at vehicles transporting troops.

"You don't keep count," he recalled. "You shoot, and you run, but we could hear screaming."

Now, so many years later, he says the experience of working as a sniper was "very upsetting."

Yet he takes pride in his service and, in particular, recalling how he once met Maj. Gen. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo native who founded and commanded the OSS.

"We were in Egypt out in the desert and laying in our tent, and he walked in and we all jumped up and stood at attention. He said, 'What the hell is the matter with you guys? Haven't you ever seen a general before?' He said it like it was no big deal. He was a very regular guy."

So amazed at the sight of the living legend, Liarakos said he forgot to mention he too was from Buffalo.

In addition to two tours of duty behind enemy lines in Greece, Liarakos also served in Yugoslavia with British commandos and Scotch Highlanders.

"In fact, we were with Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, who was a commando. When those commandos and Highlanders weren't fighting in war, they were playing war," Liarakos said of their fierce enthusiasm.

He also served in Italy, attached to an OSS unit of Italian-Americans but said he missed his Greek-American comrades.

Much of the work the OSS carried out was classified for decades. That secretive work he and other Greek-Americans performed in their ancestral land was finally declassified by the U.S. government a few years ago.

"I'm glad we finally got some recognition," Liarakos said. "It's just too bad most of the guys were already dead."

***

Charles J. Liarakos, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Clarence

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: European Campaign Medal, Greek Liberation Citation

Specialty: Sniper with Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA

The images of so many bodies – his comrades and the enemy – lying in the snow remain etched in Frank J. Tichy Jr.’s 90-year-old memory, seven decades later.

Sydney L. Cole, now 100 years old, still wakes from nightmares of being captured and taken to a prison camp where his captors systematically killed off prisoners.

Theirs are just two of the stories from the million or more soldiers who fought in the world’s biggest land battle in history.

It was 70 years ago this week that Allied soldiers, their lines stretched across the Ardennes Forest along the Belgium and Luxembourg border, hunkered down for what they thought was to be a quiet period of war during the winter of 1944. They awoke Dec. 16, 1944, to a massive artillery bombardment, followed by advancing German tank and infantry columns some 200,000 troops strong. They caught the Allies by surprise.

The enemy broke through, pushing the Allies into a retreat that on wartime maps looked like an inward bulge going west. The battle lasted for weeks, and when it ended Jan. 25, 1945, the Allies emerged victorious, but at an enormous cost. Casualties were counted in the thousands – 19,000 Americans dead, 47,500 wounded and more than 23,000 missing.

It was even worse for the enemy. More than 100,000 Germans were killed, wounded or taken as prisoners of war.

But it was the beginning of the end of World War II.

And while seven decades have passed since this pivotal battle, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”

Those who survived the bitter cold and bloody fighting cannot forget the price of victory.

Nightmares, battle scars – both physical and psychological – and the satisfaction of knowing they answered the call to defend their country are part of their stories.

Some will tell you it was a long time ago, that they’d rather leave it in the past.

Tichy, a retired autoworker from Alden, credits the hard-driving Gen. George S. Patton with saving him and many other American soldiers because he knew “how to fight a war.”

Cole, a retired car dealership owner from North Buffalo, credits self preservation with his survival after being shot down from his observation plane behind enemy lines.

Tichy’s recollections

Tichy says the images of bodies – both the American and the enemy – remain burned into his memory.

“The bodies were stacked like cord wood. We kept going back and forth in the Ardennes Forest and the little towns. You’d win some ground and then lose it. They had a special outfit that picked up our wounded and dead, but they couldn’t get everyone at one time because we were going back and forth and because of the snow,” Tichy said.

The snow, in fact, helped the Germans in the early days of the battle. Unable to get off the ground because of the weather, the Allies’ planes were prevented from bombing the enemy, its panzer tanks and artillery.

“We spent a lot of time in foxholes, and you would wake up covered in snow,” Tichy said, adding he did not mind the blanket of snow. “You were glad to be alive and to fight another day.”

Lacking proper winter footwear, Tichy and other soldiers improvised, shedding their government-issued boots for galoshes they converted into insulated winter boots.

“I put on a couple pairs of socks, cut up a wool blanket and wrapped my feet in sections of it and then put on my galoshes. Other guys would put on as many pairs of socks as they could and put on their galoshes. I wore my galoshes from December through April and didn’t get frozen feet.”

That was an accomplishment, Tichy said, estimating that as many as half the troops on the front lines suffered from varying degrees of frostbite.

Tichy, a member of the 575th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, added that he had it better than many of the troops who had to slog their way through snowdrifts. He rode a half-track vehicle mounted with the anti-aircraft guns.

The winter storm, one of the worst ever recorded in that region of Europe, kept not only the Allies’ planes grounded for long periods but the enemy’s as well.

“When it snowed, we would shoot our two 50-caliber guns and our one 37-caliber gun into the woods. We would spray the woods to keep the enemy from advancing,” Tichy said. “But some days, especially after Christmas, were clear and beautiful, and we shot at the enemy planes if they were in sight. We never knew who got the planes because there were so many halftrack guns shooting at the planes.”

Tichy also recalls Patton, who led of the Third Army, frequently offering encouragement to the soldiers.

“He’d be in his Jeep, all dressed up in his general’s outfit, with his white-gripped pistol. He really stood out. You could spot him. He’d shout, ‘Keep them son-of-guns on the run,’ ” Tichy said. “He was quite a man. He was a great general. I’m here living because of him. He knew how to fight a war.”

Cole shot down

Cole, too, was no stranger to the bitter cold. Flying an artillery observation plane, he also had to deal with a fierce wind chill. He estimated that when the mercury dropped to zero degrees, it felt more like 15 or 20 degrees below as he flew.

Heavy snows often made flying next to impossible, the North Buffalo veteran added.

“But the snow didn’t stop us from trying to get airborne,” he said. “This was war, and we tried to get up in the air every day. It was a battle, and the storm didn’t matter.”

When visibility was clear enough, he said, he and his co-pilot radioed back coordinates of ground targets to the field artillery battalions.

“They shot 115-millimeter missiles that were so powerful they could take down a building,” Cole said.

The enemy realized what a threat the observation planes represented and did everything possible to shoot them down, he said.

“Every time we went up, we were shot at by the Germans.”

Eventually, Cole’s luck ran out.

After flying missions on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, Cole said he was again sent into the air in the early morning hours of Jan. 2.

“We were hit with anti-aircraft fire, and I told my co-pilot to bail out while we were still behind American lines. He got tangled up in the radio wires of the plane and I pushed him out. My engine was shot, but I had flown glider planes and had enough altitude that I could keep it up for awhile. But I was unable to turn it around. By the time I jumped, I was behind enemy lines. The Germans were shooting at me. There were bullet holes in my parachute.”

Cole landed with several wounds to his left arm and leg caused by shrapnel from the anti-aircraft fire. He was bleeding profusely, but before slipping out of consciousness, he managed to wrap himself in his parachute to keep from freezing to death.

He also discarded his dog tags, which identified his religion. The enemy, he knew, would show him no mercy if they discovered he was Jewish.

He has no idea how long he was in the field where he had landed, but he vaguely remembers a German tank crew picking him up. In the coming days, German doctors staffing a Red Cross tent treated his wounds, though to this day, the left side of his body contains shrapnel fragments.

He was shipped to a POW camp, where he says he is certain the Germans systematically killed off many of the prisoners.

“There were a few hundred of us, and every day, the German officers would call out the names of some of the prisoners, and they never came back. One officer told me they were taking them out on work details, but I think they were murdering them. But you couldn’t question the Germans.”

In time, the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers.

Painful memories

Cole, who nearly starved to death, says memories of his imprisonment are painful.

Richard Cole, the 100-year-old’s only child, says that despite his dad’s advanced age, he still experiences occasional nightmares about the war.

The one instance that stands out, according to the son, happened about 10 years ago.

“He told how me he woke up thrashing. He’d knocked over his bedside lamp, the remote for the TV and bitten his lip and his tongue. He dreamed that he was being taken prisoner again. He was thrashing in the dream to get away from his captors,” Richard Cole said. “Because my father has seen and experienced the worst, nothing in the world bothers him.”

When asked to sum up his wartime service, Sydney Cole displayed the typical modesty that is a trademark of the Greatest Generation.

“I’m proud of helping my country,” he said, “but not proud for myself.”

Frank Tichy is the same, simply proud to have been given the chance to defend America.

“The Germans were never the same after the Battle of the Bulge,” Tichy said. “We chased them back into their own country and kept on fighting them until we won the war.”

email: [email protected]

Sydney L. Cole returned home from World War II a shadow of the young man he once was. He weighed 95 pounds, 50 less than when he enlisted in the Army to fight in Europe.

He had graduated from State Teachers College at Buffalo, now Buffalo State College, with a degree in, of all things, physical education. He was an exercise enthusiast.

In Germany, he had spent several months in a prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft IVF, where he was denied medical care and adequate food.

That debilitating experience would ultimately launch the Army Air Forces pilot into a successful civilian career he never could have imagined when his plane, during the Battle of the Bulge, was brought down by anti-aircraft fire Jan. 2, 1945.

Calling on his skills as a former glider pilot, Cole managed to keep the disabled Stinson L5 Sentinel aircraft aloft to give him and his co-pilot enough time to bail out.

"I ordered the co-pilot immediately out, and he got entangled in the radio wires," the 96-year-old Cole recalled. "I told him to put his leg out the door, and then I pushed and kicked him out with one of my legs while I was still behind the controls.

"I yelled as he went out, 'Don't forget to push the panic button.' That would open his parachute."

The chute opened, and the co-pilot landed on the American side of the battle in Belgium.

By the time Cole had a chance to bail out, the plane had drifted above enemy lines.

"I was shot on my complete left side, from my shoulder to my arm to my leg," he said. "There were even bullet holes in my parachute as I was floating down."

When he landed in a snowdrift at the edge of a forest, Cole managed to bundle himself in the sprawling silk parachute and for two or three days -- he's not sure exactly how long -- he slipped in and out of consciousness as blood from his wounds froze.

That winter in Belgium, he later learned, was one of the worst in the history of that region.

"It was bitterly cold, 15 degrees below zero, and snowdrifts 8 feet high," he remembered. "You couldn't believe it."

Cole eventually was taken prisoner by a retreating tank carrying German officers.

"They threw me on top of the tank and got to a small town and turned me over to Hitler Youth," Cole said, and he was severely beaten. " They kicked my ribs, my legs, my groin and threw me in a cellar. The scars are still on my body."

He was then trucked to a railway station and transported to Stalag Luft IVF on the Germany-Poland border.

At the POW camp, he was one of three American officers and was placed in command of some of the 150 prisoners. "They'd pick out six or eight in my group every morning for work details," he said, "and most of them never came back, but there was nothing we could do."

Despite the brutal conditions, which included meals of thin broth with chunks of potato and what looked like blades of grass, Cole said, he regularly gave his soldiers pep talks.

"I'd talk about making plans to escape. I'd say, 'You're an American soldier, you're a fighting man,' " he said. "I tried to give them hope to stay alive."

When the camp was liberated by the Russians in April 1945, Cole spent months in their care. "They came in with medical people and food. I wanted to stay with them," he said. "I couldn't imagine being treated any better. They brought me back to life."

More than a year later, in the summer of 1946, after he had returned home to Buffalo at last, his goal was to continue rebuilding his withered body.

To do that, he wanted to get to a gym every day but realized he would need a set of wheels. Since automobiles were scarce, the North Buffalo resident headed to Lackawanna in search of a vehicle.

He went there, he said, because the area was filled with working people, and many of them had cars that had been purchased before the war with money they had earned at the grain and steel mills.

"I started knocking on doors, and a war widow sold me a car," he said. "She knew her husband wasn't coming back. The tires on the car were flat; the battery was dead."

After fixing up the car, Cole began regularly visiting the gym in the former YMCA on Franklin Street downtown.

"One day, I came out of the Y, and there was a note on the car from someone offering me quite a sum of money for the car," he said. "I ignored it, but a couple weeks later, the note was there again.

"Money didn't interest me. I needed a car. But in my mind, I realized other people would need cars, and so I started going back to Lackawanna and purchasing whatever cars I could buy."

He then hired a mechanic and, in time, purchased a building and lot at Main and Summer streets. A car dealership -- Cole Motors -- was born, and lasted until the site was taken by eminent domain for the Metro Rail project that began in 1978.

As a boy, Cole said, his dream was to either go into medicine or aviation. "After the war, mentally and physically," he said, "I was in no position to go back to school."

So his frailness from the POW experience, he said, drove him unexpectedly into the car business and a life of prosperity.

***

Sydney L. Cole, 96

Hometown: New York City

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Captain

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1941-46

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, Prisoner of War Medal, six Air Medals

Specialty: Observation pilot providing radio guidance to ground operators of 155 mm field artillery units

Sixty-five years have passed since Edward L. Drabczyk nearly lost the use of his legs when he and fellow machine gunners were ordered to make a "lightning thrust" across the French border into Germany.

He says he would not be alive if it weren't for the selfless bravery of a fellow sergeant. Despite so much time having passed, Drabczyk says, he still dreams of one day thanking that man, though he doesn't even know his name.

At dawn on March 19, 1945, the Army's 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion carried Drabczyk and his comrades from L Company, 30th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, toward the German border.

Perched on the second of four tanks in the column, Drabczyk said, the lane they traveled was so narrow that branches and brush on either side rubbed against the tanks' armor plating. Tensions were also tight. Would they make it across the border undetected?

"You're always scared in situations like that," Drabczyk said.

The tension was finally shattered three hours into the trip. German machine gunners started firing.

The tank column halted, and Drabczyk and his lieutenant made plans to go after the enemy who was shooting from somewhere beyond the bramble in front of the tanks.

Then rockets, known as "screaming meemies," showered the Americans, and the next thing Drabczyk knew, he was on the ground, his face and helmet in the dirt, listening to the unnerving noises of those projectiles "that sound like squeaky door hinges and scare the ---- out of you."

Shrapnel from the rockets struck all over the back of his body, "from my toes to my shoulders. But the only place I felt pain at first was my left thigh and right elbow."

All around him, he says, he heard cries of "Medic!"

At least a dozen members of his company had been wounded.

A sergeant from inside the tank on which Drabczyk was riding hurried out and assisted him.

"I tried to get up, but my legs were too weak," Drabczyk recalled. "I didn't know I had a shrapnel wound along my spine, making me unable to stand up on my own. I got woozy."

Another barrage of rockets hammered the column.

To Drabczyk's amazement, the sergeant assisting him did not go back inside the safety of the tank.

"Without hesitation, the [sergeant] laid on top of me as a shield. There were explosions all around us, but we were not hit. To be shelled or bombed is to know fear like no other. You're helpless," said Drabczyk, who was 19 at the time.

When the barrage stopped, Drabczyk was further impressed by the sergeant, whom he now looked up to as his "guardian angel."

"His decision to stay with me not only took great courage, but I know saved my life," Drabczyk said. "Because of the thick brush, stretchers could not be brought in to take me or the other wounded out."

"The tanker sergeant said they were going to lay me on some sandbags on the front of a tank," Drabczyk added. "He wrapped my arms around the barrel of the 90 millimeter gun and shouted to the tank driver to back out.

"All the way back, walking alongside the tank, he held my left leg as it was flopping around, because the shrapnel had torn away a lot of the back of my left thigh."

Then yet another barrage of rockets tormented them as they retreated, and Drabczyk urged his protector to flee for safety.

"Get the hell out of here," he told the sergeant. "You don't know where the rockets are going to land."

This time, the sergeant did jump inside the tank.

"And it was the last time I ever saw him," Drabczyk said, "but at that very moment, as if miraculously, a first-aid jeep appeared. I was soon on a stretcher and on my way to an aid station.

"I began to drift in and out, but remember a beautiful nurse asking me where I was from. I answered, 'Niagara Falls, New York.' "

Later, at a field hospital, Drabczyk underwent back surgery and wound up spending three months in a body cast. He also underwent elbow surgery to repair his severed right "funny bone" ulnar nerve.

He returned to the United States on a hospital ship and passed the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in June 1945.

"There weren't too many dry eyes on that ship," recalled Drabczyk, now 85.

By December of that year, he was medically discharged and able to walk on his own two legs into his family's Niagara Falls home to celebrate Christmas.

"Anything I have since 1945 is a gift, especially my wife and my son," Drabczyk said.

But he adds that there is a present he would like to give the selfless sergeant who made sure he survived the German attack so long ago. First, though, Drabczyk has to find out his identity. Without success, he has checked Web sites about World War II and sent mail to the 3rd Infantry in an effort to get the man's name.

"If I saw him, I would hug him and thank him," Drabczyk said, his voice quavering.

"I still get very emotional when I think about him. Without him, I would have bled to death. I hope he's had a wonderful life and that someone gave him a medal."

***

Edward L. Drabczyk, 85

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: January 1944 to December 1945

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, three battle ribbons

Specialty: Machine gunner

When Herbert R. Falk reflects back on the early morning of Feb. 6, 1945, he still can't grasp what came over him to commit a sudden act of gallantry.

He was assigned to a unit that specialized in removing land mines and was walking under the cover of woods with members of the infantry toward the German town of Schmidt when U.S. tanks, which didn't have the same benefit of wooded camouflage, came to a halt on a narrow road running parallel to the forest.

Several partially buried land mines had been spotted. Making matters worse, the tanks had stopped at the bottom of a hill, and the enemy was dug in on top.

Usually, Falk and other combat engineers would work as a team in removing the mines, which, in this case, were powerful enough to shatter the steel tracks of a tank.

"They were big mines," he recalled, "at least 14 inches round and about 3 inches thick," he recalled.

In this exposed situation at the base of the hill, a squad of eight mine removers would be nothing less than sitting ducks. So a call went out for a single volunteer to remove the mines blocking the tanks' path.

Falk heard and answered the cry for help.

"I must have been crazy, but I volunteered. I still don't know why I did it," he said in pondering that moment.

He ran out of the protective woods and, one at a time, grabbed the handle atop each mine and carefully placed it on the side of the road. The enemy did not take kindly.

"I heard a whoosh and then an explosion next to me, and I didn't know what the heck happened. I fell over and looked down at my field jacket and saw blood."

He quickly realized he was on the receiving end of mortar shells.

What was needed was more heroism -- and luckily plenty was on hand.

Four members of his squad ran onto the road and grabbed hold of his arms and legs and dragged him back to safety. The tank column resumed its climb up the hill while Falk's buddies hauled him beyond the range of the mortars and placed him on the hood of a jeep.

He was transported to a first-aid station and later to a hospital in Brussels.

"Then I went to a hospital in Paris where they put a skin graft on my right arm, and I was sent to a recovery hospital in Kidderminster, England."

After two months of recovery, he was sent back to his outfit in Germany.

"We occupied farm country, and in November I got out while the rest of my unit went to Berlin for occupation," he said.

Home in the United States, Falk made use of the G.I. Bill and attended the University of Utah, where he earned a civil engineering degree. He settled in Western New York more than 40 years ago.

Proud of his affiliation with the Jewish War Veterans Post 25, he says he still attends post meetings every few months at Temple Beth Am on Sheridan Drive, Amherst.

"I served as post commander," he says with pride. "Most of the members in the post are World War II veterans. There's about 85 of us."

As for that morning so long ago in Germany on the heavily mined road, Falk says it remains ever so vivid.

"Every time I think about, I can see it very, very clearly."

***

Herbert R. Falk

Age: 89

Hometown: New York City

Residence: East Amherst

Rank: Private

Served: Army, World War II; Corps of Engineers, Company B, 303rd Combat Engineer Battalion, 78th Infantry Division

Years of Service: October 1942 -- November 1945

Honors: Silver Star, Purple Heart, French Croix de Guerre

Specialty: Land mine removal

Before graduating from South Park High School in 1940 and enlisting in the Marine Corps, Stanley M. Bolas was already a fighter.

The teenager from Buffalo's Kaisertown section had made a name for himself as a Golden Gloves boxer. He often won matches as a welterweight in local arenas -- Broadway Auditorium, Eagles Auditorium downtown and Fredro Hall on Clinton Street, to name a few.

But on Sept. 5, 1940, the boxing gloves would come off, and the teenager became a Marine.

Although America would not enter the Second World War until the bombing of Pearl Harbor 15 months later, Bolas was shipped to Iceland, where other Allied troops from Europe were stationed.

He stayed there from October 1941 to March 1942 but did not see battle, unless surviving savage winter weather qualifies. "The winds could hit 125 miles per hour, and the temperature, in some cases, was 40 below zero, which made it difficult to go outside to the latrine," Bolas recalled.

His stint in Iceland ended March 23, when he and his fellow Marines were packed up on a troop ship and sent back to the United States for their eventual journey to the Pacific.

The trip home was fraught with hazard.

"In our convoy, a German submarine was trying to sink the ships and did sink one with a torpedo," he said, "but the troop ship I was on just kept going."

A member of the 22nd Regiment, 6th Marine Division, Bolas arrived in the Pacific on July 9, 1942. Unlike in Iceland, there was plenty of combat to go around.

He fought in the invasion of Eniwetok. Hundreds of Marines gave up their lives as they stormed the beachhead, but even more could have been killed if not for an alert Bolas, who discovered "a spider hole" packed with Japanese soldiers.

"It's a big hole covered with a tin plate that had a small hole on it that they used for breathing. I pulled the plate up and told my men from the squad to fire and plaster them with a grenade," Bolas said.

"I was later informed that if I hadn't spotted the spider hole and dispatched the six enemy soldiers, they would have emerged at night and killed Marines in foxholes."

In recognition of his alert actions, Sgt. Bolas was told by his platoon leader that he would be recommended for a field commission as a lieutenant.

"The inquiring officer looked at my background and saw I just had a high school education, and he told me they were only advancing those who had two-year college educations to second lieutenant, but he did compliment me," said Bolas, who never forgot that lesson on the importance of education. He eventually earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at Canisius College.

During his nearly 36 months in the Pacific, Bolas encountered other deadly enemies that did not have two legs and a rifle.

"I had what they call dengue fever, and it hurts your entire body. It lasts for about a week, and you wish you'd passed away. I also had filariasis [elephantiasis], which you get from consistent mosquito bites. My right arm swelled up."

That, however, was nothing compared with the sacrifice of his older brother, Carl. A master sergeant in the Army, he was killed in action on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. In addition, Bolas had three other brothers who fought in the war.

But it wasn't all hardship for the young Marine.

At one point in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, Bolas put his boxing skills back to work in order to entertain the troops. He climbed into a makeshift ring with another Marine who had training in the sport.

"We were on Wallis Island, and we boxed in front of most of the regiment," Bolas said. "I did win the fight."

Back home, he also had many victories in his climb up the career ladder. He joined the Buffalo Police Department and was eventually promoted to captain, scoring high on civil service exams along the way.

After leaving the police force in 1973, he was appointed commissioner of Erie County Central Police Services. After that, he started his own consulting business, specializing in advertising and promotions. Even at 88, he still manages a couple of accounts.

Bolas says that it's his children who keep him going. And like their father, they're high achievers. His daughter, Andrea, is a nurse, and his son, Michael, is an attorney and certified public accountant.

There also is the cherished memory of Eleanore, his beloved wife, who passed away in 1967.

His voice filled with emotion, he said, "She was just a wonderful, lovable wife."

***

Stanley M. Bolas, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: West Seneca

• Branch: Marine Corps

• Rank: Sergeant

• War zones: Europe, Pacific

• Years of service: September 1940 to December 1945

• Most prominent honors: European Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

• Specialties: Machine gunner and 37mm anti-aircraft gunner

His mom and dad were part of the World War II home front effort, working at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory in Buffalo, but 17-year-old Ken Ditcher wanted to be in thick of the action.

So he quit high school and persuaded his father, Harlan, to sign papers allowing him to enlist early in the Navy.

"My mom was angry," he recalled.

After completing boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Ditcher decided that he could get a front-row seat to the war by joining the submarine service.

But sailors just didn't submerge themselves in this elite form of military activity. They had to prove themselves.

"There were several other fellows who'd graduated boot camp and wanted to be submariners, but I was the only one to get assigned from my group to the submarines," said Ditcher.

Even at 84 years of age, he takes pride in that accomplishment.

To get accepted into submarine school, he had to hold his breath for an extended period, withstand 44.4 pounds of pressure per square inch in a special tank and emerge at a slow pace from beneath 50 feet of water wearing a breathing device.

"If you came up too fast, you might burst your lungs or get a case of the bends," Ditcher said.

After graduating from the eight-week school, the teenager was given the privilege of serving in an occupation that, during the Second World War, had a fatality rate of 24 percent.

Assigned to the USS Barb, he went out on three successful patrols, often in what were called "wolf packs" in the South China Sea. The underwater vessels had to surface on a daily basis to charge their batteries with exhaust-spewing diesel engine generators.

It was during these periods that radio contact with the other submarines was sometimes possible.

"Each patrol lasted on average 50 days. It depended on your supply of torpedoes and fuel. Our patrols were successful because we managed to wreak havoc on the enemy. We sunk tankers, a troop ship and other vessels."

But the USS Barb also had close calls.

"The Japanese would drop depth charges on us. It was scary. The depth charges had pressure devices that were set to detonate at a given depth. Depending on how close the charges exploded by us, you could feel them. You stayed in your bunk or did your job and stayed quiet. That's one of the reasons we were called the 'Silent Service.' "

The depth charges only stopped when either the enemy thought it had taken out the submarine or its sonar could no longer detect the craft, he explained.

But Ditcher's most memorable honor, which earned him the Bronze Star, took place on dry land in Japan.

As the war was coming to end and most of the enemy's ships had been sunk or docked in port, the number of targets had been drastically reduced.

"There really weren't many targets, so the skipper decided to blow up a train. We'd been in an area off Japan for several days, and every night we saw a train go by. The skipper sent six of us out on a raft with machine guns and explosives.

"We left the submarine at midnight July 22, 1945, and we were on the raft maybe 10 or 15 minutes before we made land. We felt edgy because as we went through people's backyards to get to the train trestle, dogs started barking. That was the last thing we expected.

"When we got to the edge of the trestle, a couple of the guys dug under the tracks and set the explosives, so that when the train came by, it would push the rail down and ignite. The rest us served as lookouts."

Back on the raft and heading to the submarine, Ditcher and his fellow sailors suddenly heard a loud explosion. The train was wrecked.

The next day, he and his fellow sailors tuned in to a broadcast from Tokyo Rose, the unofficial Japanese propaganda princess who often taunted the Allied forces with her radio show.

"She tried to break our spirits, but it never worked. On this broadcast the next day, she was saying that the train had been bombed by Allied planes, but she was wrong, she was wrong about a lot of things," Ditcher said, with a chuckle.

When he returned home, he did something to make his mother happy. He returned to high school.

"I graduated from Silver Creek, and then when the Ford plant opened in Woodlawn, I got a job there," said Ditcher, who retired as a tool-and-die maker from the plant in late 1981.

***

Ken Ditcher

Age: 84

Hometown: Salamanca

Residence: Farnham

Rank: torpedoman second class

Served: Navy, World War II

Years of Service: March 1944 - October 1948

Honors: Bronze Star, 3 Presidential Unit Citations, War Patrol Badge with 2 stars, 2 combat ribbons for Pacific Theater service.

Specialty: torpedoes

Born on the Fourth of July 1918 -- could there be a more patriotic day? -- Robert J. Seitz visited the local draft board some 24 years later in North Buffalo to speed up his entry into World War II.

"I went down to the draft board a couple months after my younger brother Jack had enlisted in the Army. I told them I was ready to go, and a couple weeks later they sent me a draft notice," Seitz recalled.

His motivation, he explained, was the fact that everyone he knew was enlisting or getting drafted.

As it turns out, his younger brother was medically discharged in the midst of basic training because of asthma. But Robert Seitz passed basic training with flying colors and was shipped off to flight school.

From there, he served on a crew that ferried newly produced B-24, B-25 and B-26 bombers to Scotland, Italy, northern Africa and India. The planes were then turned over to bombing squadrons.

That task as an aircraft deliveryman was a much safer job than the one he was later assigned as the flight engineer on B-24s converted into C-109 Tankers. They hauled thousands of gallons of aviation fuel from India to China, flying above the Himalayas.

"Ferrying bombers was a lot less hazardous than flying over the hump," Seitz said of skirting some of world's highest mountain peaks.

What made it even more risky was that the tankers lacked extensive weaponry to fend off the Japanese fighter planes.

The constant menace, however, was the weather.

In order for the cargo crews to avoid Japanese fighters, they stuck to a more northerly route east out of India, but it meant contending with high altitudes to avoid crashing into the mountaintops, Seitz explained.

"The farther south you went, the mountains weren't as high, but the Japanese were there, and one time we did see a Japanese fighter. What you did then was go up into the clouds and hide. This guy could have had us, but he must have been out of ammunition," Seitz said. "He flew right alongside our wing tip, and I swear I could see his teeth. Then he went away."

Often, though, the wing tips of the cargo plane weren't visible. The fog was that thick during the 10-hour missions.

What was really unnerving, Seitz said, was when one of the plane's four engines would quit in midflight. That only happened a handful of times in the approximately 600 hours of flight time he logged shuttling back and forth from India to China.

But it was something he never forgot.

"Golly, when I got back to India those times, well, let's put it this way, I had to change my underwear," he said.

When they unloaded the fuel at bases well inland in China , Seitz and fellow crew members never had time to sightsee.

"You unloaded, turned around and got out of there immediately. This was war, and we didn't have the luxury of sightseeing," he said.

When the war ended in August 1945, Seitz said, he participated in one final aerial mission. This time it wasn't delivering aviation fuel.

"We flew a group of Chinese soldiers in a big C-54. We took them to Shanghai, where they were taking over the city that had been occupied by the Japanese," he said.

After that, Seitz says, he was put on a troop transport ship bound for United States, glad that the wartime flights were over.

"I could find other things to do than that."

***

Robert J. Seitz

Age: 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Rank: Staff sergeant

Served: Army Air Forces, World War II

Years of Service: 1942-1945

Honors: Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross.

Specialty: Flight engineer

Michael R. Carestio wanted to leave his job as a tool-and-die maker at the former Wales Strippit plant on Niagara Street in Buffalo to get off the ground in World War II.

He soon made progress and was flying solo in PT-19s, a training plane used by the Army Air Forces in Cimarron, Okla.

Carestio figured that he was well on his way to getting his wings.

But two bouts of pneumonia grounded him.

"I got washed out of flight school, but my second choice was as a bombardier, and that's what I followed up with," the 88-year-old veteran recalled.

By 1944, he was flying out of England as a crew member on a B-24 Liberator bomber.

"Our first missions were in support of the troops who had invaded during D-Day. We were bombing just about anything that moved, along with bridges, roads and railroad tracks. We flew at lower altitudes. The targets weren't like a city or a factory. They were smaller and tougher to see," Carestio said of flying at about 10,000 feet.

As the war progressed farther inland, the B-24s soared higher, often up to 30,000 feet. The deal was 33 missions, and you got a ticket home. It's a sure bet that Carestio was keeping count.

Then, out of the blue, the deal changed.

"We were told we had to do 35 missions," he said. "So we had to do two more."

He says the finish line had been unfairly moved.

"We'd been looking forward to going home. We weren't happy, but we thought, 'Well we got this far, so we'll probably get the rest of the way.' "

There was good reason to be concerned, though.

Flak from enemy anti-aircraft artillery often filled the skies.

"Sometimes we'd go through it unscathed, and other times we'd get hit," he said. "We were pretty lucky. Only once was a crew member wounded. This guy Paris was hit in the hand, very damaged, and he couldn't use it. I was first-aid officer on the flight, so I crawled back to him and gave him a shot of morphine."

War was grim, although at first, it hadn't seemed that way for the young man from Buffalo's West Side.

When Carestio had first started dropping bombs on the enemy, he said, it was "pretty darn thrilling to be up there at 21 years old."

But on his 22nd mission -- Aug. 26, 1944 -- he gained a different perspective.

"We lost three ships that day, and one of them was off our right wing," he said. "It took a direct hit. We didn't see anyone come out of that plane. You look to see if parachutes open up, and we didn't see any."

The mood on Carestio's plane turned somber.

"I have a note in the logbook that I kept of every mission we went on, and that day, I wrote, 'No one said a word over the intercom for a full minute. I guess we were all praying and waiting. No matter what anyone says, today we came back only by the grace of God.' "

The attack had occurred on the way to bomb a chemical plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

They learned later that, despite the losses, the mission had been successful.

"We were told that the target had been destroyed," Carestio said.

But the lesson learned that day was that "we were just human beings, and we could get as scared as anyone else."

On every mission after that, Carestio said, he and fellow crew members wondered whether they would return.

He did return and went on to raise a family of three sons with Emily, his wife of 65 years.

"The war is one of those things that you're glad you went through," he said, "but you wouldn't want to do it all over again."

***

Michael R. Carestio, 88

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Rank: First lieutenant

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: Europe

Years of service: December 1942 to October 1945

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

The Army Air Forces tried to do a lot a different things with Gordon H. Tresch, but he was determined to become a combat navigator, despite many twists and turns.

After he graduated from the University of Buffalo with a business degree, he was drafted and sent to pilot training school, where he soloed, but he kept pushing to get off the ground as a navigator.

Finally, in 1943, he found a sympathetic captain who approved the transfer. Tresch, a math whiz, did his commanding officer proud. He graduated first in his class from navigation school.

"When I was at East High School, I graduated with a 100 average in math. I took every math class there was but calculus. I was good in math, and there's a lot of math in navigation," said Tresch, who was also the high school class valedictorian.

But even after graduating with high honors from navigation school, things did not add up for Tresch in his push to navigate.

He was sent to gunnery school to learn how to operate the various guns on different bombers.

Tresch was also given courses in how to be a bombardier and radar operator. There was hardly a job on a bomber that he couldn't perform.

He eventually arrived in Savannah, Ga., where he served as an instructor navigator on B-24 Liberator bombers.

His goal, however, was to get into the thick of the fight.

"I requested a transfer to B-29 school, which I knew would send me overseas."

Again, he had a detour.

While navigating what he described as "a worn-out B-17 Flying Fortress" transporting 19 flyers from Florida to Nebraska, the plane suddenly started losing its fuel during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

"We all had our parachutes on and were ready to get out when I spotted what I thought was a landing field -- two rows of lights. But it was the main street in Lexington, Missouri, and when we got down over the town, we were completely out of gas and we crash-landed into a willow tree forest just outside the town."

All on board walked out, despite the fact that the aircraft was destroyed. "I was in the nose of the plane and temporarily knocked out," Tresch said. "When I awoke, I turned around, and the whole nose of the plane was off. I walked out of the nose."

In early 1945, he finally saw action. Based in Guam and assigned to the crew of a B-29 Superfortress with the 20th Air Force's 502nd Bomb Group, he and his fellow airmen were given the mission of bombing Japan's oil supply.

"Our group bombed out 95 percent of Japan's oil supply," he recalled. "We flew low-level because we were carrying full loads of bombs, and we only had a tail gunner, no side gunners. This was done to conserve fuel because they were the longest missions of the war."

The flights were at night, putting Tresch's skills to the ultimate test. "With celestial navigation, your timing in shooting the stars has to be exact," he said, "and you have to shoot three stars as a triangle so that you can get a fix and determine your location."

Little did he know that the final mission he would guide helped play an instrumental role in the conclusion of the war with Japan. Even after the world's first two atomic bombs had been dropped, the country did not surrender immediately.

So Tresch and his fellow crew members were sent out to bomb an oil refinery in Akita. It would turn out to be the longest combat flight on record, just short of 17 hours aloft.

But this mission also had much greater significance.

When they were flying over Tokyo at about 10,000 feet, the city was plunged into a blackout as a defensive move.

"They thought we were going to bomb them, and the blackout prevented a potential coup by the Japanese military over the emperor," he said. "The military wanted to continue the war, and the emperor had made peace."

After bombing the refinery, Tresch said, he and the rest of the crew heard great news over the B-29 radio Aug. 15 as they flew back to Guam:

"President Truman announced the end of the war."

When Tresch got home, he charted a successful course in business, selling Studebakers before owning a Chevy dealership in Niagara Falls.

In later years, he became a familiar face at Tonawanda Town Board meetings, serving first as a councilman and later as town clerk.

***

Gordon H. Tresch, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: August 1942 to January 1946

Most prominent honors: Air Medal, American Theater and Far Eastern Theater medals, Navigation Award

Specialty: Navigator

Oniel "Cozzie" Cozzolino's experiences as a Boy Scout in Lancaster's Troop 52, known as "Guy Bradley's Braves," gave him an edge when he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II.

In boot camp at age 18, he knew all the moves for close-order drills when marching. His assistant scoutmaster, John Kenyon, was a former Marine and ran the troop like a military unit.

Troop camp-outs in cold weather helped toughen up Cozzolino for the Battle of the Bulge during one of Europe's coldest winters.

"We slept right out in the snow in Belgium. We had no choice. We tried to take houses from the Germans, but sometimes we couldn't," said the retired 85-year-old meat market manager and deli executive.

But one thing that the Boy Scouts did not prepare him for were his nocturnal excursions out on patrol.

His job was to lead patrols to collect information on what American forces would face the coming day as they ventured farther east into German-held territory.

The enemy knew that American reconnaissance units preferred to stay in the woods undercover rather than walk in the open on snow-covered roads that shone brightly in the reflections of moonbeams.

In order to keep the patrols on their toes, the Germans set up tripwires attached to small bombs and planted land mines in the woods paralleling the roads.

Cozzolino said he had a knack for detecting danger underfoot.

"I could feel them and spot them," he said, "but you had to walk real slow to do that."

Hiking through the woods had another downside. It required a lot more energy than simply walking on a road. The forest floor was uneven, and there were forests and brush to navigate.

"On one mission, it took us about 45 minutes to get through the woods, and then we saw these guys on the road," Cozzolino said. "They were Americans. They'd taken a German pillbox.

"I went to the officer in charge and asked if he knew what was at the crossroads up ahead. He said there were Germans," Cozzolino said. "So we set off again. But we were so tired from going through the woods that I said, 'Let's take the road.' I knew it was a gamble, and we were taking a chance."

Cozzolino's roll of the dice nearly cost him his life.

"I spotted a German behind a tree," he said. "He was peeking and looking at me, and he didn't say a word. I said, 'Halt, who goes there?' Then I hear his machine gun -- dit, dit, dit. The bullets were flying all around me, and I don't how he missed me. I went into a ditch on the side of the road. I was protected, and I said to myself, 'I think I'm going to be a prisoner tonight.' "

To make matters worse, when Cozzolino attempted to return fire, he found that his weapon had frozen. It was an M3 submachine gun that was made at Buffalo Arms Co. on Kennedy Road, Cheektowaga.

"I laid in the ditch awhile, then started backing up, and when I was 20 yards away, I jumped out of the ditch and rejoined the patrol," he said. "I asked the guys where they were. Didn't they hear the shooting? They said they didn't know what was going on. I could see one of the men was missing."

In an instant, Cozzolino made a decision. Rather than go through the rest of his life wondering what had happened to the missing soldier, he informed the patrol that they were going after him.

"I told the patrol that we were going to find him and bring him back," he said. "We started moving up the road, and about 30 or 40 yards away, I saw the guy. He was struggling. He fell down, and I ran over, and we picked him up and brought him back to the pillbox. He was wounded with a shot that went right through his right shoulder."

Cozzolino says he has never regretted that decision.

At the pillbox, another sergeant with the patrol told him to stay with the wounded man until he could be treated and removed to a field hospital:

"The sergeant said, 'Cozzie, you've had a tough night. You stay, and I'll take the patrol and report to the captain.' "

Cozzolino said he was glad to catch the break.

For his efforts there and in numerous other firefights and full battles, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

But one of Cozzolino's greatest honors came years later when he noticed his former assistant scoutmaster at church:

"After Mass, I ran out and went up to him and said, 'John Kenyon, I want to thank you for all the things you taught me in Scouting.' He got tears in his eyes. It was an honor to see him."

***

Oneil "Cozzie" Cozzolino, 85

Hometown, residence: Lancaster

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: November 1943 to April 1946

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Liberation Medals from Luxembourg and Belgium

Specialty: Squad leader, Company A, 1st Battalion, 345th Regiment

The Army Air Forces tried to do a lot a different things with Gordon H. Tresch, but he was determined to become a combat navigator, despite many twists and turns.

After he graduated from the University of Buffalo with a business degree, he was drafted and sent to pilot training school, where he soloed, but he kept pushing to get off the ground as a navigator.

Finally, in 1943, he found a sympathetic captain who approved the transfer. Tresch, a math whiz, did his commanding officer proud. He graduated first in his class from navigation school.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, James Wagner was eager to follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother, Edmund, and join the fight. Even after he was wounded in battle, his enthusiasm never flagged.

The fourth oldest of 10 children from the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood, Wagner enlisted at 17 years old with his parents' blessings. In time, a third Wagner brother, Joseph, took up arms for Uncle Sam.

But James Wagner said he held the proud distinction of being the only son to serve in the Marines. Edmund and Joseph served in the Army, and all three Wagners were in the Asiatic war zone.

James Wagner got his first taste of battle on the Pacific atoll Kwajalein at the end of January and into early February 1944. That, he recalls, was an easy victory.

He could not say the same for future battles.

Among the first waves of Marines landing on Saipan on June 15, 1944, he said:

"We had a little trouble there. We hit the beach, and the Japanese were waiting for us. They let about three waves of Marines land, and then they opened up on us. Everybody was on their own. You had to get off the beach. So we kept on going. We didn't know who was who."

The Marines fought their way inland, Wagner firing mortar rounds at the enemy.

On the third day, he suffered a bullet wound to the right leg and collapsed. He was eventually shipped to a hospital in Hawaii and received a Purple Heart for, as the citation stated, exhibiting "coolness and great courage under heavy enemy fire "

There was just one problem: The wound proved stubborn in healing.

"It wouldn't heal up. It took a long time," he said. "You couldn't return until it wasn't bleeding no more. When it healed, I was given a choice to go back to the states or back to my outfit.

"I could have said my leg was still hurting, but I said I want to be with what was left of my company. I figured why not."

Wagner returned in time to get his battlefield bearings and participate in what he said was "the worst battle of all" -- Iwo Jima.

"The Japanese wanted us all on the island in order to box us in. We lost a lot of men there. It was the worst. My battalion had about 200 and damn near all of them were killed in the war. I was blessed," Wagner said.

By the time he returned to the United States, he estimated that fewer than 10 members of his battalion made it back alive.

Losing so many, he recalled, was tough.

"When someone is wounded, it happens so fast. You try to get them out, but half the time you can't. You have to go forward or you're dead yourself. Forward is the only way you have," he said.

Coping with so much death, he said, required some mental gymnastics: "You can't think about it. You join up with whoever is left. I saw Marines who got mentally ill and just walked right out in front of the Japanese and got killed. Others cried from all the killing."

Wagner says he moved on with each new day.

Yet he has never forgotten those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"I think about them even now. They were all nice kids."

***

James Wagner

Age: 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Rank: Private first class

Served: Marines, World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of Service: 1942-1945

Honors: Purple Heart

Specialties: Mortarman and machine gunner, Company C, 4th Marine Division

Paul Woods had it tough as a boy growing up in Alabama.

He was 7 when his father died in July 1930. A month later, his mother died.

"My uncle came to my mother's gravesite and took me to his farm," Woods said of how he came to work on his uncle's 500-acre spread in Sulligent, Ala.

As the years passed, Woods said he dreamed of "seeing the other side of the world." The Army, he said, provided him with a ticket out of the Deep South and its lack of opportunity for African-Americans.

With World War II raging in Europe, America had started the military draft and was taking young men left and right, according to Woods. He did not require a draft notice.

"I told my Uncle Henry I'm going in the Army. I was 17 and we went down to the enlistment station. The man there said, 'He's not old enough but if he wants to join, I'll raise his age.' He did God bless him," the 95-year-old Woods recalled.

His exit from Alabama landed him in a "segregated unit" headed by white officers at Fort Sill, Okla. But the chance to travel, albeit to a war zone, soon presented itself after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marking America's entry into the Second World War.

"We were sent to San Francisco as part of the 29th Quartermaster Regiment and we boarded the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted into a troop ship. We landed in Sydney, Australia, and were there a couple months before we were sent to Townsville, a place where the railroad tracks ended. We were there about a year and then went to Port Moresby, New Guinea."

Woods and his fellow black soldiers provided ammunition to infantry members, "who were cleaning up the Japanese that were still on the island."

The quartermaster unit also moved building supplies from ships to land for the construction of an airfield.

But Woods said a different type of construction impressed him.

"The native people lived in grass huts and believe me, when it rained, no rain got in. I don't know how they did it," he said.

* * *

Paul Woods, 95

Hometown: Bazemore, Ala.

Residence: Angola

Branch: Army

Rank: T5, 1st class

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: Enlisted, 1940 – 1945

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal and Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Quartermaster

* * *

During the 29th's time in New Guinea, Woods said he and other soldiers had the chance to return to Australia on leaves.

"I liked the Australian women. They were friendly to us. Back in Alabama, you would have been skinned alive if you were with a white woman. You couldn't ride on a bus in the front with a white woman," he said of the racism back home.

While black soldiers were treated with hospitality Down Under during the war, Woods said Australia's aboriginal people were subject to racist treatment.

But by early January 1945, the war in the Pacific was making steady progress and Woods' regiment shifted to the Philippines. Making land, however, was not so easy.

"We stayed on our landing ships under a smoke screen for three days while battleships shelled the island.

"When we finally landed, the ground was too soft for Jeeps and trucks. So we used mules to carry the equipment forward. I was used to mules. My uncle had mules on his farm," Woods recalled.

Months passed and in August 1945, the war abruptly ended.

"I thank President Truman for dropping the atomic bombs. It saved American lives," Woods said.

After being honorably discharged, a fact that he is proud of, Woods returned home and resumed working at Uncle Henry's farm. A couple years later, he married the former Matilda Lucas.

"Alabama was nasty with the racism, so we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, which was just as bad, but I had a job there in a metal factory," he said.

During a 1953 family visit to Buffalo, Woods was hired to work at Bethlehem Steel. He and his wife had three children at the time.

"We went on to have a total of 15 children that included four sets of twins," said Woods, who settled his family in Angola. "I supported my family working a lot of overtime."

All of his children completed high school and several earned college degrees, he said, stressing the importance of education to get ahead in life: "There is no better place than to put your child in school."

As for Woods, part of his education came through his desire to see "the other side of the world," compliments of World War II.

"I just wonder now why people can't get along," he said of the ongoing global turmoil.

But for him, life continues to offer blessings.

Two of his daughters recently took him on a trip to Australia to fulfill his dream of returning to Sydney and visiting Royal Randwick Racecourse, where as a young soldier he had watched thoroughbred horses compete.

"It was remodeled and they showed us where the queen sat when she visited," Woods said of the track.

But horseracing was only part of his nostalgic journey.

"When I was in Sydney in the war, there were street cars and now it's all cars," he said.

Woods was also interested in sampling a local dish he had enjoyed as a soldier.

"I had told my daughters when they were growing up how I'd eaten kangaroo meat. So we found a restaurant that served it and had some," he said.

How was it?

"Believe me when I tell you, it was delicious, just like steak," he said.

Being black and young in Alabama some seven decades ago did not translate into many work opportunities.

Paul Woods spent his teenage years shoeing horses and milking cows by hand on his uncle's farm. But he wanted more out of life, so he joined the Army to learn a trade and see the world.

That was in June 1941. Six months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the 18-year-old Woods was destined for an extensive tour of the Pacific, though he would view it from a perspective he had never imagined.

Woods served in what then was a segregated Army.

The first stop for him and his fellow members of an all-black unit in the Quartermaster Corps was Australia, where they were given lodging at a racetrack in Sydney.

"They told us Seabiscuit had run there, but we didn't know too much about racehorses," said Woods, who was put to work driving a truck delivering ammunition.

"Anything that would kill, we delivered it. We delivered to airfields and to the small PT boats that were quick on the water," said Woods, who eventually left Australia in 1944 to help liberate New Guinea from the Japanese.

After that, it was on to the island of Luzon for the battle of the liberation of the Philippines, particularly the capital city of Manila.

Woods was on one of many invading boats. For safety, there was a rule that each landing craft keep a distance of about 100 feet from any other.

"If one of the LST-990 boats got hit by the enemy, it could take out another boat if it was too close," Woods said. "So we kept our distance; that way you'd only lose one crew of 50."

To provide overhead cover from Japanese warplanes, a massive smoke screen was generated by some of the boats in the invading flotilla.

"The Japanese were in their planes, but they couldn't see us. We were under a smoke screen for three days," Woods said. "You could hear the planes above us. They did drop bombs and got a few of our boats."

When the ocean tide finally receded enough for the boats to unload troops, trucks and ammunition on the beachheads, Woods said, the fight began in earnest.

"All hell broke loose. The Japanese were dug in, and the infantry under Gen. Douglas MacArthur had to dig them out. But before that happened, Navy warships were shelling the hills for two days."

During those approximately 48 hours, Woods and thousands of other troops were stuck on the beach.

"We took care of the sick and wounded," he said. "Then when the Navy got done shelling, the infantry moved, and we moved up delivering ammunition to them."

At times, Woods and other quartermaster personnel on the supply line came under direct enemy fire and had to fend for themselves. Ultimately, American firepower proved too great for the Japanese, and the Philippines were liberated.

Woods said his three Bronze Stars were the result of his battlefield actions during that liberation.

"You needed good nerve and bravery," Woods said, adding that many soldiers suffered shell shock from the intensity of the battles.

"Some of the soldiers lost their minds," Woods recalled. "Coming home, I saw maybe three soldiers jump overboard. They didn't know what they were doing. I felt sorry for their families."

But his war experiences were not all horrible. While on Luzon, he remembered being amazed at how the farmers planted their rice paddies.

"They'd tie eight [water buffaloes] together and walk them around in a circle," he said, "and their hooves would cultivate the field, and they'd plant the rice behind them."

As a schoolboy, Woods recalled, he had seen pictures of this in textbooks and never imagined that he would see it in person.

So, in a way, he did get to see some of the wonders of the world.

After returning to civilian life, he arrived in Buffalo in 1953 as a husband and father of three children to visit his wife's cousin. Unexpectedly, he was offered a job at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked for 31 years before being forced into early retirement because the plant closed.

He and his wife, Mary, raised a total of 14 children, including four sets of twins. Now a widower, Woods says he spends his time "just taking it easy."

Some might disagree.

He is helping to raise three great-grandchildren and caring for his son Vincent, a disabled Buffalo firefighter injured in the line of duty several years ago.

The World War II veteran also spends time reflecting on his place in history as an African-American soldier.

"A bullet knows no race, rank or status," he says. " We were all brothers on the battlefield."

Woods adds that he is proud of the journey his country has made.

"I've seen my country go from segregation to integration to now having a black president in my lifetime," he said.

Sunday, though, Woods was the center of attention as his family gathered in Buffalo to celebrate his 88th birthday. His military service figured into the gathering in a big way, with proclamations from dignitaries including Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.

> Paul Woods, 88

Hometown: Bazemore, Ala.

Residence: Angola

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1941-45

Most prominent honors: Three Bronze Stars, Philippine Liberation Medal

Specialty: Truck driver, 29th Regiment, Quartermaster Corps

World War II was raging on two fronts, and James B. Kane was 18.

That's all it took for him and his buddy James Morgan to hop on a streetcar that ran along Seneca Street in South Buffalo and head downtown. At the military recruiting station in the old post office, they signed up with the Army Air Forces.

When Kane's younger brother, Donald, was old enough, he, too, enlisted but picked the Navy, eventually serving on a minesweeper.

James Kane was a navigator on a B-17 "Flying Fortress," taking part in 30 missions over Europe and twice being forced out of the skies.

The first time was on his seventh mission, Oct. 5, 1944. His B-17, with a nine-member crew, was 26,000 feet above Cologne, Germany, and had just dropped bombs on a sprawling railroad yard.

"We got hit with a lot of flak. We lost one of the engines, and its propeller was windmilling," Kane recalled. "The propeller eventually came off and knocked off 8 or 10 feet of the left wing.

"Then we lost another engine. We'd just left the Continent, and the pilot was trying to turn the plane around to go back to Belgium. The plane just sort of dipped, and we all bailed out, except the pilot."

"My chute opened," Kane added, "and in a second, I watched as the plane crashed and exploded in the North Sea. I counted eight parachutes, including my own. The pilot didn't get out. Of the eight chutes, two survived.

"I was picked up first by an English navy torpedo boat that was patrolling by Dunkirk and had seen the explosion.

"They also picked up the co-pilot. The six others were never found. Two of those six were from this area" -- Sgts. John McGraw of Hamburg and Louis Swanson of Lancaster.

Kane was heartbroken.

"While myself and the co-pilot were recovering down below, the ship patrolled for at least three hours but couldn't find anyone else," said Kane, who has an old black-and-white photograph of the entire crew taken a month before the tragedy. The snapshot is on a bookcase in his home.

After being dropped off in Belgium by the British, he and the co-pilot spent two days there before being transported on an American supply ship back to Southampton, England.

His superiors showed compassion.

"It was called flak leave," Kane said. "We were sent to a rehab up in northern England to give us a chance to recover from the trauma. We were there about a week."

Kane's next mission was Oct. 22. All went smoothly.

But on his 11th mission, Nov. 8, the B-17 incurred heavy damage from flak above Merseburg, Germany.

It was home to an oil refinery and heavily protected.

"When you got word that you were going to Merseburg, you knew you were in trouble," Kane said. "We got hit hard over the target. Two engines were out. We were all alone, just short of Berlin."

Based on his experience of plunging into the North Sea, it was no surprise that Kane encouraged the new pilot to make an emergency landing. The pilot, still wet behind the ears, was debating whether to try to stay aloft and fly over the North Sea, though the plane was sputtering.

"I was able to prevail, and we landed in Belgium," Kane said. "It took us 3 1/2 hours to get to Brussels. We were up against a tremendous head wind.

"The pilot was a West Pointer who later became a general. He and I were both put in for the Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission, and he got it. They reduced it to an Air Medal for me."

Kane, however, was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross that cited the North Sea plane crash and other hazardous missions.

The medal arrived when he was out of the service and back in Buffalo at the ripe old age of 20.

"People would look at me when I came home and wonder when I was going to war," Kane said. "I looked like I was about 16."

But he had moved on to college, attending Canisius on the GI Bill. He then went to Georgetown Law School, and the rest is history. He rose in the judicial ranks and served for decades on State Supreme Court, with 14 of those years as the chief administrative judge for the Eighth Judicial District. He and his wife, Marie, raised 10 children.

And, of course, Kane is especially proud of his grand-nephew. Kane's younger brother, Donald, also made it home and raised a big family that would one day see a grandson make it big in the National Hockey League -- Patrick Kane, now 22, a star right winger for the Chicago Blackhawks who scored the winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the NHL finals last June to give his team the Stanley Cup.

"Patrick Timothy Kane is a phenom," James Kane says.

Donald, the phenom's grandfather, connected with James ever so briefly when they were both in uniform.

"I called my mom to tell her I was in New York City and would be home the next day," James Kane said. "She said Donald was on a ship over at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I told her, 'I'm getting in a cab and going over.' "

At the Navy Yard, James Kane tracked down his only brother and managed to persuade the ship's commanding officer to give Donald a day off.

The Kanes went out on the town.

"I rented a room for us at the Waldorf-Astoria, and it cost me five bucks," James Kane said. "We went to Times Square to a photo studio and got a portrait of us together."

And if you happen to visit Donald Kane's home in South Buffalo, that 8-by-10 photograph is still on display, as it is at James' home in Orchard Park.

***

>James B. Kane Jr., 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: Dec. 15, 1942, to June 11, 1945

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters

Specialty: Navigator, B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber

Seneca Falls is supposed to have provided real-life inspiration for the classic holiday movie "It's a Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart.

Well, step aside, Seneca Falls, and make way for this Silver Creek native, John "Jack" Elliott, who discovered that the skies over Europe in World War II had a silver lining illuminated by a star: Jimmy Stewart.

Elliott, who piloted a B-24 "Liberator" bomber in Europe, was taught how to fly in tight formation by the Academy Award-winning actor. Stewart had put his screen career on hold during the war to train bomber pilots and fly missions.

But before Elliott rubbed elbows -- rather, wingtips -- with Hollywood royalty, he first had to figure out a way to avoid a draft notice that was sure to make him an infantryman.

When the young man of 20 living beside Lake Erie received his "greetings" from the Army to report to the draft board, he decided to show up a few days early and take the test for the Army Air Forces.

Borrowing his dad Clyde's 1939 Chevrolet, Elliott drove to Buffalo and passed the initial test for aircraft duty. So much for the possibility of being drafted into infantry service. He enlisted.

Elliott says he wasn't afraid of the dangers of ground fighting; he just thought he'd do better as a flier. He also had the benefit of some insider information. His friends, already in the military, had tipped him off that the "best deal" was to take to the air.

The skyward move certainly didn't exempt him from danger. Quite the contrary.

"I flew 30 missions over Germany, Belgium and France in the European Theater. There was plenty flak coming up from the ground, and German fighter planes diving into our bomber formations in the air," said the 89-year-old retired accounting administrator for the State University of New York.

When he was first stationed at Old Buckingham Airfield in England in March 1944, he met Maj. Jimmy Stewart, formerly a civilian pilot, whose World War II decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Assigned to the 453rd Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Elliott received lessons on flying in bomb formation from Stewart himself.

"That means practically putting the tip of your wing into the side window of the plane next to you," Elliott explained. "It seems like you're right there, but you're probably at least a hundred feet away. What it does is give you better protection from enemy fighters because the gunners in the bombers are closer together."

Later, after Elliott returned to England from bombing missions, the actor would be waiting to debrief him and other pilots.

"Stewart was very friendly and enjoyed a good joke. He was a major when I met him," Elliott said. "He debriefed me a few times after the missions. He wanted to know if any of our planes went down, if we saw any parachutes come out, if we had any enemy kills, and if the bombing was a success in hitting the targets."

In other words, Stewart was an engaged warrior and not in the least bit absorbed by his celebrity, Elliott recalled.

But there was no question that Stewart was a star.

"If there was a dance at the base and local women showed up, they would just go nuts when they saw him. They were all interested in him," Elliott said.

Upon first meeting Stewart, Elliott felt just about the same way.

"When we first arrived in England, I went in to see the colonel and let him know we were there, and the first person I shook hands with was Maj. Stewart," he said. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't wash my hand for three days. I had no idea he was there."

The jolt of being in close proximity to stardom soon wore off.

During the 30 missions Elliott flew, danger was always at hand.

"On one of the missions, I think to southern Germany, we got 56 holes in the aircraft from flak," he said. "We had holes in the gas tank, and fuel was running low, and we had to dump a lot of weight -- guns and stuff -- so that we could stay in the air a little longer and land in friendly territory."

But there certainly were some perks from being in the same bombing group with Stewart.

A wire-service photographer snapped a picture of Stewart handing out bombing assignments for the D-Day invasion at Normandy, and Elliott wound up in the famous photo.

"Stewart was reaching over my head to give an assignment, and I was closer to the photographer than he was," Elliott said. "The picture appeared in the newspapers and later in Look magazine."

After the war ended, Elliott said, he never again saw Stewart in person, though he came close once.

"We went out to California to visit my daughter about 30 years ago and went on a tour of the stars' homes in Hollywood, and the guide said there's Jimmy Stewart's house," Elliott recalled. "I walked over to the gate wondering what the procedure was to get in and see him. But three big dogs came bounding up, and I figured I'd say goodbye after that."

Elliott says that there are only two other members of his 10-member flight crew still alive but that memories of Jimmy Stewart often come to mind:

"When he would get up in front of us, he put on his drawl a few times just to be funny. He'd say something like, 'Now, today, we're going to Berlin.' We'd all laugh, not about Berlin, but how he said it."

***

Jack Elliott, 89

Hometown: Silver Creek

Residence: Getzville

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Captain

War zone: Europe

Years of service: July 1942 to July 1945

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

Specialty: Pilot, B-24 "Liberator" bomber

Howard G. Powell was drafted into the Army in 1942, but instead of being assigned a rifle, he was put to work taking notes and typing.

That's because he had a skill the Army valued. At Fosdick-Masten Park High School, he had taken shorthand, and the military needed soldiers who could rapidly take accurate notes at disciplinary proceedings.

"I covered court-martial proceedings in the Pacific Theater for soldiers who were brought up on charges of dereliction of duty," Powell says. "I covered the hearings in shorthand and did a lot of transcribing."

Unlike other African-American soldiers who were placed in all-black units, he served in a mostly white battalion. Race was not a factor, he said.

"I was proud to be doing my job and proud to be serving my country," Powell recalls.

When he wasn't working at disciplinary hearings, he drove a truck, delivering supplies on Pacific islands from Hawaii to the Philippines.

And while Powell had a front-row seat to history in World War II, he says, he is also proud of being part of a historic group of African-Americans who hold claim to being members of the first generation of native Buffalonians of black ancestry.

Born in 1921, he and many other African-Americans made up that local generation, and they shared a special bond in being able to call this Northern city their hometown.

His father, Kydson F. Powell Sr., came to Buffalo from Canada. He had lived near Windsor, Ont.

As the family story goes, Buffalo's economic opportunities back in the early 20th century beckoned Kydson Powell. He found work as a porter, or redcap, with the New York Central Railroad.

While working the rails, he met his future wife, Edna, from Scranton, Pa., and they married. She was a homemaker, music instructor and organist at St. Luke AME Zion Church.

Howard Powell, the third-youngest of their four children, followed in his father's footsteps, working as a redcap at the old Central Terminal until Uncle Sam interrupted his career with a draft notice.

That is when Powell got the chance to put his shorthand skills to work with the military. He knew he was in a sensitive position, with the careers of soldiers on the line at courts-martial.

Instead of combat, he explains, he witnessed another side of the war -- soldiers in precarious positions for allegedly violating orders.

Upon returning home from the war, he resumed working as a redcap but soon began employment at the Westinghouse plant in Cheektowaga and became one of the company's first black supervisors.

For 41 years, he worked at Westinghouse. Mainly on his income, he and his wife of 64 years, Ethel, now deceased, raised four children, Veronica, Natalie, Myron and Derrick. In retirement, he did some work as a private investigator.

But his life was not all work. He served as an organizer of a party that had been held every other year in the Buffalo Convention Center and had been open to African-Americans who were part of that first generation of blacks born in the city. That fit right into his passion for history.

The party was dubbed "The Buffalonians," and as word spread, the gathering grew from about 100 people to more than a thousand, with folks returning home to Buffalo from all over the country and the world.

But as age creeped up on the organizers such as Powell, it was no longer feasible to put on the extravaganza. Yet even as he approaches the ripe old age of 90, Powell still gets around and is an active member at Our Savior Lutheran Church on Brunswick Boulevard, where he served as treasurer for more than 25 years.

"I have been blessed. I was able to live and to love and to see so much," he says. "I've always believed in God, family and racial pride."

***

>Howard G. Powell, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Technician 4th grade

Years of service: August 1942 to September 1945

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Victory Medal

Specialties: Clerk-typist and truck driver, 2805th Engineer General Service Battalion

John May is 91, and he would be the first to tell you that his memory is fading. But key points of his service in World War II remain as vivid as if they happened yesterday.

There was a bullet wound in his left leg, below the knee. The scar, like his memory, has faded a bit but is still visible.

Before he was drafted, he had been content to work as an automobile mechanic and raise a family. He had married in 1942, and he and his wife, Garnet, had an infant son, Dennis, when another more distant relative of sorts -- Uncle Sam -- summoned him to military duty.

May put aside his wrenches and other tools to take up a rifle. He landed in France three days after the initial invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

As Allied forces moved inland, May saw his share of battles, though it was with some reluctance. "I hated to see men die. They were dying all around me, right next to me," he said.

By July 1944, he had participated in the Battle of Saint-Lo in northwestern France. There, he had the chance to protect life.

"I captured two German soldiers, and [an] American soldier said to me, 'I'll take them back,' " May recalled, saying that something did not seem right about the offer made by his fellow soldier.

May suspected that the two Germans might be taken into the woods and executed.

"I was afraid of what the other soldier might do, so I said, 'I captured them, and I'll take them back to the company.' "

The two enemy soldiers may have sensed that something was not quite right and were glad that May took them to the designated holding area for prisoners of war.

May's prisoners later gave him snapshots of themselves, perhaps as a token of gratitude for watching over them.

Garnet May, John's wife, says she believes that the battlefield compassion shown by her husband was the reason he was given their pictures. Those photos are on display in his North Tonawanda dining room, along with his Purple Heart and some German currency.

Yet his Purple Heart, in a sense, demonstrates how blind the violence of war can be. He had protected those two German POWs, shepherding them to safety, but in a later battle, May suffered a bullet wound and, as a result, almost lost a lower leg.

After he received first aid, he was flown to England for surgery.

"The doctor said, 'You're very fortunate. You're my first patient.' "

As it turned out, May's encounter with the neophyte surgeon was very unfortunate.

"They were talking about amputating my leg, but then they sewed up the wound. They didn't do a good job cleaning it out," May said. "A year later, it was still seeping. They had sewn it up with material from my fatigues still in the wound."

Though the wound did not heal properly, May was sent back to France, where he worked in a motor pool, using his skills as an auto mechanic. Eventually, though, he was shipped back to the United States, and his leg was treated in Thomas M. England General Hospital in Atlantic City, N.J. The leg healed, but to this day, it still gives him pain.

Other than the cast, May says, he doesn't remember much about Atlantic City, except for one other event.

"The Atlantic City Beauty Parade was on," he recalled. "All these beautiful women marched right in front of us on the Boardwalk, and I couldn't have gotten a better deal if I'd signed up for it."

-----

>John H. May, 91

Hometown: Scottdale, Pa.

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Unit: 614th Ordnance

Rank: Technician, Grade 5

War zone: Europe

Years of service: September 1943 to February 1946

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, European Theater Medal

Specialty: Infantry

It was pretty smooth sailing for Carl J. Stengel Jr. when he first headed overseas to the war in Europe.

While aboard the SS Ile de France, he and other troops were entertained by one of America's most famous crooners, Bing Crosby. It was a treat, Stengel says, though the singer's silky voice failed to ease the fear they felt.

In late October 1944, nearly five months after the D-Day invasion at Normandy, Stengel and his company landed at Omaha Beach and began their march to what would be another bloody confrontation -- the Battle of the Bulge.

On their way, the soldiers traded their American cigarettes for bread and cognac, according to Stengel. At one point, he even became something of a war tourist.

Stengel came upon an air base where P-47 fighter planes were stationed. Having worked at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory in Cheektowaga before being drafted, he was on the lookout for any P-47s he had helped build.

"The reason I could identify P-47s made in Buffalo was because those planes had the same antennas we made for the P-40s. We'd scrounged parts for the P-47s," Stengel said.

He had no luck that day in trying to find a winged friend from home.

By Thanksgiving, he had plunged head-on into combat.

"We set off to take Barmen in Germany, and a priest, or someone dressed like one, came into the lines and begged us to stop shooting. He said there were no more Germans left. The town was empty. Some P-47s worked it over first.

"I was scared, so my heart was like a triphammer, and I could hardly breathe. The squad bedded down in a barn with cows and horses that were wounded. Planes with buzz bombs flew overhead frequently."

In late December, Stengel's unit was in Ciney, Belgium, camped in a wooded area. While manning a roadblock one night, he and fellow soldiers were told that if they noticed the enemy approaching, they should throw their flashlights up in the air and duck.

"The idea was that the artillery behind us, 57 mm guns, would blast them," Stengel explained. "That happened once, and I wished I was back home."

At daybreak, the Allied forces moved forward.

"We passed a German truck with the motor still running, a bullet hole in the windshield, the wipers going back-and-forth and the driver lying on the ground and crying."

The German soldier was not wounded, Stengel recalled; "he was just scared to death."

Stengel served in the 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, 1st Company, 1st Battalion, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division, aka "Hell on Wheels." He and his unit fought through a bitter winter with the deepest snowfall Europe had experienced in years.

In Bastogne, Belgium, the fighting was especially intense. While searching a building, Stengel and his unit captured two German prisoners of war.

"I called our squad leader, Moon, for help with the prisoners," Stengel said. "A shell hit the ground outside the building and knocked Moon down a stairway to the cellar. He broke his neck and died, never knowing what hit him."

At another point, Stengel's unit captured a young German civilian who was wearing American GI boots.

"Our lieutenant wanted to shoot him as a spy because of the boots, but we all protested," Stengel said. "The lieutenant made him stand barefoot on the icy ground. We were all disgusted. The lieutenant finally let him go barefoot into the winter. We didn't think much of the officers."

On Jan. 8, 1945, the war ended for Stengel. At dusk on that fateful day, he and his buddies spotted a burning house and heard shots, then observed a German soldier running from it.

"I started to shoot but stopped to check for anyone in front of me," Stengel said. "I didn't want to shoot one of our own guys. I knew I was excited. I checked my Browning Automatic Rifle and shot; then I saw the flash of a grenade and was hit in my right arm."

Two other soldiers with him were killed.

"Next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground and everyone was gone," Stengel said. "I must have passed out and they thought I was dead, so they left me. I heard a German machine gun shooting behind me, but knew if I laid still, they'd think I was dead. If I made any movement, they'd shoot me.

"I finally decided I would be no worse dead than if I continued to lie there. I would die of frostbite. I thought this was one time in my life I had to think carefully before I did anything."

After what seemed a long time, Stengel very slowly stood up, holding his right arm with his left arm to halt the bleeding, and headed back the way the unit had come.

"Eventually, I came to the reserve company, and when challenged, I shouted, 'Don't shoot, I'm a GI. I'm wounded.' "

At an aid station, he was bandaged and given a shot of morphine. Someone asked whether he would like a cup of coffee.

Well, of course, he would.

That same person asked Stengel whether he would like cream in the coffee.

"Yes, please," he responded.

He knew then he was back in civilization.

Nerves in his right arm had been severed, and after stops at hospitals in Paris and southern England, he was shipped back to the States and spent nearly two years recuperating, mostly at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island.

Stengel spent months learning how to write once again with his right hand. Perseverance paid off.

When he was discharged, he went to Canisius College on a government education bill for veterans and became an electrical engineer, then later a teacher and chairman of the Computer Technology Department at Erie Community College's South Campus. The employment provided him with a solid career to support his family -- his late wife, Marie Kilcoyne Stengel, and their daughter, Mary Theresa.

But Stengel hardly lived happily ever after. Because of the lack of medical technology at the time he was wounded, the fingers of his right hand curled up into a fist. "I was drafted, and I served my time," he said. "But war is hell."

***

Carl J. Stengel Jr., 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-47

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, European Campaign Medal with two battle stars

Specialty: Infantry

Anthony Moley was raised to respect his mother's wishes. Brought up by parents who came from Sicily in search of the American Dream, he promised his mom that he would not go into the Navy when his draft notice arrived.

Moley reported for a physical at the local recruiting station and passed with flying colors.

"The recruiter looked at me and said, 'Congratulations, you're in the Navy.' I almost slid off the chair," Moley recalls.

"My mother feared water and didn't want me to have any part of water. She figured if something happened at sea, I wouldn't have too much of a chance; but on land if something happened, you could run or crawl someplace.

"So I looked at the recruiter and said, 'I have a fear of water. I just can't be near boats or water.' He slammed my papers down on the desk and said, 'I'll rewrite your papers, but six months from now, you'll be kicking yourself in the butt.' "

Nineteen-year-old Anthony returned that day to his parents' home in the North End of Niagara Falls and proudly told his mother he had escaped the Navy.

"She was happy," he remembers. "Oh, boy, was she."

It turns out, though, that Moley kicked himself in the butt many times over after that. As a foot soldier battling the Germans in Europe, he had many close calls.

Moley arrived a dozen days after the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy on D-Day and remained in Europe until the Germans gave up nearly a year later.

He fought in five major battles in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany.

There were other skirmishes as well, though the Battle of the Bulge, he says, was the worst.

In one of the battles, Moley says, the convoy in which he was traveling received orders to stop while more forward-moving troops broke through a German roadblock.

"I went off to the side of the road to a knoll and leaned up against a tree to catch a little relaxation," he recalls. "At some point, I fell asleep, and this priest walked up to me and said, 'Soldier, do you have any confidence in that medal you are wearing?'

"I said, 'Oh, yes, father, I do.' "

The priest and Moley were discussing the St. Christopher medal that Moley's mom, Anna, had given to him before he went off to war.

After Moley awoke from his dream, he looked around to see if a priest might have come to him; the dream seemed just that real.

"I started asking the guys if they saw a priest, and it was a big laugh. There was no priest, and they thought it was funny," he remembers.

But Moley was unamused. He believed he had experienced an apparition. A few moments later, he knew that was the case.

"We got word to move out. So as I went over the little knoll, about 50 yards ahead of me was a woods, and a German rifleman had picked me up. He's firing at me while I was still up on my feet.

"I hit the ground, and I'm looking for this guy. I had a pistol, but it was useless. I picked up my head, and I'm looking, and he fires at me a second time. I picked up my head again, and I still couldn't see where he was. He missed me again. That third bullet was so close, I swear I could feel the heat from it."

At that point, rather than run because of fear, Moley believes, he received a rush of divine inspiration.

"I said to myself, 'It's time to play dead. I'm not playing with you, buddy.' I laid down and made believe I was dead, and he stopped shooting at me. German artillery started, and I could hear the shrapnel going over me.

"Finally, we got enough troops, and we broke through. We chased the Germans right through the woods. They were a bicycle brigade, and there were so many abandoned bicycles in the woods."

Before that day ended, Moley said he thanked St. Christopher at least "101 times."

He was not so blessed in the Battle of the Bulge.

"It was tough," he said. "We had no planes to give us support with strafing and bombing because it was overcast. The tanks couldn't move or nothing. They just stood still in the snow and ice.

"We stayed two or three weeks, and the Germans always left behind a machine-gunner who fired once every half-hour or so, just to let us know they were out there. But after a while, we decided we would attack at night.

"We moved about 1,000 yards up and took high ground, a big hill, and we stopped. The lieutenant told me to set the machine gun down and he'd have others dig it in. He said, 'You go back and have the boys bring ammunition up, then have yourself a rest.' He knew I worked hard for him."

On the way back, Moley and the three other soldiers with him came under heavy fire.

"I knew where a big foxhole was, and we took cover there," he said. "We jumped in, and there were three other guys in it. There were six of us, and we were like rats in it."

Moley was at the top of this pile of humanity and could hear an 88 mm artillery round coming their way.

"By the sound of it, I knew it was going to hit close. I said, 'That baby is dragging its trail legs.' It hit the tree above us, and my arm was out in the open because another guy's head was in my right armpit, and that's where the shrapnel went through me.

"The guy said, 'If it hadn't been for your arm, that would have went right through my head. You saved my life.' "

Despite the sensation of a hot poker tearing through his arm, Moley said, he felt good at having saved his buddy.

"I went back to Metz, France, to a big armory where there was a hospital for about a month. I then returned to my outfit, and by that time, they had already crossed Rhine River."

More battles followed, but Moley's division, the 35th Infantry, put the brakes on at the Elbe River, and the Russians captured Berlin.

The war in Europe was finished.

Moley was moved to Camp Lucky Strike in France, where soldiers were being outfitted to fight in Pacific jungles, but the Atomic Age changed that. Two atom bombs were dropped -- in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- and the Japanese surrendered.

Back in Niagara Falls, Moley got a factory job at Olin Chemicals, married Theresa Malinowski and settled on a farm in Wilson, where they raised five children.

He grew vegetables and tended beef cattle.

Now his grandson, Michael Moley Jr., runs the farm.

> Anthony J. Moley, 88

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Wilson

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, European Theater of Operations Ribbon with five battle stars

Specialty: Machine-gunner

Working at the old Houdaille Industries plant on East Delavan Avenue in Buffalo making parts for World War II airplanes, 22-year-old Kenneth Bates found love.

He had noticed Vera Marie Hudecek, a gofer delivering messages throughout the plant from supervisors.

"I had all my teeth at that time, and I'd whistle at her when she walked by," he says. "But what really got us together was a couple of dances. One was put on by the union, and the other by management."

Bates knew he was making progress when his sweetheart purchased tickets for them for the second dance.

Talk about a whirlwind romance; they wound up married in six weeks. That's because there was a war going on.

"I begged her not to marry me because I knew I was going to be drafted," Bates recalls. "I told her, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it back or not.' "

Love won out.

"We were under a street lamp talking to each other on Collaton Street in Riverside. I was trying to decide if we should or shouldn't, and she decided we should," he says, though there was one more hurdle: "Vera told me I would have to get her father's permission."

That permission was forthcoming, but not without an interesting reaction.

"When I asked him, he called out, 'Blitzkrieg!' It was his second daughter to be married in two months," Bates says, explaining that Rudolph Hudecek borrowed a commonly used word at the time to describe the rapid advance of German forces across Europe. In this case, the father's daughters were rapidly embracing marriage.

So on Aug. 7, 1943, Kenneth and Vera tied the knot.

They honeymooned at a cottage in Lindsay, Ont., beside the Scugog River, where Bates previously had gone fishing. But their precious time together would be interrupted.

An officer from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, dressed in his bright red uniform and old-style wide, flat-brimmed hat, arrived looking for Kenneth Bates.

When Bates identified himself, the Mountie said, "I have a message from your brother. You're to report for your physical for the armed forces."

Devastated by the news, Bates said, he sent a telegram seeking mercy from Uncle Sam.

"I got a telegram back saying, "Just report when you arrive home.' "

A week later, he was in downtown Buffalo being sworn in.

"When they asked me why I wanted to go in the Navy," he says, "I told them, 'I swim better than I walk.' That got a laugh."

And it worked.

Bates was assigned to the USS Oakland, a light cruiser.

"We saw enough action," he says, "and it scared you."

In the Battle of the Philippine Sea, he and his shipmates plucked American pilots from the water. But what really sticks out in Bates' mind was a brush with a Japanese kamikaze.

"I was outside the pilothouse shouting coordinates for the gunners, and a Japanese pilot came right at us shooting," he remembers. "When I looked up above me, there was a hole just above my head. A few inches closer, and I wouldn't have had a head."

A quick-thinking ship gunner then blew the plane out of the air as it headed for an American aircraft carrier. "It crashed into the ocean instead of into the carrier," Bates says.

Later, when the captain of the Oakland was asked if he had given an order to pick up the enemy pilot, Bates said, he overhead the officer say, "No, he couldn't swim fast enough to keep up with us."

After the world's first two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, Bates and his crewmates became part of the occupying force in Japan.

But before he set foot on Asian soil, he witnessed the official close of the war in Tokyo Bay. Peering through binoculars from a perch on the Oakland, he said, "I watched the Japanese surrender to Gen. MacArthur on the USS Missouri, and that was history."

When he returned home in 1946, his love affair with his wife would continue for nearly six decades.

Vera Hudecek Bates died in 2002.

"We were married 59 years, six months and a day," Kenneth Bates says while expressing how much he misses her. "We were shooting for 60 years but didn't quite make it."

***

Kenneth Bates, 89

• Hometown: Town of Tonawanda

• Residence: Buffalo

• Branch: Navy

• Rank: Quartermaster third class

• War zone: Pacific

• Years of service: 1943-46

• Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal

• Specialty: Pilothouse quartermaster

Eighteen-year-old Alfred C. Walczak found himself getting jealous at Fort Niagara in Youngstown back in the winter of 1943.

Other Army draftees were being sent to basic training, but he was like an unstamped letter, going nowhere fast until he complained to the captain.

"He told me that I was slated to stay at the fort and that I would be rated as a corporal and be placed in charge of the mailroom for the duration."

That did not sit well with the 5-foot, 3-inch Walczak, who had high aspirations of serving the United States in World War II.

"I had worked as a clerk at my father's hardware store, and they probably figured I could take better care of the mail because I had experience clerking."

His father, Stanley, owned Walczak's Hardware on William Street in Cheektowaga.

But the young Walczak immediately objected to what surely would have been a safe, out-of-the-way job. "The

captain said, 'Well, if you don't want it, we'll find a place to put you.' Two days later I got shipped out to Miami Beach."

The diminutive Walczak quickly had the chance to prove he was a giant when it came to courage.

"They asked for volunteers to serve as ball gunners on the B-17 bomber, and I stepped forward," he said. "It was somewhere to go."

A bubble of steel and plastic on the underside of the aircraft, dubbed the Flying Fortress, Walczak's berth was compact. It was so small, in fact, that the ball gunner was typically one of the shortest men in the crew, balling himself up into a fetal position to fit into the tiny bubble.

"You would sit inside it, and your knees were just about up to your shoulders. You could elevate guns from ground level up even with the plane and turn in a complete circle."

He was assigned to the 447th Bomb Group in England but never had the chance to participate in aerial combat.

Danger found him anyway.

On his eighth bombing mission, June 21, 1944, Walczak and his fellow crew members had just dropped their bomb load on Berlin and were in the process of turning around.

"We just about turned back, and German ground fire hit engine No. 3, and it caught fire. The pilot said to us that the controls were also shot out, and so we had to bail out."

Walczak and the nine other crew members donned their parachutes and jumped from an altitude of 28,000 feet.

"It was about 40 degrees below zero," he recalled.

As he dropped, Walczak discovered his situation was heating up pretty quickly.

The first thing he noticed was that in his hurry to get out of the plane, he had only hooked one of the two harness straps properly to the parachute. "The chute kept spinning, and I was coming down at an angle."

The other disturbing observation, Walczak said, was that the Germans were using him for target practice.

"You heard the gunfire, and you'd look down and you'd see blue flames."

At this point, sorting mail back at Fort Niagara might not have been such a bad idea after all. Thinking his life was about to be canceled out, he decided to try and outsmart the enemy.

"So I played dead."

He's pretty certain his charade worked. The enemy stopped shooting in his direction but hadn't forgotten him. After landing in a field, he was captured.

"I looked up from the ground and into a gun barrel pointed at my head. An older German soldier asked me if I had a pistol, and I said 'no.' Then he told me to get up and marched me off the field into a street. By that time a truck pulled up with two SS troops, who ordered me to remove my boots and stand up against a tree.

"I figured that was it for me, but the older soldier argued with them. I was given a kick in the pants and taken to an interrogation center, where they asked me about their buzz bombs," a primitive flying bomb that some call a precursor to the cruise missile.

"I told them most of the bombs never made it across the English Channel, and I thought I was going to get shot again. The interrogator really got mad, and I was placed in solitary confinement for two days."

Walczak was eventually shipped off with other captured American GIs to a prisoner of war camp near Poland.

"We stayed in the camp until the Russians started pushing. We could hear their guns. The Germans then made us march from February 1945 until April 1945, when we were liberated by the English.

"It was a forced death march, and we covered about 900 miles. We just kept walking from morning until night, and we ate maybe every three days. We crossed the Elbe River about three times."

For the agony he and other marchers endured, Walczak said, they were each awarded the Purple Heart.

How much suffering did he endure?

"When I was shot down, I weighed 150 pounds. When I was liberated, I weighed 90 pounds."

Even today, he is often reminded of that long march.

"I still have numbness in my legs."

***

Alfred C. Walczak, age, 87

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Lancaster

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Tech Sergeant

War zone: European Theater, World War II

Years of service: February 1943 -- November 1945

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart

Specialty: ball gunner, B-17, aka Flying Fortress

His dream of a professional baseball career on a losing streak, Donald W. Collins joined the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor had been bombed in December 1941.

The star athlete from Colgate University had signed contracts with the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees to play on their farm teams. But when word got back to Baseball Commissioner Kenasaw Mountain Landis that he had signed with two teams, Collins was banned from professional baseball.

"I was told that I'd been banned, but no one told me it was just for the season, and the season only had two weeks left in it."

So he found work at a Newark, N.J., department store, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Collins went to bat for his country.

He could not have imagined that World War II would fulfill his dream of big-time baseball.

A German literature major at Colgate, he initially served in naval intelligence, interrogating German prisoners and suspected spies because he possessed a working knowledge of the German language.

But Collins longed for the more dramatic elements of war and soon managed to get himself transferred to the Pacific Theater, where he served as skipper of a PT boat.

While stationed at Kaneohe Naval Base in Hawaii, he happened to notice a group of fellows throwing a baseball around and paused to watch. Longingly.

"The team manager came up to me and asked if I played ball. I said I played in college and was supposed to be in the big leagues but that I'd been banned. He told me why don't I get a uniform and come out and play."

But by this time, Collins started to recognize some of the players on the ball field. There was the famous Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, New York Giants first baseman Johnny Mize and Vern "Lefty" Olsen, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

"You want me to play with them?" Collins recalled saying, feeling as if he were getting in over his head. "The manager said to me, 'What do you have to lose?' I said, 'Nothing.' He told me to get in a uniform."

So there he was playing ball with some of the best players in the world on one of the Navy's four teams that provided entertainment for service members on the Hawaiian Islands.

Collins roomed with Mize and Brooklyn Dodger Hugh Casey, who was recognized as the best relief pitcher in baseball at the time.

Playing five or six days a week, Collins went up against other baseball teams from the different branches of the military.

"I played against Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio," he recalled. "It was very strange, but I got used to it after a couple weeks."

Oh, and let's not forget that in between ball games, Collins often risked his life carrying out search-and-rescue missions commanding his PT boat.

"My crew got 18 guys out of the sea that would have died if we hadn't gotten to them. That was just our duty," he said. "We also provided training for the Army. We served in target practice, dragging something behind the boat that they could aim at from their airplanes."

In one particularly dangerous assignment when Collins and his seven-member crew were shipped to New Guinea, they were out on a night patrol and destroyed a Japanese troop boat.

Moments later, Collins said, a voice started shouting from the water: "Me from UCLA. Me from UCLA."

The PT boat cruised closer and spotted a Japanese soldier in the water.

"I told my bos'n mate to put down the sea ladder and pull him out. The guy came up with a knife and slashed my bos'n mate's wrist. He almost took his hand off.

"The reason I had decided to pick this guy up was I thought he might be able to provide us with intelligence. But he basically decided to commit suicide, and we helped him do it. We shot him with one of our 50-caliber machine guns that fired over 500 rounds a minute."

But Collins said his best memories of the war were on the ball field.

When he was discharged, he learned that the ban from professional baseball had been for only a couple of weeks, a mere slap on the wrist. He had walked away from the Cincinnati Reds because they had refused to give him details on how much he would be paid and where he would be playing.

When the Yankees caught wind, they were more forthcoming and signed him. And that's how he got into a jam.

In civilian life, Collins decided he was too old for the demands of baseball.

"I was married and would have had to play on a minor league team and work my way up through the leagues. I already had a good job, and figured I could do better in business."

As it turns out, Collins succeeded in life, working for major corporations and by the early 1950s settling in Buffalo. He eventually opened up his own investment company on Delaware Avenue and retired from it at 68 years old.

A lifelong sports fan, he says he often reflects on his time among the giants of baseball in what can best be described as his own personal field of dreams.

***

>Donald W. Collins, age, 93

Hometown: Palisades Park, N.J.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Rank: lieutenant

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: enlisted 1941 -- 1945

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: PT boat captain

The second-youngest of 13 children, Ed Carlo wanted to enlist in the Army when he was 17; he figured he would be doing his parents a favor. The country was reeling from the Great Depression, and money was hard to come by.

"It would be one less mouth to feed," Carlo said.

But his parents were unwilling to sign the papers to let him enlist early.

"They didn't want to lose me. I worked on farms and earned a quarter an hour and gave that to them," he said.

But when the chance to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps presented itself, Frank and Santa Carlo gave the ambitious son their blessing.

"I was only 20 miles away. I became a stonemason, and we built buildings at Hamlin Beach State Park with Medina sandstone," he recalled.

Yet the itch to join the military persisted, and a few years later, Carlo took matters into his own hands and enlisted with the New York State Army National Guard, where he took up the trade of cooking.

That ensured he wouldn't go hungry.

When the United States entered the war more than a year later after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 27th Infantry Division was sent to Hawaii.

Cooking for 3,200 soldiers was a daunting task, but Carlo and his staff were up for it. The only real excitement occurred one afternoon when he was boiling a big pot of potatoes, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall made a surprise inspection of the kitchen at the base on Maui.

"He told me he was very impressed with how clean everything was. I told him that's how it is every day," Carlo said. "My commander ended up giving me a three-day pass to the island of Hawaii."

As the war pressed on, the 27th Division began seeing military action, first at the Battle of Guadalcanal, then on a number of other Pacific islands.

By the time Carlo reached the Philippines, he was both a seasoned cook and warrior.

"We got the food into the front lines as good as possible, any way we could," he said.

He was awarded the Bronze Star for his "conspicuous service" in fighting off Japanese soldiers during one of the efforts to deliver hot meals to U.S. soldiers.

"I can't tell you exactly how I got the Bronze Star, but I know it was hairy," he said. "I had about six guys with me, and after the battle, we were pretty shook up but managed to deliver the food."

Carlo confided that, to this day, he has never shared with anyone details of his confrontations with enemy soldiers.

On a more memorable note, he says U.S. soldiers were always happy to see the cooks.

"They might not have gotten as much food as they wanted, but they got enough. They never went hungry," Carlo said.

And while being a mess sergeant might not be the most glorious job in war, Carlo says it gave him a tremendous sense of satisfaction to know he was filling the bellies of GIs on the front lines.

When he returned home, he put the skills he learned in the military to work at Louie's Restaurant at First and Falls streets in Niagara Falls, then found work at a nearby steel mill and eventually retired as a painter from Lakeside Hospital in Brockport.

But he considers raising a family with his wife of 57 years, Helen, now deceased, one of his greatest accomplishments. The couple had five children, with four still living: Edward, Frederick, Claire and Mary.

Edward F. Carlo, 91

Hometown: Fancher

Residence: Hamburg

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: October 1940 to August 1945

Most prominent honor: Bronze Star

Specialty: Cook

At 19 years of age, Eric E. Lansing arrived in the United States, relieved to be away from his German homeland, where Adolph Hitler's hatred of Jews was making life dangerous.

Lansing's parents and younger brother, Henry, followed him to the United States 2 1/2 years later in 1940, and the reunited family moved from New York City to Buffalo to find jobs.

Three years after that, Lansing was headed back to Europe as a member of the United States Army and glad to be fighting against Hitler.

"It certainly was something I wanted to do, but it had to be done as well," the 93-year-old retired certified public accountant said.

Thanks to his friend Kurt Klein, another German immigrant living in Buffalo and already in the service, Lansing received a transfer from an artillery unit to intelligence.

"Kurt had told someone I might be useful because I could speak German. My brother had the same qualification but ended up in the combat engineers and was captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge," Lansing said in making a point that he was grateful for Klein's intervention.

Little did Lansing know that his mother, Margaret, would one day teach English to Klein's future wife, a Holocaust survivor, and that she would take those language skills and make the world a better place. But more on that later.

Lansing worked in the center of military intelligence at headquarters under the command of Gen. Omar Bradley from the time Allied Forces landed at Normandy to when the Germans were defeated.

"I was in a three-man, order-of-battle intelligence unit, and what we did was try to figure what major units the Germans had on our part of the front," he explained. "We received information from various sources."

In one case, Lansing's unit, stationed in Luxembourg, gleaned intelligence from local residents who said the Germans were moving equipment around and bringing in manpower from other areas.

"We warned our command that the Germans were planning something. It ended up being the Battle of the Bulge, but our higher-ups were too much set to have their own advance and weren't too much interested in what was happening on the other side."

As it turned out, the Allies won the Battle of the Bulge, but it came at a high cost during one of Europe's harshest winters.

With the Germans on the run, U.S. troops started advancing ever closer to Germany.

"Headquarters followed the Army as it advanced east," Lansing said.

Lansing took no joy in seeing the destruction of his native land.

"I saw German cities that had been bombed by our airplanes. Some of the cities were totally destroyed," he said.

But with the war over, curiosity got the best of Lansing, and he took a side trip to Munich to see his family's home, where his ancestors dated back to the middle of the 19th century.

"The house was a three-story stone building, and it was pretty well destroyed from the bombings," he said. "You couldn't live in the building."

He then walked 15 minutes to a business his father had been a partner in before fleeing Nazi Germany. The import company was still operating.

"I went inside the business and looked around," he said. "I didn't stay long, and no one said much."

After being discharged in December 1945, Lansing took a train from New York City home to Buffalo. As fate would have it, he bumped into his old friend Kurt Klein, who had been previously discharged.

Klein immediately started telling Lansing all about this lovely woman he had rescued in an abandoned bicycle factory in Czechoslovakia.

A survivor of the Holocaust, that woman turned out to be Gerda Weissmann, whom Klein would marry.

Gerda Weissmann Klein learned English from Lansing's mother and spent most of her adult life in Buffalo. She was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her inspirational writings and lifetime of good works.

Lansing, a modest man, says he is proud of that connection and all the good that Weissmann Klein has accomplished.

***

Eric E. Lansing, 93

Hometown: Munich, Germany

Residence: Williamsville

Branch: Army

Rank: master sergeant

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: 1943-1945

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star

Specialty: intelligence

After graduating from boot camp in Bainbridge, Md., 18-year-old David L. Worthy headed across the country in a troop train to San Diego, where he boarded the USS Richard W. Suesens, a destroyer escort.

Seven days later, he was in Pearl Harbor for the war in the Pacific.

The ship later joined up with the Navy's Sixth Fleet.

"Then we went out looking for trouble," said Worthy, who had unloaded mail from trains in Baltimore before going to work for the Navy.

His main job was as a baker, and he supervised a crew of eight sailors, who handled not only baking, but preparing meals for the ship's officers.

"I would do the menu for the week. I'd make sure someone was on watch at all times in the pantry so that there were always coffee and rolls for officers," he said.

When the ship docked off islands in the Pacific, Worthy was among the first to go ashore.

"We'd be out at sea so long that we ran out of fresh food, and when we came upon an island with a military camp, I'd get eggs, fruit and ingredients to bake with."

Worthy had learned his baking skills from his mother.

"I was in my teens," he said, "and I could even make a pineapple upside-down cake."

Although he spent most of his time in the ship's bakery and kitchen, he also saw his share of action.

"The sailors who were manning their battle stations could not leave them, and I would bring them coffee and sandwiches," he said. "Sometimes they had to stay at their stations all night. The Japanese would be coming, and you'd hear, 'Man your battle stations.' "

His deliveries of nourishment took place during some of the most intense fighting in the Pacific.

"We went to Leyte, Luzon, Okinawa and a whole lot of other places. The ship would bomb the beaches so the LST boats could land the troops," he said, referring to the so-called "landing ship tank" boats that could deliver heavy equipment and troops directly onto a beachhead.

Worthy's ship, like so many, had to contend with kamikaze pilots.

"I could see them coming, diving down, and the ship would have to make a left-rudder turn," he recalled. "Some of the planes missed us, and some hit us. The ones that missed went right down the side of ship."

The Suesens was fortunate.

"One of the suicide planes hit another destroyer and blew it up. Everyone was lost," he said. "A day earlier, one of my crew members, Carl Lewis, had transferred to that ship because they were short of men."

When World War II ended, Worthy said, he had the chance to go ashore in Tokyo.

"We walked the streets. A lot of the buildings were torn up, but there were some beautiful marble buildings, and there were a lot of beautiful women," he recalled.

But Worthy said he did not feel quite at home in the Japanese capital.

"The people were friendly, but I was afraid," he said, explaining that it was difficult to put behind him the fierce battles with the Japanese military he'd witnessed at sea.

When Worthy returned to the United States, he settled in Buffalo, where he had family.

Turned out it was a good move.

"I was bricklayer at Bethlehem Steel. I had just about 40 years there before I retired," he said.

He and his wife, Ruth, who passed away six years ago, raised five children, including Calvin G. Worthy, who would go on to become the city's fire commissioner in the early part of the last decade.

At 85, David Worthy says he is way ahead of the game:

"I can still get around."

***

David L. Worthy, 85

Hometown: Chester, S.C.

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Petty officer

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honor: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

Specialty: Baker

Ernest W. Reitzel wanted to serve his country in the worst way during World War II, but he figured his inability to walk long distances would prevent that.

On a good day as a teenager, he could walk perhaps 300 feet before his hips stiffened and he would be forced to rest because of a physical disability.

But the 18-year-old Warsaw native managed to show up in Buffalo to take a physical after receiving his draft notice. He somehow passed, and a soldier asked Reitzel what branch of the service he wanted to join.

"I said, 'The Army,' and he said, 'OK,' and stamped my papers 'Navy,' " Reitzel recalled. "That was the first miracle. I never would have made it into the Army. But I realized I could walk the length of a ship."

At Sampson Naval Training Center in the Finger Lakes, boot camp might have proved a major problem for Reitzel had it not been for an understanding chief petty officer.

"He realized I kept having to take breaks during the drill practices," Reitzel said. "I told him I had problems walking, and he asked me, 'What are you doing here?'

"I said, 'Well, they took me, and I was hoping I could stay in.' I explained that I could walk the length of a ship and that I could do anything standing still. I'd worked my whole life since I was 12 mowing in hayfields and in gardens. I grew up on a farm."

After Reitzel promised to "never make any trouble for you," he recalled, the chief petty officer made arrangements for him to skip the drills that included long marches.

"He pretended that I was being punished," Reitzel said, "and I stayed in the barracks where I supposedly was mopping the floors."

The fact that 16 members of his platoon were from the Warsaw area was also in Reitzel's favor.

"They kind of looked out for me," he said.

And how did they do that?

At 5-feet-3 and 103 pounds, Reitzel was a prime target for bullies.

"But when they picked on me," he said, "they didn't get very far with my friends around me."

After graduating from boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Hambleton, a destroyer that escorted freighters to Europe.

"There were German submarines around most of the time," he said. "We were chasing those submarines and dropping depth charges. It kept the submarines pretty much away."

In the Mediterranean Sea, the Hambleton sank a submarine.

"We chased it for two days and two nights, dropping depth charges, and I was a lookout on the starboard side," he said. "I spotted it when it surfaced. I yelled, 'There it is' and gave a range and bearing. A 5-inch gun swung around and blew off a deck gun on the submarine.

"The escape hatch opened, and all these sailors on the submarine came out wearing their orange life jackets, popping out like pumpkin seeds into the water. Another round blew off the conning tower, and the submarine sank. All but two of 60 sailors survived. They were picked up by our flagship."

The sinking earned everyone on the Hambleton a Bronze Star. A second Bronze Star was awarded for the Invasion of Normandy, where the ship sank two German boats and served as bait to draw fire from the enemy's 11-inch guns onshore.

His third Bronze Star came with the invasion of southern France.

"The night before, we had the only church service on the ship that I remember," Reitzel said. "In the morning, we had what was to be our last breakfast, and we all wrote letters home.

"We then cruised into a bay at 5 knots, practically standing still. We were to draw fire from the Germans' 11-inch guns on shore," he recalled. "When we got there, the Germans were gone. There was no firing. We felt pretty great."

If all this wasn't enough, the Hambleton returned to Boston and was refitted as a minesweeper. Then it was off to the Pacific.

In March 1945, eight days before the rest of the U.S. invasion fleet arrived in the waters off Okinawa for a major battle, the Hambleton swept for mines and disposed of them.

During lookout duty, Reitzel alerted officers that a Japanese airplane was flying above the island. When his shift was completed and he went for chow, the alarm was sounded for battle stations.

He returned to the deck but could not get inside the handling room that served a 5-inch gun. Reitzel ended up with a terrifying ringside seat to watch the battle between his ship and the aircraft.

"I watched the plane come at us, and the end of the gun's barrel was right over my head," Reitzel said. "The concussion of the gun stunned you. I lost my hearing for a couple days. The plane hit the top minesweeper reel, and its wing hit gun three's 5-inch barrel, tearing off the wing."

Sections of the plane then fell onto the ship and into the water.

"I kept tiny pieces of the plane as a souvenir," he said.

For the Hambleton's participation in the Battle of Okinawa and a major minesweeping operation in the China Sea, its crew members were awarded two more Bronze Stars.

But perhaps Reitzel's biggest thrill came when the Japanese finally surrendered that summer. The Hambleton was beside the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, where the surrender occurred.

"We swept in ahead of the Missouri, and I could see Gen. MacArthur as the Japanese signed the surrender papers," Reitzel said. "It was the most wonderful feeling to see the end of the war."

***

Ernest W. Reitzel, 85

Hometown: Warsaw

Residence: Lancaster

Branch: Navy

Rank: Ship's serviceman barber third class

War zones: Europe, Pacific

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Five Bronze Stars

Specialties: Lookout on bridge of destroyer USS Hambleton and ammunition handler for ship's 5-inch guns

At age 16, Russell A. Guthrie was impressed when his friend Vincent Hall returned home on leave from the Army in 1941.

Hall, a member of the all-black 10th Cavalry Regiment, looked sharp in his uniform. And when he told young Guthrie what an honor it was to serve, Guthrie decided he wanted to follow in his friend's footsteps.

There was just one problem.

"I wasn't old enough. Then I started thinking I could use my older brother's birth certificate. He was disabled, and he would not have made it in the military."

So with the birth certificate in hand, the Fosdick-Masten Park High School student headed to the old post office in downtown Buffalo and presented himself as a 21-year-old. Soon enough, he was on his way to basic training in Fort Dix, N.J.

Guthrie looked forward to his assignment in the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kan. The unit had an impressive history. Its members were known as the "Buffalo Soldiers," and they had participated in the famous charge up San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War.

But Guthrie hit a snag.

"At Fort Dix," he recalls, "some government men came up to me while I was doing KP duty. They asked how old I was. I said, '21,' and they said, 'No, how old are you for real?' I told them I'd just turned 17.

"They said they already knew that, and I wasn't old enough to be in the Army, and that I could get into serious trouble for falsifying records. I can remember that just as plain as day."

Rather than throw him out of the Army, Guthrie was allowed to remain, though he did not know what would happen to him, even after he arrived at Fort Riley.

"I was scared. Sometimes I didn't want to come out of my tent," he says. "The MPs were always patrolling. They called me 'Baby Boy' because I was so young. I thought 'Oh, boy, they are going to throw me in Leavenworth,' " he says of the federal prison also in Kansas.

But Guthrie's father understood his son's passion to serve and made things right by signing papers for early enlistment. Leon Guthrie was a World War I veteran who had served with the all-black 349th Field Artillery Group in France.

"My dad's lungs got burned from mustard gas," recalls Russell Guthrie, now 86. "But he lived to be one day short of 100 years old."

Like his father, he would serve in Europe.

After battling the Germans to take over Sicily, Guthrie's unit moved to England and finally France to follow the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

"I was with the 761st Tank Battalion," he says. "We were the only black group. Gen. George S. Patton picked us. He said we were the best. He loved cavalry men."

The 761st, Guthrie added, suffered limited casualties compared with other units.

"We were tough. We knew what to do and when to do it," he says. "They thought we couldn't fight, but they found out different. We turned them around."

Enemy soldiers would come to admire the unit's tenacity, as well.

"POWs told us they wished we were on their side," he recalls. "They called us the Black Panthers."

As the 761st moved across France, Guthrie earned a Purple Heart when he was struck by slivers of shrapnel in both legs. After receiving first aid, he continued on with the battalion.

"You just kept going. You couldn't stop," he says. "The Germans were shelling us night and day. They were sending shells and rockets like raindrops."

Pushing ahead toward Germany, the battalion received a sudden order calling it back to assist in the Battle of the Bulge.

"We made it back over snow and ice in about 18 hours. We rode all day and all night," he remembers. "They thought we would need 48 hours. We said 24 hours -- and made it in 18."

Guthrie's memories of the war remain vivid.

"You never get over it," he says. "I have medicine from the VA that I take so that I can sleep at night, but I catnap."

Although the war was painful, Guthrie says, he remains deeply proud of his service, especially in helping prove that black soldiers are among the best.

***

Russell A. Guthrie, 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1941-46

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Citation

Specialty: Tank gunner

At 15 years old, Walter N. Suchowiecki joined the New York State Army National Guard.

The youngest of six children in a family on hard times, Suchowiecki claimed he was 18 years old in order to earn a dollar a night for participating in military drills at the local armory in Binghamton.

"We all lied about our age, and no one checked. We were mostly from poor families, and I used the money to buy clothing," Suchowiecki said.

But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Guard unit he served in was activated and sent to Alabama.

"I was 17 and given an honorable discharge because I had one more year of high school, and I wanted to graduate. About a year and a half later, I was drafted," he said. "We were happy to be drafted. The ones left behind felt like misfits."

By the winter of 1944, he was in Scotland, heading south with the 3rd Army to a staging area in Southampton, England, in preparation for the Normandy Invasion.

When that monumental day arrived on June 6, Suchowiecki said, the landing craft he was aboard stopped in waist-high waters off Omaha Beach, aka Bloody Omaha.

"Once the ramp came down, you were ordered to go in the water. I was glad the water wasn't deep. Some guys on other craft were drowning in deeper water with all their gear on them."

As he made his way to the beach, Suchowiecki said, all he could think about was staying alive.

"If you were fortunate, you made it onto the beach."

Once they got past the carnage of D-Day, Suchowiecki said, resistance from the Germans was light. But that would change in the coming months.

Assigned to the 26th "Yankee" Division from New England, he and his fellow soldiers were moved up to the Battle of the Bulge.

"We went by truck, but the final five miles we walked in the snow, and it was cold."

On Christmas Eve, he participated in what was called "marching fire" -- infantry members slogging alongside a column of U.S. tanks.

"We took over a small town, and I set up my machine gun in an empty house on a table. On Christmas Day, the Germans counterattacked. I got one burst off with my machine gun, and then a German tank came over, and we were no challenge. We scurried into the basement, and the tank leveled the section of the house where my machine gun was."

He and three or four other soldiers spent Christmas in the basement listening to the sounds of war out in the streets.

"There was one incident where the tank pointed its gun at the basement window. We said, 'Well, this is it.' But for some reason, the tank turned and went away. When it got dark out, we crawled out of the basement in the snow and joined the rest of the unit."

On Dec. 26, a day late, a grateful Suchowiecki and his comrades enjoyed Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings. His belly full, he snuggled up to a snowbank and slept.

On Jan. 9, in a wooded area, as his unit was being shelled by heavy artillery known as "screaming meemies," Suchowiecki was struck by shrapnel in the left knee.

After three weeks in the hospital, his still-open wound was bandaged, and he was shipped back to the front lines for the final push into Germany.

"We were approaching the Rhine River, and there was no resistance, but all of sudden there were mortar shells and machine gun fire. I got shot in the right leg. The bullet went right through. I also had broken ribs from shrapnel, and there were little pieces of shrapnel through my nose and arms. I didn't get to fire my machine gun."

He was taken to a first-aid station and placed on a jeep with two other wounded soldiers. While recuperating at a hospital in Southampton, word was received the Germans had surrendered.

"Instead of having to go back to my outfit, I was on the first hospital ship back to the United States and landed in Boston," he said.

After his discharge, Suchowiecki discovered that the Army was nothing compared with the discipline at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts.

"You couldn't get married, you had to be in bed by 10 o'clock, and on Saturdays you were allowed out until 11 p.m. That was kind of tough on us older GIs."

Suchowiecki transferred to Fordham University and graduated in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

"I was on the baseball team there, and we played Yale, and guess who was the first baseman? George Bush," he said of the first Bush to become president. "Of course, we didn't know who he was, but he did get shot down in the war."

Suchowiecki later enrolled at the University of Buffalo and earned a master's degree in human services before beginning a 41-year career in social work. He has been married to the former Stella Surowka for 65 years, and they raised five children.

"Now I just sit around in retirement and watch the squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits run around the grass," Suchowiecki said. "It suits me OK."

***

Walter N. Suchowiecki, age 88

Hometown: Binghamton

Residence: Hamburg

Branch: Army

Rank: private 1st class

War zone: European Theater

Years of service: 1943-1945

Most prominent honors: 2 Purple Hearts, European Theater Medal

Specialty: light machine gunner, .30 caliber

Allen Wanderlich missed out on the Normandy invasion, but Uncle Sam managed to get him over to Europe in time for the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

A member of the 84th Infantry, Wanderlich made it through the battle without a scratch and participated in other battles.

"As we progressed into Germany with just about two weeks left before the war ended, the Germans opened up on us with machine guns, and 22 of our guys and the company commander were killed."

Using his 60 mm mortar, Wanderlich was able to distract the Germans, who took cover every time he sent a shell their way.

"That allowed our riflemen and machine gunners to move forward. A lot of the Germans were killed."

The strategic use of his mortar earned Wanderlich, 19 at the time, a Silver Star.

In another battle, as he and his comrades charged deeper into enemy territory, he recalled running across an open field.

"My right foot felt sweaty. I looked, and I saw there was blood, so I went to a medic. A bullet had gone through my right calf. The medic sent me to a battalion aid station. When I looked at the wound, I felt real, real good. I thought I had a million dollar wound, and I'd be out of the war."

No such luck.

A doctor cleaned out the leg wound, bandaged it "and I walked back to my unit."

After U.S. forces routed German soldiers from Hanover in a one-day battle, Wanderlich encountered sights he would never forget.

"Later that day or the next morning, we saw a German concentration camp. There were a lot of dead people, but we didn't really look. You sort of take a glance."

When he ran into Polish-speaking prisoners, he stopped and spoke with them in their native tongue.

"I was fluent in Polish, and they were so damn glad to see us," he said.

The horror of war was not yet over for Wanderlich.

"After we took over Hanover, we moved forward and liberated a POW camp. The GIs were so thin, you could see their ribs sticking out. We were under orders not to give them anything to eat. We could give them water and cigarettes, but that was it. They walked through our lines so slowly. They could barely walk."

Seeing other human beings starving, even German civilians, he said, had become an all too common sight.

"At least we soldiers had K-rations," he said.

Back home, he returned to a feast.

Wanderlich arrived at his family's Wood Avenue residence on Buffalo's East Side in the early evening of Dec. 24, 1945.

"I was home in time for my family's traditional Christmas Eve dinner," he said. "I walked in a rear door, and they were all so surprised to see me."

In late 1949, Wanderlich joined the Air Force because he wanted to get an education in electronics.

"The Air Force had the finest school for radar and electronics," he said of his reason for signing up.

But the Korean War, which started in 1950, interrupted his education.

"Because I had radar training, I ended up in a B-29 bomb squadron and flew several missions over North Korea," he said.

During those flights, he often thought about the U.S. infantry personnel on the ground.

"I knew that the infantrymen didn't have the kind of training that we had when I was in the 84th Infantry in World War II," he said. "A lot of soldiers were killed in Korea, and it was unnecessary. They'd been trained for occupation duty, not combat."

After the Korean War, he decided to leave the military and worked at the former Wurlitzer plant in North Tonawanda, then at the Sylvania television factory in Batavia before finally opening up a TV repair shop.

"I started in my apartment on Rother Street and then bought a property on Sycamore Street, working 14 and 16 hour days including Sundays," he said. "My wife, Maryann, and I were raising four children."

He retired in the late 1980s and in 1994 moved to Lockport.

Memories of the two wars he served in are never distant.

"Why should there be war? If only they could kill people like Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler," he said. "It is too bad we just couldn't press a button and do that, instead of so many other people getting killed."

***

Allen Wanderlich, age, 85

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Lockport

Branch: Army, Air Force

Rank: Private 1st class; airman 1st class

War zone: World War II, Korean War

Years of service: Drafted 1944 -- 1947; enlisted, 1949 -- 1953

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart

Specialties: Infantry, radar

Before he was drafted into the Army, Stanley M. Maziarz had already put in four years of service in the work world, starting at age 16.

Life was not easy. He had quit high school to support himself after his mother died. He was the second youngest of 10 brothers and sisters. His first job, at R.T. Jones Lumber on Tonawanda Island in North Tonawanda, brought him 25 cents an hour.

After a year, he advanced to Buffalo Bolt on North Tonawanda's Oliver Street as a machine operator, almost doubling his hourly wage to 49 cents. Then, he took a drastic pay cut when Uncle Sam drafted him.

"I was paid $20 a month in the Army," recalled the 89-year-old North Tonawanda resident.

But there were some fringe benefits -- kind of.

During a brief 1943 leave from Company I, 109th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Wales, he headed to London for some wartime sightseeing.

He not only saw the many buildings destroyed by German bombs, but wound up in the middle of a bombing.

"We were walking past 10 Downing Street, home of the British prime minister, when sirens went off and a bobby stopped us and took us to a shelter because of shrapnel coming from anti-aircraft guns the British were shooting at the German bombers."

As it turns out, that was a mere introduction into what he would experience in the weeks after the June 1944 Invasion of Normandy. But before crossing over to the European continent, Maziarz had a short conversation with, of all people, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"He was inspecting our regiment, and he stopped and asked me 'How do you like the service? I replied, 'I don't mind it.' He had other questions, but I don't recall them. I was too busy looking at the stars on his uniform," said Maziarz, who was 21 at the time. "He was congenial. Easy to talk to."

A few weeks after the Normandy Invasion, Maziarz landed at Omaha Beach and participated in the Battle of St. Lo.

"From my position on the front line, I counted 17 Flying Fortresses [B-17s] that had come right out of the sky, straight down. When it got dark, we advanced to St. Lo, where the Germans lit up the sky, bombed and strafed us.

"I'll tell you what I did. I put my head up against a hedgerow and stayed there until the bombing stopped. Every day was stressful."

The regiment advanced farther, participating in seven more battles before liberating Paris, where Maziarz would catch a glimpse of Eisenhower and a few other wartime luminaires.

"My outfit paraded through Paris past Eisenhower, who was with General de Gaulle, General Patton and General Cota."

Claiming Paris was a major step for the Allied Forces, but more battles would have to be fought to the win the war.

There was the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

"Three U.S. Army divisions pretty nearly got wiped out. The Rangers and paratroopers came in to help us," Maziarz said. "At one point, I was put in charge of a dozen or so prisoners at the edge of the forest.

"Their hands were up. I noticed one of them was missing part of his foot. I felt sorry for the guy, and he looked straight at me."

A couple of minutes later, medics arrived in a Jeep and took the wounded German away.

The enemy then began lobbing mortar shells at Maziarz and his prisoners. And though he cannot say with certainty, he believes the attackers intentionally waited until their wounded comrade was evacuated before shelling.

"They were trying to get the prisoners to disperse. Go this way, go that way, get away," Maziarz said. "They did not succeed. I was in a position to protect myself and shoot anyone who tried to run away."

After that, the 109th participated in the Battle of the Bulge, where Maziarz continued to collect prisoners. From that battle, the unit advanced to Colmar, near the Swiss Alps.

"There was a pocket of stubborn German soldiers. I went up in a church steeple to observe the front lines, and from the mountains several miles away they spotted me in the steeple. The first artillery shell went over the church. That's when I ran out while they sent in several more."

He suffered a minor injury during his escape and might have qualified for a Purple Heart but never pursued it.

"I put a Band-Aid over the cut. Those who were killed are the heroes. I was just doing my job."

At the Siegfried Line in Germany, Maziarz had yet another close call.

"A German fighter pilot spotted me and dove right at me. He was so close we had eye contact. I could see the Swastika on the side end of the plane. He dropped the bomb, but at that angle it went away from me and exploded."

On his way back to America after the war, he had yet another close encounter.

"We were on the Atlantic Ocean coming home, and they spotted a floating mine and shot it. The water went up so high into the sky it stayed up there for what seemed like four or five minutes, the way it looked to me."

To say the least, he was glad when he returned home to North Tonawanda.

He got his old job back at Buffalo Bolt but would eventually retired from he General Motors engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda.

"I worked for Buffalo Bolt for 20 years, and it went under and we got nothing. I knew a little about motors, and that helped me at GM."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Maziarz has been retired 26 years with a GM pension.

***

>Stanley M. Maziarz, age 89

Hometown and residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: private 1st class

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: 1942 -- 1945

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge, Chevalier of French Legion of Honor

Specialty: combat military police

James H. Castle enlisted in the Navy and caught the tail end of World War II in the Pacific. Joining the fray in its last stages did not prove an impediment to several hair-raising experiences.

Before he arrived in the war zone, in fact, his nerves had been thoroughly tested while flying training missions in an Avenger torpedo bomber.

After graduating from Lockport High School, Castle had gone to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for five or six months on a military career path that would have yielded an officer's commission, but he made a U-turn, deciding the commission was not for him.

That decision opened the door for training as an aviation radio and radar operator aboard the three-seat Avenger. During training above the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, he experienced a crash landing.

"We had a water landing off Fort Lauderdale. The motor quit, and we crashed at 300-feet altitude," he recalls.

As his training progressed, the lifelong Lockport resident headed west.

Again, he experienced a crash landing, this time on land in California.

"We had a runway crash at Alameda Naval Air Station," he says. "The motor quit again."

So when he finally arrived in the war zone in the summer of 1945, he was well-prepared for whatever might come his way.

"We weren't in any major battles, but we did strafe Japanese junks and other small watercraft," Castle says. "It wasn't much. We had a turret with twin 50-caliber machine guns and fixed guns on the wings."

When the war ended, he was assigned to the China Sea and flew sorties that sometimes took him on an unexpected historical sightseeing trip, flying above the Great Wall of China.

"There was Communist unrest, and every day, we went out and did that patrol," he says. "We didn't shoot at anything, but we were shot at. Our job was to observe and report."

But this aviation warrior still had one more hair-raising experience left while assigned to the USS Boxer.

"We were heading back to the aircraft carrier. Something went wrong with engine, and I was in the bilge, the lowest part of the aircraft, and I couldn't see a darn thing," he remembers. "I heard the pilot say, 'We're going in!' I put my seat belt on and grabbed my knees and waited.

"He made a pretty good landing in the China Sea. We got the raft out, and the plane sunk. Two or three hours later, a Navy destroyer came by and picked us up."

Soon after that, Castle was transferred to Guam and eventually sent back to California, where he was discharged from Treasure Island Naval Air Station.

He was given the choice of getting a train ticket home or being paid 3 cents per mile and making his own arrangements to return to Lockport.

"There were three of us, and we elected to take the 3 cents per mile," he says. "Between that and my mustering-out pay, I had about $300 in my pocket. We then bummed our away across the country hitchhiking.

"Our first ride took us to Reno, where I lost every penny on the craps tables. Eventually we bummed our way to Salt Lake City, and I called my father collect, and he sent me a train ticket."

From there, Castle moved back to his Lakeview Parkway home in Lockport, where he was born and has lived ever since.

***

James H. Castle, 86

Hometown: Lockport

Residence: Lockport

Branch: Navy

Rank: Aviation radioman second class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, American Campaign Medal

Specialty: Radio/radar operator in Avenger torpedo bomber

Irving Yenoff dreamed of fulfilling a boyhood passion of caring for animals, but at Cornell University he discovered that he lacked the high marks needed to attend veterinarian school.

So he returned to Buffalo and pursued yet another boyhood passion -- flying.

"For a few years my family had lived in California near a private airport, and my nose was always pressed up against the cyclone fence at the airport watching the planes," he recalled.

Yenoff launched his dream to fly by enrolling in a civilian pilot training program at the University of Buffalo, where he received classroom training and flew out of Buffalo Aeronautical, site of the region's present day Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

This time around he made the grade.

Then as World War II reports made their way back to the United States about mistreatment of Jews by Hitler, Yenoff realized he had to do something.

"I heard that horrible things were happening to the Jews in Germany. I knew Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews. I was Jewish, and I just couldn't wait to get in the fight."

But it would be awhile before Yenoff arrived in the war zone.

He spent more than a year training on different airplanes before graduating up to the medium-range bombers, the B-25 and B-26.

He was also recruited to play in a military band, despite what he says was his "mediocre" musical talent for the clarinet and tenor saxophone.

"We played for the Army Air Forces dances in San Antonio, and a couple times we played coast-to-coast on the radio. There were musicians from all the big dance bands, and I was like a misfit, but they needed a fourth saxophone player," Yenoff said.

All the while, he itched to get over to Europe and battle the Nazis and their henchmen.

That day finally arrived in May 1944.

Yenoff piloted a B-26 with a five-man crew, flying 38 missions.

"We were bombing northern Italy. We got shot at with flak, and in one of those missions I had to make an emergency landing because our hydraulic system was shot out. We landed in a place called Siena."

The crew had managed to manually operate the wing flaps and lower the landing gear, he said. "I used a cylinder of compressed air to actuate the brakes on the plane. We were lucky."

In the confusion of war, it took him and his crew a week to make their way back to headquarters on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea.

"When we got back, our foot lockers had been emptied out. They thought we were dead. We managed to get back most of the contents of our foot lockers."

The closest Yenoff came to death was in a previous mission when flak started piercing the floor of his plane's fuselage.

"We saw flak all around. We saw bursts of it. You didn't know what was happening. Then all of a sudden my right hand on the throttle was bleeding, and my co-pilot's neck was sliced open."

Yenoff summoned crew members to take the co-pilot from the cockpit and place him on the floor.

"They gave him a shot of morphine and tried to stanch the bleeding. I made an emergency landing right away in Rome, and they took the co-pilot to the hospital. He never flew after that from what I understand."

Yenoff, who received the Purple Heart for his wound, and the other crew members counted their blessings that they had escaped serious injury.

There would be numerous other missions, but none as dangerous as that one.

As for bombing Italian troops who were on the side of the Nazis, Yenoff said he looked forward to every mission.

"It was exhilarating. I knew I was doing something positive."

When he returned home in 1945, he became a "rag man," working in a wholesale business that manufactured wiping cloths and recycled old rags for making paper.

Now just a couple of days away from his 90th birthday Wednesday, Yenoff continues to work as a broker, buying and selling waste paper for recycling.

"I never really had a lot of hobbies other than flying, and when I wake up in the morning I'm ready to go. I love what I'm doing."

Every so often, he thinks back to the days when his outrage over the mistreatment of fellow Jews took him to Europe. The reflection on answering a call to arms, he says, gives him a sense of satisfaction.

***

Irving Yenoff, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: First lieutenant

Specialty: pilot

War zone: WWII, Mediterranean

Years of service: June 1942 – October 1945

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Air Medal with four clusters; European Theater Medal, State of New York Conspicuous Service Medal

At age 17 while attending Burgard Vocational High School, Raymond E. Clancy came home one day and informed his parents he wanted to do the patriotic thing -- enlist in the military.

World War II was in full swing, and many of his friends were signing up early with the blessing of their parents. Clancy's parents said no. He was their only son.

At 18, Clancy announced to them that he was joining the Army Air Forces. This time, his parents didn't resist. He was old enough, and they respected his wishes.

With high school training in automotive repairs, Clancy was assigned to aircraft mechanics school. By the end of 1943, he was part of a replacement crew flying over to Europe in a new C-46 transport aircraft.

When they landed in England, the plane was promptly given to another crew, and Clancy was assigned to a C-47.

"It was quite old and not as powerful as the C-46, but it still was able to tow two G-4 gliders with paratroopers or ammunition or vehicles," Clancy said.

At one point, Clancy and his crew delivered hundreds of 10-gallon jerrycans of gasoline to Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr.'s tanks around the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

"We delivered it and got the hell out. There was fighting, but they kept the airplane landing zone free and clear of ground fire. They had it surrounded by tanks," Clancy said.

When the cargo was paratroopers who were to be dropped out of the C-47 into a battle zone, Clancy said, he felt sorry for them.

"They were young fellows out of Fort Benning, Ga., the 'Screaming Eagles'; they were in camouflage uniforms," Clancy said, referring to members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "You just hoped that they would get back safe," he added, speaking haltingly as he recalled vivid memories of delivering the young warriors into enemy territory.

That solemn memory triggered another.

"We had a Father Whelan who would bless our aircraft before taking off on every one of our missions," Clancy said. "He'd come over, and you could see him making the sign of the cross as we taxied out onto the runway."

After the Allies drove the Germans out of France, Clancy and his unit, the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group, were stationed in Alencon, France.

When the C-47 towed gliders, the cargo ranged from ammunition to ammo delivery trucks and Jeeps and sometimes paratroopers. The idea of using gliders was to increase the delivery capacity of the C-47.

"Gliders could also pinpoint a location to land, and the paratroopers could immediately start fighting," Clancy said of that craft's tactical value.

Throughout the missions, Clancy said, his C-47 sometimes got chewed up with anti-aircraft fire but never disabled.

"When we'd land back at the base," he said, "the ground crew patched up the skin of the plane with rivets and aluminum."

The plane would be as good as new. But the experiences of war marked those who flew in it.

After leaving the service in October 1945, Clancy returned to Buffalo, and in January 1946 married Elizabeth J. Spizzano. They raised a son and a daughter, Robert and Kathleen.

In 1985, Clancy retired from a 37-year career as a conductor and brakeman, having worked first on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Co., the old DL&W, and finishing with Conrail.

Now, at 87, he says a day never passes without him offering thanks to God that he made it home from the war.

"A few of my comrades," he said, "never made it home."

***

*Raymond E. Clancy, 87

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters; Distinguished Unit Badge; European, African and Middle Eastern Ribbon with six battle stars

Specialty: Aerial engineer

After graduating from Lackawanna High School, Alfred J. Krent wasted no time following in the footsteps of his father, Anthony, and his older brother, John, working at Bethlehem Steel.

The steel mill was a Krent family tradition. In fact, Alfred's younger brother, Richard, would work at Bethlehem Steel.

For Alfred, though, there would be an interruption from Uncle Sam -- a draft notice.

"I was going to volunteer, anyway, but they got the draft notice to me first," Krent said. "Do you know that the highest percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds drafted in World War II came from Lackawanna? I read it in the newspaper when I came back home."

After training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., with the 75th Infantry Division, Krent headed to the Deep South for more maneuvers and then to back to New York at Camp Shanks, Rockland County, which was the tipoff that he was headed to the war zone in Europe.

"Those that were sent to the West Coast knew they were going to the Pacific Theater," he said.

Camp Shanks, in fact, was known as "Last Stop USA."

Krent spoke of the Battle of the Bulge as if it were yesterday.

"It must have been 20 to 25 degrees below zero, and we didn't have any winter clothing. Gen. [Omar] Bradley was bringing in winter clothing for us, but Gen. [George] Patton needed gasoline for his tanks and ammunition and K rations."

So the winter clothing became a low priority.

"I don't know what happened to the clothes, but if you fell asleep in foxholes, you didn't wake up; you froze to death," Krent said. "So many of us got trench foot. You had the same socks and boots on for months at a time."

Many Americans died accidentally, Krent said.

"Soldiers would get wounded and run over by our own tanks. It was an accident. There was confusion with so much traffic," he said. "In my division alone, we had over 700 casualties."

Krent points out that many soldiers originally thought the war would be won by Christmas 1944. No one realized that the Germans were going to unleash everything they had at the Allies just before Christmas.

"There were 600,000 Germans with tanks and equipment," he said. "They had a special SS unit that was English-speaking and dressed in American uniforms, often looking like MPs, and riding in U.S. tanks and Jeeps and halftracks, which carried .50-caliber machine guns. Where they got this equipment, I don't know."

The Germans would change the direction of road signs, and U.S. tank columns and troops ended up marching into ambushes.

The only defense against the Germans who masqueraded as Americans was the use of passwords, Krent said .

"When you were on guard duty at a roadblock, you knew the password," he said, "and if someone didn't know it, you knew they were German."

As casualties continued to rise, anyone capable of firing a rifle was sent to the front lines.

"There were so many casualties from the different outfits. We used replacements, even cooks and mail clerks. We gave them a rifle and said go," he recalled. "Before we even knew the names of some of the replacements, they were dead. That's how bad it was."

In the middle of all this, Krent bumped into a cousin, Hank Dlugosz, also of Lackawanna and a member of the 897th Field Artillery. His job was to string up transmission lines for telephones.

"It was Christmas Eve 1944, and there was a full moon at the roadblock I was guarding," he said. "It may sound funny, but I could tell by Hank's nose that it was him. I told my buddy that looks like my cousin.

"Hank always had something to drink because he would go in cellars of abandoned homes as he went through France, and he'd find bottles of wine. In fact, he asked me if I wanted something to drink."

Krent turned down the holiday cheer.

"I had no idea what was in that bottle," he said, recalling his caution.

After the pivotal battle, Krent and his comrades moved forward, pushing the Germans back.

As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, Krent recalled, he and fellow soldiers assisted in liberating Nazi concentration camps.

"Being a young man, I never imagined anything like that, to see something so horrible," he said. "It wasn't only the Jewish people; it was different nationalities at the camps."

Because he could speak Polish, Krent was able to communicate with prisoners who were curious about this Polish-speaking young man.

"They saw me in an American uniform and asked why I wasn't in a Polish uniform. I told them my father moved from Poland to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1909," he said.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Krent stayed on in Germany, part of the occupation forces.

"We took care of displaced persons, and we used German prisoners to rebuild roads," he said.

By early March 1946, he was homeward-bound and discharged out of Fort Dix, N.J. Back in Lackawanna, Krent happily returned to his job at Bethlehem Steel, a career he continued for 42 years, until the plant shut down steelmaking in 1983.

Now unable to walk long distances because of the trench foot he suffered in the war, he says, he gets around most of the time in a wheelchair.

"For my age, I'm surprised," he said. "I got a good mind, and I can still drive a car."

Just how sharp is he?

"I remember President Roosevelt promising that all the troops would have a hot turkey dinner for Christmas 1944. We heated K rations on the engine of a halftrack."

***

>Alfred J. Krent, 87

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Hamburg

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-46

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal with four battle stars, Combat Infantryman's Badge

Specialty: Infantry

As a boy, Richard D. Duerr was fascinated by aviation. He built "lots of model airplanes" and spent the money from his Buffalo Evening News and Tonawanda News paper routes to go on rides in planes.

"There was an airfield on Military Road in the Town of Tonawanda that isn't there anymore, and I'd go up in Piper Cubs. I was probably 14 or 15 years old," Duerr recalled.

At 17, he signed enlistment papers to join the Army Air Forces but had to wait until he was 18 to actually begin training as a crew member for a B-17 heavy bomber, also known as the Flying Fortress.

Because of his height and weight, 5-feet-6 and 130 pounds, he was the ideal size for a gunner inside the ball turret on the belly of the four-engine aircraft.

"It was cramped, but I was comfortable because of my size. It was full of equipment, two .50-caliber machine guns and electronic sighting equipment. It was state-of-the-art in the days before computers."

Above Germany, he participated in many missions for the 8th Air Force, often shooting at enemy fighter planes.

"It was exciting, very exciting. All of the intensive training back in the States pulled you through," Duerr says.

"As far as I know, I hit the enemy airplanes, but it was so fast, I don't know if they went down. A plane would come at you, then usually another right after it. The Fortress had so many guns that they moved right past us."

Young and brash, Duerr felt confident that he would succeed in completing his 35 missions before returning home.

"I felt I was bulletproof, but I discovered I was not. On the 16th mission over Cologne, Germany, the anti-aircraft fire -- the flak -- was intense," he says.

"I was down in the turret, and I saw the flak make a direct hit, apparently, on the No. 2 engine, which exploded in my face. I could feel parts of the engine hitting and bouncing off the turret, which was made of steel with a plastic window."

Unable to maintain a high-enough altitude, the pilot flew the plane out of the formation but managed to let the bombardier drop the payload on the target before heading back toward friendly skies.

"When we got over Belgium, we thought we were in France," Duerr recalls, "and we got hit again very badly. We were right over the Battle of the Bulge, and the Germans' Tiger tanks were very good at shooting anti-aircraft flak from their cannons. We lost two more engines.

"We also lost electrical power, and I had to come out of the turret. I just made it into the aircraft. The left wing was engulfed with fire. We only had one engine, and the aircraft became uncontrollable. We bailed out."

Two crew members were killed, and four landed in friendly territory. Duerr was among the four who landed in enemy territory.

"I crashed down through trees and lost consciousness. When I woke up, I had a terrific headache, and I was cut up pretty bad. I was free for about maybe an hour, but Germans were looking for us. We got captured, and, after a couple of days, I ended up at a German hospital," he says.

"They had no medicine and no beds. I slept on the floor. A German doctor examined me and said I had a fractured skull. He told me he had no X-ray equipment or medication, but he said, 'You'll live.' "

Duerr took heart in the doctor's prognosis, knowing he was among the lucky ones. At night, he says, he could hear German soldiers who had lost limbs to amputation screaming in agony. "They had no pain medication."

When he was well enough, Duerr joined other prisoners of war who were sent to camps deep in Germany.

"I was there for six months, and during that time, we had very little to eat," he says. "When I was shot down, I weighed about 140 pounds. After I was liberated, I was less than 100 pounds."

Over the years since his service, he has suffered from a number of war-related medical problems, but he credits the Veterans Administration for providing him with top-notch health care.

Duerr also attends a weekly POW support group, whose ranks are thinning as time marches on, yet as long as he lives, he will never forget his time as a war prisoner.

"We walked on the road a lot, and sometimes they would pack us into trains like sardines. Allied planes would strafe the trains, and the Germans would stop the trains and run for cover," he remembers.

"Sometime our guys would get hit in the strafing, but my boxcar was not hit. I had a lot of good luck, bad luck in getting shot down, but good luck after that. I lived."

What carried him through the hardest times, he adds, "was my faith in the Lord."

In citing proof that God has been watching out for him all along, the 86-year-old says, "I got married to a wonderful girl named Jean, and we just celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary."

***

Richard D. Duerr, 86

Hometown: North Tonawanda

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Air Medal, Prisoner of War Medal, European Theater Medal

Specialty: B-17 ball-turret gunner

When World War II broke out, Dorothy Hibit wanted to be in on the fight. She called the military recruiting center at the old Post Office in downtown Buffalo asking if she could join.

"They laughed at me. They thought it was funny. They didn't have any women as of yet serving, except for nurses," said Hibit, who persisted and was finally accepted as a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

A year later, the Army accepted women as full members of the Armed Forces and they became known as the Women's Army Corps, aka WACs.

"We were given the opportunity to leave or stay when the Army accepted us as full members. I stayed. I wanted to go overseas," Hibit said.

She and other WACs were sent to a camp in Georgia for wartime training.

"It was rough, I'll tell you. It was always marching, drilling and shooting rifles.

I got the girl's target next to me, that's how good I was."

By May 1943, Hibit's contingent of WACs landed in Scotland.

"We were taken by trucks to northern England and we were there until D-Day, when everything broke loose. I transferred to the Signal Corps."

That transfer would put Hibit squarely in the midst of the action as part of the first unit of WACs to set foot on French soil. But before going there, she was already an old hand at experiencing the dangers of war.

"When we were in London, the Germans were constantly sending in their buzz bombs. We were there the first day they started dropping those bombs on London. They'd take out half a block at a time. Those poor civilians were wonderful. They were brave. I had a lot of respect for them."

Though the carnage of D-Day on June 6, 1944, was long over when Hibit landed three months later at Normandy's Utah Beach, she observed the signs of war everywhere.

"We could only step on certain lanes on the beach that had been cleared of land mines. We stayed overnight at the beachhead in tents and then we were flown to Chantilly, France, where I worked the switchboard, attached to the the 9th Army Air Force. There must have been a hundred or more girls on the switchboard."

One of her most exciting moments occurred when she answered a call from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower seeking a connection to the front lines.

"When I asked who was calling, he said, ‘General Eisenhower,' and I said, ‘Oh my goodness.' He knew he shocked me and laughed. I said, ‘Hold on and I will put you right through.' I interrupted a line with two other generals and one of them said, ‘Well, this is General Patton.'

"I said, ‘I have General Eisenhower on the line,' and Patton said, ‘Well, pardon me, make it a three-way party line conversation with General Eisenhower.' That was the first time I ever did that."

During the Battle of the Bulge, Hibit remembers doing double duty. After working the phones, she and fellow WACs packaged up blankets, boots, gloves and whatever other warm clothing they could spare for the troops on the front lines during the bitter winter of 1944-45.

"The bigger girls even gave up their coats. It was terrible. Our boys were being slaughtered. They were all 18 and 19 years old," Hibit said.

When the war finally ended in Europe in the spring of 1945, everyone in Chantilly celebrated, but not the WACs.

"We had a woman major who was a mean mommy," Hibit quipped. "She restricted us to base, while civilians and troops were celebrating. We were all angry and upset. We wanted to be out there celebrating too."

Eventually, she visited the Bavarian Mountains in Germany and then toured Nice, France, before returning home to Buffalo's East Side where she lived with her parents, Stella and Joseph.

While on a 1946 summer visit to Crystal Beach, the former Dorothy Ulicki met her future husband, James Hibit. Together, they would raise a family of three children.

Now looking back decades later at her military service, she says, "I loved my Army life. How else would I have seen Europe and met so many nice people?"

[email protected]

***

Dorothy Hibit, 91

*Residence: Clarence

*Branch: Army

*Rank: Sergeant

*War zone: Europe

*Years of service: 1941—1945

*Most prominent honors: European Medal and four battle stars

*Specialty: Training women enlistees

In a word, Donald L. Puff says he felt "inspired" as he watched fellow Marines raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during World War II's Battle of Iwo Jima.

For an 18-year-old who had enlisted at 17 with his parents' permission, it was a sight to behold amid the blood and guts all around him on that Pacific island.

"It was the most patriotic feeling I have ever experienced in my life when I saw that," said the 85-year-old retired physical education teacher from the Cleveland Hill School District.

Three days after he witnessed that special moment on Feb. 23, 1945, which yielded one of the most enduring photographic images from World War II, Puff again gazed out into the distance. But this time, he spotted a Japanese grenade flying right at him.

"We were attacking a ridgeline, and I looked up and saw this thing coming at me -- and it exploded in my face. The most serious thing was that my right eye was injured," Puff said.

He was evacuated to the 148th Army General Hospital on Saipan for two weeks, then transferred to the Navy Hospital at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and eventually returned to the States.

As the years passed, the vision in his injured eye decreased, and he now has sight only in his left eye.

But we're getting way ahead in Puff's story.

At the end of 1945, he decided to leave the Marines and crack open the books at Cortland State Teachers College. It didn't work. The yearning to serve the country kept calling out to him, and he re-enlisted in 1947.

"I thought I wanted to make a career out of the Marines, and I was working as an athletic and recreation noncommissioned officer, but I failed the physical for Officer Candidate School, and they medically retired me in 1951 because of my eye," he said.

So he resumed higher education, attending the University of Buffalo and eventually was hired as a gym teacher at Cleveland Hill High School.

In addition to teaching, he coached football, swimming and even track and field for a couple of years. But it was in swimming that he made some serious waves.

"While I was the swim coach for 21 years," he said, "we won over 200 meets and 13 championships."

No surprise that district officials saw fit to name the swimming pool the Donald L. Puff Natatorium.

While he has had great success in life, his early years often come swimming to the surface.

"My platoon started out with 43 Marines, and by the morning of the eighth day at Iwo Jima, there were eight survivors, and I was one of the eight. They brought replacements in, and I was made a squad leader," Puff said.

Death was all around the young Marine.

"It was totally unbelieveable," he recalled. "I still have a vivid picture of the first Marine who I knew was dead. He was shot in the hand, and he died of shock."

Under other circumstances, that kind of battle wound was commonly known as "a million-dollar wound" because it meant that the survivor would be returning to life back home, far from the horrors of the front line.

Instead, the unlucky Marine, "about 25 and one of the older members of our platoon, was literally frightened to death," Puff said.

The Japanese, Puff said, also had heavy casualties at Iwo Jima, with more than 6,800 Americans and nearly 22,000 Japanese killed in action.

"From the U.S. naval bombardment," he remembered, "there were hundreds of dead Japanese all around us."

So with death so much a part of the landscape, Puff's initial thought that he would surely survive began to wane.

"At first, I didn't think I would die," he said, "but as our numbers started to dwindle, I became more pessimistic."

Then, at 5 p.m. Feb. 26, 1945, bad luck found him in the form of an enemy grenade. Yet he lived and has endured.

As he now reflects:

"I got a college education out of this from the GI Bill of Rights. I met my wife, Adele, while I was in the service. She was in the Navy, and we were married in the service.

"I also got a lifelong career as a physical education teacher, and I made lifelong friends with guys I served with in the Marines."

***

Donald L. Puff, 85

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-45, 1947-51

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation with battle star, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Infantry rifleman

At 87, Richard A. Sebian is the last man standing in his family of five brothers and a brother-in-law who all served in World War II.

That he is the last survivor of this patriotic brood does not bother him in the least. Rather than focus on mortality, he would rather discuss ageless patriotism and how proud he is of his family's military service.

His oldest brother, George, a chief warrant officer with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Paul, the second-oldest, served with Army's 69th Tank Brigade and was part of the Battle of Anzio, Italy, and later the invasion of southern France.

The third-oldest, Al, was a captain and pilot of a B-17 bomber that flew out of Italy on 50 missions. During two of those sorties, Al touched down in the Soviet Union before heading back to Italy. That easterly detour was unusual at the time.

Bill, the fourth of the brothers, was a member of the Army's famous 10th Mountain Division, based in Italy, and also was among those who charged into southern France.

Service rendered by the Sebians' brother-in-law, Robert Musgrave, took him in another direction. He sailed as a Seabee in the Pacific.

These five men were a tough act for Richard, the youngest, to follow, yet his service was every bit as admirable.

As a forward observer with the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, he fought in five campaigns.

Richard Sebian's journey began after he landed at Normandy, seven days after D-Day. His unit landed on Utah Beach and pushed deep into enemy territory.

"After the Battle of Cherbourg and the time we spent in the hedgerows of Normandy, we started to move and set up guns in Mayenne," he recalled. "We were in position for a few hours, and a German tank had observed us."

Eight rounds blasted out of the tank gun's muzzle, but Sebian was running for cover after the first. He estimates that by the third round, he was launched into the air by the impact of the exploding ordnance.

"It landed about 5 yards from me as I was running back to my foxhole," he said. "The round blew me into the foxhole, and I got hit in my left hand with shrapnel."

The wound was severe enough to send him back to England for several weeks of hospital treatment. Two months later, though, he was back in the action with plenty of time to spare for the approaching Battle of the Bulge, which commenced Dec. 16, 1944.

"We didn't have it quite as bad as most of the infantry, but the Bulge was something to remember," he said of the prolonged battle in some of the harshest winter conditions Europe had experienced in years.

After the war, Sebian attended Ohio State University, earning a degree in horticulture that he put to work at the University at Buffalo.

From 1953 to 1987, Sebian served as UB's South Campus supervisor of grounds.

"The first day on the job, I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' We had 200 acres to care for. But I enjoyed it," he said.

After the war, he and his brothers and brother-in-law went their separate ways, and he recalls the high price paid by his mom and dad, Elizabeth and Joseph. "It was hard on them," he said. "They worried about the six of us overseas and all in combat."

At the time, as a young man in the midst of war, such parental concern was beyond Sebian's comprehension, though in civilian life he would soon learn how how deep the love of a mother and father can be.

He and his wife, the late Patricia Tracy Sebian, raised five children of their own.

***

Hometown: Painesville, Ohio

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation with five battle stars

Specialty: Forward observer, mortar gunner

After two years at Burgard Vocational High School, Salvatore L. Gruttadauria decided he had had enough with formal education and ventured into the classroom of the working world.

One of seven children living in a flat at Seventh and Pennsylvania streets on the West Side, Gruttadauria felt he was moving up in life with his newfound employment.

A worker at a food warehouse on Clinton Street, he got a taste of backbreaking labor, filling pallet-sized orders for area markets.

"That was the thing back in those days, getting a job instead of going to school," Gruttadauria said.

Then Uncle Sam made him a job offer in the form of a draft notice in 1944, and he was off to the Navy.

After learning semaphore and Morse code, he was billeted with a newly assembled crew, which journeyed from Rhode Island to the naval base at Virginia Beach.

There, they boarded a new aircraft carrier, the USS Ticonderoga.

"It was as big as a football field and had a crew of 3,000 men," recalled Gruttadauria. "The boat was enormous. You felt like you could get lost in it. There were so many different compartments that you needed instructions to get around."

The first order of business was to take the Ticonderoga out on a "shakedown cruise" to get acquainted with how the ship handled and provide sailors a chance to get their sea legs under them.

The honeymoon lasted 10 days.

"We then went through the Panama Canal and joined the fleet in the Pacific," Gruttadauria said.

Not long after that, he and his crew members were on the lookout for Japanese kamikaze pilots. And it was during one of his watches that the suicide pilots came buzzing out of the sky.

"I got on the phone and reported to the bridge, 'There's a bogie coming in at 9 o'clock.' The guns on the ship started firing, but they didn't shoot good enough, and the plane hit the flight deck and made a big hole. None of our planes could take off."

In the meantime, Gruttadauria spotted a second kamikaze and realized he needed to take cover or face the likelihood of death.

"I got the hell out there and went down into the ship. It was made of steel, so I had protection."

Others were not so fortunate.

The second plane struck the Ticonderoga's radar tower, killing a chief petty officer and other crewmen.

The double whammy was enough to send the Ticonderoga back to America for repairs at a State of Washington port.

The ship was then ordered back to the South Pacific. But by this time, Japanese air power was diminished.

"Thank God we didn't see any more kamikaze. It was all over by then," Gruttadauria said, the relief in his voice still easily detectable so many years later.

After the war, he was more than happy to rejoin the ranks of land lovers and took a job at the Post Office, delivering mail on Clinton Street and Jefferson Avenue for 27 years before retirement.

He and his wife, the former Rose Alabisi, raised a son and a daughter and have six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

And while the Second World War is long over, Gruttadauria is never far from those memories of when Uncle Sam called him to duty.

On the wall in the sitting room of his West Side home, he has a large photograph of the Ticonderoga and other World War II aircraft carriers prominently displayed.

***

Salvatore L. Gruttadauria, 86

Hometown: Robertsdale, Pa.

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Seaman first class

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: Drafted, 1944-1946

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: Signalman

After graduating from North Tonawanda High School in 1941, Anthony J. Gelose went to work at a local war plant.

"I was in the ordnance department at the Bell Aircraft plant on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. We were making gun parts for the Cobra aircraft," Gelose said. "I knew that I was going to get drafted."

A year later, that's exactly what happened.

Before heading overseas with Company B, 716th Tank Battalion, Gelose and his comrades received a pep talk from none other than Gen. George S. Patton.

"He stood up on the back of a tank, and I could see the two pistols hanging from his hips. He said, 'I'd sacrifice 10,000 of you boys to save 100,000 of you.' I liked him. He spoke his mind. He was a good general."

Patton headed to Europe, "and we went to the Pacific."

"There were quite a few boys in my outfit from Western New York," said Gelose, who found security in knowing there were "friends" on the long journey who hailed from places including the Twin Cities, South Buffalo and Lackawanna.

After arriving in New Guinea, which had already been secured, U.S. forces began heading north, making their way to the Philippines.

"We fought at Luzon, and then they needed replacements to retake Corregidor, and they picked six of us. When we arrived at Subic Bay, the plane to take us over to Corregidor for the invasion had already left.

"We listened on the radio to the invasion, which was just across the bay, and we could hear men getting killed. We were very fortunate. The good Lord was looking after me that day. One of the tanks we were supposed be on was destroyed, and I could have gone up with it."

After the Philippines, Gelose transferred to the 603rd Tank Company, which had been the first U.S. tank company to arrive in the Pacific, starting out in Australia.

"They were good a bunch of guys, the 603rd. They had been through the mill and I was proud to be with them," he recalled.

A short while later, Japan surrendered, and the 603rd was shipped to a base just outside Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.

"We were mostly assigned to quarters but I did get into Tokyo a few times, and I'll tell you it must have been a beautiful city before all the bombings. The Japanese people were good to us."

Part of the reason he spent most of his time on the base, he explained, was he possessed a special skill. Way back in North Tonawanda, he had taken typing courses in high school. That earned him the position of company clerk.

"Also," he added with a chuckle, "I wasn't much of drinker or a chaser."

After the war, he returned home and was talked into attending beauty school, where he learned how to cut hair.

"My two sisters talked me into doing that, and I cut hair for 10 years but I wasn't cut out for that. Then my brother Sam wanted to open up a florist shop, and I joined him.

"We ran Gelose Art and Flowers on Main Street in the City of Tonawanda for 50 years and another shop on Grand Island for 36 years."

Gelose was married twice and a widower both times. He has three sons and three stepchildren.

So, he's never lonely.

"I also go to Mass every morning and then I go out for coffee with the boys at McDonald's. Then I come home and have brunch."

email: [email protected]

> Anthony J. Gelose, 89

Hometown: Frankfort, N.Y.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Staff Sergeant

War zone: Pacific Theater, World War II

Years of service: 1942-1946

Most prominent honors: Good Conduct Medal and Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: tank gunner

Joseph Buli could have gotten a Purple Heart after a German artillery round exploded and sent shards of shrapnel and rock flying through the air and piercing his left arm.

But good son that he was, he asked the captain of the medics to list his wounds as noncombat, knowing that if his parents, natives of Budapest, Hungary, received a telegram he had been wounded in action it would upset them, especially his mom.

He previously learned that she had experienced an emotional breakdown after receiving word that his older brother Michael had been wounded.

"She was afraid he might die. Michael was in Italy recovering," Buli said.

In total, the mother of 13 children had six of her nine sons fighting in World War II. (A seventh son would fight in the Korean War.)

So Buli passed up on the chance to receive a Purple Heart in recognition of his wounds, though his courage would provide him with other chances to earn recognition on the battlefields of Europe.

After landing at Omaha Beach in northern France 11 days after D-Day, he and members of the 330th Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, started making their way deeper into Normandy. "It was our first day of combat, and a lieutenant colonel wanted to witness our advancement. So I drove him up to the front lines by the hedgerows, and four of our tanks couldn't get through them.

"I got out of my Jeep and started looking for a spot that was wide enough and found one and then waved the tank driver over to it. The tank made it through and was followed by the three other tanks."

Buli almost forgets to mention that he conducted this unplanned reconnaissance under heavy fire, with the Germans perhaps 90 yards away from him.

"The bullets were flying by my head," he recalls, "and I didn't realize that the lieutenant colonel later filed paperwork for me to receive a Silver Star. He said I was responsible for them meeting their objective that day. The tanks advanced and went after the Germans."

After the Silver Star came two Bronze Stars, both for saving the lives of other soldiers.

"With the first Bronze Star, I was next to a guy who got shot through the neck, and a piece of the mortar shell came out through his mouth," Buli says. "He didn't have his first-aid kit with him, and I used mine to bandage up his neck.

"A few months later, I got a letter from him when he was back in the States, and he told me the medics said I had saved his life that day because of the way I taped him up.

"The second Bronze Star came when my first sergeant and I were shooting at the Germans, and an enemy tank opened fire, and the sergeant got hit in the spine. I took him back to the medics, and I never thought I'd see him again. A month later, he was back on the front lines."

For years, Buli never talked about his World War II experiences, according to his wife, Anne. But in 2003, she said, something totally unexpected occurred.

He received a letter from a "displaced person" he had assisted just as the war ended in 1945, and that heartfelt missive opened the floodgates of time and memory.

Erika Alekandrowicz, 67, of Kingston, Ulster County, had managed to obtain Buli's address and wrote asking whether he was her "GI Joe," the young man from so long ago who had given her food when she and other children were begging for sustenance.

She included a snapshot of Buli in his Army uniform that the then-9-year-old Erika had requested of him along with his name. Seeing his picture, Buli knew there was no question that this was the once-little girl he had provided food to for her and her family.

In the letter, Alekandrowicz told Buli how her family, originally from Ukraine, had managed to relocate to the United States in 1952 and how she had never forgotten his kindness.

Soon after the letter arrived, Buli and his wife, Anne, visited with Alekandrowicz in Kingston.

"In the letter, she had told me that I was the first person to ever give her a candy bar and gum," Buli says, "so when we visited her, I brought her gum and a box of chocolate."

To this day, Joe and Anne Buli stay in touch with her.

"We got a call from her just the other day," Anne Buli said. "She tells Joe he saved her life."

***

Joseph Buli, 86

Hometown: Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Rifleman Badge

Specialty: Infantry

After graduating from Buffalo's Hutchinson-Central High School in 1941, Russell L. Bracco followed his mother's marching orders and set out to become a pharmacist.

Laura Bracco envisioned her son joining the ranks of other family members who had made good as druggists.

"I got A's in chemistry, and I had three cousins who were all pharmacists," Bracco recalls.

He was accepted into the University of Buffalo's School of Pharmacy, but there was just one problem: Bracco required money for tuition, textbooks and living expenses.

Those needs landed him in the war effort, working at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Cheektowaga to help make P-40 Warhawk fighter planes for World War II.

"I made about 45 cents an hour and worked full time at night and went to school full time in the day," the 89-year-old Bracco remembers. "It was a lot, but I was able to do it because I was young."

Then Uncle Sam stepped in and dashed his mother's dream of one day saying, "My son, the pharmacist."

"I got a draft notice, and that was it," he said. "I became a GI, government issue, which means you do what the Army tells you and when the Army wants you to do it. No questions."

So what did he do in the Army? Not what he thought might make sense.

"I thought I was going to the Army Air Forces because of my experience in building planes, but they sent me to an armored outfit in Camp Chaffee, Ark.," he said. "I was then told I would be in communications and went to radio school. Then we received training in combat maneuvers."

By the fall of 1943, he and other members of the 14th Armored Division were on their way to Europe in preparation for D-Day.

After the Normandy invasion, his outfit landed in southern France and fought its way toward Germany. At one point in January 1944, the 14th Armored Division was involved in a major engagement, with several nearly being taken prisoner.

But despite heavy losses, Bracco said, the division persevered and provided support for the 3rd Army led by Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Then came December 1944 -- the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.

"We stopped the Germans from circling Patton's right flank, and he was able to rescue the 101st Airborne Division, which was trapped in Bastogne," Bracco said.

Patton, he said, personally thanked the 14th Armored Division. "He said if we weren't there, he could have never liberated the 101st Airborne," Bracco recalls.

After victory at the Bulge, U.S. forces had the Germans on the run.

Seated inside his armored halftrack vehicle, Bracco sent and received encrypted messages using scrambled Morse code.

"We never spoke. Everything was in four-letter code sent over continuous shortwave radio," he said. "We were directed on where and how to advance, where to send ambulances and where to pick up materials.

"From January through March 1945, we were on the move. We advanced with Patton and crossed the Rhine River into Worms, Germany, on Easter Sunday. Patton had told us, 'You can't stand still. You have to advance. You can't let the Germans rest. You have to fight them.' "

The strategy worked.

"We could have gotten to Berlin before the Russians, but we ran short of gasoline," Bracco said.

That and other wartime experiences prompted Bracco to publish his memoir, "Tonight I Got My Orders," written from his diaries.

With the war at an end, he returned to the States and was honorably discharged. An Army official suggested he go to work for the local telephone company back home because of his experience in communications.

Eager to earn money and to marry, he took the advice rather than return to UB's School of Pharmacy.

"I went to work at New York Telephone Co. and married," he said. "My wife, Frances, and I had two children, and I retired after 36 years."

Did he ever regret not following through on his mother's wishes that he become a pharmacist?

"No, I loved what I was doing," he said. "The Army made me a communications expert."

***

Russell L. Bracco, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Combat Service Medal

Specialty: Radio operator

At 21 years of age and "wet behind the ears," John C. "Jack" Elberson looked up into the clear blue sky above the Pacific and saw a Japanese warplane overhead.

Not good.

The plane was about to drop a torpedo in an attempt to sink the 300-foot-long USS Bowers, a destroyer escort, and Elberson was aboard.

"It was a warm and clear day with unlimited visibility," he says, "and I looked up and saw the plane drop the torpedo. I immediately ran to the starboard side and hoped I would be protected.

"We were lucky. The torpedo went right underneath the ship, and at my vantage point, I watched it go all the way to a fuel tanker, the USS Ashtabula, which we had been escorting for two days. The torpedo hit it and exploded."

Again, Elberson says, luck was present.

"The section that the torpedo hit was not filled with the high-test gasoline," he says. "The torpedo hit diesel fuel or bunker oil, not as explosive."

So the Bowers and the Ashtabula were able to arrive "not so safely" at the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the coast of the Philippines in late October 1944.

"Troops were landing at Leyte Gulf, and we could see smoke from bombings and fires on shore. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said he would return to the Philippines, and that's where he walked ashore."

After Leyte, Elberson and his fellow sailors continued escorts of supply ships until the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945, which stretched into June.

"That was a really nasty battle. We had continual kamikaze attacks," he recalled.

A "picket line" of ships was formed, stretching from near the shoreline of Okinawa out into the ocean in order to prevent Japanese submarines from resupplying ground forces and thwart attacks from the air, he explained.

"Each of our ships relied on sonar equipment to detect submarines, but from sunup to sundown, the kamikazes were taking out our ships one by one."

The USS Bowers participated in the watery line of defense from April 1 to April 16. Of that, Elberson is positive. After all, how can you forget staring death in the face?

"At 9:41 in the morning of April 16, we were hit by a kamikaze," he recalls. "That was a very, very traumatic experience for me. I had multiple duties, and I was a gunner on the starboard side, and the airplane came over the top of the ship, and you could almost see the pilot.

"He flew out over the ocean about 100 feet above the water and made a left-hand turn, and all the time, we were firing our 20 mm guns at him. We expelled three canisters of 20 mm shells, and then he crashed into the flying bridge of the ship, killing all the officers but two. The total number of people killed was 58."

Making matters worse, the impact of the plane activated the Bowers' controls for its depth charges.

"When the airplane hit, our ship had four depth charges on each side, and all those depth charges flew out over the water," he remembers. "Fortunately for us, the settings on the depth charges were not activated, and they did not explode. If they had, we would have been blown right out of the water."

Elberson, to say the least, was now dry behind the ears.

Consider this: "We originally had a complement of 206 men on the USS Bowers, but when we came back to the States for repairs, we only had 98."

The return took the Bowers through the Panama Canal and to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where a new flying bridge was installed.

At this point, Elberson was sent to San Diego to set sail on another ship back to the war zone.

"That never happened," he says. "The war ended, and I was eventually discharged in March 1946."

He returned home to Buffalo a seasoned combat veteran.

"I became an automobile mechanic. I worked for Glen Campbell Chevrolet. I started in 1951, and I'm still employed there," he says. "I don't go in every day -- just when they call me."

If that's not proof the grizzled 88-year-old veteran remains young at heart, chew on this:

"I still ride a motorcycle."

***

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Navy

Rank: Torpedoman second class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, with battle stars for service at Leyte Gulf and Okinawa

Specialty: Underwater ordnance

At age 85, William H. Robinson is no stranger to death.

"When my dad passes away, it will be the second time he faced death, as he was nonresponsive on an operating table in Belgium after being severely wounded by German artillery fire during the Battle of the Bulge," David Robinson said of his father.

William Robinson vividly recalls the circumstances leading up to his "death," though it happened more than 67 years ago.

"We were in a forest at the edge of a hilltop. I was taking cover behind a tree, and we could see down to the Siegfried Line and the Germans motoring up the hill in their tanks, with troops on foot right behind," he says.

"The tanks started firing shells at the upper levels of the trees to hit branches. They called them tree bursts because when the shell hit, the shrapnel would come down like an umbrella, and anyone underneath the tree would be subject to injury, and that's how I got it."

The 18-year-old Robinson was rushed to a first-aid station, where an Army medic treated his back wounds.

"I told him that my right foot's arch was bothering me, too, and when he took off my boot, he turned it upside down, and blood poured out," he recalls.

The winter uniform for the infantry included special boots designed to temporarily reseal when punctured, so that was why the foot wound had been concealed, Robinson explained.

"We were in 3 feet of snow in one of the worst winters in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge," he says. "We were lucky to have those boots. Just prior to that, we were in work boots."

After field surgery, Robinson was taken to a Belgian hospital for additional treatment.

He awoke at the hospital.

"Oh, you're awake," a nurse said.

"I just got here; how could I be asleep?" Robinson responded.

"You've been here three days or better," the nurse said. "We lost you on the operating table."

While lying on his stomach as doctors operated on his back, Robinson was surprised to learn, he had briefly died.

During the rapid procedures to revive him, the surgeons flipped him over onto his back and administered oxygen. In the process, he said, they dislocated his right shoulder.

"The nurse explained to me that because of my weakened condition from lack of rest and lack of good dieting, I died during the back surgery," he recalls.

Did he see the bright light at the end of a tunnel, as some who experience death or near-death experiences claim?

"I didn't see anything. The door was closed," he says. "I just never forgot what the nurse told me. It was like I'd gone to sleep."

After an extended recuperation during which he had to relearn walking because of the foot wound, Robinson was sent back to Company C of the Seventh Army's 70th Division.

"I caught up with the division by the Rhine River," he says. "It was near the end of the war, and I looked up in the air and the sky was full of planes, our planes."

The sight, he says, filled him with joy.

"They were getting ready to send us back into battle because German storm troopers didn't want to give up," he recalls. "But they couldn't control the bombing from our planes, and we didn't have to go back into battle."

With the war at an end, Robinson returned to the United States and was honorably discharged in 1946, but his war story continued.

"I was driving on Bailey Avenue [on Buffalo's East Side], and I got a flat tire. There were no good cars available right after the war. I got out of the car and put on the spare tire and then kicked the hubcap back on with my right foot, and that's when I nearly fainted," Robinson remembers.

"I went to the doctor, and he took an X-ray, and he said you were wounded in the war in your right arch, but they didn't get all the shrapnel out. There was one piece left."

It took some convincing, Robinson recalls, before he let the doctors at Lafayette General Hospital put him under with anesthesia, afraid that he might die again, as he had in Belgium.

"The doctors said, 'But you were weak then.' "

Reluctantly, Robinson agreed to be placed into unconsciousness.

When he awoke, he was given a memento of his World War II experience -- a chunk of shrapnel, about the size of a half-dollar coin, extracted from his foot.

"One side of it was all smooth, but the other side had all jagged points," Robinson says. "I gave it to my wife and asked her, 'Do you want to peel potatoes with it?'

"She said, 'You're nuts. Haven't you seen enough of that?' "

Robinson realized that his wife was absolutely right.

"I threw the shrapnel away," he says.

His beloved spouse, Mary Race Robinson, passed away nearly a decade ago.

And now that he is in the later part of his own life, Robinson said he has no fear of death.

"I know I died once already," he says, "and though I can't remember, it was apparently like I went on a short trip."

***

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army

Rank: Technical corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart

Specialty: Infantry

After scoring high marks on an aptitude test at Fort Niagara's induction center in Youngstown, Edward M. Kolek said he was talked into joining the Army's Aviation Cadet Corps.

He breezed through pilot training and went on to pilot commander school. Unlike a number of fellow cadets, he said, his easygoing approach helped him. No matter where he landed, he told himself he'd be OK.

"So many of the young guys who wanted to fly real bad were worried about washing out," Kolek says. "I didn't worry because I knew if I did, I could work as a mechanic on the planes. I'd taken shop courses in high school."

Kolek ended up flying 47 missions over southern and southeastern Europe from his base in Italy, commanding a B-24 bomber.

During many of those missions, he often piloted the lead plane in the formation.

"If it was a squadron mission, there would be maybe 28 to 30 planes following me, and if it was a group mission, roughly 100 or so bombers,"

Kolek says. "It was a big responsibility. You had to have smooth flying skills because people flew off your wing. You couldn't be erratic."

Entering the bombing run, he explains, it was critical to fly steady in order for "the bombardier to have a better chance to hit the target."

The lead bombardier, he says, set the pace for the bombardiers in the other planes.

"We had to have the bombs concentrated on a small area in the target in order to eliminate collateral damage and do maximum damage," he says.

It was all highly coordinated, but don't think for one minute that these bombing runs at 18,000 to 26,000 feet above enemy territory always went off like clockwork.

Take, for instance, Kolek's mission above the heavily protected Ploesti oil fields in Romania, where the Germans got about one-third of their oil supply.

"Just before the start of the bombing run," Kolek says, "our whole group was flying on a collision course with another group, and we were ordered to make a 360-degree turn over Bucharest, and I got hit with anti-aircraft fire in my No. 1 engine.

"I had to leave the formation because I could not maintain position. I went on the bombing run alone and got hit again in another engine. Our right landing gear was also shot up."

The unmistakable smell of gasoline started filling the plane, and the crew responded by pumping gas from a punctured tank to an undamaged tank.

"You could smell the gasoline real bad," Kolek says. "To make matters worse, we lost our oxygen and radio contact, and flight controls were damaged. Our navigator took us back through valleys. We avoided the mountains because we were losing altitude the whole time."

Kolek managed to limp back to Grottaglie Airfield in southern Italy, where he confronted the problem of landing with two of the four engines out and no right landing gear.

"It was a crash-landing, but I think it was one of the best landings I ever made in my life," he says. "I had to keep the right wing as high as I could for as long as I could.

"There's a tendency for the wing to dip down, dig in the ground and cartwheel. I avoided the cartwheel, which is the end for everybody."

Gen. Nathan F. Twining, commander of the 15th Air Force, witnessed the crash-landing from the side of the runway.

"His staff was with him, and a colonel came up to me and said, 'Job well done,' " he recalls.

All told, the plane had 240 flak holes, some small, some big, in addition to a nearly demolished undercarriage.

And consider this: It was one of Kolek's first missions.

"I was concerned about getting hit like anyone else, but I never had a fear," he says. "I'd come back from a mission and look forward to the next mission. I was prepared for the worst scenario.

"If I didn't get shot down, it was a good mission, and it made me look forward to the next mission. It was like going for a ride on a Ferris wheel. Mental preparation is the key."

Soon after the war, while assigned to a base in Memphis, Tenn., Kolek met his wife-to-be on a blind date. He married Christine Bailey on April 25, 1946, his 24th birthday, in the base chapel.

When he left the service, he could have worked as a commercial pilot but ruled it out when told he would have to be a co-pilot for about 10 years before advancing.

"No way would I take the second seat," he said.

He went to Cornell University and earned an agricultural certificate, hoping to become an agriculture engineering consultant but instead landed in a steel mill. He worked his way up to manager of labor relations at what was then Lockport's Simonds Saw and Steel, which later became Guterl Specialty Steel.

Kolek lives on a Town of Lockport farm, which he purchased in 1951, and where his son, Mark Kolek, is developing part of the 100 acres into a horse farm these days.

***

Hometown: DuBois, Pa.

Residence: Town of Lockport

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Lieutenant colonel, Air Force Reserve

War zones: Europe, Mediterranean

Years of service: 1943-47; continued as a reservist until 1982

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters, European Battle Ribbon with nine battle stars

Specialty: Pilot/flight commander

At 21 years old and making $21 a week repairing automobile engines in Niagara Falls, Bill Kresman felt upset when he asked for a pay raise and was denied.

Well, he would show his employer.

"I can do something else," he recalled thinking of a career change that would take him into the military.

He remembered seeing a big sign in front of the old New York State Army National Guard Armory on Main Street in the Falls advertising for recruits.

"I said to a friend of mine 'Why don't we go and join the Army?' I knew the federal government was going to be activating the Guard unit in the Falls," Kresman recalls.

His friend, the late Jack McCumber, agreed, and the two went over to the armory and signed up.

As it turned out, the career change would change Williams H. Kresman's life forever. He would end up on the front lines of World War II in Europe.

"We were coming back from maneuvers in North Carolina to Fort Dix, N.J., and were bivouacking at Gettysburg," he says, "and as we were pulling in, there was a command car with a loudspeaker announcing the attack on the Pearl Harbor."

That was Dec. 7, 1941.

But his chance to fight the enemy would not come until September 1944. In the meantime, he would go to officers training school and spend a couple of years training draftees to become soldiers.

When it was Kresman's turn to go overseas, he was already married and the father of a 13-month-old daughter. Although domestically well-established, he did not hesitate to make the sacrifice for his country.

On Nov. 16, 1944, he almost made the ultimate sacrifice.

"We were near the Siegfried Line advancing to Germany when I was wounded. We were on the attack and ran into a lot of small-arms and artillery fire on our way to the Roer River," he remembers.

"I'd already lost a few men and went to turn around and get the radio for some communications before going on the attack again. Then an artillery shell came in."

When a piece of the shell struck his lower left back, Kresman says, "I thought someone hit me with a sledgehammer. It knocked me to the ground."

The shell fragments drove deep into his body and lodged in his left lung.

"I just laid there for a good while, from 1:30 in the afternoon to about 5, when it started to get dusk," he recalls. "Most of my troops had moved on. They were continuing the attack, getting closer and closer to the river."

During the 4 1/2 -hour wait to be rescued, the shelling continued, blowing up the earth and showering him with mud.

"You began to wonder if maybe this was the end," he says, "but eventually, the shelling lifted and was directed toward the advancing troops."

A stretcher crew finally arrived and took him to an aid station, where he received first aid and then was moved to a field hospital in a school building. There, he underwent surgery to remove the fragments.

Not only did he receive a Purple Heart for his wounds, but the Army awarded him a Bronze Star for bravery in recognition of his actions that day. The citation stated that he had been relentless in urging his troops onward, just prior to being wounded.

Kresman ended up in Birmingham, England, where he was physically rehabilitated before returning to the front lines.

By March 1945, the first lieutenant was placed in charge of a convoy, the "Red Ball Express," and was heading across France to Germany to rejoin the 29th Infantry Division, which had first arrived at Omaha Beach on D-Day in June 1944, though Kresman was not present for that historic invasion.

"We started catching the enemy again, but in smaller groups," he says. "I ended up on the Elbe River, and Berlin was only 45 miles away. We stopped there and let the Russians come into Berlin."

As the war drew to a close, he was stationed in Bremen, Germany, where he celebrated V-E Day on May 8, 1945.

While in Bremen, Kresman said, he made a discovery: Beck's beer was made there.

"The executive officer of my company and myself went to the brewery and talked to the brew master," Kresman remembers. "We told him we'd sure like to have a beer. He moved his chair and opened a trap door beneath it and pulled out a few beers for us."

Did it taste good?

"Absolutely!"

The brew master then explained his dilemma.

"He said he had 400 tons of beer ready to be kegged but had no electricity."

Kresman and the executive officer shared the brew master's problem with their higher-ups.

"The commanding general sent out orders for the quartermasters to round up kegs, and the engineers to supply compressors and generators," he says. "We were able to wash out the kegs and keg roughly 200 tons of beer, which was delivered to each and every company for V-E Day."

Now, some seven decades later, Kresman cherishes this memory and says he still enjoys a Beck's every now and then.

"In fact, I have it in my refrigerator."

And when he indulges, the widower is not alone.

His good buddy, Sarge, a rescued Boston terrier, keeps a watchful eye on the aging war hero.

***

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Niagara Falls

Branch: Army

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1940-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, New York State Conspicuous Service Medal

Specialty: Infantry

Richard Markowski thought he was past the worst of it following the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943.

Allied troops were ashore and making strong advances on German and Italian forces. The landing craft to which Markowski was assigned kept delivering tanks, trucks and ammunition to the different ports as the battle progressed on the island.

But then an unexpected enemy kicked up — a storm at sea.

"We were carrying tanks and trucks into Palermo harbor, and there were rough seas," he recalls. "I'd never seen a storm like that. There were high waves and thunder and lightning.

"The LST must have been thrown together when they made it because the welding started cracking. The captain directed the ship immediately toward shore. An LST was built so it could land anywhere, and we all got off safely."

After that close call, Markowski was assigned to another LST, which served in the invasion of Italy, again ferrying troops and supplies, making trips back-and-forth from Africa to the Italian coastline.

But all of this was just a warm-up for D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

"Normandy was the really big battle. In shuttling troops onto the shore, our landing craft got stuck on Utah Beach and couldn't back off. We came under direct fire from the Germans' big guns in concrete bunkers," Markowski remembers.

"The boat went sideways. It happened before we'd had a chance to build floating docks that stretched out into the water. I remember we had to get out of the boat, and we laid on the beach with our machine guns.

"There wasn't much we could do. The Germans were firing at us with 88 millimeter rounds. Then a ship, an American destroyer, blew up the German bunker where the gun was that was shelling our boat. We caught a ride back out on another boat."

And while Markowski remembers his own harrowing experience at being under fire, he said he also will never forget the waves of American soldiers delivered onto the beaches of Normandy, with so many of them perishing.

"They kept coming in waves. One wave of troops after another. I was lucky. I didn't get wounded. There were a lot of young kids floating in the water."

Time has taken its toll on Markowski, who turned 90 last month. Tethered to a plastic tube connected to a machine that makes oxygen to help him breathe, he easily tires, yet the old seaman manages to vividly recall his contribution in the fight.

"We were later at the mouth of the Seine River, and we hit a mine that blew a hole in the bottom of our boat, LST-6, and we started to sink. It scared the hell out of everybody," he says.

"We were all shaken up because we never expected it. A couple of guys were hurt, but nobody got killed. We got into lifeboats, and a British destroyer that was nearby picked us up."

As land forces continued to pursue the enemy deeper into Europe and finally into Germany, Markowski and his crew headed to the Pacific, but by the time they arrived, the war against Japan was nearly over.

"I saw most of my war service in the European Theater," he says, adding that he has never regretted his decision to enlist.

"I enlisted in the Navy right after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and I loved serving my country."

***

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Depew

Branch: Navy

Rank: Coxswain

Specialty: Crew member of LST (landing ship, tank)

War zones: Europe and the Pacific

Years of service: 1941-45

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal with four battle stars, French Jubilee of Liberty Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Medal

Never underestimate the power of a mother and how far it will reach in your life.

World War II veteran and Silver Star recipient Frank A. Matthews begins his story of military service by recalling his mom, who worked as a cleaning lady in the home of Alfred H. Kirchhofer, who at the time was managing editor of The Buffalo Evening News.

One day while cleaning, Mary Matthews asked Kirchhofer if he would consider helping her oldest son advance in life.

"I was employed making the first turn signals for cars at KK Specialty Co. on East Ferry Street," recalls Frank Matthews, known as Matty. "Then I got the call from Mr. Kirchhofer and met with him. He said I could be a photographer, engraver or printer, and I chose printer."

It turned out to be a good decision for the 21-year-old, but before his career as a printer could gain momentum, Uncle Sam borrowed him for a while.

"I'd received an 1-A notice from the East Aurora Draft Board, and I went to them and asked how long it would be before I was drafted," he says. "They told me by the end 1941."

Rather than be told the branch of the military in which he would serve, Matthews decided to take control of his destiny.

"I walked over on my lunch hour from the newspaper to the downtown post office and enlisted in the Army Air Forces," he remembers, adding that it was the branch where "I wanted to be."

"It was the best decision I made," he said. "I got through it."

But just barely.

Inside a B-24 Liberator bomber, nicknamed "Eager Beaver," he and his crewmates often limped back home to their air strip at Port Moresby, New Guinea.

On bombing runs to various Pacific islands where the Japanese maintained military installations, the Eager Beaver frequently endured enemy fire.

"The sky was so black at times with anti-aircraft ack-ack that we felt we could step out of the plane and walk on it," Matthews says.

And when the flak wasn't thickening the air, there were agile Japanese fighter pilots shooting at the American bombers.

"One of my crew members narrowly missed death," Matthews recalls. "His handgun was in a shoulder holster, and it stopped a bullet from a Japanese fighter plane."

During another close call, Japanese gunfire exploded the radio inside the bomber, and the radio operator never recovered from the shock of the hit.

"They didn't call it 'post-traumatic stress' then," Matthews says. "They just sent him back to the States. He couldn't fly anymore."

On many of Matthews' 51 bombing missions, the apprentice printer who had set newspaper type with hot lead back home was given the chance to discover what kind of mettle he was made of.

But there is one mission that sticks out.

The Eager Beaver had been on a roll, shooting down five enemy planes after having completed a successful bombing run. Matthews was credited with 1 1/2 kills.

Then, suddenly, the plane became unstable.

"Our pilot told me he had no control and that the cable to the rear rudder must have been shot out," Matthews says. "I dropped out of my top gun turret and walked to the back of the plane on a catwalk. As soon as I got to the bomb bay, I saw the cable hanging.

"I got the two waist gunners to help me pull the cables back together, and then I began splicing it with more cable and two clamps."

With the plane still under heavy attack, the repair job got complicated.

The waist gunners frequently returned to their positions and defended the plane while Matthews used his bare hands to keep the rudder operational.

"As the cable moved," he says, "I went with it, holding it together."

Eventually, with the help of the waist gunners, Matthews spliced in the new section of cable and returned to his turret. By the time the plane touched down, the No. 3 engine was dead, and the craft's fuselage was raked with more than 50 holes from flak and machine gun bullets.

And consider this:

During the harrowing flight, Matthews had flown without a parachute. That's because his other duties on the aircraft, as flight engineer, required him to respond quickly throughout the plane. The parachute, he said, just got in the way.

Was he frightened?

"I probably was scared and didn't know it."

For his bravery in saving the 10-member crew, he was awarded a Silver Star, the nation's third-highest medal for valor.

When he returned home a war hero, Matthews said, Kirchhofer made sure he was able to resume his old job. But let's not forget the woman who had helped Matthews get the job in the first place, his dear mother.

"When my mom was too old to clean for the Kirchhofers," Matthews says, "she remained good friends with Mr. and Mrs. Kirchhofer and would go to their home on her scheduled day, and they would sit and have coffee."

Even though she could not carry out the demanding duties of cleaning, she still received her wage, for the Kirchhofers thought that highly of Mary Matthews.

Her son would end up retiring as assistant supervisor of the composing room at The Buffalo News after some 45 years of service, having made his family and his country -- and his newspaper -- very proud.

***

Hometown: Griffins Mills

Residence: Elma

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Technical sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1941-45

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

Specialties: Top turret gunner and flight engineer on B-24 Liberator bomber

After graduating in 1938 from Nichols School, Richard E. "Rit" Moot decided that the family business of lawyering was not for him. He instead wanted to prepare for what would be one of history's bloodiest chapters.

Adolf Hitler's war machine, in little more than a year, would be unleashed upon Europe, and Moot had it in his head that he wanted to defend democracy, even though America would not enter the war until the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

So at age 18, Moot set his sights on joining the Royal Canadian Air Force. Canada had entered the war after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

"I had worked one summer in a gold mine 400 miles north of Toronto, and some of the guys there were planning on joining the Canadian Air Force. That was the fastest way to get into combat in World War II," the 92-year-old veter-san explained.

But his father, Welles V. Moot, a senior partner at one of the city's most respected law firms -- Moot, Sprague, Marcy, Carr & Gulick, which had been founded by Welles' father, Adelbert -- persuaded his son to join the U.S. Navy.

"He told me the Navy had better airplanes," Rit Moot recalled, adding with a bit of pride that "Navy aircraft carrier pilots were by far the most glamorous in the military."

Taking his dad's advice, Moot had to wait until a spot opened up at the Navy's aviator school in Pensacola, Fla. Not one to waste time, he attended Harvard University until he got the call from the Navy.

Soon enough, he was a Navy pilot flying above the Atlantic Ocean off Cape May, N.J., in search of German submarines.

"That turned out to be awful boring. I managed to get myself transferred to Landing Signal School so I could get into the Pacific Theater," he said.

His job as a landing signal officer was anything but boring.

"One of the requirements was you had to be a pilot and to qualify with landing on an aircraft carrier," Moot said. "The signal officer stood at the very stern of the ship on a platform that stuck out over the side, 40 or 50 feet above the water.

"You'd have a flag in each hand, and you'd indicate to the pilot if he was too high or too low, too fast or too slow, using the flags. The most important signal was to cut the throttle at the right time as they landed."

Because landings had to be precise in order for the plane's landing hook to catch the 12 cables on the ship's deck, wave-offs were not uncommon, Moot explained.

Aircraft carriers frequently launched full airstrikes, which meant flights before dawn, at noon and in the late afternoon, involving 70 to 80 warplanes.

That made Moot a very busy man. Among the most challenging situations he faced was guiding in planes that had run into problems during their missions and were late in returning, often after nightfall.

"That was bad news. The planes would be low on gasoline, and most of the pilots never had landed on carriers after dark," he said.

And, of course, it was hard to see the landing signal officer.

"The naval landing signal officer was dressed in a regular khaki flight suit, which could not be seen at night very well. So I developed a new flight suit that had fluorescent stripes on the arms and the legs and body of the signal officer," Moot said.

"The pilot would see the landing signal officer after dark just as if it were daylight out. This was accomplished by illuminating the fluorescent stripes with ultraviolet light."

Moot's attire resulted in fewer wave-offs and crashes.

"Fewer wave-offs -- that was important because planes arriving after dark were usually very low on fuel," he said.

Moot's ingenuity made him popular among pilots.

"They were very enthusiastic about the 'Moot Suit,' " he said.

For a short while, the Moot Suit became standard dress for landing signal officers, but it was soon replaced with electronic gear inside the aircraft that guided the planes onto the landing deck.

Moot's most dangerous day at work occurred while he was trying to guide planes onto the deck of the USS Intrepid and an enemy pilot set his sights on him.

"I was trying to land our planes, and then I see this Japanese kamikaze coming right at me. I could see the gun muzzles in his wings and yellow flashes," Moot recalled.

"I thought, 'That sucker is shooting bullets right at me.' He missed, but he crashed his plane through the flight deck 100 feet away from me. It started a huge fire in the hangar deck."

Was he afraid?

"You had no time for that," Moot said.

After leaving the military, he returned to Harvard and later graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, at last ready to enter the family business.

His experiences in World War II, he explained, "had given me enough excitement; and besides, the war was over."

As a trial lawyer, Moot says, he had plenty of challenging times, from prosecuting criminals with the U.S. Attorney's Office to civil litigation, including a major lawsuit involving Bethlehem Steel for canceling non-union employees' health insurance.

Moot also delved into politics, running for mayor in the 1969 Republican primary.

But none of his professional experiences, he says, ever compared to the rush of adrenaline he experienced on the edge of the carrier's flight deck.

***

>Richard E. 'Rit' Moot, 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Lieutenant commander

War zones: Atlantic and Pacific

Years of service: 1938-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, various battle ribbons

Specialty: Aviator and landing signal officer

The bombing run had been a success on the long-ago afternoon of Aug. 25, 1944, and headed back to England were Frank P. Moscovic and his five crew members flying high above the English Channel in their twin-engine B-26 bomber.

They had dropped their payload, a couple of 2,000-pound demolition bombs, on the Brest peninsula, a German stronghold in northern France where the enemy hid in caves.

The uneventful return flight took on drama when a pilot in one of the other returning aircraft radioed he was running low on fuel and broke away from the formation.

"We were about 9,000 feet above the English Channel when suddenly the plane that was low on fuel returned to the formation and collided midair with my plane and knocked out our left engine," Moscovic recalls.

Thinking the end was near, Moscovic's tail gunner jumped from the plane and yanked the rip cord of his parachute. He survived.

"We took our plane down to about 3,000 feet and tried to fly it," he says, "but we came under fire from the Germans who still controlled Guernsey and Jersey islands in the channel, and they knocked out our right engine. They also killed our radio operator."

With no power, there was nothing left to do but crash.

"The pilot tried to get us as far into the channel out of the range of those 88 mm anti-aircraft guns before he made a dead-stick landing into the wind," Moscovic remembers. "Going into the wind and hitting waves coming at us slowed the plane."

Noticing the plane's pilot in distress, Moscovic swam toward him.

"My parachute was still on my back, and that slowed me down," Moscovic says. "But the pilot did not know how to swim, and he was hanging on a flotation cushion.

"I brought him to the one-man dinghy that the engineer-gunner had gotten out of the plane. Four of us clung to the sides of that dinghy."

Worn out, Moscovic soon felt like simply letting go of the dinghy, come what may.

"But two of the other guys lifted me inside the dinghy," he says. "We were in the water, which had to be about 50 degrees, for about 45 minutes to an hour."

Help eventually arrived in the form of a Navy boat, sparing them a watery grave.

Because of injuries they had all suffered in their crash landing, crew members each received a Purple Heart.

For Moscovic, his third bombing mission had been a baptism of fire. No longer was he the fearless young aviator who challenged Hitler's war machine.

Moscovic had become a man painfully aware of his mortality, which was driven home each time he went on another bombing run -- 25 more to be exact -- before the war in Europe ended.

"I had not been afraid up until then, but every mission after that, I was frightened," he says. "When you have a midair collision, then get shot at and crash-land, it kind of sharpens up your thoughts of what could happen."

So when he completed his World War II service, he was ready to return to civilian life and the relative safety of ironwork, right?

Well, not exactly. He joined the Army Reserve.

A shortage of pilots returned him to active duty in 1952 for the Korean War, and he began training navigators for B-25 bombers.

"After that, a group of us were trained as single-engine jet fighter pilots, and we started training other pilots to fly T-33 trainer jets," he says. "Around this time, I decided to stay in the military so I could get a pension. I later received training in the C-124 cargo planes, and in 1958 and 1959, I flew them into Seoul, South Korea."

He missed out on direct war duty in Korea but years later found his way into another Asian war.

"I never thought I would be in another war," he says. "At the time, I was 46 years old, married and with three children and one on the way."

Moscovic participated in one of the major battles of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, which started Jan. 30, 1968.

"The enemy had encircled the U.S. air base at Saigon, and all planes were grounded except the C-130 I was flying," he recalls. "It was an emergency call for whole blood, and we delivered it to Saigon.

"As we came in for a landing, the runway was being bombed ahead of us, but we managed to land. And while we were taxiing to unload, the tower said, 'If anyone approaches the airplane, shoot them.'

"We lowered the tailgate, stopped for a minute or two, shoved out the pallets of blood and took off. We only had 3,500 feet of runway guaranteed. After that, the bombs were coming at us. It wasn't smiley time."

Not until they had climbed high into the sky did he and his crew begin to breathe easy.

A year later, he would breathe even easier. Moscovic retired with 27 years of service and that long-sought pension.

He returned to his original vocation as an ironworker and with his wife, Peggy, bought a house in the Town of Tonawanda. Sunday, he and his bride will celebrate 62 years of marriage.

What can he say about Peggy, who has given him love and support for so many years?

Without hesitation: "Peggy is a lovely person."

***

>Frank P. Moscovic, 90

Hometown: Canonsburg, Pa.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branches: Army Air Forces and Air Force

Rank: Lieutenant colonel

War zones: Europe, Vietnam

Years of service: Army Air Forces, 1942-46; Army Reserve, 1946-52; Air Force, 1952-69

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, European Theater Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Longevity Service Award with four oak leaf clusters, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

Specialty: Pilot

A graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute back in the old days when it was on Main Street in Buffalo, William A. Hess remembers learning how to fly a single-engine Piper Cub above the skies of Columbia, Mo.

But his dream was to fly a fighter plane above Europe, mixing it up with German fighter pilots.

"As a kid, we all dreamed of being fighter pilots. It seemed to be the thing," he said. "I was actually eligible to solo in a plane before I learned how to drive a Jeep, which didn't come until the end of the war when someone threw a set of keys at me and said, 'Drive.' "

Hess' dream of becoming a fighter pilot ended when he was sent to armament school at Lowry Field, Colo., where he learned how to maintain bomb racks, guns and shooting stations in the different bombers carrying out World War II missions.

Because crew members often had more than one job on a bomber, he was later sent to aerial gunnery school at Buckingham Airfield, outside Fort Myers, Fla.

At this point in telling his story, Hess cheerfully insists on taking aim at a myth.

"I keep reading these stories about the ball gunner having to be the smallest member of the crew, but I was not. I was 5 foot, 10 1/2 inches tall and 175 pounds, and that was without my uniform, the heated suit and my flight suit, my boots and my 45-caliber handgun with four extra clips of ammo just in case I got shot down."

As the ball gunner on the belly of the B-24, Hess remembers the tight fit.

"It was tight quarters, and I could not wear my parachute," he said.

Fortunately, he never had to bail out of the plane or put his sidearm to use after arriving in November 1944 at an Italian air base. At that time, anything north of Rome was enemy territory.

One of the biggest challenges for bombers heading north, he said, was maneuvering through the Alps on the way to Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

To save on fuel during their flights, American bombers often made use of the Brenner Pass, which cut through the Alps between Italy and Austria.

"By using the pass, we wouldn't have to fly up as high over the mountains. We saved a few thousand feet, though we were still up at 20,000 to 25,000 feet," he said.

Economizing on fuel, he said, came at a price.

"It was hazardous because the Germans were waiting for us with 88-millimeter antiaircraft guns on the sides of the mountains by the pass."

But the Germans soon ended up paying a price.

"On one of the bombing missions, we sent in a group of bombers to draw fire, and then another group of bombers followed up and hit where we saw the flashes. A third group of bombers then went into the pass, and it was peaceful."

With clear skies through the pass, the 15th Air Force's 455th Bomb Group, 743rd Bomb Squadron, could make its way north.

As the planes headed north, Hess said, he sometimes saw Hitler's mountaintop hideaway, Berchtesgaden, which was also called the "Eagle's Nest," in the Bavarian Alps.

"We could have bombed it any time, but we were told that it was a British target. They wanted to bomb it in retaliation for the bombings in England, but the British never got there. The U.S. 9th Air Force eventually got it," said Hess, who flew 17 missions.

"Our targets were rail yards, oil refineries and tank works. Sometimes we would even bomb the German air field at Muhldorf. We wiped out their runway and any buildings that were there. We'd been told it was where they were training jet pilots."

And while the planes he flew in managed to stay aloft, Hess said the Germans were no pushovers.

"They were tremendous in operating their 88-millimeter guns. They got us all the time. We'd bomb from 27,000 to 28,000 feet, and we picked up flak on every mission.

"In fact, one piece of flak blew out my oxygen system and the pump that raised my turret back into the plane so we could land. I had to crank it back up with a cable that time. I kept the flak as a souvenir."

More than once, Hess said, he and his crewmates barely made it back to Italy with one or two of their four engines shot out.

Was he ever nervous?

"We knew we might get it, but we hoped we didn't. We saw other planes go down. Nobody wants to die. When you're a teenager or just out of your teens, you think you are going to live forever. We were bulletproof."

After the war, this "definitely-not-short" ball gunner said, he played basketball at the University of Buffalo for a season as he began pursuit of a degree in architecture.

"I got my license in 1958, and I opened my office in 1960. We designed schools, churches and businesses," he said.

Hess also served as a volunteer deputy with the Erie County Sheriff's Scientific Staff, working at crime scenes.

"I was there for 28 years and served as a captain for 18 of those years," he said.

Married 67 years, he and his wife, Rosemary, raised five children and now have six grandsons, three great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter.

One of the grandsons, Thomas Cosola, is an Army lieutenant currently serving in Afghanistan, and another grandson, Jeff Cosola, is a Marine staff sergeant who served in Iraq.

"Take my word for it, they are two tough guys," Hess said, with a measure of grandfatherly pride.

***

William A. Hess, 88

*Hometown: Buffalo

*Residence: Derby

*Branch: Army Air Forces

*Rank: technical sergeant

*Specialty: ball gunner, B-24 Bomber, aka, The Liberator

*War zone: World War II, European Theater

*Years of service: June 1943 – October 1945

*Most prominent honors: Air Medal, European Theater Medal with 5 battle stars, Conspicuous Service Medal

At 17 years of age, Holmes W. Cline persuaded his parents to let him enlist in the Marines. World War II was raging, and he wanted in on the action.

Like so many young Americans at the time, quitting high school and taking up arms for his country was an option.

After completing boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he headed for Camp Lejeune, N.C., then on to San Diego, where he boarded a troopship bound for the Hawaiian Islands.

There, he joined up with the 4th Marine Division, whose battle-hardened members were back from their victory over Japanese forces at the Pacific island of Saipan to replenish their ranks.

Cline and other replacements received training from the more experienced Marines and were soon sailing farther west into the Pacific, stopping at various islands along the way.

Their ultimate destination was Iwo Jima.

"The thinking at the time was, it wouldn't be a big battle; that there weren't that many of the enemy on the island. But nobody really knew for sure because the enemy was living in caves," Cline recalled.

He and his fellow Marines, Cline said, took comfort in knowing that the enemy would be softened up by the big guns on Navy ships and bombings carried out by U.S. aircraft before they set foot on the strategically situated volcanic atoll.

As it turns out, the bombs did little to diminish the tenacious Japanese soldiers defending the island that, if seized by the Marines, would provide a place for U.S. planes to land.

"On Iwo Jima, there were facilities for damaged planes to make emergency landings," Cline said. "Fighter ands bomber planes could all land there after flying over to Japan, which was not that far."

So by February 1945, Cline and thousands of other Marines invaded Iwo Jima and quickly discovered that taking the island would exact a high price in lives on both sides.

"I was just a kid, and it was terrible. I was scared," he said. "I was with the first wave of Marines to land on the beach there. There was a lot enemy fire, and a lot of Marines got killed. The Japanese were all over the place, but we couldn't see them."

That's because the Japanese were hidden in caves, bunkers and other fortified structures from which they fired a blizzard of bullets.

"There was no jungle, except for maybe a tree here and there. The island was granulated stone, a real fine gravel, with a mountain at the end of it with some hills," Cline said. "The Japanese had years to dig caves, which protected them from the bombings."

Marines often took cover in bomb craters, he said.

What really sticks out in Cline's recollections so many years later is that the Japanese often refused to be taken prisoner when they were trapped in their caves and underground hideouts.

"Some would give up," he said, "but others decided to blow themselves up rather than surrender. They didn't care if they got killed. That's how they were taught."

During more than a month of fighting, Cline said, he miraculously was unscathed by enemy fire, though thousands of other Marines were killed or wounded.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said. "I never got hit."

With a week to go in the battle, Cline turned 19, and the lesson he learned on Iwo Jima is one he has never forgotten: Every day of life is a gift.

"I'm 86," he said, "and I still feel that way."

Over the years, Cline said, he has purchased books detailing the historic battle he was part of, but says no book will ever be needed to remind him of a glorious moment he personally witnessed.

It occurred several days into the battle when he and other Marines were guarding one of the airstrips they had taken. Looking in the distance to the top of Mount Suribachi, they noticed a group of their comrades.

"We could see the 5th Marine Division putting up the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. It felt wonderful," he said. "We figured we got our foot in the door, and it was over, but it was just part of it. The battle went on for weeks."

Unlike most other Americans, who became familiar with this historic World War II moment from an iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press, Cline doesn't need a picture to remind him. He lived it, and the image was burned into his memory:

"I can still remember it."

***

Holmes W. Cline, 86

Hometown: Blasdell

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantryman Badge, Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: Infantry

Since Henrietta V. Hill was a young girl, she realized her mission in life was to be a nurse and help others in need of healing.

She attended the nursing program at Millard Fillmore Hospital, and by 1940 was working as a registered nurse there.

Then history intervened.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Hill and several of her co-workers enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps, all eager to serve.

Hill recalls her willingness as a second lieutenant to go overseas and serve in field hospitals or anywhere her services were needed.

Anywhere turned out to be on American soil -- yet in the thick of action, though the 93-year-old hardly considers her labors heroic.

"We went and did what we had to do. All of the doctors and nurses never considered themselves heroes," she said. "They took the wounded boys and put them back together again so they could have some kind of life."

At Fort Dix, N.J., Hill treated soldiers injured during the rigors of boot camp or in advanced training. When she was promoted to first lieutenant, she received orders sending her to Camp Rucker, Ala., where she trained soldiers studying to become battlefield medics.

Under her tutelage, soldiers became experts in how to keep the badly wounded alive until they could be taken to field hospitals in the European Theater.

"We taught them how to take care of themselves and their buddies who would need help," she said.

Hill then advanced to chief operating room nurse at Camp Rucker.

She kept the operating room running smoothly.

"Some days were busy, and some weren't," she said.

And though insulated from the horrors of the battlefield, she encountered German POWs shipped to Camp Rucker.

"German prisoners of war were sent to the camp who needed health care. They were respectful, and they looked out for each other. They supported each other. So many of them were so young, but so were our boys," Hill recalled.

And while she would rather talk about those who served on the front lines, whether they be infantry or doctors and nurses who staffed the field hospitals, one aspect of her long life has never wavered -- gratitude for serving the United States.

"I've always been so proud that I could help and serve in the Army Nurse Corps," she said, adding that she holds in high esteem today's men and women in uniform. "They are protecting our freedom."

But her story of service in World War II does not end in the operating room. In the midst of duty, the unexpected occurred.

Hill found true love.

"I met my husband-to-be while serving at Camp Rucker. He was in the Army Air Forces and came to visit his sister, who was a nurse at the camp," she said. "We went to the officers club, and we saw each other and clicked."

On Dec. 8, 1945, as their military commitments were winding down, A.R. Hill and Henrietta married. Together, they raised three children.

Hill, whose husband passed away in the 1980s, also continued in her nursing career and eventually retired as a school nurse in Niagara Falls.

***

Henrietta V. Hill, 93

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: East Amherst

Branch: Army Nurse Corps

Rank: Captain

Assignment: Stateside, World War II

Years of service: 1941-45

Specialties: Medic trainer, chief operating room nurse

When 20-year-old Jack Ziccarelli entered the Army to fight in World War II and was stationed down South, the Lackawanna native wondered whether the Civil War was still being fought.

"Everything was Yanks versus Rebels. In our barracks, the Yanks were given the second floor, and the Rebels had the first floor," he said.

"Every Saturday, we had to take our beds outside to clean the barracks, but the Rebels could hang their beds from hooks on the ceiling of the first floor, and you better believe it was a job carrying our beds down stairs and outside from the second floor."

The Yanks, he said, figured the Rebels were getting preferential treatment because Camp Wheeler was located in Macon, Ga.

So Ziccarelli said he was glad to put the Civil War behind him and head to the war in Europe, where he was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division.

"We went up through Tunisia to Sicily, then I was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Division. With the 3rd, we made the landing at Salerno, Italy," he said. "We were going north and crossed the Volturno River, and I was hit with shrapnel in my left arm and especially my left knee.

"I was able to keep going, even though I had the shrapnel in me. We were going up St. Nick's hill, just below Cassino, and as we're going up, I spotted my cousin Nick Acanfora coming down the hill with his unit. It was sort of like seeing your mother. I never expected to see him. We hugged each other."

When the fighting settled down and Ziccarelli could be spared, he was shipped to a hospital in Africa to have the shrapnel extracted.

"I was supposed to be sent home, but then I got this letter from my cousin Nick, asking me to come and visit him," he said. "I knew the letter was not written in his hand because the penmanship was really nice, like a nurse had written it for him. It said he was in a hospital in Italy."

Ziccarelli investigated.

"I spotted a guy from Nick's regiment and asked him if he knew Nick," Ziccarelli said. "He asked me why, and I showed him the letter. He said it was impossible that Nick was alive. He told me Nick had been shot with a 20 mm gun and his left arm had been blown off, and he had died from a loss of blood."

Ziccarelli refused to believe the bad news and instead of leaving for home, he volunteered to stay in order to find out whether his cousin had really died.

"I went to the Red Cross, and after three weeks, they told me Nick was 30 miles away at another hospital," Ziccarelli said. "Because I was heading back to Italy, they gave me a ride to see him. His left arm was missing, but he was alive. I was there about an hour with him. It was a good meeting, especially knowing he was alive."

Ziccarelli soon headed back to Italy, but his wheels were turning. Secure in knowing that Nick would live, he figured that maybe he would try to get sent home after all.

Nothing doing.

"In Italy, I reported to a hospital to see if they would send me home," he said, "but they needed troops for the Battle of Anzio."

During a German offensive March 3, 1944, Ziccarelli recalled, he and 84 other members of his unit took a beating.

"Twenty-two of us were killed, and 48 of us were wounded," he said. "Only 15 were left."

Ziccarelli was among the wounded, though his parents, John and Nellie, received the worst possible news.

"They sent my folks two telegrams saying I'd been wounded, and then that I was killed," he said.

"To this day, doctors could never figure out how I survived. Bullets hit my ribs and drove the ribs into my left lung."

In a coma for three days and paralyzed from the waist down for 19 days, Ziccarelli experienced some rough going.

Then, one morning, he woke up and wiggled his toes.

"I hollered out for a nurse. I told her what was happening, and she couldn't believe it," he said. "They put me in therapy, and I regained most of my movement, but my left arm could only move about 6 inches from my body."

This time he was sent home.

"I was engaged to get married, and I broke off the engagement because I didn't want my fiancee marrying me out of sympathy," he said. "That was in November 1944. Then I started drinking, being away from my girl. We made up in Easter 1945 and got married in July 1945."

As for cousin Nick, Ziccarelli said, even with just one arm, he became a top-notch bowler and worked for 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service. Nick died about five years ago, after living a full life, Ziccarelli said.

Ziccarelli said he attributes his longevity -- he turns 90 in August -- to his bride, Rita Perry Ziccarelli, with whom he had three sons.

While there has been great joy in that union, there also has been profound sorrow.

"We lost our oldest son, Larry, to Agent Orange," Ziccarelli said. "He served two hitches in Vietnam with the Marines."

One of the joyous occasions will come this July, Ziccarelli said, when he and Rita "we will be happily married 67 years."

Jack Ziccarelli, 89

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Elma

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-44

Most prominent honors: Two Bronze Stars, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Infantry

He could not have practiced battlefield medicine under more rudimentary conditions than what World War II in the Philippines had to offer.

Fresh from his medical internship at Millard Fillmore Hospital, Dr. Thomas A. Lombardo worked in a trench caring for troops wounded while fighting the tenacious Japanese. At times, incoming shells were so close, he nearly ended up a casualty himself.

Fortunately, Lombardo said, the enemy's marksmanship was off by just enough.

And so the doctor labored, sometimes bare-chested in the stifling heat of the Pacific, seeing one wounded man after another.

The Battle of San Manuel, about 50 miles south of Manila, the capital, was particularly brutal.

"My station was a trench. There were no buildings or tents. We were the closest medical team to combat. Casualties would number anywhere from 10 to 30 men at a time. I was the only medical officer," the 95-year-old Lombardo recalled, though quick to give credit to his staff of "20 well-trained corpsmen."

The pace was in sharp contrast to when he had first arrived in Luzon and stood on the beach with other servicemen to salute Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who at that moment fulfilled his famous promise of "I shall return" to the Philippines.

On the journey over, Lombardo was part of a force of 10,000 that was to join the 25th Infantry Division, which had already lost 10,000 men in battles throughout the Pacific, including the grueling fight at Guadalcanal.

The trip to war for the oldest child of Sicilian immigrants was a long way from the peace of Buffalo's West Side, where Lombardo and his brother Phil had earned money as boys delivering The Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express, starting at ages 9 and 6, respectively.

The incomes from the routes, Lombardo said, helped supplement his father's earnings as a shoemaker and later contributed toward his tuition at Canisius College and Loyola University Medical School.

"While in my senior year of medical school, our class was visited by an Army recruiter. We could enlist now and be allowed to finish our last year and our internships or risk being taken out of school," he said. "We all enlisted."

On his way to the Philippines, Lombardo recalled, he learned that a sniper had killed the medical officer he was to replace.

But it was not his own skin he was interested in saving, as he again recalled the difficult battlefield medicine he was forced to practice. In other words, he had to choose who got saved and who didn't.

"During the Battle of San Manuel, we engaged in a tank battle. I was taking care of about 30 wounded men," he recalled. "I found myself in a terrible situation of triaging. It was my job. I had to decide quickly who could not be saved, who had to be evacuated to the closest field hospital, and who I could treat and return to battle."

After six months of this highly stressful work, Lombardo started losing weight, coming down with a severe case of gastroenteritis.

"I lost over 15 pounds and became dehydrated. I was evacuated to New Guinea," he said, then it was back to the States.

He later left the military and spent the rest of his professional career as a pediatrician, with his first office at 305 Porter Ave., back on the West Side.

But Lombardo said he has always remained proud of his military service.

"I considered it a privilege and an honor to serve my country, and I am proud to have been a member of the Greatest Generation," he said.

He also said that his success as a doctor would not have been possible without the help of his brother Phil.

"Without his help," he said, "I would not have been able to afford college or medical school."

***

Dr. Thomas A. Lombardo, 95

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Captain

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Medical Badge

Specialty: Medical officer

After graduating from Kenmore High School, Henry Newbigging landed a job at the Tonawanda Box Board plant along the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda.

But the young man wasn't content with a factory job, so he decided to get out and see the world -- after seeking the wise counsel of his mother.

"I was having lunch one day with a co-worker at Tonawanda Box Board," Newbigging recalled. "He'd been in the Navy but had been discharged for hitting an officer. He told me, 'You're wasting your time here. You should join the Navy.' I said I'd think about it. I told my mother, and she said, 'That's what I would do, if I was a man.'

"So I joined and took an aptitude test and scored high in radio skills, and the first thing I was taught was Morse code. I got rapid promotions because I was excellent at it and decided to make a career out of the Navy."

Then came Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Newbigging was part of a war.

"I was stationed down in the British West Indies at Trinidad when the bombing occurred. I remember I was taking a shower when it happened," the 93-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident said.

"I heard a Marine yelling, 'Hank, Hank, come here.' He was on duty at the radio. He was a novice, but the message was coming over in plain English, which never happened. It was the president's words saying we'd been attacked. The Marine was shaking."

And while Newbigging never actually fired a weapon at the enemy, he and his fellow radio operators played a crucial, behind-the-scenes role in monitoring the movement of German and Japanese warships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

"While I was in Trinidad, I would pick up Morse code from German ships," he said. "The Germans were very, very shrewd. At the time, there were so many radio transmissions from German shipping that Washington had us build a radio reception unit up in the hills of Trinidad that gave us greater capability to intercept their messages."

He and his shipmates, he said, were eager to increase their eavesdropping on the enemy but soon found out that the enemy was on to them.

"The station was as clear as could be up on a hill," he said. "We hadn't been in the new station 20 minutes and a German submarine began shelling us. We got the hell out of there. When the Germans realized we weren't firing back, they just left the area."

Newbigging and his buddies never returned to the vulnerable station. Instead, they operated at another station that was not as accessible to enemy fire.

And while the Germans rarely broke radio silence on the high seas, Newbigging said, he sometimes picked up their messages.

"We never knew what the Germans were saying because the messages were in a secret code that we forwarded to our officers, who decoded them," he recalled.

As the war progressed, Newbigging shifted to the Pacific.

"We hopped, skipped and jumped. We went where we were told to go," he said. "We intercepted a lot of the Japanese messages, especially when we were in the Philippines."

By this time, Newbigging had been commissioned as an ensign and assisted in decoding messages.

"A lot of it turned out to be false information to throw us off," he said. "The enemy mainly tried to confuse us. They'd say they were going to such-and-such an island and go to another. There were hundreds of islands down there. They were like little sandboxes."

A member of the VJ-9 Utility Squadron, Newbigging said he also participated in flights on which airborne targets were towed to provide practice for naval aviators in the Pacific.

"We provided target practice for other pilots to sharpen their skills for when they went into battle," he said.

By the end of the war, Newbigging had rethought his plans to spend his work life in the Navy.

"I told my commander I would not be re-enlisting," he said. "I'd gotten married in the meantime and had a son, and military life was tough on the family."

So, Newbigging returned to Buffalo in 1946 and found full-time work at the Veterans Administration benefits office.

"I started as a clerk-typist and worked my way up to the assistant director of the regional office of the VA," he said. "I retired in the mid-1980s. My work was very satisfying. You were helping men and women with their readjustment problems."

He and his wife, Bernice, raised seven children.

"I miss my wife dreadfully. She died a number of years ago, and they've been very long years without her," he said.

He cherishes the happiness they shared, though, as well the camaraderie with fellow veterans.

For years, Newbigging said, he and his "ROMEOs" -- or "retired old men eating out" -- would meet every morning for breakfast at a local Burger King.

But now that time is catching up with him, he says, one of the "ROMEOs" -- Joe Burgio, another Navy veteran of World War II -- stops by his home frequently:

"Joe brings me coffee and pie, and we rehash old times. Joe has been like a brother to me."

***

Henry D. Newbigging, 93

Hometown: St. Catharines, Ont.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Naval Air Corps

Rank: Ensign

War zones: Atlantic and Pacific oceans

Years of service: 1939-46

Most prominent honors: Presidential and secretary of Navy commendations

Specialty: Radio operator

Militarily speaking, you might call Herbert Dixon Jr. a son of a gun, but not just any gun.

During World War II, he moved across Europe with what was the biggest field artillery gun in the world.

But let us start at the beginning of his service to Uncle Sam.

Dixon can tell you exactly where he was the morning of Feb. 10, 1943.

"We were standing at Main and Locust streets in Lockport waiting for a school bus to take us to Fort Niagara in Youngstown. It was 16 degrees below zero and windy," the 88-year-old Wilson resident recalled of a cold start to the heated battles he would fight in the European Theater.

He was part of an elite unit that transported one of the most powerful weapons the Americans brought to the war.

"It was the biggest field artillery gun in the world," Dixon said proudly.

And there's no doubt it was a monster.

Consider its vital statistics.

The gun weighed more than 30 tons. It was so big it had to be transported in two sections, with the 33-foot-long barrel carted on a six-wheeled carriage and its mount pulled by another vehicle. A crane lifted the eight-inch diameter barrel onto the mount.

From the eight-inch barrel, projectiles weighing more than 200 pounds blasted out into the air and traveled 20 miles or more to enemy locations.

Assembling the gun, Dixon explained, was tricky.

The crane had a maximum capacity for lifting 12 tons, yet the barrel weighed at least three extra tons.

"The crane practically stood straight up as we raised the barrel onto the mount," Dixon said, still amazed that the crane never crumpled.

And when the gun was transported to different battles, you'd think a VIP was being escorted.

The gun and all that went with it required an entourage of vehicles and dozens of soldiers, Dixon said, adding that there was no such thing as fuel efficiency.

"The prime mover that pulled the barrel got about one mile for every six gallons of gas," said Dixon, whose job was to drive a truck containing wire for stringing radio communication lines. "Our gas cans only held five gallons apiece."

To line the guns up in the direction of the enemy, the artillery units depended on airplanes. "We had spotter planes, P-51s and P-47s, up in the air telling us where to shoot," Dixon said.

And though the guns were big and powerful, he added, they were not immune to enemy attacks.

"Some of the guns were knocked out and the Army would provide us with new ones that the Navy had transported to Europe."

Dixon says his unit, the 256th Field Artillery Battalion, had a great victory early on.

"Our biggest accomplishment was taking out the German's submarine base at Brest. We fired the guns low to knock out the concrete walls protecting the submarines. The British and the U.S. Army air forces bombed the daylights out of it from the top, but got nowhere."

At the Battle of the Bulge, he said the guns again got a workout.

"We'd fire the guns for the Americans and then turn them around and fire them to help the British," Dixon said.

At one point as Dixon's unit moved east toward Germany, he met up with his younger brother, Leonard, who drove a tank, and Dixon caught a friendly earful.

"Len told me, ‘We got stuck in one of your shell holes. It took a couple days to dig our way out of it,' " Dixon said of the chance encounter. "The craters from the guns could be 18 to 20 feet in diameter and eight or 10 feet deep."

The guns, Dixon said, were so loud 
that when they were shot he made a point of "getting as far away from them as I could get."

When his service was completed at the end of the war, he returned to Harrison Radiator in Lockport, where his father, Herbert Sr., a World War I veteran, worked.

"But I couldn't get along with my supervisor and so I got a job at Bell Aerospace in Wheatfield."

In time, Dixon hit the road working as a national sales manager in the cable television industry, though he remained active in Wilson, serving as a founding member of the South Wilson Fire Company in 1952.

Living right next door to the fire hall on Chestnut Road had its benefits. He was often the first to arrive at the firehall and drove the fire truck to countless blazes.

These days, he and his wife, Pearl, stay busy mowing the grass, keeping up their flower beds and enjoying family.

"We have eight grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren," said Dixon, the father of two grown children, Lonnie and Keith.

Dixon says he also enjoys reunions with his former battle buddies, though time is thinning their ranks.

"Years ago we'd have reunions and there would be 600 to 700 people. In May we had 12."

***

Herbert Dixon Jr., 88

*Hometown: Waterbury, Ct.

*Residence: Wilson

*Branch: Army

*Rank: Corporal

*War Zone: World War II

*Years of service: 1943 – 1946

*Most prominent honors: American and European Service medals. Four clusters on the European Medal

Before Uncle Sam summoned Michael S. Gluc to service in World War II, he worked as an assembler of diesel engines and compressors at Worthington Corp. on Clinton Street in Buffalo.

He also moonlighted as bartender at his parents' saloon, Gluc's Tavern, also on Clinton. In his early 20s, you could say Gluc led a pretty contented life. At least he thought so.

Then he received his draft notice in October 1942, and he was off to war, where instead of working on engines, he worked on human beings as a combat medic. His initial training in first aid was in Atlanta, then it was on to the Midwest.

"They sent me to a hospital in Chicago to learn about treating wounds, [and] how to give blood transfusions and shots of morphine to wounded soldiers," the 90-year-old Gluc recalls.

He then headed to the Pacific, assigned to F Company, 7th Infantry Division.

"I was part of the invasion of the Marshall Islands. That was the first battle. I was in a field hospital. The island we were on wasn't big, and the injured came in periodically," he says.

The next battle proved much more harrowing – Leyte in the Philippines.

"I was in the first wave with the infantry. A sergeant got shot who was right by me. He got shot in the head and was dead right away," Gluc remembers. "His fellow sergeant came over. They were real close friends. The sergeant was on his knees next to the fallen sergeant. He was so upset, he was looking around for the Japanese soldier to get him, and what happened was that the other sergeant got shot, too, and died right there."

Gluc says he has never forgotten watching two sergeants die right in front of him in a matter of minutes as he pressed against the beachhead, which offered scant cover.

The killing did not stop.

"Another medic came over to me and asked if I could use some assistance, and then he got shot, and he died right there," Gluc says. "It was amazing; we were all lying on the beachhead, and the Japanese were up in the trees."

Death was not finished.

"Two stretcher-bearers came over and asked if anyone needed to be transported. One of the bearers got shot in the face and died. The other bearer took off," Gluc says. "Finally, what happened was that the tanks came, and they started shooting up at the trees, and that was a big help for us."

The enemy, Gluc soon learned, was not above killing medics, a valued target.

"That's why we didn't wear a Red Cross band on our uniform sleeve," he explains. "That would identify us, and the enemy would shoot us."

Days later, as Gluc and others advanced up a hill dubbed Scrap Iron Ridge for all the armaments that had rained on it, a bullet struck him in the right shoulder.

"I was crawling up the hill. It felt like someone hit me with a hammer," he recalls. "I crawled back down the hill, and they took care of my wound. I ended up on a hospital ship and was taken to Hollandia, New Guinea, to be rehabilitated."

He pauses in his recollections to say that his stay on the hospital ship, after crawling through the dirt, grime and terror of battle for days on Leyte, "was like being in paradise, having a clean bed to rest in and three meals a day."

And , he believes, there were angels aboard the ship. "The American nurses in their white uniforms," he says, "looked like angels."

His respite soon ended, however, and he was back on the front lines in time to participate in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific.

"I rejoined my outfit and was told our next battle was Okinawa, which we invaded on Easter Sunday 1945," he said. "For me, it wasn't too bad. I didn't see a lot of wounded."

Recalling happier moments, he spoke of his honorable discharge Dec. 13, 1945, meaning he would be home in time for Christmas:

"It was my first time in three years I enjoyed Christmas with my family."

What made it even more wonderful, he explains, was that two of his brothers, Anthony and William, also drafted into World War II, were home for the holiday celebration, as well.

Another great gift would come his way in the form of follow-up medical care for his shoulder over the years, Gluc says.

"I am grateful that Veterans Hospital is in Buffalo, due to my disability," he says. "I've been well taken care of."

***

Michael S. Gluc, 90

*Hometown: Buffalo

*Residence: West Seneca

*Branch: Army

*Rank: Sergeant

*War zone: Pacific

*Years of service: 1942-45

*Specialty: Medic

*Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Medical Badge, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars and arrowhead, World War II Victory Medal, Philippines Liberation Ribbon with two service stars

As a front-line medic in the Battle of the Bulge, Larry Titzler found himself serving in a little German town called Lammersdorf and began each day by heading to regimental headquarters about two miles away.

The purpose was to obtain information on planned troop movements and what medics could expect as the long and bitterly cold battle continued in the winter of 1944-45.

"There was a rumor that there would be a major movement of American troops," Titzler recalls, "and this one morning when the driver of the Jeep and I started for our trip to regimental headquarters for the latest liaison report, the doctor who was our company commander came out and told me, ‘Wait a minute, I'll go today. Something big is coming up.' "

The 21-year-old Titzler, a member of B Company, 303rd Medical Battalion, followed orders and stayed behind as the driver and captain sped away.

"A half-hour later, an ambulance returned with the bodies of the captain and driver. They had taken a direct hit from an 88 mm shell," he says. "The Germans were on the high ground and could see the road. I was just in total shock. I went back into our headquarters and sat down in a corner and cried. That should have been me."

For a young man out of Riverside, who had been attending Chown Business School in downtown Buffalo hoping to one day become a certified public accountant, this brush with death was more than a mere wake-up call. Titzler realized just how perilous war was.

"I still think about that morning," he says. "It haunts me to the present day."

The incident at the Bulge was a long way from Princeton University, where Titlzer spent 1943 studying in the Army's engineering program. He was selected because he had tested well, showing a strong aptitude for advanced studies.

At the end of the Ivy League courses, he was supposed to be made a first lieutenant, but as is the way of the military, things changed. "They disbanded the program," he says, "and instead of making all of the candidates first lieutenants, we were made privates first class."

No explanation for the disbanding was ever offered, he says.

After that, random assignments were given, and Titzler landed with the 78th Infantry "Lightning" Division, where he became a medic with the 303rd. In October 1944, he arrived in Europe, just a couple months before the Battle of the Bulge.

"When we crossed the English Channel to France, we were put on some railroad cars that were called 40-or-8, which meant the car could hold 40 servicemen and/or eight horses," Titzler, 89, remembers.

His ride on the rails ended at Aachen, Germany, which had just been taken by U.S. troops. Weeks later, there would be the shocking death of his captain, who had taken Titzler's place in the Jeep, and other close calls.

One other one, in particular, stands out.

"The Americans suddenly made rapid advances to the Rhine River toward Bonn, Germany," Titzler says. "Near Bonn, there was one bridge left called the Remagen Bridge. The Germans thought they had damaged the bridge enough so that it would collapse into the Rhine after they left.

"It did not collapse. So the 78th Division, including my medical battalion, crossed the bridge."

But the span was in rough shape.

"I was in the back of a truck trying to keep the company's records safe, and the bridge was swaying," Titzler says. "The Germans sent some dive bombers to bomb and strafe the bridge, and I was right in the middle of the bridge. I gotta tell you, I was saying prayers. The bridge was about as long and high as the Peace Bridge."

What happened?

"We made it over safely and went a half-mile down the road and stayed there about two days," Titzler says. "But while we were there, we were in this building, and you could see the bridge, and I was looking out at it, and the bridge actually collapsed in front of my eyes. I said to myself, ‘Someone up there is looking after me.'?"

Then moving north along the Rhine, the division progressed to Cologne, Wuppertal and finally Berlin, as Titzler and his fellow medics treated the wounded and transported them back to field hospitals.

"We were part of Gen. George Patton's army, and we loved the general," Titzler says. "He was tough, and told the Germans just what he thought of them. He also praised his troops."

Following his honorable discharge from the service, Titzler attended the University of Buffalo on the GI Bill. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 1948, but his dream of a career in accounting was swapped for a career as a high school business teacher, since there were no accounting jobs available.

At Tonawanda High School, he eventually became assistant principal and retired in 1989.

He and his wife of 62 years, Irene Lebieda Titzler, raised two children, Paul and Susan, and have four grandchildren and "one lovable great-granddaughter."

And while he considers himself a "No.?1 patriot," he says the military actions of the United States in recent years are unlike World War II.

"We had a definite threat in World War II to our country, our life and democracy, but it seems today that our young men and women are dying and nothing much is being accomplished," he says, adding that he has "the greatest respect for those dying, and I pray for them daily."

In fact, he says, "some of my own former students are dead because of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan."

***

Lawrence P. Titzler, 89

*Hometown: Buffalo

*Residence: Town of Tonawanda

*Branch: Army

*Rank: Corporal

*War zone: Europe

*Years of service: 1943-46

*Specialty: Medic

*Most prominent honors: Combat Medical Badge, European Campaign Medal with three battle stars, New York State Medal of Merit

D. Michael Cunningham wanted to have some control over his destiny when it came to serving in the Armed Forces during World War II, so instead of waiting for a draft notice, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces.

But in war, he would learn, so much lies beyond the control of the individual.

His hope, he said, was to become a pilot, but his eyes were weak so he settled for navigator, following basic infantry training at Sheppard Field in Texas.

For the next few years, he trained with the 19th Bomb Group, 314th Wing, 93rd Squadron at Great Bend, Kan. From an altitude of 20,000 feet, the 11 crew members mastered their skills at blowing up ground targets.

"We bombed a lot of shacks over the years, but sometimes we would make runs down to Cuba and Puerto Rico and that was part of our training because we got experience flying over water," said Cunningham, who was raised in Cincinnati, but eventually moved to the Buffalo area.

Proud of his Cincinnati roots, he recalls winning a contest among his crew members that gave him naming rights for their B-29. "I named the plane ‘The City of Cincinnati.' " The war would ultimately take him far from the safety of the Ohio River Valley.

"When we landed in Guam in January 1945, I was promoted to first lieutenant and that would mark the start of our crew flying 35 missions," Cunningham said, though the number shrunk to 25 as the war wound down.

The 12-hour bombing runs took them to Japan, six hours there and six hours back, most of it above vast stretches of the Pacific.

"Because we flew at high altitudes of 20,000 feet, we encountered 200 mph winds. Along with those winds and the plane traveling at about 200 mph, we just couldn't get any accuracy with the bombs," Cunningham said. "So the command decided we would do our missions at 5,000 feet."

Accuracy improved, but the hazards increased.

"The enemy could see us from the ground with their searchlights and they had radar and, of course, there was flak and the Japanese had their own airplanes that would come after us," Cunningham said.

On the fifth mission, enemy gunfire knocked out one of the B-29's four engines.

"We limped back to Iwo Jima, where the battle for that island was going on, but we were told that the Americans had captured a little piece of it with a small airport and we made an emergency landing. We were the third or fourth disabled plane to land there. Later on during the course of the war, thousands of disabled B-29s would land there and get repaired," Cunningham said.

Recalling his emergency landing during the fierce battle for the strategic island, he said it was a joy to set down on dry land.

"The alternative was to ditch in the ocean and we probably would have died. Iwo Jima was small and it wasn't much of an island. But we kissed the ground when we landed. The guy at the airfield shouted to get back in the plane before we got shot."

After the No. 3 engine was replaced, Cunningham and his crew members flew back to Guam and would fly another 20 missions before the war in the Pacific ended.

He, in fact, was present, in a manner of speaking, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

"We were flying back from delivering supplies to a prisoner of war camp on the northwest side of Japan when the surrender was taking place. We were about 10,000 feet up and could see the U.S. warships in the bay. We knew the surrender was taking place because we got it over our radio. I was glad the war was over. I was married and wanted to get back home."

In 1959, with a degree already earned in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati, Cunningham settled with his family in Orchard Park and he became a successful manufacturers' representative. He and his late wife, Velma, raised three children.

Unlike some war veterans who vividly remember combat, he says the memories are starting to fade "at the tender age of 93."

But one thing, he says, has not dimmed, and that is his pride in having had the opportunity to defend the United States of America.

---

D. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, 93

* Hometown: Akron, Ohio

* Residence: Orchard Park

* Branch: Army Air Forces

* Rank: 1st lieutenant

* War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

* Years of service: November 1942 – October 1946

* Specialty: Navigator, B-29 bomber

* Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, 4 Army Air Medals, Pacific Theater Medal

William F. Callahan has always been an ambitious fellow.

When he was a teenager some 75 years ago, he delivered papers for The Buffalo Evening News, and when he graduated from Annunciation High School on the West Side, he immediately started looking for work up and down what was then a thriving downtown Main Street.

"At the end of the day, I'd compared notes with my friend who was also looking for work, and he told me he put in an application at The Evening News for copyboy. I said, ‘What's that?' And he said, ‘I don't know, but it pays about $12 a week.' So the next day I put in an application."

A couple of weeks later, Callahan was on the job.

"We ran copy between the editorial department and the composing room. I didn't know anything about the newspaper business, but after I got started, I wanted to better myself and become a reporter."

That dream of writing news would get interrupted when Uncle Sam wrote him a note in the form of a draft notice.

In 1941, as the Army Air Forces were expanding, he was assigned to an aerial gunnery school in Florida. After graduation, he was placed in a crew in Atlantic City, N.J.

"The pilot took one look at me and said, ‘You're going to be the ball turret gunner,'?" Callahan recalled of his assignment beneath the belly of the plane. "I was 5 foot, 4 inches and weighed all of 104 pounds, which was 8 pounds under the minimum requirement, but the Army waived the weight limit. They really didn't care."

From a base in North Africa, he and the nine others in his crew flew bombing missions over Sicily in preparation for an invasion of Italy. Once that succeeded, his crew was stationed on Sicily and flew bombing runs over the mainland of Italy.

Then the crew moved farther north in Italy and started bombing runs on southern France, Germany and the Balkans.

"I flew 50 combat missions all total," Callahan said.

And during many of them, the enemy could be counted on to put up a fight.

"There was mainly aerial flak, plus enemy fighter planes. I was down in that ball turret, and they would come right at you. Sometimes you could see their eyes, but the action was so fast. We'd get holes in the fuselage from flak, but it never came through the turret," Callahan said.

His goal was to stay alive, and that left no time for reflections on the dangers he faced.

"I was too busy thinking about shooting down the enemy planes. Better them than me. I was credited for shooting one down. But as I said, the action was so fast, it was hard to follow the enemy to see how many actually went down," he said.

These battles, he added, often took place 25,000 and 30,000 feet above the ground and involved numerous B-17s, all shooting at the enemy, who tried to disrupt the bombing runs.

Callahan, however, remembered enough details to write several first-person accounts of the aerial battles and send them back to The News, which published them.

In one of the headlines, Callahan was portrayed as "Buffalo Boy Finds Nazis Grow Bolder in Italian Air War." At another time, the paper ran a photograph of Callahan with a caption that stated: "Former News Employee Downs Plane in Italy."

Callahan says that during the many missions "you saw a lot of things," which included the planes of other U.S. squadrons being shot down. "Like all of the other crew members, I prayed a lot that you got back safe."

His prayers were answered.

After the war, he returned to his work as a copyboy and also attended Canisius College. But ambition pulled him from the newspaper, and he accepted a job as a news editor at WBNY, one of Buffalo's five AM radio stations at the time.

Still attending college, Callahan then accepted a job at the Buffalo Courier-Express as a police reporter. But ambition continued to call, and he became a business reporter at the morning newspaper and eventually worked his way up to financial editor.

He says he retired when the newspaper ceased publication 30 years ago.

"I'm just very fortunate. The good Lord was always with me. I'm in my 90s now."

***

William F. Callahan, 92

*Hometown: Buffalo

*Residence: Town of Tonawanda

*Branch: Army Air Forces

*Rank: Staff sergeant

*War zone: World War II, North Africa and European Theater

*Years of service: 1941 – 1945

*Most prominent honors: 10 Army Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Cross

*Specialty: Ball turret gunner, B-17 bomber, aka, the Flying Fortress

At 18, Frank J. Gubala knew he did not want to follow in his dad’s footsteps – no offense to his farmer father or his ancestors who in 1915 established the family farm in Ransomville.

Gubala realized he was pretty good when it came to electronics, and he got himself accepted at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. But after a year of rigorous class work, Gubala had to drop out.

Decades later, he discovered he was dyslexic, but that was long after he had become a success in life.

In 1966, his college career ended, he lost his educational deferment, and he became eligible for the draft.

The Army wasted no time in laying claim to him.

“When I reported for induction at Fort Dix, N.J., they saw I had a year of college, and I was offered a commission as a second lieutenant along with training to work with computers, but at that time it was an eight-year commitment, and I did not want to give up eight years of my life to the government.”

As it turns out, Gubala on many occasions almost gave up his young life for Uncle Sam during close brushes with death in Vietnam. He had arrived just in time to fight in the Tet Offensive that began in January 1968. North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas had launched an all-out, coordinated attack against the Americans.

Within the first week that he was assigned to A Company, 9th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, Gubala saw how quickly war could snuff out life.

“That first week, we lost 10 members of our company,” he said.

What did he think?

“I didn’t have time to think. I was too busy trying to stay alive and hoping for tomorrow to come.”

And yet, his most hazardous experiences in the war were off in the future, said the recipient of two Purple Hearts.

On June 1, 1968, at about 10 a.m., his company arrived at an “extraction zone.” He said they had just completed a three-day, search-and-destroy mission and were scheduled to be removed by a Navy landing craft along the Mekong River.

“We pulled security until the other companies arrived. The boats were already there waiting. There was a sniper. We got sniped at a lot, and some of the time they wouldn’t hit us. It was just so they could pull their own people out of the way.

“This time our first sergeant was with us, and he ordered us to return fire. A few rounds went off, and the next thing I knew I felt blood running down the back of my neck. A round grazed the side of my skull. It was close. They put me on the medevac boat. I was out of field duty for about a month."

Less than two months later, on July 20, again at about 10 a.m., Gubala and 10 other platoon members were conducting a perimeter sweep around their camp, near Dong Tam, in the Mekong Delta, where he had spent most of his time in Vietnam.

“I’m aquaphobic. I have fear of water, and the delta was water, dikes, canals, creeks and rivers,” he said.

But it was not the water that got to him on that July morning.

“I was in charge of the perimeter sweep, and three of the guys were wounded by small hand grenades. Their wounds weren’t life-threatening, but we decided to call a medevac chopper to get them out to avoid infection. I found a landing zone for the chopper.

“I was in communication with the radio man, and a sergeant wanted to go through a pathway to this field. I yelled to him to go through the brush to the field. The pathway was probably booby-trapped. Just as I was ready to tell the radio man I was going to pop a green smoke flare, I heard a click, and I realized that sergeant went where I told him not to go.

“It was a Bouncing Betty, a hand grenade that was in a tin can in the ground, and when you stepped on it, a spring bounced it up and it exploded. The sergeant took the full brunt of the blast, and I received multiple wounds in my legs, back and head.”

The sergeant paid with his life, and Gubala joined the three other wounded soldiers he had arranged to medevac.

Before receiving first aid, Gubala nearly died, having lost three units of blood. When he finally arrived at a field hospital, death still dogged him.

“I was told my heart stopped three time during the operation,” he said.

But he lived, and he returned to the states to Walter Reed Army Hospital for therapy to regain movement of his right leg and regain weight and muscle tone. He had dropped from 165 pounds to 100 pounds.

When he was finally back on his feet, he turned down a medical discharge, because he did not want to be classified a “4F,” which had a negative connotation.

“So I stayed in the Army but wound up getting out three months early with an honorable discharge, because I agreed to go back to my father’s farm and work. There was a standard exception if a family needed help,” he said.

Once back home, he looked to college for his future, and by January 1970, he was enrolled as a full-time electronics student at NCCC.

Gubala went on to a successful career in computers and, more importantly, a 40-year marriage to the former Joyce Carpenter; their marriage is still going strong. They raised two children and now have two grandchildren.

And while he left the war zone as a young man so many years ago, he still carries Vietnam with him.

“I’m told that in my sleep I scream and yell once or twice a week,” Gubala said.

But the nocturnal troubles are less frequent than they were years ago.

And in recent years, thanks to his daughter, Julie, Gubala has reconnected with his Army buddies scattered across the country by way of the Internet and phone.

“Not only have I found my buddies, but close to 8,000 men who served in the 9th Infantry Division,” Gubala said. “Every year, parts of that group meet.”

The reunions, he says, have helped them heal.

“I’ve been able to help a lot of other guys locate their buddies, and we’ve been told we are the largest group of Vietnam vets from the same unit who get together. Over 3,000 of us got together last year in Indianapolis.”

Raymond R. Rosa quit East High School, intent on seeing the world, and the surest way to do that, he thought, was to join the Navy.

So in 1941, he went to the Navy recruiting station in downtown Buffalo and was told that he would need his parents' permission to enlist because he was only 17.

"I went back home and told my parents, who were surprised. My father had served in the Army in France during World War I, and he had just "read a magazine story on the Marines and was impressed and suggested the Marines instead," Rosa recalled.

But unlike the Navy, which was accepting 17-year-olds with permission from mom or dad, the Marines held firm on the age requirement.

Rosa had two months until he turned 18 and could join. Wanting to honor his father's advice, he waited.

After boot camp at Parris Island and additional training in Quantico, Va., he returned to Parris Island to serve with the 2nd Defense Battalion, but he was not there long. The Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything.

"We left suddenly. We took a train to the West Coast, and then we boarded a civilian luxury liner, the Lureline, and in 30 days we arrived at the American Samoa islands," Rosa said.

The Marines had been sent in anticipation of a battle with the Japanese, who were determined to take over islands throughout the Pacific Ocean. "But it seems the Japanese never worried about Samoa," Rosa said.

About 18 months later, Rosa and his colleagues were shipped to Tarawa, an atoll in the shape of a chicken's head. The Marines remained aboard their troop transport boat, ready for combat if needed, but other Marines already ashore disposed of the enemy.

Rosa was then sent back to the states for six months and served as an instructor at Camp Lejeune's refrigeration school. His original hitch was almost over, but because it was wartime and discharges were not granted, his service was extended.

In late 1944, he returned to the Pacific Theater as an infantry stretcher bearer.

His first deployment was relatively safe; he had no such luck the second time around.

There were plenty of dangerous moments, but one in particular stands out at the battle of Okinawa.

"My squad was pinned down behind a 5-foot stone wall near two Japanese snipers. The wounded were accumulating, waiting to be evacuated to the aid station. It was decided to call in a tank to move them out. The deck of the tank was about 6 feet above the ground, and we had a tough time lifting the stretchers up.

"I climbed up on the tank to help lift the stretchers while the tank commander was on the ground. We had secured four wounded to the deck, when suddenly I heard a bullet hit the turret right next to my head. It scared the hell out of me. I dove down right on top of the tank commander, breaking my fall and taking us both out of the line of fire. A half-hour later, my commanding officer moved us all out of the area.

"I never learned whether those poor guys tied to the deck of the tank made it or not."

But Rosa is certain of one Marine who did not make it.

"When we were behind the wall, I was next to this lieutenant who had graduated from Annapolis, and he had binoculars and would stand up to look, and a sniper shot him in the neck. I can still see him crumpling and falling to the ground dead. He was a well-educated and energetic young man."

By the time Rosa returned to the United States in 1945, he had seen enough of war and was ready to pursue different avenues.

He married his grammar school sweetheart, the former Virginia Carpenter, from Lincoln School 44, and completed his service at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where his bride worked in the base PX.

Back in Buffalo, Rosa went on to a career as a union refrigeration technician, maintaining heating and cooling units at Loblaws, NuWay, Bells, A&P and Tops supermarkets for decades. His beloved wife of 67 years died in March.

"I really miss her," Rosa said.

To keep busy these days, he said, he does handyman work.

"There's always something that is breaking down."

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Amherst

• Branch: Marines

• Rank: Staff sergeant

• War zone: World War II, South pacific, two tours of duty

• Years of service: February 1941 – May 1947

• Specialties: Infantry and refrigeration/water purification

• Most prominent honors: presidential Unit Citation reinforced for service in Okinawa with ribbon bar and one Bronze Star, Asiatic-pacific Campaign Medal, New York State Conspicuous Medal

Joseph E. Flowers was preparing to finish his last year of high school at Emerson, but when he arrived, he was surprised to see so many of his classmates had dropped out to serve in World War II.

"I was the only senior in my shop class, so I figured I'd do a volunteer induction with the Army," he said.

When he arrived at the recruiting station, a Navy recruiter made a hard pitch to enlist Flowers, but Joe explained that he got seasick and did not believe he could be of much service to the country's seafaring forces.

"I used to get seasick going on the boat over to Crystal Beach amusement park. So he said to me, 'Why don't you join the Marines,' and I told him, 'They go too fast for me.' Then when he realized he couldn't change my mind, he said, 'Go to the Army,' and I said, 'That's what I wanted to do in the first place.' "

When he arrived at Fort Knox, Ky., to serve with the Army's armor and took a look at all the tanks, half tracks and Jeeps, he remembered that he got carsick, too.

But to lift a phrase from an old-time song, Flowers was "... in the Army now," and there was no turning back.

He did not make waves, not even when he arrived on the West Coast at Fort Ord, Calif., to serve with a newly formed amphibious tank group.

"We were 'sail-diers,' both sailors and soldiers, and I was sorry I never did join the Navy," he said. "The Navy recruiter had told me I'd get three good meals a day and learn a trade."

Flowers somehow managed to stomach his motion sickness and was soon on his way to the war that raged in the South Pacific.

"I was in Hawaii first, and I loved it, but after that, it was hell the rest of the way. I was in the first wave at Leyte in the Philippines, and I was lucky to be in that first wave. The P-51 fighter planes were strafing the beaches, and the battleships were bombing it. They stopped just as we hit the beach, and the Japanese in the hillside didn't have enough time to get their artillery going, and we were able to get past the beach, inland, before they started shelling. The third and fourth waves of troops really got it coming in. I've always said I was lucky to be in that first wave."

After Leyte, the Americans fought on other Philippine islands and liberated that country from the Japanese before moving north to Okinawa, Flowers said.

"I looked at a map we had and saw that Okinawa was just a dot in the ocean, and yet we would fight there for three months. I thought we would be there forever. I'm either going to spend the rest of my life here or get killed, I thought. If it wasn't for them dropping the atomic bomb to end the war, I don't think I would have been here today."

The Japanese, he said, were fearsome fighters.

"They'd rather commit suicide than surrender," he said.

But what shook him up were the suicides he witnessed among Japanese civilians.

"I saw people grab their kids and jump off cliffs into coral reefs by the shore," he said. "There was blood all over the place. The Japanese government told them that if they got caught by us, we'd torture them. It was unbelievable. I'd see the bodies floating all over the place.

"I'll tell you what, I seen a father with his wife and two kids, and he was trying to push them over the cliff. One of our sharpshooters took aim and hit the father. He turned around and fell over the cliff."

What Flowers saw next, troubles him to this day.

"We thought we'd saved the mother and two kids," he recalled, "but she grabbed the children and committed suicide."

Flowers returned home with the wisdom of how fragile life is.

He married Rita T. Brendel in 1951, and they raised four sons. He is a retired facilities engineer from the former Buffalo Westwood Pharmaceuticals plant. His job title, he explained, was a fancy way of saying maintenance man.

A few years ago, he received his high school diploma and says he is now considering going to college at age 87.

"I might get a couple degrees," he says, with a chuckle.

Carl F. Clemen never had to use his parachute during the many missions he flew as a radio operator aboard a B-29 bomber above the Pacific Ocean and Japan during World War II.

He was glad of that. The idea of leaping out of an aircraft thousands of feet in the air did not appeal to him.

Besides, his fiancée, Betty Driscoll, had designs for the parachute.

The bride-to-be wanted an unusual dress for her wedding day and knew of a seamstress, a Mrs. Wendel, on Broad Street in the City of Tonawanda, who might be up for the challenge of stitching something extraordinary.

"Betty asked for the parachute, and I sent it home to her, and the seamstress turned it into her wedding dress," said Clemen, who has been happily married for 66 years. "I gave it to her because I had a backup parachute."

His entry into the Army Air Forces was itself a backup plan of sorts, in order to first finish college, though it didn't turn out that way.

"I was attending Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and majoring in pre-med. The recruiters came there and said that if we enlisted, they guaranteed we'd be able to graduate from college. That was the first of many untruths," Clemen recalled with a forgiving chuckle.

He signed up for the service in November 1942. Two months later, he was yanked from the classroom and sent to Fort Niagara in Youngstown. Then it was on to Sioux Falls, S.D., for a year of training in how to operate the radio aboard a B-29 Superfortress before heading to Guam.

"There was no fresh water on Guam. When it rained, we showered. That was about once a week," he recalls. "It was hot and muggy. We went to the beach for swims, though the saltwater was sticky."

Of course, there was the business of prosecuting a war, and Clemen was routinely airborne participating in search-and-rescue missions for downed aircraft crews in the Pacific.

"We'd be up in the air a couple hours looking down at the blue ocean. It was usually good weather," he says. "Many times, we would spot lifeboats with crew members, or they would just be floating in the water with their life preservers. I would radio in their location, and they'd be rescued by naval boats or helicopters, whoever was the closest."

Lucky for Clemen and his 10 fellow crew members that they were never fired upon by the enemy, not even during bombing runs above Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

Endurance was the great challenge for the crew, he explains.

"You got tired being up so long," Clemen says. "Most everybody else was able to catch a few winks, but I had to stay awake to operate the radio."

And while he was spared battle wounds, he says, prior to his Pacific deployment, he lost all of his upper teeth in a truck accident at a military base in Georgia. "That," he says, "was my only catastrophe."

After returning to civilian life, he decided that medicine was not for him and attended the University of Buffalo, where he earned a degree in accounting. He then pursued a banking career in the Tonawandas with Niagara Savings & Loan Association.

Oh, and on May 4, 1946, he was married.

How did his bride look in her Army surplus wedding gown?

"Everyone commented that Betty looked out of this world," Clemen says. "Everyone was spellbound."

To this day, Betty Clemen says she cherishes her wedding dress:

"It's my most precious possession."

***

Hometown: City of Tonawanda

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Staff sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-46

Specialty: B-29 radio operator

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

When Glenn R. Morris received orders to head over to Australia and work as an airplane engine mechanic, the 19-year-old imagined he would be part of a naval convoy.

In other words, he expected plenty of protection for him and his fellow service members bound for Down Under.

It did not turn out that way.

"We were shipped over in a troop transport that had about 1,500 on it and were unescorted at all times. So during the day, we ran slow because we didn't want to make that much smoke with the engines. We were afraid a submarine or anyone might pick us up," he recalls

"At sunset, we'd change course and run like crazy. You could feel the engines tremble because they were being run at maximum speed. Fortunately, no one was waiting for us. The only bad thing was those first few days with seasickness. We felt like we were going to die."

Morris, a graduate of Brocton Central High School in Chautauqua County, had been in his first semester studying mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo when he was drafted and proved a natural for airplane engine repairs.

"I got a lot of satisfaction out of taking something so big and powerful, like an airplane engine, and fixing it. The Army had sent a group of us to Buick Civil Mechanics School in Flint, Mich. Buick manufactured the Pratt & Whitney engine that I specialized in. It was the R-1830, 14-cylinder, radial engine."

The engine powered the B-24 bomber and C-47 transport plane.

For most of 1944, Morris worked at an airbase in Darwin, Australia, serving with the 49th Air Depot Repair Group, attached to the 380th Bomb Group of the Fifth Air Force.

"It was not uncommon for a four-engine plane to come back running on only two engines," Morris says. "Lots of times, the engines were damaged by shell fragments from the enemy.

"If a plane had to make a crash landing, the propellers hit the ground, and we'd have to install new engines, if the aircraft was not scrapped. We had a special group that determined if a plane could be salvaged."

For Morris, the saddest moment of the war occurred when a B-24 crashed, killing most of the crew.

"I was a quarter of a mile away. The B-24 crashed on takeoff for a bombing run, killing nine of the 10 crew members. I had played the trumpet in high school, and at the cemetery I was recruited to be the bugler. I played taps over nine coffins, and let me tell you, that was not a fun thing."

Morris and his buddies sometimes found themselves running for their lives, especially at night when the air raid sirens cried out.

"We dug foxholes, but the creatures that went into them were deadly - snakes and scorpions - and that precluded us from jumping into those holes. We took our chances with running into the trees and high grass for cover, and we made out just fine."

After Australia, he was shipped to the island of Biak, which played a crucial support role in the liberation of the Philippines. And when the war ended in the summer of 1945, Glenn was promoted to crew chief and assigned to Clark Field on the Philippine island of Luzon.

"We repaired planes for the flights home," he says. "They came home by way of Hawaii. Some of the planes had never seen combat."

Morris says that by 1946, at the end of his military service, airplanes were in his blood.

"I decided not to go back to the University of Buffalo and instead went to Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa. But when I came back to Buffalo, I was told I was overqualified," he says, "so for 34 years, I worked at Bethlehem Steel on instrumentation for temperature measurements and controls."

Morris married Annette Klavoon, of South Buffalo, and the couple raised three children.

These days, Morris says, he often thinks back to his war service and realizes that he was blessed never to be wounded:

"I was one of the fortunate ones."

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch:Army Air Forces

Rank: Staff sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Most prominent honors: Philippine Liberation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

Specialty: Airplane engine mechanic

Jacob L. Cooper discovered that his dream of becoming a military pilot might not be all that it was cracked up to be.

In the Army Air Forces’ Aviation Cadet Program at Corsicana, Texas, in April 1943, Cooper recalled not feeling “all that comfortable” up in the air with his flight instructor, whom he sat behind in a two-seat, 175-horsepower PT-19A aircraft.

While the instructor could speak to his student through a flexible tube hooked up to the trainee’s leather flight helmet, Cooper said, “You couldn’t talk back.”

He recalled that “we had to learn how to recover from tailspins by climbing with little power until the engine stalled. The airplane would then descend nose-first, rolling over and over. I had difficulty putting the plane into the tailspin. It was a very uncomfortable feeling.

“Finally, my instructor took over and told me to watch. He went into a spin, took his hands off the controls, and the plane recovered by itself. I had no problems after that.”

Cooper’s yearning to engage in dogfights with the enemy steadily increased as his training advanced, and on March 28, 1944, he and his squadron set sail from New York Harbor for Europe. Among the Utica-area native’s comrades was Jim Watson, who hailed from Herkimer, a few miles from Cooper’s hometown of Ilion.

“Also onboard were personnel from a military hospital. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that this group included 98 nurses. Many of the young flyboys were real eager to meet the nurses; however, I was still my shy, bashful self.”

The number 98, in time, would hold special significance for Cooper. By war’s end, he would fly a total of 98 combat missions in his trusty P-47 Thunderbolt. Liftoff for his first mission was May 23, 1944, with the 493rd Fighter-Bomber Squadron stationed at Ibsley in southern England.

“Many of these missions were conducted just across the English Channel in northwest France. We dive-bombed bridges and German positions, also strafing personnel and equipment. Practically all our missions were in direct support of the forthcoming invasion of France.”

Cooper, of course, was referring to D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy.

By the end of June, crude airstrips were constructed near Deux-Jumeaux, a small Normandy village, and Cooper and his fellow airmen lived in tents in a nearby apple orchard.

“We were so close to the front lines that we could hear the noise of the large guns. Most of us did not venture away from the airstrips,” he said, recalling that much of the region had been devastated.

By July 7, he was up in the air going after the enemy. But he had to be especially careful.

“Many of our missions during this time were for short durations because we were dive-bombing and strafing targets which were located directly in front of our ground troops.”

Just how close were the landing zones to the enemy?

“If you made a wide traffic pattern when taking off or landing, the German troops would shoot at you.”

On July 11, while bombing enemy tanks west of Saint-Lô, Cooper said, ammo from a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun punched a few holes in his left wing. But taking enemy fire, he said, soon became commonplace. During one harrowing landing, his right tire blew out, and the plane skidded off the airstrip before coming to a stop.

Later that year, during a turning point in the war, the Battle of the Bulge, it was hoped that American aircraft would play a major support role, but because of miserable winter weather conditions, he said, planes were initially grounded.

But on the second day of the famous battle, Dec. 17, the agony of war hit home for Cooper.

“My very good friend Jim Watson was shot down by a German pilot,” he said. “Another one of our pilots was lost on the same mission, one that I did not participate in. It was my day off. Our squadron was about to attack some ground targets when German planes attacked them from above and out of the sun.”

Watson’s death weighed heavily. He and Cooper had been friends since basic flying school. But, as Cooper explained, there was no “timeout” in war, and “before long, the weather improved so that I was kept busy with my flying duties.”

On the final day of the battle, Jan. 25, 1945, he avenged Watson’s death, and for that heroism, Cooper was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The order approving the medal stated, in part:

“While leading a squadron in close support of the ground forces, Lt. Cooper attacked an enemy truck and tank column with telling effect. Heedless of intense anti-aircraft fire and demonstrating superior airmanship and aggressiveness, Lt. Cooper returned alone to make numerous strafing passes until his ammunition was exhausted, inflicting additional damage on vital enemy equipment.”

By the end of the war, he had flown more than 202 hours of combat time and decided to return home for a visit, before shipping off to the Pacific for a planned invasion of Japan.

While home enjoying his mom’s cooking, word came that the war against Japan had ended.

“There was a big celebration in Ilion, even a parade,” he said. “I would not be going to the Pacific Theater after all.”

President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan had made further fighting unnecessary.

Cooper, who was honorably discharged from World War II service as a captain and went on to write a book about his experiences with the 493rd Squadron, said, “It is possible that my life and the lives of thousands of other servicemen were saved” by Truman’s decision.

It is something for which the old flyboy says he’ll be forever grateful.

...

Hometown: Ilion, Herkimer County

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Colonel

War Zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45; recalled to active duty 1953; retired 1970.

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 15 oak leaf clusters.

Specialty: Fighter pilot.

James H. May went from a “rougher” to a “leatherneck” at age 23.

As a rougher, he helped make steel for World War II guns at the Republic Steel plant in South Buffalo. As a leatherneck in the Marines, he fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

“I was already helping the war effort producing steel for rifle and machine gun barrels and artillery shells. I used gun barrels that were probably made from the steel at Republic, and it absolutely felt good. The steel was keeping me alive,” the 90-year-old veteran recalls. “I shot M1 rifles, Browning automatic rifles and machine guns. I also threw many hand grenades but have no idea if the steel came from Republic.”

He enlisted in the Marines to be like his older brother, George, now 92, a Marine who had fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

In October 1944, May arrived at Guadalcanal with the newly formed 6th Marine Division to practice for one of the last major battles of the war against Japan, the invasion of Okinawa.

“George had already come back to the United States, and, in fact, he met me just before I shipped out to Guadalcanal,” James May says. “When we got to Guadalcanal, we began training for Okinawa. We had all kinds of demolition practice – shoving tubes into caves and blowing up the caves. A lot of demo training.”

On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, the invasion started.

“I was supposed to land in the 22nd wave,” May recalls, “but we went in on about the fourth wave of Marines. My partner and I had the job of putting flags on Red Beach One so that ships would know where to send supplies.

“On our way in, we were attacked by kamikazes. The ships and everything were being attacked. There was stuff blowing up all over us. The Navy was shooting over our heads to try and take Naha Airfield.”

Married to the former Joan Beale and the father of a young boy and girl, May said the idea that he might not survive was something he hadn’t considered: “I wasn’t thinking about getting killed. I didn’t have time.”

Once on the beach, he weaved his way through a blizzard of shrapnel. And by the second day, he ended up on Sugar Loaf Hill, a cemetery for many a Marine.

“The Marines got stuck on Sugar Loaf. We fought there three days, and hundreds of Marines were lost,” May remembers. “I got there about the second day, and we held the top of a hill. When daylight came, I saw hundreds of bodies piled like cordwood waiting to be buried. I still get flashbacks.”

The weather also conspired.

“It rained so much, all our support got stuck in the muddy conditions,” May says. “We slept in foxholes that filled with water. You didn’t have to get up to pee.”

During what was to be the last major encounter on Okinawa’s Oruka Peninsula, May suffered shrapnel wounds.

“I was hit up the back, the face and legs. I was laying down firing on the enemy from a hilltop and watched as other Marines who’d been wounded were being dragged down the hill,” he says. “I could also see that the enemy’s mortars were creeping right across the top of the hill towards me. When I was hit, the Navy corpsman wanted to send me back, but I didn’t want to go.

“I stayed there and continued to fight. We held the hill that night and the next day.”

The hilltop provided him with an added horror.

“We watched Japanese civilians jumping off cliffs and committing suicide. I guess they were scared of us. They were told that we would chop them up. As far as I knew, I never killed a civilian.”

After three bloody months, the U.S. military secured Okinawa.

“We went back to Guam, and I went blind,” May says. “My eyes swelled shut from my wounds. It took about six days before I even knew if I would see again. They shot me in the buttocks every four hours with penicillin, and finally my eyes started to clear up.”

While on Guam, the Marines trained for the planned invasion of Japan, but that proved unnecessary after the world’s first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered.

But there was still work for May and his colleagues who were shipped to China, where Japanese soldiers were rounded up and sent back to Japan.

“They were all over the place,” May remembers, “but they weren’t hostile.”

Around Christmas 1945, communist troops in China attempted to take over Tsingtao Airfield from opposing nationals, and U.S. Marines were called in to stop the advance.

“Gen. [Lemuel C.] Shepherd sent us in without any ammunition, and we bluffed the communists,” May says. “They stopped. They didn’t take the airfield, and we got a battle star for that on our Combat Action Ribbon.”

By 1946, May returned to civilian life and was reunited with his wife and children:

“It seemed like a miracle.”

...

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Lackawanna

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon with battle star, Presidential Unit Citation

Specialty: Infantry rifleman

At 90 years old and with his mind fading, Emmanuel K. Nicosia finds himself reliving moments from the Second World War that for decades he refused to revisit.

His wife, Kathryn, says that in just the last year, her husband has spoken more about his military service in Europe than in any of the other 65 years she has known him.

They are not always happy memories, but they are an important part of his life that he is coming to terms with in what time he has left. He is not alone. As mortality knocks on the doors of many World War II veterans, they can’t help but look back to the greatest and most daring journey of their youth.

So let us together walk down this history-strewn road of Nicosia’s with some help from his beloved spouse, a retired nurse.

The youngest of 10 children, Nicosia worked as a plumber’s helper at age 19 and lived in the Clover Place home of his widowed mother, Mary, in Cheektowaga. Nicosia and a few other siblings still at home helped pay the household bills.

It was a cozy, secure arrangement for Nicosia until one day a draft notice arrived.

Mechanically inclined, the plumber’s helper was assigned to the Army’s 14th Armored Division and received stateside training in how to repair tank engines. But the real training, he said, happened in Europe – nothing beats on-the-job training.

“We would get a call to remove a tank from the front lines, and I would go up in a tank that did not have the big gun on it and tow the broken tank back,” he recalls. “My first job was to get the disabled tank and its crew off the front lines.

“Then we would repair it. Some had big holes in them, but my job was to fix the engines. The tank went down the line. We’d repair so much, then another unit would do other repairs. We didn’t junk them. We’d fix them, and then they’d go back upfront.”

But don’t be mistaken about the risk. The soldiers who kept the tanks greased and rolling under the command of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. sometimes paid with their lives.

“Anyone who says they wanted to be on the front lines is crazy. Who the hell wants to be that close?” Nicosia says. “Anyplace near the front, you’re liable to get killed.

“I lost my buddy that way. He was in the recovery outfit with me. He went up to fix a tank and got a slug right in the head. He had five kids and a wife. I’d met them when we served in Kentucky.”

That memory explodes into sadness, and Nicosia falls into silence. But other memories of unexpected kindness surface. Civilians caught in the crossfire opened their homes to him and other Americans.

“They’d let us use their basements so we could get under cover,” he says. “One time, they made beds for us and warmed them up with stones they heated in the oven and put inside our blankets.”

Yet these memories are tempered by unforgettable sights.

“One time, we were invited into a German home, and when they opened the basement, there were all these people huddled together hiding. They thought they would be killed by us.”

When the war ended at long last, Nicosia was glad to return home and try to forget. He married Kathryn Spring the same year he was honorably discharged. They raised a family of four children. Instead of returning to plumbing, Nicosia worked as a cement mason. He poured and shaped driveways and residential and commercial building foundations.

Kathryn worked as a registered nurse, eventually retiring from the Erie County Home and Infirmary in Alden.

Now their days are peppered with war memories.

“I think he’s going back and experiencing emotions,” Kathryn Nicosia said. And with the floodgates open, tears sometimes flow from Emmanuel Nicosia’s brown eyes that have seen so much.

But of all the things these war memories could induce, at least one is positive: Kathryn Nicosia says her aging warrior is finally finding “peace of mind.”

...

Emmanuel K. Nicosia, 90

Hometown: Cheektowaga

Residence: Akron

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-46

Most prominent honors: World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal

Specialty: Armored infantry mechanic

His first job in the Marine Corps wasn’t the rough-and-tumble work he had envisioned when he enlisted.

James G. Vaughn’s first assignment was shipping textbooks from Washington, D.C., to Marines enrolled in correspondence courses.

Before he signed up, the 1940 Gowanda High School graduate had worked at the old Ford assembly plant on Fuhrmann Boulevard, clocking 75 cents an hour. When that job ended in a layoff, he pumped gas and counted the days until he turned 18 and could find his destiny in the elite military branch his father, James H. Vaughn, had tried to join during World War I but was rejected for being underweight.

“I just liked the thought of being in the Marines, and there wasn’t any future in Perrysburg,” he said of the tiny town in northern Cattaraugus County. “There still isn’t any future here.”

That first job in the Marines wasn’t exactly what he had dreamed of, but history soon intervened. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Vaughn was assigned to recruiting duty in Cincinnati and then Columbus, Ohio, for a year.

But he still wanted to be in the thick of it and transferred to sea school training in Portsmouth, Va.

Soon afterward, he was placed in a Marine detachment aboard the just-built aircraft carrier USS Hornet, a name that became famous by the launch of B-25 bombers in the Doolittle raid against Tokyo.

Aboard the Hornet, Vaughn manned a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun, frequently fending off the dreaded waves of kamikaze pilots.

“We never got hit, but one time, a kamikaze had been shot by other guns on the ship and was on fire,” he recalls. “It flew in so close to me, over our heads, and I could feel the heat from the fire. The plane crashed into the water right alongside the ship.

“We just shrugged it off. You didn’t have any choice.”

The suicidal attacks, he says, were a way of life as the Navy fought battles across the Pacific, taking one strategic island after another, often with heavy casualties suffered mostly by invading Marines.

Once during those deadly times, Vaughn and his shipmates came face to face with the enemy when Japanese prisoners were taken aboard the Hornet.

“They had been on a cargo ship that was sunk by one of our destroyers, and we were big enough to accommodate them,” Vaughn said. “They were very docile and didn’t give us any trouble whatsoever. They were in a tough position. All they had were the clothes on their back.”

After bringing the POWs to Ulithi Naval Base, the ship resumed its battles, and nature even got into the act.

“In June 1945, our task group was hit by a typhoon. I’ll tell you, it was pretty rough. They say the waves were 70 feet high and the winds 120 mph. The thought occurred to us that we might sink. It was very violent,” Vaughn remembers.

How violent?

“About 35 feet of the flight deck at the forward end of the ship was bent over, and I have pictures of it.

“We tried to launch a plane, but the wind currents were such that the plane just couldn’t fly. It went in the drink. They rescued the pilot, but we lost the plane.”

Damage to the Hornet was so severe that naval officials ordered it back to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco for repairs.

“While we were there, the war ended,” Vaughn says. “They then put us to work ferrying troops back from the Pacific. We made three or four trips between San Francisco and Hawaii. The Marine detachment was then disbanded.”

After the war, Vaughn attended the University of Buffalo and obtained a degree in business administration, launching a 10-year career as an FBI agent, followed by 19 years as a special investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor.

But his military duty was not over. He had joined the Marine Corps Forces Reserve and was called up to active duty during the Korean War. Luckily, he remained stateside, assigned to recruiting duty in Buffalo and Lockport.

In 1980, after a decade in the nation’s capital as a supervisor with the Labor Department’s organized-crime group, Vaughn retired to his boyhood home in Perrysburg, where to this day he resides in his parents’ home in the peaceful hills of the Southern Tier.

“I’m comfortable here,” he says, though memories of the battles of World War II revisit his thoughts.

In fact, he has made two trips to the West Coast to visit the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, Calif.

At the tender age of 15, Louis R. Palma hornswoggled Navy recruiters into thinking he was old enough to serve.

He showed up at the old Post Office in downtown Buffalo with a birth certificate stating he was 17, along with a forged statement indicating his father’s permission for an early enlistment. The normal enlistment age was 18.

“Believe it or not, I had a brother who was 2 years older than me who was also named Louis, but he died a few days after childbirth, and so I used his birth certificate when I went down to the enlistment center,” the 84-year-old Palma recalls. “My dad would not sign the early enlistment papers, so I had forged his signature.”

When Palma returned to the family’s Derby home and announced that he had managed to get himself enlisted, his father, Henry, let out a few choice words but then gave his blessing to his determined son.

If anyone could understand the 15-year-old’s fervor to fight in World War II, it should have been his dad.

“My father had enlisted at the age of 15 to serve in the Navy in World War I,” Palma says. “My dad never explained how he managed to get himself enlisted.”

Palma’s first stop was the waters off Europe, serving on a small aircraft carrier, the USS Guadalcanal. He then transferred to the Pacific Fleet’s Task Force 58.

“Adm. [William] Halsey was in command of it, and we saw action at the battles of Saipan, Okinawa, Guam and the Philippines,” Palma says. “I actually enjoyed flying on the different missions. Most of the time, we carried bombs and depth charges.”

As the rear gunner on an Avenger torpedo bomber, Palma operated a .50-caliber machine gun, fending off Japanese fighter planes. “We also bombed and strafed the enemy at different battles, providing close air support for the invading forces,” he says.

In August 1945, while on a mission to bomb Japanese shipyards, an order came over the plane’s radio to jettison the bombs and return to the aircraft carrier. “If we encounter enemy planes, we were told to shoot them down in a friendly manner,” Palma remembers. “It was interesting the way they said that. How do you shoot someone down in a friendly way? We learned that the war was over.”

After his service in World War II, Palma attended Canisius College for two years but in 1950 was called back to active duty for the Korean War.

“I was assigned to the USS Philippine Sea, and I was a crewman on an AD Skyraider,” he says. “We flew routine patrol missions. It was the coldest place I’d ever been in my life on that aircraft carrier. We used to have to shovel snow off the flight deck. One of our jet fighter pilots was the first to shoot down a Russian MiG.”

Two years later, Palma returned to Canisius and in 1955 graduated with a business degree. He worked in Erie County government, serving at one point as deputy clerk for finance and later as fiscal manager of the county’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs.

As a reservist at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in the early 1970s, he had participated in missions to Vietnam. “We delivered planes to the CIA, but I really can’t say more than that,” Palma says. “The planes we flew over there were completely jet black and had no insignia on them.”

In 1982, he accepted the position of business manager for the Lake Shore Central School District, where he worked until his retirement in 1997.

Yet it would be years before he would fully retire from his military role.

He had retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1988, at age 60, but in 2000, he put all his years of military experience to work assisting other veterans by accepting an appointment as Erie County director of veterans services, a post he held until 2009.

“It’s been a great life. This country has been so good to me,” Palma says. “I came from a large family – eight kids – and there was no way I would have gotten a college education without the GI Bill. I’ve been blessed.”

Louis R. Palma, 84

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Hamburg

Branches: Navy; Air Force Reserve

Rank: Navy aviation machinist’s mate second class; Air Force Reserve senior master sergeant

War zones: Europe, Pacific, Korea, Vietnam

Years of service: 1943-88

Most prominent honors: Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with six battle stars, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Medal, Korean Service Medal with battle star, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Combat Readiness Medal, Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm, Navy Unit citation and Presidential Unit Citation

Specialties: Rear gunner in Avenger torpedo bomber, AD Skyraider crew member, C-130 transport flight engineer

When Roy F. Phillips received his draft notice in 1943, the 18-year-old Buffalo resident tried to get a deferment because he was helping support his disabled mother.

Phillips, a child of the Great Depression, had quit Hutchinson-Central High School and was working as an apprentice lineman for the Postal Telegraph Co. That was a step up from his previous job, peeling potatoes and washing dishing for $1 a night at the Globe Restaurant in the Seneca-Michigan neighborhood, where the family lived in a second-story tenement.

Life was hard.

His mother and father had split up, and as a boy, Phillips and his younger brother, Bob, often headed to the nearby downtown commercial district, where they scavenged wooden crates and boxes from trash set out by stores on Main Street.

“We took that wood home and burned it in the kitchen stove. That’s how we stayed warm in the winter. A lot of times we didn’t have money for the electric bill, and we’d have to burn candles and oil lamps for light,” he said.

In trying to make a hardship case, Phillips pointed out that his older brother, Jack, was already serving in the military. The Army refused the deferment request, and Phillips accepted the decision. In reality, he said, he wanted to defend the country, but he also wanted to do right by his mother.

Once in uniform, he made a pleasant discovery: His hardscrabble life improved greatly.

“The Army was fine with me. You got three square meals a day and a bed to sleep in. Back home, my bed had been a cot,” Phillips said.

He also toned up.

“When I’d been in high school, I could never climb up the rope in gym class, and I was always the last to be picked for a team. Basic training really built me up. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.”

That included fight a war.

Phillips served with the 457th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, which had landed on D-Day “Plus One,” June 7, 1944, at Omaha Beach, Normandy, though Phillips later arrived as a replacement.

“I was in Battery C, and we shot down 13 planes, and the total for the whole battalion was 43 planes as we made our way across France to Germany. We were in all the big battles, part of Gen. [George S.] Patton’s 3rd Army.”

On March 23, 1945, Phillips’ unit ferried across Germany’s Rhine River at night to the eastern shore.

“We were called to protect the initial pontoon bridge of the 3rd Army that they were building. When we got across the Rhine, we went into a field near the bridge and dug in our guns waiting for daylight.”

The bridge, near Oppenheim, was completed by sunrise, and troops and equipment started moving across it. The Germans were not happy.

The skies above the span filled with enemy aircraft throughout the day, but anti-aircraft weaponry shielded the bridge. Then, shortly after 5 p.m., a swarm of planes zeroed in on the pits containing the 40‑mm cannons and the 50-caliber machine guns.

“I was with the 50-caliber machine gun lying on top of the sandbags around the pit, and shrapnel hit me and two other guys,” Phillips recalled. “I was hit in the abdomen. I could feel it. I ran to a foxhole and then said, ‘I’m going to die if I stay in here.’ I started running again, and our corporal shouted, ‘Hit the dirt, Phillips, there’s shrapnel still flying.’ I hit the dirt. When it stopped, he came over and helped me.”

Twice at a field hospital, Phillips later learned, he died and had to be revived.

His father, in fact, received a notice that he had been killed in action.

But Phillips survived and spent nine months recovering.

Despite his injuries, he knows he was one of the lucky ones that day.

“There were 12 men on our gun crew, and they nearly wiped us out. Three were killed, three were seriously wounded, and three were slightly wounded. One of the guys, Bill Hesson, was my best friend, and he was killed.”

After being discharged, life continued to improve for Phillips. In 1948, he landed a job with the U.S. Postal Service and retired as a letter carrier in 1983. For the last four decades, he and his wife, the former Marilyn Donner, have lived on a small farm in Royalton.

He said he has been fortunate “in all respects of life,” having come a long way from those lean days of childhood and dangerous days at war.

“I thank God every day for what I have,” he said.

And by the way, while Phillips was serving in the Army, he sent money home every month to help his mother pay the bills.

Bypassed for the draft because he was married and the father of two young children, Donald F. Ferris said he still felt compelled to serve his country in World War II, so he enlisted.

At age 29, he was still in top-notch physical condition after being a three-letter varsity athlete at Holley High School.

Uncle Sam, he figured, could put his muscle to work.

But when Ferris arrived at the bus stop in downtown Lockport for a military bus that would start his journey to the battlefields of Europe, he got the surprise of his life.

“I was standing waiting for the bus, and anyone who was east or west of Lockport and joining the military came there to catch the bus. I saw my younger brother, Mike, standing in line, and he told me he had enlisted. He lived in Hamlin and was also married and had children,” Ferris recalls.

Brotherly love and patriotism kept Don and Mike together for most of their service with the 1st Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One.”

“We rode in boxcars through France to Belgium. They gave us long johns, sweaters, wool socks, boots that were rubber as far as your ankle and then leather; they called them shoe packs. When we got to Belgium, we got off, and the snow was so high,” Ferris says.

“A captain stood in front of us. He was going by the alphabet calling our names to assign us to different companies. When he came to the letter “F,” I was called ahead of my brother because the initial of my first name was “D.” The captain told me I was going to F Company. Then the captain asked me if Mike Ferris was my brother, and I said yes. He said, ‘Do you want your brother to go with you?’ And I said yes.”

So that was how the two brothers ended up fighting side by side.

“I was a bazooka man, and my brother carried the ammunition for me,” he says.

During the long marches, Ferris says, he noticed that Mike often groaned.

“He had flat arches, but he kept up with the rest of us. He had no choice,” Ferris says.

“When we finally reached the Rhine River, I went to a sergeant and said he can’t go any farther. His feet actually had swollen, and he had trouble getting his boots off. I’d seen his feet, they were swollen and red. A doctor looked at them, and they were pitiful. Two soldiers had to pick Mike up and put him in the Jeep.”

And so ended the war for the younger Ferris brother.

After crossing the Rhine, Donald Ferris says, his company continued pursuing the enemy deeper into Germany, and by the spring of 1945, U.S. forces had arrived at the Black Forest.

“There was this concrete highway, and we were driving on tanks headed to meet the Russians at the Czechoslovakian border,” he recalls.

“I was on the second of four tanks in a row. I was sitting by the turret when the No. 1 tank stopped, and then we did. But the third tank behind us didn’t, and its barrel hit me in the back and almost crushed me. The force of it flipped me over and sent me onto the concrete.

“I landed on my back and was hurt, but it was better than being crushed by the barrel.”

The injury ended his role as a warrior, which wasn’t so bad. He missed his family.

After he returned home, he and his wife, Mary Ann, had two more children, for a total of four.

Ferris, who played semipro baseball for a while, supported his loved ones as an auto parts salesman, covering the territory between Buffalo and Brockport “and all the little places in between.”

“I must have driven a million miles in the 40 years,” he says. “I worked as a salesman.”

42025561 A.S.N.

It’s a designation that William H. Erick, even at 87 years old, will never forget.

The eight numbers and three letters represent the Army Serial Number on the dog tags he wore fighting his way across Europe.

“France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. If we were caught, the only thing we were permitted to say to the enemy was our name, rank and serial number,” said Erick, who is forever grateful he was spared the hardships of becoming a World War II prisoner of war.

And in the decades since then, even after suffering a major heart attack doctors said should have killed him last January, Erick remains full of life and quick to offer a laugh.

When asked what his rank was in the Army, he said, “Pfc., personal friend of the colonel.”

Though, he adds, there is really nothing funny about war.

“I’m glad I went through it, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it.”

At 18 and just graduated from Angola High School, now Lake Shore High School, he attempted to enlist in the Navy but was told he was color blind and disqualified.

“I wanted to go in the Navy because my dad was in the Navy in World War I,” Erick said. “The recruiters told me to sit tight. I would soon be drafted.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

As an Army infantry replacement, Erick officially entered the war in August 1944 when he landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, serving with the 30th Infantry, 119th Regiment, 1st Battalion, Headquarters Company, Communications Unit, Radio Section.

It’s a mouthful, but like his serial number, Erick has never forgotten it.

Nor has he forgotten certain images.

“It wakes you up when you go to the top of the hill at Normandy Beach, and you see acres and acres of white crosses. You know you’re in for something.”

He describes the battle at Saint-Lô in France as the “door” that would open the rest of Europe to Allied Forces.

“American planes dropped small smoke bombs to mark where the front lines were. The reason they did that was to carry out saturated bombings. That was to help with the breakthrough. There was only one problem: The smoke drifted over our lines and when the bombers from Britain came, they dropped some of their bomb loads short and killed many of our own people.”

Erick said he watched helplessly as “friendly fire” took a toll on his comrades.

But when the smoke finally cleared, the Americans had succeeded in pushing the Germans out of Saint-Lô.

“When we went through Saint-Lô, it was absolutely flat. I don’t think there were two bricks left together. That was our breakthrough. We opened a door for Gen. [George S.] Patton’s Third Army to go through.”

As Erick’s unit progressed through France, he said, “We took a lot of prisoners and bypassed a lot of Germans. There were as many Germans behind us as there were in front of us.”

At the Siegfried Line, a heavily fortified area held by the enemy, he said, “The only way you got the Germans out of their block houses, which were pretty near bomb-proof, was to bomb them with white phosphorus bombs. If a drop of it hit your skin, it would burn you awful.”

He believes they could have broken through the Siegfried Line if they had been properly equipped.

“Two things happened: We ran out of gas from the supply lines. They couldn’t get it to us fast enough. We moved too fast. If we had had enough gasoline, we could have walked through the Siegfried Line. We beat most of the Germans. But without gasoline, the Germans had time to build up the line.”

Erick’s memories are many, and he enjoys recalling some that have a trace of humor.

“In a hedgerow in France, one of our radio operators was walking behind the row and just the top of his antenna was showing. The Germans must have had their binoculars. An 88-millimeter gun of theirs let go. It hit the top of the antenna and radio and knocked the radio operator ass over tea cart, but he was never scratched. The shot tore the radio right off his back.”

The Germans, he added, were relentless with their 88-millimeters at different crossroads, but he was wounded only once.

“Much later in the war, I got nicked in the rear end,” he said. “I took a lot of heat for that. I got kidded for getting hit in the rear. I still have that piece of shrapnel. I put it in a tiny Dutch shoe, a souvenir from Holland. A Dutch girl gave me the shoe.”

He says he never filed the paperwork for a Purple Heart.

“I was too scared to see the medics when I was hit, because enemy fire was so intense,” he said, and afterward, he never got around to pursuing the medal.

Another amusing incident occurred when he and fellow troops sought a place to sleep.

“We climbed into a barn at night. There was hay in it, and we were going to get a good sleep in that hay. I wound up beside a pig pen with a big pig in it that was snorting the whole night, and I couldn’t sleep, but it kept me warm. The next day when we woke up, we found out we had company.

“There were Germans in the barn. They woke up about the same time we woke up. Everybody bailed out of both ends of the barn. There was no fighting that time. We were just getting the hell out of each others’ way.”

And while he was able to maintain a sense of humor throughout the war, he said, death was everywhere.

“At one terrible battle scene in France, I was asked to help carry the dead off the field. We carried both Americans and Germans. A French girl came along and spit on a German corpse and then put flowers on an American corpse. One of the most terrible sights I saw was the great big Belgian work horses killed from strafing and bombings. The horses would be laying everywhere, and after the bombing, civilians would come out with carving knives and take away great big chunks of horse meat. The people were starving.”

He also recalls the Battle of the Bulge and how cold it was. “That’s when we got the Presidential Unit Citation. We fought Hermann Goering’s SS Division and stopped them cold.”

When Erick finally made it back home at 20 years old, he said, he was more than glad to be in Angola.

“Oh, boy. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry,” he said. “I was home, and yet I could not vote or go into a bar and get a drink. You had to be 21.”

In time, he found work in the banking industry, working his way up from a teller to a loan officer and retiring after 31 years.

And though he now lives at the Pines of Machias and needs oxygen around the clock, he says he feels good and right at home. “They treat me well.”

Erick also does not have far to look when he wants to recall his days as a warrior.

“All my medals are in a picture frame on the wall beside my bed.”

William H. Erick, 87

Hometown: Angola

Residence: Arcade and now Machias

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: World War II, European theater

Years of service: Drafted September 1943 - December 1945

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Presidential Unit Citation, European Theater Medal With four battle stars

Specialty: Infantry, radio operator

Before being drafted into the Army, Richard H. Lacey remembers making music with the band at LaSalle Junior-Senior High School in Niagara Falls.

He played clarinet, but his heart struck romantic notes as his eyes drifted from the sheet music to Doris Nelson, another clarinet player.

Almost an entire lifetime would unfold before Lacey, just five years ago, officially became her boyfriend.

And at age 87, the World War II veteran says he might never have lived to see that day had he not been so fortunate during his time as a soldier. Thrice he was wounded, and each time he was awarded a Purple Heart.

A machine-gunner, he suffered his first wound Oct. 12, 1944, just outside of Aachen, Germany.

“They were shelling us with mortars. We had just finished digging a foxhole, and I was standing outside it when I was struck with shrapnel in the right hip,” Lacey recalls . “I was among the walking wounded. A medical Jeep came and took me. I ended up in a Belgium hospital. They took the shrapnel out and put me on a train to Paris.”

From there, he was flown to England for recuperation.

“I was there a month, and then we crossed the English Channel in a British ship on Thanksgiving,” he says. “I slept in a hammock and ate cold canned turkey. I was on my way back to the front.”

The journey included two days inside a “40-and-8” boxcar, which he said could accommodate 40 soldiers or eight horses.

“We had no food, and the train would stop and we’d run out into the fields and get whatever food we could from farms,” Lacey says.

“The train would start to move, and we’d run up to it. I don’t know if you want to know this, but one fellow fell under the wheels of the train and lost his legs.”

He recalled an officer at a replacement camp asking him if he was eager to get back to the front lines.

“I thought to myself, ‘Are you crazy?’ but I said to him I was anxious to be returned to my outfit, the 30th Infantry Division. It was nicknamed ‘Old Hickory’ after Andrew Jackson.”

During the Battle of the Bulge, Lacey suffered his second wound, but this time he was only out of commission for a day.

“I was hit by a tree burst. When the shells hit the trees, pieces of the tree came down, and a limb hit my left side, but it was nothing serious,” he says. “I got treated at company headquarters. There were a lot of other guys worse-off with frostbite, losing toes. We were fighting in snow 2 feet deep.”

His third Purple Heart was earned back in Germany.

“It was another minor injury, and, to be honest with you, I can’t even remember the circumstances,” he says. “It’s on my discharge papers. The company clerk was very thorough.”

In civilian life, Lacey pasteurized milk for 33 years at Wendt Dairy in Niagara Falls and returned several times to Europe to visit the old battlefields.

“Each time I go back, I feel great, except when I see the different cemeteries with hundreds of the dead from the 30th Division,” Lacey says. “I feel bad that those guys are there. It’s sorrowful.”

Last September, he was back in Europe for his sixth visit and participated in a documentary about the 30th Infantry. Efforts are now being made to sell the documentary to the History Channel.

But there is more to Lacey’s life than war memories.

He sings all over Western New York in the Retired Men’s Service Club Chorus of Niagara Falls and plays golf at Hyde Park. When his second wife died five years ago, he renewed a friendship with Doris Nelson, whose spouse also had passed away.

“We have our own homes, but we are only a mile and two-tenths away from each other,” Lacey says. “We shop together, we have dinner together every night, and we play cards.”

And occasionally they remember the good old days when both played clarinet for the school band.

Richard H. Lacey, 87

Hometown: St. Petersburg, Fla.

Residence: Niagara Falls

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-1945

Most prominent honors: Three Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, five battle stars

Specialty: Machine gunner

Roy L. Noble’s oldest brother, Thomas, charged out of Schofield Barracks in Honolulu as Japanese warplanes began their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

A member of the Army’s Signal Corps in Hawaii, Thomas searched for an anti-aircraft gun. When he found one, he opened fire on enemy aircraft, which had also targeted the military installation farther inland.

“It was one of the first guns to be fired in World War II,” Roy said, proud of his brother.

Several months later, another of Roy Noble’s brothers, Ray, was among the first Marines to fight in the Battle of Guadalcanal, and again Roy had plenty to be proud of.

“Ray was a Marine Raider. He got hit with shrapnel from a Japanese mortar on Guadalcanal. The next thing we knew, Ray was on his way home, a casualty of the war.”

By January 1943, it was Roy’s turn to go to war.

“I enlisted as a cadet with the Army Air Forces. Then I was assigned to gunnery school and then armorer school. We took overseas training up in Mountain Home, Idaho, in B-24s, the Liberator. I was a ball gunner.”

By October 1944, Noble was in Italy, a member of the 15th Air Force, 419th Bombardment Group, 767th Bomb Squadron.

His sixth mission would prove to be his last one.

At about 5 a.m. Jan. 8, 1945, the 10-member B-24 crew soared beyond low cloud cover to 24,000 feet en route to railroad yards in Linz, Austria.

“I found out later we’d gotten hit with flak by the Adriatic Sea. We made it to Linz, but they were socked in with undercast; it’s like a fog. So we went to an alternate target and dropped our bombs. We’d lost the No. 3 engine from the flak and had to drop down into the undercast,” Noble says.

“We were told to start throwing things out. We threw out ammunition and machine guns – anything to lighten the plane. But as we were going along, we were still losing altitude above the Austrian Alps, which were 18,000 feet high. Then we lost the No. 2 engine, and the pilot gave the signal to bail out. Seeing I was the youngest on the plane, they told me to go first.

“I fell quite a ways before I pulled my parachute, and that was the last I saw of the plane. I landed in one of these evergreen trees that must have been 90 feet tall on the side of a mountain. I broke a branch with my head when I went into the tree, and I dislocated my right shoulder. I was hanging there and sort of pulled myself toward the trunk of the tree. I had a quick release on the chute’s harness and pulled it and climbed down. I was in a lot of pain with my shoulder.

“When I got toward the bottom of the tree, it was 3 or 4 feet in diameter. I jumped into snow from a bottom branch. There was snow everywhere. It was 4 feet deep or better, up to my chest. I saw this cabin quite a ways over and pushed myself through the snow. I couldn’t get my legs up, it was so deep.”

After he knocked on the door, a woman answered and let him inside, where he was introduced to, of all people, a doctor.

“He explained to me he was from Poland. The first thing he did was wipe the blood off my face. I had a cut over my left eye,” Noble says. “Then he explained that the two women in the house were going to hold me down and he was going reset my shoulder, which he did. It was painful.”

After two nights of recuperation, Noble headed up the mountain, and after a day’s walk, he noticed a sprawling farmhouse, where again he found shelter.

“I said ‘Americano,’ and this older man took me in,” Noble remembers. “Boy was I glad to get inside! I was wet. He had two daughters; and the older daughter, her husband was a German prisoner in the United States. But they took care of me. They heated up bricks in the bed where I slept on a straw mattress.

“The next morning, the younger daughter took me up the mountain to this village. We went around it, and she went back, and I went the other way.

“All of a sudden, as I started down the mountain, I heard this machine gun go off over my head. I turned around, and there were German ski patrol troopers. I fell down in the snow, and they had their guns aimed at me. That’s when I lost my freedom, until we were liberated” by Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army “at 12 noon on April 29, 1945.”

Two years after the war, Noble settled in the Buffalo Niagara region and worked for almost 38 years at the Westinghouse plant in Cheektowaga before retiring. Married for nearly 67 years, he and his wife, Lorraine, have raised two children and spent many years golfing together.

A fourth Noble brother, William, the youngest, also was part of the family’s commitment to duty by serving in the Army field artillery in the Korean War. Roy Noble is also proud that son Chris served on a nuclear submarine during the Vietnam War and that grandson Phillip served in the war in Afghanistan.

Roy L. Noble, 87

• Hometown:

Pittsburgh

• Residence:

Hamburg

• Branch:

Army Air Forces

• Rank: Sergeant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1943-47

• Most prominent honors:

Purple Heart, World War II

Victory Medal, European-

African-Middle Eastern

Campaign Medal with four

bronze service stars, Air

Medal, POW Medal

• Specialty: Ball turret

gunner on B-24 bomber

John P. Gunning Sr. served as the commander of a B-29 Superfortress, not to be confused with the B-17 Flying Fortress.

A bigger, more modern successor to the B-17 bomber, the B-29 had a much greater range and could carry a much heavier bomb load, which proved ideal for the air offensive against Japan in World War II.

That’s not to belittle the B-17, a workhorse that earned its stripes in Europe, where targets were closer and refueling more accessible. But for the long stretches over the Pacific Ocean, the Superfortress’ range of 1,200 to 1,400 miles one way and then all the way back without refueling was a necessity if bombs were to be dropped on the Japanese homeland.

The Japanese, though, were no pushovers. From land, they took careful aim with their anti-aircraft guns and sometimes succeeded in knocking out engines on the Superfortresses, forcing pilots and their 10 fellow crew members to make watery landings.

“Some of the ditchings were successful, but others were not. The plane would break apart, and result in the loss of the crew,” says Gunning, whose Superfortress often came under fire but was never forced to take a dip in the Pacific.

For those who survived the crashes, there was another challenge: getting picked up.

“I had a friend who floated around in the water for 24 hours before he was rescued. He had been terrified because he didn’t know how to swim, and his Mae West only half-inflated,” Gunning recalls, referring to the life vests whose curvy shape prompted them to be nicknamed after the actress. “Needless to say, we had a number of drinks together when he got back. He showed up at my hut with a jug.”

A 1940 graduate of Buffalo’s Burgard Vocational High School, Gunning had not sought to pilot such a massive aircraft as the Superfortress. He had gone to work at Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft plant on Vulcan Street following high school and helped build P-40 fighter planes.

A month after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in hope of jumping into the cockpit of a P-40 and taking on the enemy. Instead, he ended up in a Superfortress because of an urgent need for that type of pilot.

“A lot of Superfortresses were getting shot down,” he says. “That changed in the later part of the war, with the Battle of Iwo Jima. That island was a halfway point between Japan and our base at Saipan. Iwo Jima could then be used as an emergency landing zone.”

Gunning said his crew continued dropping incendiary bombs on various cities right up until the fighting ended in August 1945, after the two atomic bombs dropped by B-29s led to Japan’s surrender Sept. 2. At one point after the war, his curiosity got the best of him, and he flew over Nagasaki, which, after Hiroshima, was the second A-bomb target.

“It looked like a city that had undergone a maximum effort of incendiary bombing. It was just burned out. Everything was flat. There was nothing there,” Gunning remembers. “Then, when we passed a pretty good-size hill facing the city, the vegetation was all brown, but on the other side, it was green.”

A member of the 499th Bomb Group, 878th Squadron, 73rd Wing of the 20th Air Force, Gunning temporarily earned a record for being airborne the longest on a mission, 17 hours and 30 minutes, flying to Japan and back from Saipan.

“That was on Aug. 31, 1945, just after the war. We were dropping supplies at POW camps on the Japanese mainland to assist American, British and Australian war prisoners,” Gunning says. “I was originally supposed to drop supplies in the Hiroshima District, but it was socked in with clouds. So I opted to go to the secondary location, which was down Shikoku, and I could see the prisoners in the compound running around and waving at us.

“The supplies were all different – medical, food, clothing, you name it.”

Gunning said he took the massive plane down to an altitude of a mere 200 feet and cruised at 160 mph when dropping the supplies by parachute from the two bomb bays to make sure they were delivered undamaged.

The excitement and gratitude of the prisoners of war below, he says, could be felt inside the plane.

A month after returning to civilian life in January 1946, he joined the Buffalo Fire Department, where he worked for decades before retiring in 1977. He and his wife, Mary Lawley Gunning, who died in December after 68 years of marriage, raised a family of four sons.

Of his military service, Gunning says, “I think about it, and I think how lucky I was. I had a guardian angel. I think about the guys who didn’t make it.”

John P. Gunning Sr., 90

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: West Seneca

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• Rank: First lieutenant

• War zone: Pacific

• Years of service: 1942-46

• Most prominent honor: Air Medal with two battle stars

• Specialty: Pilot, B-29 Superfortress

Nine days after Allied forces stormed the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Earl E. Kramer arrived at those blood-soaked beaches as a replacement machine-gunner for the Army’s 2nd Armored Division. And from there, it was a hard push across Europe.

“We went through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and we were the first occupation forces in Berlin,” the 88-year-old World War II veteran said in offering the short version of how he and his buddies won the war.

Before he was drafted, Kramer, a graduate of Buffalo Technical High School, was considering enrolling at Ohio State or Michigan State University to pursue a course in engineering studies.

“My father was a graduate engineer,” he recalled.

Then the draft notice arrived in the Kramer family’s mailbox at 1557 Kensington Ave., and that changed everything.

His first day on the job as a combat soldier proved to be an eye-opener.

“I joined my company at about 8 a.m.,” Kramer said, “but earlier that morning, at about 4:30 a.m., the Germans had dropped a 1,000-pound bomb. It looked like a Hollywood war scene. There was hole in the middle of the field. It was so big, you could have put an M4 tank in the hole and not seen it.”

Actually, it was much worse than that.

“Thirty-three men had been killed and wounded,” he said. “I was just a young kid, 18 years old, and I said, ‘What is this?’ ”

To make matters worse, a German aircraft returned at midmorning and twice strafed the company’s area.

“We threw ourselves up against a hedgerow to get whatever cover we could,” Kramer said.

After that, for Kramer, there was the breakout Battle of St. Lô, then the Battle of the Bulge, followed by the Battle of the Siegfried Line and other battles that culminated on the banks of Germany’s Elbe River.

“We were the lead element of the 9th Army, and we expected to get the order to go straight to Berlin,” Kramer said. “We were about 75 miles away on the banks of the Elbe. But we were told to hold. The bigwigs – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – had all agreed the Russians would have the honor of taking Berlin.

“I was serving in a reconnaissance platoon, and I almost got killed when we were running a nighttime reconnaissance mission between our tanks strung out along the Elbe,” Kramer recalled. “When we hit this little rinky-dink German village, someone was in radio communications with the enemy on the other side of the river.

“The Germans proceeded to drop everything but the breechblock of the 88- and 105-millimeter cannons that they were shelling us with.”

He and a staff sergeant abandoned their Jeep and took cover in the doorway of a house. When the shelling subsided, Kramer said, he ran out and unsuccessfully tried to restart the vehicle.

“I no sooner got out there, and the shelling restarted. I ran back to the doorway, and then one of the shells hit the side of house directly over our heads,” he said. “The shelling was so intense that both my eardrums were shattered.”

Eventually, he and the staff sergeant made it back to company headquarters and the next morning returned to recover the abandoned Jeep.

“The seat that I was sitting in as the driver looked like a piece of Swiss cheese. It was riddled with shrapnel,” Kramer said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t sitting there. The radiator was riddled, and the battery cable was sheared off. That’s obviously why it hadn’t started. We hooked the Jeep up to the one we drove out in and towed it back.”

Kramer has spent a lifetime recalling just how fortunate he was to survive the war.

“I came back with all my parts. I only lost 50 percent of my hearing in both ears,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this: I have the finest hearing aids that the Veterans Administration can give.”

Kramer added that during the war he had a revelation: He did not care for engineering. So when he returned home to Buffalo, he instead earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in secondary school administration, both at the University of Buffalo.

Those credentials, he said, helped opened the door for an industrial career at Bell Aerospace in Wheatfield, where he retired as the manager of management development, safety and environmental affairs.

But he wasn’t through with the military, he said, and proudly recalled that he spent 35 years with the Army Reserve and retired as a colonel.

Earl E. Kramer, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Getzville

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Sergeant first class

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1943-46

• Most prominent honors: Distinguished Unit Citation, European Campaign Medal with five battle stars, World War II Victory Medal, Belgian Fourragère Cross of War

• Specialty: Machine-gunner

William C. Dibble knew tough times long before he became a World War II prisoner of war and was forced to work on a German farm in often unbearable conditions.

When he was 11, his father, Leon Dibble, died from the lingering effects of being gassed by the Germans during World War I.

“Sometimes he was so sick; he couldn’t go out. He had worked as wallpaper-hanger but then found work through another veteran taking care of Niagara Square, Lafayette Square and Shelton Square. He would shovel the snow,” the 91-year-old son says in recalling his dad’s hard life.

An only child, Dibble said he and his mother, Catherine, barely made ends meet. His mom worked in the family business hanging wallpaper, and he went to school. But when he graduated from Boys High School on Oak Street, Dibble said he found work at Beals, McCarthy & Rogers Hardware Store on Lower Terrace, next-door to Memorial Auditorium.

“I would check supply orders that were going out on trucks,” Dibble recalls of his 50-cent-an-hour job. At end of the shift, he would drive home to Forest Avenue on the West Side in his late father’s 1931 Chevrolet.

Life for mother and son was interrupted when Dibble received a draft notice in late November 1942.

A week later, he was stationed at Fort Niagara in Youngstown, and then it was on to Fort Bragg, N.C., for training in field artillery. By April 1943, he arrived in North Africa at a troop-replacement depot, where he was assigned to the 1st Division, 26th Infantry.

“On July 10, 1943, I was in the first wave to hit the beach in the invasion of Sicily. It was pretty rough. I lost some friends before we even got to shore. I’d been looking for them and was told they were floating in the water,” Dibble says.

On July 26, out on patrol, he and six other infantrymen were pinned down in a ditch under German mortar fire. “Shrapnel hit the back end of my left foot, and it felt numb,” Dibble remembers, “but only the boot had a cut in it. I raised up my head, and all hell broke loose.

“They started firing with their rifles, and I put my head back down. Better to be hit in the foot than in the head. I tried wiggling my toes and it took awhile before I could start feeling them again.”

In the meantime, the main unit had pulled back because of the heavy artillery fire from 88 mm guns, leaving Dibble and his patrol stranded.

“We radioed and asked them to shoot smoke shells so that we could get back,” he says, “but they told us to wait until dark and come back then because they didn’t want to give away their position. But this was at 8 in the morning.”

Time was not on their side.

“We lay in the ditch, barely able to move for a few hours, and then the Germans came charging in,” Dibble recalls. “They were yelling, ‘Hands up.’ I started to raise my rifle, and I saw that one of the Germans had a cannon pointed right at my head. I just put my rifle down. They told us to undo our ammunition belts and to leave them with our rifles.”

As they headed through enemy lines, Dibble started thinking about the canteens they had left behind attached to their ammo belts.

“I asked the German sergeant if he could get our canteens; it would be nice to have them, I thought,” Dibble says. “He said, why did I want the canteens? And I said, it was a long way to Germany. He gave me a dirty look, but he did send someone back to get our canteens.”

For 21 months, Dibble was a prisoner of war in northeastern Germany near the Polish border, where he worked on a farm growing potatoes and various grains. “We worked from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night six days a week, and Sundays we were busy most of that day with chores,” Dibble says. “The worst part was being out in the spring and the fall with the cold rains and winds. Even if we turned blue, they didn’t give us one hour off.”

Living conditions were beyond cramped. He shared a four-room cottage with 27 other POWs. And the menu for chow was limited: “We had boiled potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Plenty of carbs, but what about protein? “Now and then, we got a Red Cross package that would have coffee, powdered milk and a couple cans of meat,” he says.

When Russian forces started approaching Germany, Dibble says, he and the other prisoners were put on a forced march during one of the coldest winters on record. “We’d sleep in barns or sometimes in the open. We didn’t have sleeping bags or blankets, just our overcoats,” Dibble explains. “We’d bunch up together. We marched over 500 miles.”

Despite the hardship, he says, he and his fellow POWs were blessed. Other prisoners ended up killed by friendly fire from U.S. fighter planes.

“But we stayed in line in our column. We didn’t run, and that let the pilots know we were prisoners. They’d tipped their wings at us,” Dibble says. “The ones that ran in other columns, the pilots figured they were Germans.”

On April 11, 1945, he says, the 9th Army liberated him and his buddies. About being a free man, Dibble says, “It felt wonderful,” and the C rations they were given tasted delicious. “We were put on airplanes and taken to Camp Lucky Strike on the coast of France.”

By May 1945, he was back in the United States, but his service was not over. “I was sent to Oklahoma to be retrained for the invasion of Japan,” he says. “Thank goodness that did not happen.”

On Nov. 3, 1945, he was back home and living with his mom in their first-floor apartment at 204 Forest Ave.

He returned to the hardware store but later secured a job as a mechanic with the Postal Service, retiring in 1983. In 1950, he married Loretta Ward, and they raised two children, Bill Jr. and Donna.

“My wife died in 2003, but my two children visit me all the time,” he says. “They are wonderful to me.”

Reared by a father who was deeply patriotic and served in a submarine during World War I, Schuyler L. Gilbert was informed by his dad shortly after high school graduation that “no son of mine is going to be drafted.”

That translated into a trip by father and son to the local Navy recruiting office in New Haven, Conn. But Charles Gilbert’s bulldog determination to see that his boy followed in his footsteps defending America would take three tries.

“My brother was already in the Navy as an aviation mechanic serving in Australia, and I couldn’t get in because I was colorblind. But I went back to the recruiter two more times,” Schuyler Gilbert says. “On the third time, I’d been standing in line for a while as others were reading the color chart. I was blind to green and brown. So I memorized it.

“When it was my turn, the recruiter switched the chart page and told me that he did it because he figured I had memorized the chart. But the page he switched to was blue, and I could see blue and passed the test.”

His father, waiting outside in the family car, laughed approvingly when his son reported the good luck that had come his way.

Just two weeks out of high school, he was off to Navy boot camp in the Finger Lakes, at Sampson Naval Training Center. Then it was on to the Pacific’s Mariana chain of islands, where he was assigned to Tinian, an island several miles from the better-known Saipan.

He worked with the 38th Naval Construction Battalion after complaining to his superiors that he was weary of serving as a gofer and pulling guard duty.

“I was 18 at the time and placed with construction workers twice my age and told that I would be taught to operate power shovels, bulldozers and rollers,” the 86-year-old Amherst resident recalls.

He had no idea that his labor would become part of a historic World War II construction effort.

“We moved 12 million cubic yards of coral that was just under island’s sugar cane fields. It was equivalent of material needed for three Boulder Dams,” Gilbert says. “We transported the coral to runways we were building for B-29 bombers.”

To provide an idea of just how big of an operation it was to construct four runways out of crushed coral, Gilbert offered these staggering statistics:

• A workforce of 15,000 Seabees.

• 570 dump trucks, 270 cargo trucks, 173 surface spreaders, 160 tractors and bulldozers, 80 power shovels, 60 roll-graders, 40 water wagons, 70 welding units and assorted cranes.

The Seabees worked round-the-clock and finished on time or, in some areas, ahead of schedule.

When the last shovelful of coral and construction material was in place, this is what they had accomplished:

• Four runways, each 1½ miles long, 500 feet wide, in addition to 265 “hard stands,” parking spaces for planes.

• 178 Quonset huts.

• 92 various other buildings.

“We called this our ‘Can-Do’ story,” Gilbert says of the approximately six-month undertaking. “I took special pride in knowing I helped, especially when I saw the B-29s start to land.”

As if that was not enough for the history books, Gilbert ended up having a direct hand in what would bring abount Japan’s rapid surrender in the summer of 1945.

“One night, an officer came to my tent and said, ‘Hey, Gilbert, you know how to operate a backhoe. I’ve got a job for you.’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and when we got over to the runway, he said, ‘Dig a hole,’ and I asked, ‘What’s it for?’ He said, ‘Never mind; just do it.’ There were Marines guarding us as I dug the hole.”

The teenage Seabee later found out that he was digging a pit in which 10,213-pound “Fat Man,” the world’s second atomic bomb, would be loaded into the belly of a B-29, Bockscar, that would drop its payload on Nagasaki.

“I was told that the bomb was so big it could not be loaded in the conventional way,” he says. “They had to drive the plane over the hole I’d dug and then jack it up into place.”

Three days before Bockscar’s mission to Nagasaki, the other B-29, Enola Gay, had dropped 9,700-pound “Little Boy” on Hiroshima.

In the weeks before the atomic bombings, Gilbert says, he and others had noticed two planes continually taking off and landing on the island.

“I later found out that they were practicing,” he says. “The planes were each loaded with sandbags similar to the weight of the bombs.”

After the war, he was transferred to Japan for the occupation and visited Nagasaki, where he beheld an amazing sight amid Fat Man’s devastation.

“There wasn’t anything you couldn’t pick up in your hand, but just out of the range of the bomb, I saw a church, and the stained-glass windows were still in it, and the cross was on the steeple,” Gilbert recalls.

“A guy said to me to remember that. He said, ‘It’s God saying you can build anything you want that is destructive, but I’m still running the show.’ ”

Those words, Gilbert says, he never forgot.

As American soldiers fought on the islands of the Pacific making their way ever closer to Japan in World War II, John A. Phillips was in the thick of the fight; but when it was mealtime, he paused from combat and cooked chow for his fellow warriors.

“Usually it was just powdered eggs for breakfast; and at dinner, dehydrated potatoes, and I’d make gravy. We had meat that was frozen when I got it. For dessert, you got a couple pieces of candy or cookies,” he recalls.

Every now and then, Phillips says, the limited menu would include a “special” – if a soldier lucked out and killed a stray Asian caribou.

“We’d make a stew because you could get a lot more out of it,” the 90-year-old Delevan resident says.

But the indigenous people of New Guinea would object if they learned that the GIs were feasting off of their food supply. “So,” he says, “we would dig a hole and put the carcass in it, then pour gas on it, burn it and cover it up.”

The locals, though, had another ready supply of food, Phillips points out.

“They were cannibals, and sometimes we would come across the remains of human beings that were sliced up and used for food,” Phillips says.

Past experiences with death, he says, had helped him to adjust.

After being born an orphan in Wheeling, W.Va., he was transferred at 7 days old to Father Nelson H. Baker’s orphanage in Lackawanna. As a teenager, Phillips says, it was his job to build tiny coffins for newborn infants who died from severe illnesses or birth defects.

“I would dig the grave at Holy Cross Cemetery and say to myself they were God’s little angels because they never did anything wrong,” Phillips remembers. “That’s what helped me not get emotional at the sight of the dead people” in wartime.

Growing up in an institutional setting and serving for two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, starting at 17, had prepared him well for the rigors of military life.

“In the summers, Father Baker’s had a camp on Keller Road in East Eden, an old potato farm, and I would help the woman cook there,” he says. “The Army looked in my records and saw I had cooking experience, and that is how I became a cook.”

But kitchen duties did not spare him from the hazards of combat. Three times, he was struck with shrapnel; but because Phillips did not consider the wounds severe, he never sought a Purple Heart.

“I fought in the Philippines and New Guinea, and when the first atomic bomb exploded on Hiroshima, we were out in the ocean,” Phillips says. “We were miles away, but we could see the mushroom cloud with scopes.”

A member of the Army’s 41st Infantry Division, he caught grim duty when his unit landed in Japan. “We went out on patrols in Hiroshima and would bury the bodies of civilians,” he says. “Or if they were too burned up, we’d just cover them with some dirt.”

Despite the horrors of war, Phillips stayed on with the military when his hitch ended in October 1949.

“The very next day, I started with the Navy Reserve at the foot of Porter Avenue, and I returned to Father Baker’s working in the infant home for unwed mothers,” he says. “I was a maintenance man, and on the weekends I would go the Navy drills and do the cooking.”

In time, he married and helped raise five children. “I always worked two jobs to support my children,” he says.

Over the years, he also became devoted to helping the needy and contributed to missionaries in Nicaragua, collecting clothing and household items for shipment.

“This is what the Lord had provided for me to do,” Phillips says. “I came into this world with nothing, and that’s how I want to leave.”

Robert S. Gemerek inherited his father’s mechanical abilities and would sometimes tinker with automobiles at his dad’s business, Stan’s Garage, in Clarence Hollow.

But when World War II started, Stan Gemerek closed the business and went to work at Bell Aircraft as a supervisor at the old Elmwood Avenue plant in Buffalo. Robert, thanks to his dad, soon landed a job at Bell, working at what was then known as the new plant out in Wheatfield.

The younger Gemerek tested .50-caliber machine guns to make sure they were suitable for installation in the nose of P-39 Airacobra fighter planes. He also checked the quality of .30-caliber machine guns that were to be mounted in the wings.

When a draft notice arrived at the family’s home, Gemerek’s civilian life was over. It was time to get into the fight in a more direct way, and he knew exactly how wanted to defend the country – as a pilot.

“I scored pretty good on the aviation test, but when it came to the medical test, my eyesight wasn’t that good,” Gemerek lamented.

Realizing he had valuable experience with aircraft construction, the Army Air Forces trained Gemerek to be a group armor inspector, putting him in charge of crews responsible for loading bombs into airplanes and repairing .50-caliber machine guns.

As for patriotism, the Gemerek family proved to be high-caliber. The second-oldest of five brothers, Gemerek and two other brothers all served at the same time in the Second World War. “My older brother, Don, was also in the Army Air Forces in Africa,” he says, “and my younger brother Kenneth was in the Navy and served in Saipan.”

Gemerek would be spared the battlefields, though that did not shield him from danger.

“We left from Newport News, Va., in what was seemingly a group of hundreds of warrior ships,” he says. “It took us a month to get to Europe. We were dodging German submarine patrols, and depth charges were going off trying to get the submarines.

“On the way, a tanker right next to our ship going through the Strait of Gibraltar got sunk by German planes that were strafing us. We were lucky we didn’t get sunk.”

The ship was transporting bombs, he explains, and “the troops … were told to go below. If we’d gotten hit, there would have been a heck of a bang.”

Happy to arrive in one piece in Italy, Gemerek was assigned to the Foggia Airfield Complex, where he again saw the life-and-death moments of war up close. “A B-24 with a 10-man crew blew up as it was taking off. Something malfunctioned,” Gemerek recalls. “We all jumped in the safest place we could find.”

The sight of the explosion was upsetting, Gemerek says, but he and his buddies carried on, making sure that fragmentation bombs, and 500- and 1,000-pound bombs were properly placed into the planes.

When the planes’ .50-caliber machine guns gave out, Gemerek supervised repairs, making sure his crews properly replaced bushings and other mechanisms.

Work shifts often continued round-the-clock. “Whenever there was something to do,” he says, “we got orders to take care of it.”

And when the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, Gemerek and his fellow airmen got orders to prepare to head to the Pacific in preparation for the planned invasion of Japan, “but then President Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs.”

And that ended the war.

Gemerek headed home, but not before he went up in a B-24 and flew over Europe to see where the planes he had serviced had done battle.

“We were up about 12 hours, and it was kind of like a sightseeing tour,” he remembers. “I could see where we had fought, and there was nothing left. The pilots and the bombardiers had done a good job.”

Upon his return to the States, Gemerek looked up a young lady he had met at a USO dance in Springfield, Mass., and discovered, to his delight, that the embers of romance were still aglow.

“I had corresponded with her through letters while I was overseas,” he says.

And the rest is history. Gemerek married Barbara Long, and they raised five children. He supported his family by putting his mechanical abilities to work, first at the Buffalo Police Department auto repair garage and then advancing to the repair garage at the city Water Department.

“I worked myself up to be superintendent of that garage,” he says

After 65 years of marriage, Barbara Long Gemerek died last year. During those final years after she came down with Alzheimer’s disease, Robert Gemerek once again answered the call of duty by serving as her primary caretaker. There would no nursing home for his beloved Barb.

He was so attentive that just before bedtime, he would toss her nightgown into the dryer so that it would be warm.

He is too shy to say it, but his daughter Gail Kaminski said, “Mom called him ‘my hero,’ over and over.”

As a teenager, Stanley F. Czarniak felt his father’s sorrow as he watched him huddle beside the radio listening to the grim news that his Polish homeland had fallen to the Nazis in 1939.

Stanley did not take this well.

A teenage hunter who knew his way around guns, and a student of war fascinated by the books he read on the trench warfare of World War I, he was determined to avenge what the Nazis had done, certain America would wind up in World War II.

Czarniak enlisted in the Army on Feb. 6, 1940, and was sent to West Point to serve in the Quartermaster Corps as a truck driver. Less than two years later, the United States was in the fight.

“I was listening to the football game at West Point when President Roosevelt announced we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. Myself and three friends volunteered as parachute troops, and we became charter members of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Benning, Ga.,” Czarniak said.

His chance to even the score with Hitler arrived when the Allied forces invaded Europe.

“Our division, the 82nd Division; the British Red Devil Division; the Canadians; the Polish; and a French battalion of paratroopers dropped behind the beaches at Normandy to stop German reinforcements from coming up as our sea forces landed,” he said of his participation in the June 6, 1944, Invasion of Normandy.

Czarniak was in charge of a platoon of 40 men armed with eight machine guns. He’d come a long way quickly from his teenage days of wandering the woods on what is now George Urban Boulevard in Cheektowaga, hunting rabbit and pheasant.

“There were four men to a machine gun, a couple bazooka men, a medic and a radio man,” he recalled of his military unit. “Bill Lee was our first general, and he told us we had no history of battle experience at the time but that we had a rendezvous with destiny.”

A book on the 101st would later bear that name, “Rendezvous With Destiny.” Czarniak bears the scars to prove it. He suffered a bullet wound to the kidney from a German machine gunner and a tear to the cheek from shrapnel.

After more than a month of mending, he was well enough to make the jump into Holland on Sept. 17, 1944.

Behind enemy lines for 72 days, his unit was pulled back to a rest area in Mourmelon, France. Soon after replacements arrived, they were trucked to Bastogne, where they fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“There was no time for an airlift. We had a network of roads coming out of Bastogne. Hitler needed those roads for his armored divisions. They wanted Antwerp, a big port that was supplying the northern armies for the Allies.”

It looked like the Germans might win a decisive fight, and the enemy sent word to the Czarniak’s commander asking if he wanted to surrender.

“Gen. Anthony McAuliffe said, ‘Nuts.’ That was his reply to the Germans. Then General Patton’s tanks broke through the encirclement around us, and we continued fighting.”

Czarniak said he and his fellow paratroopers remained on the ground from that point and fought east to Germany until victory was won in May 1945.

But, really, the war never ended for Czarniak.

“It keeps me awake every night. I think mainly about the boys that I lost. My platoon required replacements after every action. We probably lost about 45.”

Yet his hard-earned war experiences helped others.

In February 1951, he served at Camp Breckinridge, Ky., training troops headed to the Korean War.

“I never hesitated when I was recalled.”

It was an honor, he said, to share his military experience, though privately his heart ached.

“It was sad to see young boys, knowing what they were going to do and what they were going to face.”

Stanley F. Czarniak, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Lancaster

Branch: Army

Rank: battlefield commission, 2nd lieutenant

War zone: World War II, European Theater; served stateside during Korean War training combat troops

Years of service: February 1940 – June 1945; reactivated February 1951 – June 1952

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, 2 Bronze Stars, Combat Infantry Badge, 2 Presidential Unit Citations.

Specialty: machine gun platoon sergeant

Roscoe L. Brown comes from humble roots, born on his family’s Texas farm, where he picked cotton as a boy and hunted for food.

When he was old enough, he followed in his father’s footsteps and defended the country.

On Sunday, Brown belatedly received recognition of the highest order, the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine.

The shimmering medal stands in stark contrast to a bleak chapter in American history when the military was segregated. Brown and thousands of other African-Americans who joined the Marine Corps after discriminatory practices for that branch were eliminated in 1941 were sent to Camp Montford Point, N.C., for training during World War II. Their units were still segregated, however.

Many got the chance to prove themselves in battle; others, like Brown, did not. More than six decades later, Congress and President Obama approved legislation awarding Montford Point Marines the medal.

“I feel honored by this,” Brown said in a phone interview before the ceremony.

He’s in good company. Previous recipients of the Gold Medal include George Washington; civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King; Pope John Paul II; and the Tuskegee Airmen, another group of African-Americans who proved their aerial mettle in World War II.

Brown’s journey to the Congressional Gold Medal began when he was asked what branch of the military he wanted to serve in at the old Post Office in downtown Buffalo. He had moved to Buffalo in 1944.

“I said the Marines, because I knew the Marines were always the first into battle, and I wanted to be with them,” the 85-year-old Brown recalled.

The Marines, though, were slow to send blacks into combat.

“But after so many other Marines were killed in the Pacific Theater at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they were glad to have the black Marines,” Brown said.

A hunter since childhood and a pretty good shot, Brown said he hoped he would get a chance to fight the Japanese.

It was not to be.

When fellow Marines at Camp Montford Point were sent to the Pacific Theater, Brown remained behind, working at a desk, maintaining personnel records.

He says he took it in stride.

“It was meaningful work. You had to have somebody keep the records. When somebody in battle killed the enemy, I made sure it was on their records,” Brown said.

Often when black Marines returned to Montford Point, Brown said, he interviewed them as he prepared their discharge papers. The stories they shared filled him with pride.

“Some of the black Marines worked on the ships loading ammunition. But there were Marines who fought, and I remember hearing stories of how they killed a lot of the enemy. These Marines were treated equally during battle. It didn’t matter what color your skin was, but then when they came back home, they couldn’t get served a cup of coffee because they were black, and that’s a hell of a thing.”

While in uniform, Brown also experienced racism; he was escorted out of a restaurant when he entered through the wrong door. But he never lost his sense of patriotism. He had been raised by a veteran.

“My father served in the Army during World War I as a corporal. He’d been sent to New York with his outfit, and they were getting ready to go overseas when the war ended.”

In 1949, three years after Brown was honorably discharged, the Marines deactivated Camp Montford Point, and Leathernecks of all races began training and working side by side.

In 2011, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was among members of Congress to sponsor the legislation conferring the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. Last year, a special awards ceremony for more than 400 of the Marines was held in Washington, D.C., but Brown had not been notified.

To make up for the oversight, a special presentation was held Sunday with Higgins, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and members of the Marine Corps at Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street, near East Utica Street, where Brown serves as a deacon.

“Today we honor Roscoe Brown, a member of the Montford Point Marines, an elite team of men who bravely signed up to fight abroad for our nation’s freedom even while they were being denied equal rights here at home,” Higgins said in his prepared remarks. “We thank you for your courage, trailblazing determination and selfless service.”

Poloncarz said it was a privilege to publicly thank Brown “for his service to our country.”

In reflecting on his long life, Brown said he has witnessed many changes, from improved treatment of those of color serving in military to the civilian workplace.

“I moved up to Buffalo in 1944 from Texas. My sister and her husband had moved here, and I followed them. I finished high school with a degree in welding. That’s where the money was,” he said.

After the war, Brown found work at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.

“I worked there 33 years and retired as a foreman in 1982.”

He then purchased his own business, a laundromat at the corner of North Fillmore and Dewey avenues, which he operated until 2005. Brown also raised six children, who have since moved from the area.

At his side Sunday was his wife, the former Elizabeth LeLand.

“This is wonderful. This is really a big deal,” she said of the award.

Roscoe l. Brown, 85

Hometown: Kendleton, Texas

Residence: Williamsville

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Private 1st class

War zone: World War II

Years of service: 1945-46

Most prominent honors: Congressional Gold Medal

Specialty: Personnel clerk

John T. Wozer started from the ground up in becoming a pilot with the Army Air Forces.

After graduating from St. Bernard High School in Bradford, Pa., he found work with the Army Corps of Engineers building what would become Bradford Regional Airport.

Wozer assisted in surveying the land for the runways. Then, one day when they were barely half-finished, a P-39 Airacobra fighter plane from the Bell Aircraft factory in Wheatfield suddenly made an emergency landing.

“When I saw that pilot get out the plane with his leather jacket and his silver wings, that’s when I knew I wanted to go” into the Army Air Forces, the 89-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident recalls.

On Dec. 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wozer took the air cadet exam at the U.S. Post Office on Ellicott Street in downtown Buffalo and scored well. Fast-forward to late October 1944, when he joined his outfit, the 366th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force, as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot.

“We were called the Hun Hunters,” he says, but because of the versatility of the Thunderbolt, they were also sometimes known as “fighter-bomber boys.”

The biggest of the fighter planes, the Thunderbolt could deliver more than just an average jolt.

Each wing was equipped with three rockets and four .50-caliber machine guns, and that’s not all. The wings could each carry a single bomb weighing up to 1,000 pounds. Talk about firepower.

Wozer flew 47 combat missions and on three, he found himself in dogfights against the Luftwaffe over northern France and Belgium. To make the plane nimble, if he was to stand a chance in evading and chasing enemy aircraft, he said, he had to get rid of his P-47’s heavy load of rockets and bombs.

“In a dogfight, you try to get on the enemy’s tail, coming right up his back and shooting,” he says. “It’s you against this other person, and you’re both trying to survive. You’re constantly maneuvering. You got your throttle, your stick and your rudders. You’ve got to outfly the enemy, and that’s all.”

Then there was the flak from German anti-aircraft guns that Wozer and his fellow flyboys had to contend with.

“When you had this flak all around you, the formation you flew in would suddenly spread out,” Wozer recalls. “You didn’t fly together, so you weren’t one big target. Each one of us went on our own way and continued in the general direction of our target, regrouping as soon as we could.”

The goal was to destroy the enemy: troops on the march, truck convoys, bridges, ordnance factories – all were targets. “During the Battle of the Bulge, we flew 15 minutes to a half-hour to get to the target; they were that close,” he says. “At times, our airstrips were snowed in. It was one of the worst winters on record, but sometimes we’d fly two missions the same day.”

On one of those flights, he says, the flak was so thick that it pierced not only the wings of his plane, but the cockpit. Fortunately, “the flak never hit my skin.”

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, he received orders that he was heading to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, but then the war ended there in August.

“Harry dropped the bomb,” Wozer said of President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1946, Wozer joined the Air Force Reserve and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. He went to work for Calspan in Cheektowaga, where he met his future wife, Winifred Oberle. They went on to raise three children.

Wozer stays in touch with about 10 other World War II pilots, mostly through his membership in the 366th Fighter Group Association, which includes flyboys from Korea and Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

John T. Wozer, 89

• Hometown:

Lewis Run, Pa.

• Residence:

Town of Tonawanda

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• Rank: First lieutenant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service:

Active duty, 1942-45;

Air Force Reserve, 1946-60

• Most prominent honors:

Air Medal with seven oak

leaf clusters, Presidential

Unit Citation, Belgian

Fourragére Medal

• Specialty: Pilot, P-47

Thunderbolt

These days, William J. Weismantel enjoys talking with two former Marines he met some seven decades ago when he was stateside receiving advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before heading to the Pacific in World War II.

It’s a comfort to chat with his buddies, Melvin Johnson of Delaware, Ohio, and Jack Blandford of Massapequa, Long Island.

In the back of his mind, he wishes he could chat about old times with some of the fellows in his platoon who fought alongside him in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

But that’s just not possible.

Weismantel was the only member of his platoon to survive the bloody battle in which nearly 7,000 Americans were killed and more than 19,000 wounded.

“The initial plan for our platoon was to go to Okinawa, but conditions were so desperate for manpower that we were sidetracked to Iwo Jima. I was on a ship, and a fellow Marine said, ‘Hey, look. They’re putting up the flag.’ I looked and saw the flag the Marines put up on Iwo Jima,” Weismantel says, recalling the indelible image atop Mount Suribachi captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

That occurred Feb. 23, 1945. The next day, Weismantel and about 30 other members of his platoon were sent ashore to help secure an airstrip.

“They asked for a volunteer to serve as the platoon commander’s runner,” he says. “A runner did everything that the commander wanted. No one volunteered, and I was picked. I thought to myself, ‘Well this will be the end of me.’ ”

Little did he know that such hazardous duty would turn out to be a lifesaver for him – and him alone. The lieutenant he was running for suffered a severe shrapnel wound.

“Myself and a Navy corpsman managed to get the lieutenant back to be removed to a hospital ship,” Weismantel remembers. “Then, when I returned to my platoon, they were all dead. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I knew I couldn’t stay up there alone. I went back to headquarters.”

Weismantel had never imagined something like this happening to him. As a teenager, he was gung-ho when it came to the military and, in fact, had managed to secure a combined academic and working scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pa., where he had graduated before entering basic training at Parris Island, S.C.

When he made his way back to headquarters on Iwo Jima, there was no time for coddling or mourning. Death was everywhere. He was simply reassigned to a demolition team with the 3rd Division Engineers.

“I was with a team that set demolitions at cave openings. The enemy could often be located in these caves, and it was my job as the weapons man to protect the Marines setting the charges to close the openings,” Weismantel says.

And the horrors of war were ever-present.

One particular incident that demonstrates the randomness of death still stands out. He recalls being with a fellow Marine who was thrilled to see a bulldozer on Iwo Jima.

“He went over and told the Marine operating it that he had run one before the war,” Weismantel says. “That Marine offered him the chance to operate it while he took a break. The bulldozer was being used to probe for unexploded artillery rounds fired from American battleships.

“I don’t think more than 5 or 10 minutes had elapsed when he’d been operating the bulldozer, and it made contact with a buried shell. It exploded, and about the only thing left from that bulldozer were fragments from the seat. God, it was a huge explosion! It seemed like more than the operator should have been killed.”

On March 26, 1945, Weismantel says, he had the distinction of being the last Marine from the initial landing forces to leave Iwo Jima.

“As I was leaving,” he says, “I reached down and grabbed a handful of volcanic ash and put it in my pocket. I sent it to my friend, a bartender in downtown Buffalo. He put the ash in a shot glass and displayed it at the bar.”

A year later, he received his honorable discharge and joined his father, William A. Weismantel, and an uncle, Herman, in the family furniture and funeral business. He also married Ilse Peschan, and they raised four children.

More than three decades ago, he sold the funeral home on Main Street in Springville and opened his own restaurant, then sold it and worked as a sales representative for funeral home supplies. He now says, “I’m just enjoying life, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

A few years ago, life became even more enjoyable. He received a phone call from his former Marine buddy Johnson, whose brother had located him and Blandford through an Internet search.

“Melvin calls me two or three times a month, and Blandford is periodic,” Weismantel says. “You know the three of us talk very little about the Marine Corps. We talk about our families and how we are making out with our lives.”

Friday, Weismantel will travel to Wayne, outside Philadelphia, for a gathering that also promises to be enjoyable:

“I’m going to my 70th reunion for my class at Valley Forge Military Academy.”

When Howard J. “Howie” Ross and his fellow soldiers were told they were going to India, they figured the training officers had made a mistake and meant Italy, where there would be plenty of action in freeing the people from the Axis.

But India and beyond were indeed where they headed, to one of the lesser-known theaters of operation during World War II. And little did they know they would come in contact with tribal headhunters.

It would turn out to be an unforgettable journey for Ross, who had been working as an 18-year-old cabdriver in the City of Tonawanda.

He and other members of the 556th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion were trained at Drew Field in Tampa, Fla., for the hazardous job of going out beyond the front lines to spot enemy aircraft. They learned not only how to distinguish enemy planes from those of the Allies, but survival skills, as well, since supplies arrived by airdrops, which weren’t always dependable because of monsoons.

“Radar was new, and the machines were bulky, so we were the radar,” Ross recalls. “We could tell the types of planes by sight and the sounds of their engines. We were able to tell the altitude, the direction and the weather conditions.”

Ross and his colleagues had volunteered for the job when faced with the choice of that or working as cooks.

“I wanted to get in the Army Air Forces,” he says, “and so I took something a little more daring than working as a cook.”

He thought for certain when they landed in Africa that they were indeed bound for Italy.

“We spent two months in Africa loading merchant ships with supplies going to Italy,” he says. “Then we came to find out we were waiting for a ship to take us to India. They told us we would be sneaking past Cyprus, where the Germans were.”

The voyage to India took about two weeks, south through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and then to the Arabian Sea, at last arriving in Bombay.

But there was no time for sightseeing.

“They put us on a train,” Ross remembers. “We headed for Calcutta beside the Bay of Bengal.”

Again, as they cut across India, there was no time for sightseeing, except for what they could see from their less than luxurious train.

“Then they put us on a riverboat and we headed north,” he says. “Then there was another train, and that took us past Dibrugarh to a little town that was home base for our company in a portion of India between China and Burma.”

The trip was still not over, however.

“We flew, we took a Jeep, were on another riverboat, and ended up walking 150 miles in 12 days through jungles to get to our post,” he recalls. “We were up about 6,500 feet between a range of mountains in Burma. … There were blank spots on the government maps we were given that represented unexplored territory we were in.”

But one thing was known: Members of a Naga tribe lived in the region, and they were headhunters.

Ross and the other nine soldiers, plus 25 Gurkhas from Nepal, lived in a stockade built from timbers. At night, its two gates were locked. Fields around the rudimentary fort were protected with bamboo spears to fend off animals or anything else that might turn hostile.

For the most part, Ross says, the headhunters were friendly.

“We gave them salt, and we would buy chickens and eggs from them,” he says. “But you never knew quite how to take them. You’d get natives from miles away coming to see a white man for the first time.”

On journeys to the tribal villages, Ross remembers, it had not escaped his notice that members of the tribe proudly displayed human skulls.

“I have pictures from one of the villages where 200 skulls were on display,” he says. “The skulls might have belonged to members of the Chinese army who didn’t know about the tribe.”

Fortunately, he and his colleagues never experienced hostile treatment, he says. In fact, the soldiers felt so comfortable, they volunteered for an additional six months at the fort.

“We went hunting any time we had time off,” Ross says. “We hunted deer that barked like dogs. The meat was great.”

Leisure though was sometimes interrupted by lifesaving work.

While they didn’t spot any enemy planes, since by this time the Japanese had been driven out of eastern India, they rescued a total of eight American airmen from crashes.

“The B-29s had come in, and for a month, they had to fly to China to haul fuel before they could make raids into Japan. We spotted them all the time,” Ross says.

“Then one day a native came up to us wearing an airman’s leather jacket and handed us a note from the airman. It said, ‘If anyone gets this, come rescue us.’ The native knew where the crew was, and we went and got three out. A fourth had died, and the natives had already buried him.”

Two of the rescued airmen had been severely injured. A doctor was needed.

“We radioed for a doctor,” Ross says, “and a B-25 flew overhead and a doctor and first officer parachuted in.”

And the airmen survived.

The same could not be said for Ross’ brother, Everett, who had served as a machine-gunner on a B-17 bomber. Just before Ross had left India for Burma, a letter from his mother had caught up with him.

“The letter started out that he was missing,” Ross says. “It was his fifth flight over Germany.”

In time, Ross says, word reached him that his brother and the other crew members had been killed.

“It had been under foggy conditions. They were buried in Belgium but later were returned to the United States and buried at a military cemetery in St. Louis,” he says.

At the time of his death, Everett Ross was 21.

“It was war, and you couldn’t do anything about it,” Ross reflects.

That tragedy aside, Ross says, he relishes his war memories and the great adventure of serving in the China- Burma-India Theater.

When he returned home, he found work at his father’s gas and auto repair station on Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda.

“I worked there 45 years before I sold it,” Ross says. “The station still has our name on it: Ross Service.”

...

Howard J. Ross, 89

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: North Tonawanda

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Private first class

• War zones: European-African-

Middle Eastern Theater,

China-Burma-India Theater

• Years of service: 1943-46

•Most prominent

honors: Asiatic-

Pacific Campaign

Medal, American

Victory Medal

• Specialty:

Aircraft recognition

Raymond J. Gates and his buddies lived in a time of fierce patriotism when they were in their late teens. The United States was at war on two fronts, the Pacific and Europe.

To be a young man who was not in the military could mean only one thing: draft dodger. Or at least that’s what they thought.

“Some of my friends had been injured in World War II, and were sent home, and people thought they were draft dodgers. After a while, word got around that they had been wounded, and it was OK,” Gates says.

Gates and his friends wanted no part of being stigmatized as unpatriotic. One of them went into the Army, two into the Marines. The 17-year-old Gates, though, decided on the Navy and convinced his father to sign the papers for early enlistment.

And while he was patriotic, Gates was also trying to play it safe.

“If I had just waited, I would have been drafted and put wherever they wanted me to go. My friends and I were hunters, and I knew I didn’t want to be shot at,” Gates says.

The strategy succeeded, sort of.

Assigned to a 300-foot-long Landing Ship, Tank, or LST, which meant that it was able drive onto land, he says, the first stop was Norfolk, Va., where 2,000 tons of ammunition were loaded, including 16- and 14-inch artillery rounds for battleships. Then it was off to the Pacific.

“It got a little hairy when the kamikazes started coming at us,” Gates says. “They flew overhead and crashed into ships.”

Realizing that their cargo made them a floating arsenal, Gates and his crewmates often thought about what a colossal explosion would engulf them if a Japanese suicide pilot struck their LST.

“You better believe we thought about that, but what probably saved us was that the kamikazes picked out the bigger ships,” he says. “They also went after the ships that were anchored out at sea for radar purposes. They were sitting ducks, and with them out of the way, we wouldn’t know when the planes were coming.”

During the Battle of Okinawa, Gates and his shipmates provided supplies to the bigger ships that were shelling the strategic island.

“We’d pull alongside those ships,” he recalls, “and they’d use their cranes and cargo nets to take on the ammo.”

At one point during the extended battle, Gates says, he watched as the USS Laffey was towed past his craft.

“We all wondered how it was still able to float,” he says. “It had been in a fight with kamikazes, and from the smokestack back, it looked like someone had taken a broom and swept away everything all the way to the fantail. Gun mounts were gone, torpedo tubes, depth charge racks – everything.”

Although the craft Gates served on was unscathed, he says, he realized more than ever just how dangerous his situation was. “You asked yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’ But you couldn’t go no place.”

When the war ended after the atomic bombings in August 1945, Gates says, his LST docked at a shipyard near Yokohama, Japan, and he and his mates were granted liberty to go ashore.

“We drove up to Tokyo, and there was nothing left from the bombings and firestorms,” he recalls. “Where there had been houses, you saw these little safes that were on blocks. All of the people had owned safes, and that was all that was left of their homes.”

The Japanese people were resilient and already cleaning up the devastation, he remembers, but “we didn’t have much contact with them because of the language barrier. But you could see they were coming back.”

When he returned home to Hamburg, Gates says, he found a job at Bethlehem Steel shoveling dolomite into an open-hearth furnace but disliked the work, preferring to be outdoors.

“I started working as a tree trimmer under contract to the telephone company,” he says. “Then, in 1950, I decided to re-enlist just to see how far I could go in the Navy, and I didn’t go too far. I was assigned to a ship that was docked at Fort Schuyler in New York City.”

Months later, when the Korean War broke out in June, Gates figured he was headed back to the Pacific for more war. As it turned out, his ship remained in the waters off New York City, and he trained naval reservists for the duration of the war.

When his four-year hitch ended in 1954, he decided a career in the military was not for him, and he again returned to Hamburg and found work, this time as a bartender. When an opportunity to work for the U.S. Postal Service came up in Hamburg, he didn’t hesitate.

“I was in charge of maintenance at the Hamburg Post Office,” he says. “I was the only one there doing maintenance. It was a block and a half from where I lived, and I rode my bike to work every day.”

The job enabled him and wife, Dorothy Head Gates, now deceased, to raise a family of eight children. In 1984, after 30 years with the Post Office, Gates retired but stayed active in Navy veterans groups – the Western New York Amphibious Association and the Destroyer Escort Association.

“I closed down my amphibious group when there were only a half-dozen of us left,” he says. “There are about eight of us left in the Destroyer Escort group, and when I can, I go to the meetings.”

As a boy growing up in South Buffalo, David M. Sorg discovered he had a flair for writing and often received high marks on his compositions.

“Writing was the only thing I liked to do when I was in school,” he says. “I went to School 72 and graduated from East High School. Then I went to Millard Fillmore College and majored in English to become a writer, but I got tired of it.”

In need of a career, Sorg recalls, he asked his uncle, an executive at an Atlanta steel company, to write a letter on his behalf to the manager of the Republic Steel’s South Buffalo facility.

His uncle’s words did the trick. Sorg was hired as an apprentice “roll turner,” whose job was to turn the rolls that shaped the steel.

But Sorg soon found himself in receipt of a letter from another uncle.

“It was from Uncle Sam,” he recalls, “inducting me into the Army.”

Sorg remembers being amused at how Uncle Sam began the missive: “Greetings,” as if it were an invitation to something joyous, not war.

A member of M Company, 289th Regiment, 75th Infantry Division, Sorg said World War II’s Battle of Bulge in December 1944 provided him with his first bitter taste of combat.

“Infantry soldiers suffered a lot from the cold all that winter,” he says. “We lived outside. We dug holes and sometimes slept in the holes. Sometimes we slept in barns. Whatever was available.”

In a machine-gun platoon, his job was ammo bearer. “I carried two cans containing 22 pounds of ammunition apiece,” he says. “We were on foot, and it was a lot to carry.”

Because the ammunition and weaponry were the priorities, Sorg says, he and fellow soldiers were not burdened with very much personal gear.

“We didn’t have to carry our bedrolls. The ammunition was the important thing,” he says. “Headquarters would bring up our bedrolls at night, but sometimes they weren’t able to because of the enemy, and we had to make do without them. It wasn’t a nice experience.”

When his unit entered the French region of Alsace, Sorg suffered a bullet wound.

“We were attacking a town, and I got wounded in the right leg,” he says. “I think a sniper shot me. It took a nick out of my shinbone, but it wasn’t life-threatening.”

Bandaged by a medic, Sorg continued on, though several days later, his leg flared with infection. “I was sent to a field hospital, where I stayed for about five days,” he says. “Then I returned to my company.”

There was no letup in the battles.

“We went back up north, then through Holland and we walked through Holland into Germany.”

He still remembers the first day on German soil. “We didn’t run into any German soldiers,” he remembers. “The civilians were peeking out of their windows at us. I think they were afraid of what we would do to them. Later on, we became friends with the civilians wherever we went.”

Well, not everywhere.

In the spring of 1945, he says, his unit was stationed in a “beautiful” section of Germany along the Ruhr River and its wooded, rolling hills, but some residents apparently didn’t care for the Americans. “We kept having to zigzag around the woods we were in because mortars kept landing close to us,” Sorg recalls. “We figured it was the civilians who were tipping off the enemy to our locations.”

Surviving the war, “I returned home to my job at Republic Steel, and I worked there altogether 41 years,” he says. “I liked hanging around.”

A widower for the last seven years, Sorg says he takes it easy, keeping in contact with his five children, 10 grandchildren and “my ever-growing number of great-grandchildren.”

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Infantry

After graduating from Fosdick-Masten Park High School, Herbert W. Lannen landed a job at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. warehouse on Main Street, just a short walk from his alma mater.

Little did he know that a couple of years later, he would land in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

But at 17, he was happy to have a job.

“We unloaded semitrailers packed with truck tires, and then we loaded them onto smaller trucks to the tire dealers,” Lannen said. “It was very hard work, but I was young and healthy, and we were paid pretty well, $25 a week. That was in the days when you could buy an ice cream cone or a cup of coffee for a nickel.”

But after a year, he was drafted into the Army, and his days of prosperity were put on hold.

“After basic training in Virginia, I was assigned as a replacement in the 197th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion,” he says. “I wanted to be trained on radios because I didn’t like heavy artillery guns, but that’s just how it goes in the Army.”

At 19 years old, after spending six months in southern England, his unit got the word that it would be crossing the English Channel and landing at Normandy in northern France. He remembers the moment.

It was 10:30 a.m. June 6, 1944, when he set foot on Omaha Beach, where the guns of the Allies and the Germans blazed during the pivotal D-Day invasion.

He would much rather have been someplace else.

“What I had hoped for was to work in a warehouse in Ireland,” Lannen recalls. “My buddy who was in the Army was assigned to a supply depot in Ireland. He had a pretty good deal.”

In the battle at Omaha Beach, which would become known as “Bloody Omaha,” Lannen recalls that the Germans held the cliffs for a number of hours.

“We were stuck on the beach behind a breakwall until about 6 p.m.,” he remembers. “A lot of guys laid against the breakwall, which was made of concrete and 6 feet high. I laid under my halftrack.

“Some of the Army Rangers went down the beach and managed to get up and go around behind the Germans who were in holes that they dug. They were shooting machine guns. The Rangers took them out.”

That evening, Lannen and fellow members of his battalion walked up to the top of a cliff for a look-see.

“We finally got up there,” he says. “The Germans were only a hedgerow away, 3 or 4 hundred yards.”

He and his fellow soldiers then returned to their halftrack and drove it up the hill. “We stayed there all night,” he says, “and then we moved another thousand feet inward, and that’s where we stayed for a couple of days.”

Recalling how frightening it was, Lannen says, “I had guard duty the second night we were there, and the Germans were only a thousand feet away. I thought I heard something and opened up with my M1 rifle. I wasn’t taking any chances.”

Once the Allies punched through the German defenses at Normandy, Lannen said he often moved 50 to 60 miles a day in his halftrack, fighting in one battle after another until finally arriving at the Siegfried Line, the western defensive frontier of Germany.

“Thank God for the American 8th Air Force. They did a great job taking out the German air force,” Lannen says. “If it wasn’t for the 8th, I probably wouldn’t be here.

“After awhile, I only had to use my anti-aircraft gun at night. There weren’t many German airplanes during the day.”

All of this action provided Lannen with a high number of “points” that allowed him to be among the first American soldiers to return home after the European war was won in the spring of 1945.

Making use of the GI Bill, he graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in mechanical engineering, though he ended up operating his own insurance and real estate agency. He and his wife, Laurie Shoemacher Lannen, now deceased, were married for 50 years and raised eight children.

His war experiences, he says, turned him into a pacifist:

“I saw what war was like, and I’m not a gung-ho war guy.”

Herbert W. Lannen, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Amherst

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Private first class

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1943-45

• Most prominent honors:

Bronze Arrowhead device for

D-Day invasion; European,

African, Middle Eastern

Campaign Medal with five

battle stars

• Specialty: Anti-aircraft

artillery operator on M15

halftrack armored vehicle

When Alfred T. “Oppy” Leous received a tip from his brother-in-law to avoid serving in the Army in World War II, he took it to heart.

Dick Willett, married to Leous’ twin sister, Olive Jean, had told him how unhappy he was in the Army and that Leous should do whatever he could to avoid that branch of the service.

“I went to the Coast Guard, and they said I was too short, which – at 5 feet, 2 inches – I guess I was,” Leous says. “Then I went to the Marines, and they didn’t want me because I had a bad ear. I went to the Navy, and they took me.”

The Navy, though, proved to be anything but smooth sailing.

Within four months, Leous was part of Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of the French North African coast, which began Nov. 8, 1942.

“There were about 150 ships involved in the invasion. We counted them. You could see every one of them. We were off the coast of Casablanca in Morocco,” Leous says. “I worked on the quarterdeck refueling destroyers and cruisers. The Suwannee had been a tanker before it was converted to an escort carrier.”

The battle ended Nov. 16, and soon after it was off to the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal.

“We anchored off New Caledonia, and our planes flew onto the beach to assist the Army. There weren’t many planes at the time,” Leous recalls. “It was early in the war, and the planes were being made at Bell Aircraft and Curtiss-Wright up here in Buffalo.”

As the American forces gained traction in the Pacific, Leous says, pilots on his ship began working overtime conducting aerial searches of islands for Japanese aircraft and the ocean waters for enemy submarines.

“Our poor pilots would go up for four or five hours in the morning and then come back at noon and then go back up for another four or five hours,” he recalls. “When the pilots spotted enemy landing strips on the islands or submarines, they would bomb them.”

The ship’s crew, also on a grueling schedule, conducted gun watches and refueled vessels, Leous says, adding that he never regretted taking his brother-in-law’s advice.

Not even when he came close to death in the October 1944 Battle of the Philippines and kamikazes crashed into American warships.

“I was on a 20 mm deck gun when one of the planes crashed about 20 feet from me. We were all shooting at it, and it just came right at us, crashing onto the flight deck, then to the hangar deck and then down to the quarterdeck, where a bomb on the plane exploded and we lost a lot of guys,” Leous says. “It was terrible.”

The enemy didn’t let up. Quite the contrary.

“The next day, we were hit again by a kamikaze,” Leous remembers.

“This time, the plane crashed into our aircraft that were getting ready to take off. We lost 10 planes.”

After that, the Suwannee headed to Washington State for repairs before returning to participate in the Battle of Okinawa and others before Japan was finally defeated in August 1945.

On his 25th birthday, Sept. 16, 1945, the Navy, he said, provided him with what amounted to the strangest experience of his life – a chance to walk about Nagasaki and personally view the destruction caused by the second of two war-ending atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

“We were walking around for about 30 minutes, and there was still smoke coming from the ground,” Leous says. “All the Japanese were wearing masks over their mouths.”

Those haunting memories have stuck with him:

“You wonder why the Navy let us do that.”

Surviving World War II amounted to a matter of inches for Carmen M. Pariso.

On Utah. Beach, during the Allied invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the 5-foot-2 Pariso realized that being short was a good thing.

Many of his Army buddies were falling victim to the barrage of German gunfire during the landing on the beaches of Normandy.

“I was left standing as the bullets sailed over my head,” Pariso says.

That night, once again, his shortness saved him.

“I relieved a tall friend from lookout duty because I could not sleep,” Pariso recalls, adding that as soon as he took over, “a bullet sailed over my head.”

He had not only been spared, but a friend, a soldier from Texas, was spared, as well.

A member of the 358th Company, Pariso served as a squad leader whose journey across Europe took him through the Battle of the Bulge and several other major encounters with the Germans. His specialty, explosives, often took a heavy toll on the enemy. He destroyed a number of buildings, enemy tanks and bridges. But one bridge – over the Danube River in Dillingen, Germany – proved almost out of reach.

Aboard a boat that came under fire and started to sink, Pariso and a friend managed to survive by shedding their heavy ammunition belts.

“We eventually took down the bridge, as well as an important concrete enemy bunker,” Pariso says. “We had to use double the dynamite, and the blast was so strong that the usual 10 seconds that allowed us to clear out after setting the bomb still wasn’t enough, and I was blown into the air off my feet.”

Years later, Tony Pariso, Carmen’s oldest son, visited Germany and saw the site where the bridge once was.

“You couldn’t tell much that there had been a war. It was all modern,” says the 63-year-old son, who assisted his 94-year-old father in recalling the war stories that have dimmed with the passage of time.

Yet there are memories that Carmen Pariso cannot forget, such as the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. He says that when he and other soldiers liberated Buchenwald, there were stacks of bodies. And even more troubling, in the middle of those stacks, sometimes they would find captives who were still alive.

“It was awful. The bodies were piled like cordwood,” Pariso remembers. “What could you do? This was war.”

But amid all the horrors of war, there were a couple of somewhat pleasant moments.

One time, Pariso took some German soldiers prisoner, and one of them paid him a backhanded compliment, saying, “You’re small but bad.”

Another time when he was transporting POWs back to the American lines, he had not been given the latest password.

“The guy said he was going to open fire. He heard the Germans talking. I started cursing, and the American said it has to be a GI because I never heard the same curse word twice. They let us through,” Pariso says.

Only once was he wounded, shot in the buttocks with a wooden bullet; but it was not enough to remove him rom the front lines.

At the end of the war, Pariso’s uncanny luck continued. He took his back military pay and started betting against dice players while on the ship returning them to the States. By the time he arrived home, he says, he had won about $30,000 and had to hire another soldier to serve as his bodyguard.

Rather than squander the fortune, he used the money to help start a family business, Pariso Bros., which did excavation and trucking. With his wife, Beverly Bird Pariso, he later founded Carmen M. Pariso in 1970, and to this day many of the company’s red dump trucks and tractors can be seen on area roadways going from one job to the next.

When asked if he considers himself a lucky man, Pariso laughs and says, “Oh, yeah, every time I wake up.”

...

Carmen M. Pariso, 94

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Cheektowaga

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Sergeant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1942-45

• Most prominent honors:

Silver Service Star in lieu of five

Bronze Service Stars; Bronze

Arrowhead Device for assault

landing at Utah

Beach on D-Day;

two Meritorious

Unit Commen-

dations

• Specialty:

Infantry and

explosives

In one of the first convoys to cross the Atlantic and deliver supplies to Liverpool, England, in World War II, 19-year-old William A. “Whitey” Wodowski Jr. kept a sharp eye out for German submarines lurking just beneath the surface of the ocean.

He knew all too well that the subs were on the hunt for U.S. Merchant Marine supply ships and that it was his job as a Navy gunner to protect them.

Assigned to a 3-inch/.50-caliber gun on the bow of the SS Ethan Allen, Wodowski said he occasionally spotted the periscopes of German subs and would open fire.

“In that first convoy to England, I’d say we lost about 20 ships,” he remembers. “You wondered if you would be the next one to sink. We wondered if there were any survivors. We never saw any.”

So it was with zeal that he would shoot at the U-boats.

“You could see little wakes from the submarines for a very short period if they were close to the surface. I’d shoot at them and our escort ships would drop depth charges. I don’t think we ever sunk any submarines, but we chased them away,” Wodowski recalls.

During the stop in Liverpool, the German air force raised havoc with bombing raids.

“The sirens were going all the time,” he says, “and there was a complete blackout. We were there about three weeks. We loaded up with deck cargo for the invasion of Africa – all kinds of vehicles, heavy trucks and Jeeps. We also had food and rum.”

When asked if he managed to get a taste of the rum, he said, “Oh, I had a few shots, but I got sick, and I haven’t had rum ever since.”

Back at sea, the Ethan Allen joined up with other ships headed to Africa to drive out the Germans. “Every morning, the dozen soldiers who were aboard our ship would start up the trucks on the deck to make sure they were running,” Wodowski says. “They wanted to be sure they would be able to get them right off the ship when docked.”

From a distance, he says, he spotted the Rock of Gibraltar as they cruised into the Mediterranean Sea, dodging water mines planted by the Germans.

“We docked off Oran and unloaded the equipment while the Army was already making the push against the Germans,” Wodowski says.

After three weeks, it was back to the United States, where he was assigned to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island before heading south to Opa-locka Naval Air Station near Miami.

“Our planes would fly supplies to South America, where we picked up prisoners from a German battleship that was trapped in a bay at Montevideo, Uruguay. We flew them back to Miami,” Wodowski said, adding that he also served in Santa Cruz, Brazil, repairing and fueling Navy planes.

Toward the end of the war, Wodowski and his outfit, VR-7, transferred to the Philippines, where they flew freed American prisoners of war to Guam, from which the POWs were then flown to Hawaii.

“Our guys were pretty well beat up. They were happy to be free, but they were down and out. … They needed a lot of medical attention,” Wodowski says.

As a civilian, Wodowski found work as a locomotive engineer with the New York Central Railroad, which later became Conrail. He and his wife, Ruth Stachowiak Wodowski, raised a family of six boys and one girl. He retired from the railroad in 1988.

In his 68th year of marriage, the 90-year-old veteran remains devoted to his wife, who is in a nursing home.

“She’s been there a year, and I go every day and visit her,” he says, “She’s a wonderful person. Can you imagine all she went through, seven kids and me?”

...

William A. ‘Whitey’ Wodowski Jr., 90

• Hometown/residence:

Cheektowaga

• Branch: Navy

• Rank: Aviation machinist’s

mate second class

• War zones: Europe, Pacific

• Years of service: 1942-45

• Most prominent honor:

European, African, Middle

Eastern Campaign Medal

with battle star

• Specialty: Gunner assigned

to Liberty ship in Merchant

Marine; assisted in air

transport of freed American

In his senior year at Buffalo Technical High School, Robert J. Schaefer was working as a full-time welder at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft factory on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga.

The ambitious 18-year-old worked the night shift, 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., and then headed to high school until 2:30 p.m.

“It wasn’t easy, but I was young and could do those things,” the 88-year-old Schaefer recalls. “I wanted to do something patriotic, to help in the war effort.”

He got an opportunity to do just that a month after graduating from high school in June 1942, when he got a draft notice.

“Because of my experience as a welder, I thought I wanted to be in the Army engineers, but that’s not how the Army does things. I wound up in the Army Air Forces,” Schaefer says.

After several months of training, he and the nine other members of his B-24 crew picked up their brand-new plane in Topeka, Kan., and flew it to Tunis, Tunisia. A week later, they headed from North Africa to the home base for B-24s at Torretta Field in Cerignola, Italy.

“Another crew flew the plane on its second mission, and it was shot down in the Adriatic Sea. The crew ditched it and got out OK,” he remembers, still relieved that he had not been on that bombing run. “The plane is probably still at the bottom of the sea.”

But he would face plenty of peril on his 14 combat missions in the skies over Europe, with the most dangerous occurring on what was his unlucky 13th flight.

“We were over Vienna, and I left the flight deck to man my .50-caliber waist gun, and I got stuck in the bomb bay. My parachute harness got caught in an upright on the catwalk,” he says. “We were carrying four 500-pound bombs. Three went out with no problem. I watched them hit the target, a railroad yard.

“The fourth bomb never let loose. It was right close to me, so I gave it a big kick, and it went out. It missed the target, but it went out, and that exercise of kicking must have freed my parachute harness. I was able to move around. I laid down on the bottom of the plane. I was pooped. My oxygen was running out.

“Then I saw the tail gunner signaling me to put on my intercom headset, and the pilot was telling me to get back to the flight deck. We were having trouble with the No. 2 engine. I told him I was pooped, and he said, ‘Get your ass up here right now. The No. 2 is running wild.’ I went up, and we feathered the engine’s prop into the wind to stop it from vibrating off the wing.”

With the engine stabilized, Schaefer remained on the flight deck until they landed back at the base.

“After we landed, we had our post-flight talk, and during it, I noticed there was a big hole where my .50-caliber waist gun was located,” Schaefer says. “I realized if I had been standing there, I would have been hit by the flak which had gone right up through the roof of the plane.”

That night in his tent, Schaefer prayed.

“I said to the Good Lord: ‘Get me out of this mess in one piece and I will let my life take any direction you want it to take.’ About two days later, I got the idea that I’d like to maybe become a schoolteacher.”

He flew on one final mission with more than 1,000 other planes, dropping hundreds of fragmentation bombs on German forces in northern Italy. Shortly afterward, the war in Europe ended.

Honorably discharged from the service in November 1945, he soon began attending Buffalo State Teachers College and earned an industrial arts degree.

“My promise to the Lord resulted in 38 years as a teacher and school principal in the Williamsville School District,” Schaefer says. “I was the first principal at Heim Middle School, for 20 years.”

Just a few weeks ago, he received some heartwarming proof that he had made the right choice by going into education.

“I was on an Honor Flight to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, and there was this woman volunteer who came up to me and said, ‘I remember you. You were my principal, and you told us at an assembly that there were 10 two-letter words you could live your life by, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’ She told me she became a teacher and she uses that line in her classes.”

When Schaefer reflects on his war service, he recalls that fourth 500-pound bomb he kicked out of the B-24:

“I like to think it landed in a farmer’s field about 20 miles outside of Vienna and caused a crater that filled with water that I hope became a fishing pond for some kids.”

...

Robert J. Schaefer, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Snyder

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• Rank: Technical sergeant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1942-45

• Most prominent honors:

Air Medal with oak leaf cluster,

European-African-Middle

Eastern Campaign Medal

• Specialties: Aerial engineer and

gunner aboard B-24 bomber

email: [email protected]

At 19, Paul R. Adams painted ships for a living.

He’d go where the work was. Sometimes it was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, other times Manhattan.

His labors turned out to be good practice. About a year later, he was drafted into the Navy, and painting the ship he was assigned to, the USS Underhill, became a way of life.

“Every time we came into port, no other ships wanted to dock next to us. We looked so good. The captains on the other ships would put a crew together and start painting so that they could look halfway decent,” recalled Adams.

But even the best paint job in the world could not save the Underhill, a destroyer that provided protection for the naval convoys of World War II.

Its troubles began in the waters off Northern Africa.

“We were going into port and had a pilot aboard, and our captain asked him if he knew where all the rocks and sunken ships were, and as the captain asked, we hit something and it bent our propeller shaft. At the same time, the pilot said, ‘That’s one right now.’ ”

The Underhill had to be dry-docked to replace the shaft. Then it was back to the states, and there was some more trouble – an unexplained vibration rattling the ship. Thinking it might have something to do with the replacement shaft, the destroyer escort stayed in the waters off Connecticut.

It was eventually determined that the propeller had hit some mud and that the Underhill was seaworthy.

In the Pacific, the Underhill continued its mission of providing protection to a number of convoys headed to the different island battles fought against the Japanese. But the ship’s days were numbered.

At 3:15 p.m. July 24, 1945, the Underhill came under attack by a midget suicide submarine, known as a Kaiten.

“We were heading from Okinawa to the Philippines. We were escorting ships that had wounded soldiers from Okinawa. We were taking them to hospitals in the Philippines. It was going along normal, and then we came in contact with Japanese submarines. They were one- and two-manned submarines and, from what I understand, they were very hard to control,” Adams said.

But one of the tiny subs succeeded in striking the Underhill.

“I was on the starboard side on the fantail shooting off depth charges. Then the captain gave orders that he was going to ram the sub. There was an explosion, smoke and fire up in the air, and debris came down. There was so much fire and heat that I thought maybe I’d jump overboard if it got too damn hot.

“I headed to the end of the ship. My intention was to dive away from the screws, the propellers. As I started to go between the smoke tanks and racks of depth charges, there was a second explosion. I looked off to the port side, and I said, ‘Am I to die this way?’

“With that, I was blown down onto the deck on my right shoulder. Then there was more fire, smoke, oil, debris, what have you. When that eased off, I stood up and looked forward. Off to the right, it was bright and there was a ship, and I assumed it was the enemy.

“When I looked ahead, there was no bridge to our ship, and somebody said that’s our bow in the water. I thought it was the enemy, but it was our ship. We were split in half. We went down below to see what we could do. We went to the engine room, and I told my buddies to get out.”

Because of the water-tight compartments in the ship’s substructure, he explained, the two halves of the vessel stayed afloat.

Adams said he assisted medical personnel as other ships in the convoy dropped depth charges and conducted rescues from the Underhill.

The casualties were extensive – 112 sailors died, while 110 survived; 10 officers died, and four lived.

Despite burns to his hands and face and an injured shoulder, Adams was the second-to-last man to leave his half of the ship.

“I jumped onto a patrol craft,” he said.

After that, the two sections of Underhill were sunk by other Navy ships.

“You had to get them out of the waterways.”

For decades, Adams says he has attended an annual memorial service for those lost on the Underhill and for 25 years served as president of the solemn gathering.

“There aren’t many of us left. We’re getting old. Everybody sheds a tear when we get together at the service. You remember the people. So many things …”

Paul R. Adams, 90

• Hometown: Brooklyn

• Residence: Buffalo

• Branch: Navy

• Rank: Electrician’s mate

2nd class

• War zone: World War II,

Atlanta and Pacific theaters

• Years of service: Drafted

1943 – 1945

• Most prominent honors:

Purple Heart; European,

African, Middle Eastern

Campaign Medal; Asiatic-

Pacific Campaign Medal

• Specialty: Engine room,

working the throttles of the

USS Underhill

When it comes to patriotic service, Clarence Howard Licht modestly says his family “was well represented” in World War II.

At 17 years old after graduating from Tonawanda High School, Licht followed his 19-year-old brother’s example and enlisted in the armed services. Allan Licht was in the Army serving in the Pacific battling the Japanese.

“I wanted to serve my country, too, and I joined the Navy,” Clarence Licht said.

The examples of Clarence and Allen inspired their father, Clarence Herman Licht, to join the Navy’s Seabees.

“My father had been too young to fight in World War I, and he wanted to defend the country, and so he enlisted at 40 years old for World War II,” his namesake son explained.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

Margaret Licht, the father’s wife and mother of the two sons, had died in the early 1930s, prompting the maternally orphaned family to move in with her parents in the City of Tonawanda. As a widower, the older Licht had no domestic ties, which freed him up to join the military, where his sons had already found a home. The dad served in Hawaii.

But patriotism extended beyond the immediate family.

The extended Licht family had numerous uncles and cousins also serving in World War II. In fact, when Clarence Howard Licht enlisted, his cousin, William Koepsel, also joined the Navy.

“We went in together. We served in boot camp over at Sampson Naval Base on Lake Seneca,” Licht said. “Then we went to radio school at Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.”

After that, Koepsel ended up on a submarine in the Pacific. Licht headed to the Atlantic, assigned to a Navy tanker in Portsmith, Va., with duties of refueling escort vessels in convoys bound for Africa.

“We also made trips to Venezuela and Texas to pick up oil. We’d load up and go back to our port, and then fuel the escort vessels in the convoys.”

It may not sound like a glorious task of war, but carrying a million gallons of crude oil in the belly of their ship made them and other Navy tankers prime targets for German submarines.

“If the German subs could take out a tanker, it crippled the entire convoy. The escort vessels needed the fuel to keep circling the convoy. They protected as many as 50 ships, all kinds of ships, often carrying supplies and troops, from the submarines. The escorts used their sonar to try and pick up the subs and then get them with depth charges before the subs got to the convoy,” Licht said.

Fortunately, he added, his tanker, the USS Kennebec, escaped the dreaded torpedoes of the Germans.

In fact, Licht was part of a task unit in the only World War II capture of a German submarine in June 1944.

“One of our destroyers spotted the sub above water during the day off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic. The destroyer rammed the submarine, and Navy crewmen started shooting handguns at the enemy on the sub’s deck. When the Germans realized they were going to be captured, they tried to scuttle the sub letting water in, but our guys got on the sub and were able to stop that.”

The name of the enemy sub was the U-505.

“We towed it to Bermuda, and we kept it under wraps so that the Germans would not know we had captured it. We got all their secret codes, and that made quite a difference in the war in the Atlantic. We were able to find out what their activities were.”

When the war ended in Europe, Licht’s tanker headed to the Pacific Theater by way of the Panama Canal and continued to Hawaii.

“We were supposed to join a huge task force that was going to be part of the invasion of Japan, but on our way to the task force, the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. After they dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.”

Even with the war over, Licht’s tanker continued providing fuel for mine sweepers on waters off Japan. He at last was discharged on April 23, 1946. He, his brother, and their father had plenty of war stories to share back home in Tonawanda.

And while it was quite exceptional that a father and his two sons served in the war, Licht said, “We didn’t make much of it. Everybody at that time had served.”

Years later, Licht said he satisfied his curiosity and traveled to the Chicago Museum of Science, where the captured German submarine was on display.

“I went inside it and it was surprising how small it was. I don’t know how they could serve on it. I have claustrophobia.”

Even more important to Licht than his memories of the submarine capture, he says, is “remembering all the friends I made in the Navy. Some of them have been lifelong friends.”

Clarence Howard Licht, 87

• Hometown: City of Tonawanda

• Residence: North Tonawanda

• Branch: Navy

• Rank: Petty officer

second class

• War zone: World War II,

European and Pacific theaters

• Years of service: January

1943–April 1946

• Most prominent honors:

European, African, Middle

Eastern Campaign Medal,

Asiatic Pacific Campaign

Medal, Unit Citation

• Specialty: Radio operator

Long before Charles J. Zappo toiled as a medic on World War II’s battlefields and assisted in liberating a concentration camp, he knew what hard work was and how war could exact a devastating price.

At 8 years old, Zappo helped his mother and stepfather make ends meet by going out and shining shoes in the warmer weather. In winter, he sold newspapers.

“There was this city inspector who kept bringing me home because you had to be 12 years old to have working papers. He threatened to put me in Father Baker’s orphanage. My stepfather would give him a few bottles of homemade wine, and everything would be OK,” Zappo recalls.

At 11 years old, the inspector relented and presented him with a badge that identified him as having working papers.

“I felt like I had graduated from high school, I was so proud of that badge,” the 95-year-old Buffalo resident says.

When he completed grammar school on the honor roll, Zappo says, his mother delivered bad news. He would not be going to high school.

“She said I needed to work to help the family,” says Zappo, one of seven children. “The grammar school principal came over and told my mother you have to send your boy to high school. So I was enrolled at Grover Cleveland for about three days before my mother made me leave.”

Zappo hit the streets with his shoeshine box.

“I would see all of my friends going to high school, and there I was carrying a shoeshine box,” he says. “I would avoid my friends. I felt ashamed and very bad.”

Time passed, and he found a full-time job as a file clerk at Buffalo General Hospital making $5 a week, and that included working a half-day on Saturdays. More time passed, and he started working at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory, making P-40 fighter planes.

One night on the production line, Zappo experienced firsthand how dangerous the business of war was, even nowhere near combat. A test pilot crashed one of the planes into the plant, killing a number of workers and burning many others.

“It was horrible,” he remembers. “I thought we were being bombed. It happened about 75 feet from me.”

But his time at Curtiss-Wright also led to love.

“They started allowing women to work at the plant, Rosie the Riveters, and one of them became my wife,” he said of Mary R. Mancuso. They have been married for 70 years.

In 1943, sensing his time on the home front was limited, Zappo tried to enlist in the Navy in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the Army’s infantry. He already had three brothers serving in World War II and felt that the Navy would be a good alternative to living in foxholes and eating K-rations.

His strategy failed. The Navy rejected him because he was colorblind. The Army was not so fussy, and he ended up in its 42nd Rainbow Division, where he served as a combat medic “probably because I had worked at Buffalo General Hospital,” Zappo says.

But before he marched off to war, he married his sweetheart, Mary, whom, he said, was quite willing to take a chance at becoming a war widow. And for a while, the newlyweds lived together in a little town by Camp Gruber, Okla.

“We paid this Lutheran minister $5 a week to rent a room,” he says.

But husband and wife were soon far apart. Zappo was sent to France and experienced his first taste of combat at the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred during one of the worst winters Europe had known.

“We were around Strasbourg. All the troops were thrown there to block the Germans. If they got through, they would have gone to the coast,” Zappo recalls. “We lost about 1,000 men. I would see all these American boys from our 42nd, and they were just frozen in the ground. The Germans were shooting 88 millimeter anti-aircraft, anti-personnel guns. It was awful.”

In time, Zappo learned that his brother James, a member of the 26th Infantry Division, was captured during the infamous battle.

“We are Italian, but the Germans thought James looked Jewish, and he was treated terribly,” Zappo says. “He was sent to what amounted to a concentration camp and worked in the mines. He lost 50 pounds. He ended up weighing about 80 pounds. He was held prisoner for about six months and was almost dead when he was freed.”

Zappo caught pneumonia and was sick for weeks following the Battle of the Bulge. He turned yellow from consuming sulfur pills but recovered, thanks to his fellow medics who nursed him back to health.

After crossing the Rhine River as part of the first U.S. troops advancing into Germany, the 42nd moved deeper into enemy territory and fought door-to-door in Wurzburg. Victory provided spoils. Large supplies of French champagne were discovered in the cellars of the city.

“Since there wasn’t any water there, we drank it and even washed our feet in it,” Zappo says. “It was the best champagne I ever had.”

But his intoxicating memories are sobered by the horror he recalls in assisting in the liberation of Dachau, one of the notorious Nazi concentration camps.

“Even before we got into the camp, there were these railway boxcars outside packed with bodies. There were 1,500, and the smell was horrible,” Zappo says. “The bodies had been transported there from another camp to be put in the ovens, but Dachau had run out of coal to burn them.

“Inside the camp, there were 33,000 prisoners, and they went wild when we arrived. They were hugging us and asking us for our autographs. I remember somebody throwing a loaf of bread, and they went wild. I also remember that some of the SS soldiers dressed up as prisoners to disguise themselves. They thought they might get out, but they were recognized by the prisoners, who killed them.”

When the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, Zappo was stationed in Austria before he returned home to his wife and met his 14-month-old son, Joe, for the first time.

“When I picked Joe up, he cried his head off,” Zappo says. “He wanted to know who this guy was holding him.”

With the GI Bill of Rights in place, the former shoeshine boy pursued an education.

“I earned a high school diploma at Kensington in one year and then went to Bryant & Stratton and got an associate degree in accounting,” Zappo says. “I became a cost accountant at Loblaws bakery.”

After several years, he took a civil service test and was hired by New York State’s Department of Taxation and Finance, working as a corporation tax auditor for 15 years before retiring in 1982.

Life has been good.

But even so many years later, Zappo says, he often thinks about the Second World War and “that horrible camp, Dachau.”

The plan was to interrupt the flow of supplies and destroy radio communications equipment so that the Germans would fall into disarray as Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

As is often the case in the chaos of war, the plan failed, and it cost 19-year-old Leonard S. Gaj, a paratrooper, his freedom.

Gaj, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, and his comrades were gung-ho to wreak havoc on the enemy as they leaped out of planes at about 3:30 a.m. on D-Day, well behind enemy lines. Their goal was to take control of Amfreville, but by mistake, they landed many miles from their destination.

Even worse, Gaj – pronounced guy – sprained his ankle.

“Capt. Smith was the company commander, and he left me behind. He said I would only slow them up when they went to attack Amfreville. He left another soldier with me in a gully, and over the next three days, we would direct a total of six lost soldiers into the gully with us,” Gaj said.

When two patrolling German soldiers passed a little too close for comfort, an American GI threw a hand grenade at them. One died; the other got away.

“The next day we were attacked by Germans. A fierce battle was under way, but we knew we did not stand a chance. There were too many Germans. Two out of six of us were already wounded. It was a case of die or surrender. We surrendered. As we came out of the gully, I saw a German soldier had been ready to throw a hand grenade. I realized I had been seconds away from being wounded or killed.”

For the next 11 months, Gaj was a prisoner of war, spending time at several different prison camps, arriving either in railway box cars or by truck. Each move brought anxiety. American fighter planes often strafed “anything that moved,” he said.

For months, Gaj kept a secret diary, which he started on D-Day and concluded Feb. 15, 1945, “when I ran out of writing material.” After being liberated, he filled in the blanks. These days the penciled words of his accounts are fading, but they are still readable, and his memories of miserable treatment by the enemy are sharp.

Christopher Misztal, Gaj’s son-in-law, recently transcribed the war diary onto a computer document.

“I was reluctant to have him do it. I never talked about my war experiences. I kept things to myself,” Gaj said, adding that he has since had a change of heart, aware that it is part of history.

Thumbing through his diary, Gaj recalled that after his capture on the morning of June 9, 1944, the Germans made him and the other prisoners march 10 miles before arriving at a barn where they spent the night.

“My foot felt better, and somehow the pain had disappeared,” according to an entry that referred to his sprained ankle.

His first prison camp was an abandoned monastery, where fasting was the order of the day, and not because of monastic asceticism.

“We called the place ‘Starvation Hill.’ They feed us sour milk in the morning and hot watery soup with a turnip in it. Some days you didn’t get anything.”

At a camp in Chartres, France, he was pressed into service as a stretcher bearer.

“I carried Germans who had lost their limbs and some whose eyes were gone. It was terrible. We were at a hospital, and I kind of felt sorry for them, even though they were the enemy.”

After a few days, he was shipped out to another prison camp in the Chalogne region.

“We worked in the town there, filling in bomb craters in roads and inside bombed-out warehouses.”

Gaj caught a break one day when a Frenchman took pity on him and offered him a glass of wine.

“I remember getting a little dizzy drinking it on an empty stomach.”

The amicably offered libation didn’t lead to a refill.

“A German guard shooed the Frenchman away with the butt of a rifle.”

In time, Gaj and about 450 other American prisoners were herded into box cars and transported into Germany, where they stayed in barracks that at one time had been part of a German army camp.

Reading from his diary, Gaj cited a prank a fellow POW played on a German guard. He explained that the Germans were fanatics when it came to cleanliness and insisted that the table they ate off of in the barrack be kept immaculate. The prankster had hammered an empty bean can to the table.

“The German guard’s angry reaction was to send the bean can flying with a swift whack of his hand. The can never budged, but the guard’s hand was hurt. As punishment, whatever food was supplied [turnip soup] was withheld for a couple of days.”

For those food-free days, they lived off amusement from the prank. “It kind of kept up morale,” Gaj said.

Then there was the final camp on the outskirts of Dresden, where Gaj was assigned different work details, from helping a plumber install gas lines at a factory to unloading rail cars.

In one entry, Gaj told of how he and his fellow POWs attempted a work stoppage when they were told they would have to work more than 10 hours unloading a steel shipment. It wasn’t so much the longer workday, but rather that the steel was intended for the German war effort.

“We believed that this” – the longer workday – “was against signed treaties, plus we knew this was for their war effort. So we staged a strike. Shortly after the strike was called, a German army truck rumbled into the loading area and stopped. Its rear canvas was pulled up, and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a machine gun. Needless to say we went back to work.”

Reading from yet another entry with a penciled headline of “The Hell Fires of Dresden,” Gaj said:

“Dresden was regarded as an open city. That meant it had no major military or strategic value to the Allies. I was lucky that I was kept outside the city limits during my imprisonment.

“Allied bombing missions flew by day and night dropping millions of pounds of incendiary bombs on what had been Germany’s cultural and artistic city. The result was the complete destruction of the city and the loss of an estimated 145,000 civilian lives.

“I was sent into the city along with other POWs to search the rubble for bodies. The task was hideous … finding whole bodies dead, sitting upright. I didn’t know if they were baked to death or what. The majority of the dead in Dresden came with the ensuing fire storm of an entire city burning all at once. The result was that all the available oxygen was pulled out of such places as basements, leaving anyone in them to suffocate to death. Even a week after the bombings, the basements were still hot.”

But Gaj’s time in living hell was coming to an end.

“We were evacuated by German guards and were marching in the direction of Czechoslovakia. After several days of exhaustive walking, our group was fired upon by advancing Soviet troops. Looking around, we realized that our guards had fled.

“Two of us noticed a house across the road and ran for it, in case the Russians bombed the area. Running across the road, we were fired upon, and luckily they missed us. There was a young, scared German soldier in full uniform hiding there. I told him to take the uniform off if he expected to be safe from the Russians. He was just a scared kid, 12 or 13 years old. Eventually, the Russians made their way to the house.

“I was able to speak a great deal of Polish and was delegated to greet them at the door. I explained to them we were American prisoners of war. They treated us nicely and gave us cans of meat and explained they had to move on and leave us there.

“One day a U.S. Army truck pulled in with a lieutenant and GIs who were out purposely looking for stranded American prisoners in small towns. They drove us back to an airport with planes waiting, and we were flown back to France.”

After 11 months of prison and forced labor, his weight dropped from 175 pounds to barely 100 when he was liberated May 9, 1945.

He still recalls his joyful return to Weiss Street in Buffalo’s Kaisertown.

“When I came home, my mother had a chocolate pie waiting for me. At that moment, I knew I was home.”

And while he did not record this thought in his war diary, Gaj has carried it with him throughout the decades:

“All in all, serving this beloved country was an experience I will never forget until my dying day.”

The seven grandchildren of 91-year-old Francis R. “Bud” Edwards have all at one time or another learned to count to 10 in Japanese.

Just how the Southern Tier native himself learned to count in Japanese was something he never shared with his grandchildren until they were older.

Who would want to tell youngsters that if he had not learned, he would have faced a beating from his World War II captors.

That, however, is getting a little ahead of this modest hero’s story.

Before he became a prisoner of war, Edward had a close call Oct. 14, 1944, after a bombing run over Taiwan, then known as Formosa.

“One of our engines on the B-29 bomber gave out,” he recalls. “Quite honestly, the B-29 was very new, and the engines were not up to snuff. We had taken the first B-29s overseas, and we had been told that there was a good chance that if an engine went, it could cut the fuselage in half.”

With that terrifying possibility in mind, Edwards said, headquarters ordered the crew to bail out.

“We were above the China coast, which was controlled by the Japanese. We parachuted and were very, very lucky,” he says. “It was a cloudy day, and when we landed, we were immediately picked up by Chinese civilians.

“They hid us in a very thick hedgerow, and almost immediately, the Japanese fighter planes came down, but they couldn’t spot us in the hedgerow.”

When the enemy aircraft flew away, the B-29’s 11 crew members succeeded in making their way back to the home base, a distance of about 950 miles that took a month.

“We traveled on every form of transportation there was – rickshaw, bicycle, horses, and a riverboat that was towed upriver by hundreds of coolies walking narrow paths of rocks on both sides.”

The crew’s bombing missions soon resumed. They flew from India over “the Hump,” the Himalaya Mountains, to an airfield in China for refueling and several hours of shut-eye, before flying anywhere from eight to 16 hours round-trip to Japanese targets.

But exactly two months to the day from when they had first bailed out, Edwards and his fellow crew members again were forced to abandon their Superfortress.

Another plane’s payload of bombs apparently ignited while other B-29s flew close by in formation above Bangkok, he says, and 11 bombers were disabled in the midair explosion.

“By the time I got out of my plane, one of our engines exploded, and the right wing burned off,” he says. “We lost 37 men that day. My radio operator had his left hand severed.”

The escape was harrowing.

“The enemy was shooting up at us as we were parachuting down,” Edwards remembers. “Almost immediately after we landed, we were taken prisoner.”

Edwards and the other prisoners of war were placed on a riverboat by Burmese soldiers, allies of the Japanese at the time, he says.

“They put canvas over us, and we started moving on the river, and almost immediately, they met a Japanese boat and turned us over,” Edwards recalls.

“We were interrogated. I was sitting on the ground with my hands tied behind my back and my legs tied together with my parachute shroud lines. A Japanese soldier kicked me right in the mouth with his steel-cleated boot, and I lost my front teeth.

“Shortly thereafter, we were taken to a prison compound. I was in a cell that was 9 feet by 9 feet. There were five men in it. We slept on hardwood planks, and they gave us each a burlap bag as a blanket, pillow, whatever you wanted to use it for. I used my GI boots as a pillow.”

Edwards recalls being “slapped around pretty good” for about 30 days before being moved to another section of the prison camp including bamboo beds “that gave a little” and an outside area where they could walk.

“I was made the cook, and twice a day, I got a wooden bucket filled with uncooked rice,” he says. “We had a little place we could build a fire and enough water to cook the rice, but I never had a drink of water while I was there. We got about a half pint of sweet tea twice a day. That was our liquid.”

It was in the prison camp, he says, that he learned to count to 10 in Japanese.

“Every day, we had to line up and count off our number,” he remembers. “We were in lines of 10, and if we didn’t know our number, you would be pulled out of the line and severely beaten. So you learned quickly how to count in Japanese.”

All 11 crew members from his plane – including the radio operator whose arm had to be amputated at the left elbow – survived during his five months as a POW, which still amazes Edwards to this day.

“When we left that camp, the only thing he couldn’t do was tie his shoe or put his wristwatch on his right arm,” Edwards says.

After returning to civilian life, Edwards married Barbara Brown. They recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

These days, Edwards teaches a growing crop of great-grandchildren – six so far – how to count to 10 in Japanese.

...

Francis R. ‘Bud’ Edwards, 91

• Hometown: Hinsdale

• Residences: Rushford Lake;

Punta Gorda, Fla.

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• Rank: Staff sergeant

• War zone: China-Burma-India Theater

• Years of service: 1942-45

• Most prominent honors: Two Purple Hearts, two Air Medals, Prisoner of War Medal

• Specialty: Gunner, B-29 Superfortress

Before shipping off to Europe to fight the Germans in World War II, Sebastian “Yono” Bordonaro and fellow combat engineers practiced building bridges across the Colorado River to test the strength of the structures.

Better to know ahead of time if the bridges would hold up before risking the machines of war and an even more precious cargo: the troops. Bordonaro and other engineers learned by trial and error how to improve the structural integrity of the bridges.

A lot rode on their expertise, if Hitler was to be defeated.

“We learned that it was important to anchor the ends of bridges really well. We built mainly footbridges out of wood and rope for the infantry, and pontoon bridges for the tanks and other vehicles,” Bordonaro says.

Arriving in Europe as part of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion, Bordonaro served one of the toughest taskmasters known to soldiers, legendary Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., aka “Old Blood and Guts.”

Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes or, in this case, the enemy aircraft that dropped bombs on the engineers.

“We would have all of our bridge equipment on trucks, and when we entered a river valley, we would look for good cover in the trees and start assembling the bridge. Then we would start pushing each section of the bridge out into the river,” Bordonaro recalls.

Over time, Bordonaro says, he gained a respect for Patton.

“He was right alongside of us when we built the bridges. He would let us know if something was wrong,” Bordonaro says. “Not a lot of people liked that man, but I came to look upon him as the guy who was going to get me out alive. He’d wave at me and let me know that I was doing a good job.”

Patton was not above growling, if he thought Bordonaro or his buddies were messing up.

“One time, I was ferrying a tank across the Rhine River and a German plane dropped anti-personnel bombs, and I ducked under the tank,” Bordonaro remembers. “It wasn’t a direct, hit but I got banged up as I went under the tank. The pontoon became unstable, and the tank rolled off it into the water.

“The water wasn’t that deep, maybe 2 or 3 feet. I tried to get it hooked up to a winch from a truck on land, and Patton shouted at me, ‘Damn you, Sergeant, let that tank go! We have more tanks to bring across.’ I said, ‘I think I can get it out.’ He said, ‘I have more tanks coming. Forget about that one.’

“I kind of snapped back at him in a real loud and nasty voice, ‘OK, General.’ He moved on. He was giving a lot of the other guys hell, and I thought to myself what was I doing. I’m just a sergeant, and I’m yelling at the general.”

Patton, says Bordonaro, could be downright mean:

“He’d slapped around a couple of soldiers who were in the hospitals over there.”

But when Patton died at age 60 seven months after Germany surrendered, Bordonaro said he felt bad.

“The general died from injuries in an auto accident while we were still in Germany,” Bordonaro recalls. “I had wanted to thank him for saving my life.”

Bordonaro returned home in 1946, taught by war how precious life is.

“I came home and wanted to make my time count,” he said. “I worked for the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant that had been located in Buffalo. Then I moved out to the Walden Avenue plant.”

He and his wife, Frances Palmiero Bordonaro, also opened a fast-food business known as “Fran’s Sub Shop” on Main Street in Williamsville, which they operated for years before selling it.

At age 94, Sebastian Bordonaro says he still makes the most out of the time he has been blessed with by serving as a volunteer gardener at The Cloisters, an Akron senior citizens complex where he lives with his wife of 62 years.

“I look at it this way: The only way I’m going to stay alive is if I keep busy,” he says.

But every now and then, Bordonaro says, he and a buddy from World War II share a chuckle about mortality:

“If my friend spots me in church, he’ll come up and say, ‘Patton is waiting for us.’ ”

Joseph M. Falzone’s love of music introduced him to the military while still in high school.

“I had joined the band at Seneca Vocational but was very poor and needed a trumpet. I was told if I joined the Army National Guard, they would give me a trumpet for playing in the Guard’s band at the Masten Armory. That way, I would have a trumpet for the school band,” Falzone explains.

There also was another incentive. He received a dollar for practicing with the armory’s band one night a week.

“That was 12 bucks every three months, and I gave it to my mother. That’s how poor we were,” he says.

After graduation, he found work at the Chevrolet plant in the Town of Tonawanda and decided against re-enlisting with the Guard. But there were consequences: He had to return the trumpet.

However, he and the military would soon be reunited, though they would not be making music together.

“There was the draft, and I heard about this electronics course you could take at the University of Buffalo, providing that you joined the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps,” he says. “It was a yearlong course, and when I completed it in May 1943, I was active duty.”

In 1944, he was assigned to World War II’s lesser-known China-Burma-India Theater, where he worked at isolated communications and fuel bases along the Burma Road, with most of the time spent in Kunming, China.

“I was in charge of three other signalmen maintaining a small piece of the communication lines from Calcutta to sites all over China. We kept up a 25-mile stretch,” Falzone recalls.

Japanese forces, naturally, disapproved of the Allies staying in touch with one another.

“The enemy would cut our lines, and we’d have to go out and make repairs. Sometimes there would be Japanese snipers,” Falzone remembers. “We were very careful. We’d fan out, … and they would send other troops to get them.”

There were close calls, but the one that sticks out the most in the 92-year-old veteran’s mind is a false alarm when they were first heading toward the Chinese mainland.

“We were driving from India into Burma to China. I had a 2½-ton truck. We constantly bounced along on the road, and one of my guys said, ‘How do you make wine?’ And I told him that night we would raid the mess truck and get raisins,” Falzone says.

“I filled an empty 5-gallon water tank on the side of my truck with raisins and water and let it ferment. About the third or fourth day, there was a big explosion. Everyone thought I got hit. The lieutenant stopped and came over to my truck and saw raisins everywhere, and he yelled at me. He said I scared everyone.

“That was the end of the wine.” But it wasn’t the end of the line.

During their time in Burma, conditions were hard.

“They had monsoons, mud and disease. I got malaria, but we had to keep moving. They gave me pills. I was shaking, burning up and had dysentery,” he says. “When we were in China, it wasn’t that great, either. We lived like tramps. We had to go from our outpost to bigger camps to pick up supplies.

“Then one day, we were ordered to come into our command post and told that a bomb had been dropped on Japan, but we didn’t know that it was a nuclear bomb. We found that out later.”

Allied troops were also ordered out of China.

“The Chinese Nationalists were fighting the Communists,” Falzone says. “They had fought together in the war, but when the war was over, they began their revolution, and the Communists won.”

Flown back to India, Falzone and other signalmen were assigned to a port battalion, and their job was to destroy U.S. weapons and ammunition rather than return them to the other side of the world.

In July 1946, Falzone returned to Chevy where he met his future wife, Eugenia DeMart, but he soon left the auto industry to become an electrician with Local 41, where he worked in construction for about 35 years.

Falzone says he is blessed that he, his brother, Salvatore, and his brother-in-law Tommy Muscato all made it home safe from the war.

The siblings of his bride, to whom he has now been married for 65 years and counting, were even luckier, he says:

“Eugenia had four brothers and a brother-in-law who all served in the war and made it home.”

Arthur J. Leeming was skinny, but he was no lightweight when it came to patriotism. He wanted in on the fight to preserve democracy during World War II.

At 124 pounds, Leeming was rejected by recruiters who said he needed to put on at least 5 pounds. The 5-foot-9 West Side resident said he promptly declared war on his slender build and began gobbling bananas and guzzling milkshakes.

“Everyone in the neighborhood wanted to serve,” the former Busti Avenue resident recalls. “By the time I put on the weight, I was sent a notice and told to reapply, and I passed the physical.”

Leeming arrived at Utah Beach, Normandy, 15 days after the Allied invasion on D-Day. His job was to care for the wounded at a field hospital that consisted of more than 100 tents. With each military advance across Europe, the hospital moved forward, too.

Right off the bat, Leeming says he doesn’t consider himself a war hero, but rather someone who had the privilege of helping the true heroes recover from their wounds so that, when possible, they could return to duty on the front lines.

But even the field hospital was targeted by the enemy, despite the sprawling canvas Red Cross symbols placed on the ground to alert the German fighter pilots above.

“We had German planes buzz us, and usually they flew away. But one time, a German circled over us and let out a few blasts from his machine guns. Fortunately, nobody was hurt,” Leeming says. “I guess he didn’t respect our noncombatant status under the Geneva Conventions.”

In these tent cities, 5 miles from the front lines, the goal was to create an oasis of healing once the wounded were sewn and bandaged. “We had woodworking, camera and drawing workshops. It was all meant to be exercise for hands and muscles – therapy that was part of the medical treatment,” Leeming says.

Amid the explosive noise of bombs and artillery rounds, the 6th Convalescent Hospital retaliated by filling the air with the joyful sounds of the big bands. “We were able to form a 10-piece orchestra. It was a strange setup. We used an accordion, a guitar, two trumpets, two saxophones, a drummer and a bass fiddle, which was me, a piano and the conductor,” Leeming says.

“We called ourselves the Sad Sacks, which was taken from a cartoon character in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. We had a motto: ‘If you can’t play good, play loud.’ ”

Sadly, the Sad Sacks came to an abrupt end. “All of the instruments were being transported in this truck on the way from Fürth in Germany to Nuremberg, and somewhere along the line, the truck hit a land mine and our instruments were blown to smithereens. That was the end of the Sad Sacks. The horns were flattened, my fiddle was in splinters, everything was destroyed,” Leeming recalls.

“It was heartbreaking. The patients had loved the music. It reminded them of home.”

Leeming’s duties also included driving the “command cars” in which “the brass sat around plotting their next moves.”

Back in Buffalo, Leeming continued to make music.

“When I first came back from the service, I formed a three-piece band and played at gin mills around the West Side,” he says. “Then I got a job in a factory for 15 years, then I became a salesman, and life went on.

“I married and have two daughters and three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.”

And the music is still a big part of his life.

“My war story about the Sad Sacks became a musical. Mary Kate O’Connell wrote a fictitious 60-year reunion of the Sad Sacks, and I was in it with Manny Fried,” Leeming says of the actor and writer who died at age 97 in 2011.

Leeming is a member of the Grandfathers Orchestra, the Buffalo Banjo Band, the Singing Seniors and Showtime. He also serves as president of a group of musicians who call themselves the Happy Time Club and who perform for free at area nursing homes.

Arthur J. Leeming, 90

• Hometown: New York City

• Residence: Town of Tonawanda

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Corporal

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1943-46

• Most prominent honors:

European Theater Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, Army of Occupation Medal

• Specialty: Medical Corps

Joseph C. Kasprzak put aside the heads of lettuce and bushels of tomatoes at his family’s grocery store on the East Side when he received a draft notice summoning him to service in World War II.

With a rifle slung over his shoulder, Kasprzak, a member of the 14th Armored Division of the 62nd Armored Infantry Regiment, arrived in southern France in March 1944.

“When we landed there, we had to march with our full field packs about 10 miles inland, and that’s where we organized before we went to the front lines some 20 miles inland and began fighting our way up to the middle of France,” Kasprzak said. “It was mostly minor skirmishes. The Germans were on the run.”

The war, though, was far from over.

For his unit, “the real fighting started at the Battle of the Bulge. We went into Bannstein on Dec. 15, and everything was quiet. But on New Year’s Eve, exactly at midnight, we were attacked by machine gun and artillery fire. We fought all night until morning and our unit had to withdraw. We were losing too many men.

“I drove in with the halftrack to move the troops out. We had wounded and a family of four who had begged to be taken with us. As we got out on the open road, we were fired on by tanks. A shell went right over our heads and missed us. We continued to the rear.”

Away from the front lines, Kasprzak received dreadful news.

“Out of 250 men in our company, there were only 25 of us still around. The others were either killed or taken as prisoners,” he says. “Our front line had been too thin. That’s why the Germans broke through, and that’s why we took such a beating. You can just imagine what a lucky person I was to live. God was with me.”

As the battle progressed and the Americans regained their footing, Kasprzak said he was often so close to the enemy that he could hear them screaming.

“When our artillery shells landed on them, I could hear the Germans shout ‘comrade!’ and ‘doctor!’ ”

But it was war, and mercy was not at the top of the to-do list.

“We fired our machine guns, and when we broke through their lines, the French people in Bannstein told us that the Germans had suffered losses of 1,300 soldiers,” Kasprzak recalls. “We took a beating, but they took a beating, too.”

The unit went on to fight in the Ardennes Forest, then at the Siegfried Line.

“At the Rhine River, the Germans bombarded the bridges across the river, and that slowed our progress,” Kasprzak says. “Our engineers built pontoon bridges so that we could get across. The Germans continued retreating. I ended up in Austria when the war ended.”

His thoughts returned to home and the family grocery store.

“I was in Austria for about a month when they put us in railway boxcars and transported us to France,” Kasprzak remembers. “I sailed home from France and rejoined my parents in the family grocery business, but there wasn’t enough business to support my parents, my brother’s family and my family, so I got a job as a mechanic with Niagara Mohawk and worked at the Huntley Station.”

He and his wife, Ida Mialkowski Kasprzak, who died two years ago, raised two children, Gregory and Pamela.

“I have seven grandchildren,” Kasprzak says, “and I live for them.”

...

Joseph C. Kasprzak, 92

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Getzville

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Corporal

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1942-46

• Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge

• Specialty: Driver of 11-ton halftrack armored personnel carrier

When Harry R. Wisniewski received a draft notice, he showed it to his boss at Metal Alloys Specialties in Black Rock and was told he could receive a one-year deferment.

“The boss told me that because I was at a war plant making metal for submarines, I could delay my service, but everyone I knew was going into the service, and I said I might as well go now,” the 88-year-old Wisniewski recalls.

His assignment was the Pacific, with the 7th Infantry Division.

“My brother Eddy was serving in Europe, and he was always telling me they were freezing over there. You were outside in it 24 hours a day. Your pee froze before it hit the ground. He told me I was lucky because I was in a warm climate,” Wisniewski says.

Actually, he wasn’t that lucky.

At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, he was wounded and received his first Purple Heart.

“When we landed, I got wet feet, but it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “I took off my shoes and put on dry socks. A patrol went in a ways and took a look around, and then we all started in. Little by little, we picked up more resistance. The Japanese had machine guns; they had mortars.

“The enemy couldn’t hit me with their bullets, but they got me with a mortar shell. I was walking in the woods, and a mortar exploded behind me and sent me forward flying into the stump of a tree.

“It was about 4 feet high, and I was flung on top of it and couldn’t get off it by myself. I had full field pack on. Another guy was going to pull me down, but there was still enemy fire, and I told him to wait for the mortars to stop. It felt like I was there forever, but it was probably no more than 5 or 10 minutes.”

Because the stump had caught him in the groin, his urethra was torn during the rescue.

“I ended up in a hospital for a couple of weeks but was then sent back to the front lines. I wanted to be back with my outfit because I had trained with them,” Wisniewski says.

He succeeded in catching up with his battle buddies, but just barely.

“I got out of the hospital just in time. There was one more ship waiting out in the ocean, and I went up the rope ladder back with my outfit. I didn’t know where we were going. But after a few days, we were allowed up on the deck, and when I looked to my left and to my right, as far as I could see, there were ships.”

On the right was the USS Missouri, and it was “pumping out 16-inch shells” bound for the shores of Okinawa, the site of another major Pacific battle.

“At the same time,” he recalls, “the Japanese kamikazes were flying overhead crashing into our ships. We were on the rear deck of the ship, and a bomb hit the railing on the fantail and bounced into the water and never exploded. We were lucky.”

During the battle, Wisniewski says, he noticed that a Navy gunner was unintentionally shooting at an American observation plane. “I grabbed the arm of a Navy officer and said, ‘Sir, we’re shooting at one of our own planes.’ He said to me, ‘You’re not Navy. Don’t get involved.’ I said, ‘But that’s one of our planes.’ He took a look and said, ‘By God, you’re right,’ and he ordered the gunner to stop shooting.”

When the troops landed on Okinawa, Wisniewski said the goal was to get into the tree line as soon as possible to take cover and avoid the Japanese planes, which were strafing the beach.

“I was one of the last off the ship, and when I jumped off the transport boat, I saw a Japanese plane coming and noticed a big bomb crater on the beach,” he says.

“I could see the plane’s bullets hitting the water, and I jumped into the crater, and the first thing I heard was someone hollering, ‘You SOB.’ I landed right on top of another guy and said, ‘Buddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here.’ I didn’t have time to look. I had to dive.”

For Wisniewski, the fight on Okinawa lasted nine days before he was again wounded and received a second Purple Heart.

“We were stuck up on the high ground. We were waiting and waiting to move, but the Japanese had had years to prepare and were throwing so much stuff at us,” he remembers.

“I was in a foxhole with my buddy, and, of course, there was water in the hole, but we were stuck and had to sit there. The next thing I remember, I woke up and a medic was holding my hand trying pull me out of the foxhole.

“I had gotten hit by shrapnel across my right leg, and my upper right thigh was ripped open. The shrapnel also hit my right ear and cut open the top of my head. I don’t know how it got through my damn helmet. The helmet must have slowed it up a bit.”

The medic struggled to lift Wisniewski from the hole.

“He told me to push with my left leg. That didn’t work. He said, ‘Push with your left hand, too.’ I did, and I hit what felt like cloth and looked down and was looking into the inside of my partner’s head. He was only 19 years old. I couldn’t help him. He was dead right away. He didn’t feel anything.”

The medic, he says, yelled for assistance, and Wisniewski was dragged from the foxhole.

He was then placed on a Jeep with another wounded soldier and taken to a field hospital.

After that, it was on to a hospital on Guam, then to Hawaii, where he recovered for four months.

By January 1946, he was back in Buffalo and glad to be home.

“I tried a job here and a job there and finally got in at a machine shop at Curtiss-Wright, but then they started slowing down, and I got a job with the Erie County Highway Department and retired from there,” Wisniewski says.

Heartbreaking memories have dogged him throughout his life.

“A lot of my friends died in the war,” he says, “and you can remember seeing them lying and bleeding to death.”

So whenever a war movie comes on television, he refuses to watch.

Still, the memories recur:

“One time, I was up on a ridge in Okinawa, and the soldier next to me said, ‘Uh-oh,’ and I said, ‘What’s wrong,’ and he said he got hit in the left shoulder. He handed me a package wrapped in plastic. He said it was his wallet with his girl’s address, and she should get it.

“I told him he was only hit in the shoulder, but by the time the medics arrived, he was already dead. The guy had sounded so sad.”

...

Harry R. Wisniewski, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Marilla

• Branch: Army

• Rank: Corporal

• War zone: Pacific

• Years of service: 1943-46

• Most prominent honors:

Purple Heart, twice; Asiatic-

Pacific Campaign Medal

• Specialty: Infantry

Born and raised in Lackawanna, James J. McGovern seemed destined to work at Bethlehem Steel, joining “my whole relations, my father, my brother, my father’s brother, and a couple of my cousins.”

McGovern worked in the sheet metal mill, and it was plenty hot.

“My father and my uncle worked in the No. 3 open-hearth mill and that was a lot hotter.”

But less than a year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the United States entered World War II, McGovern was headed to one of the world’s hottest spots, not only because it was in the Pacific, but because the Japanese were such fierce fighters.

“I enlisted in the Marines because I thought it was a great outfit. I was with the 4th Marine Division, and our first battle was Jan. 31 to Feb. 8, 1944, on Roi-Namur,” McGovern recalls.

“That battle wasn’t too bad. Then we went back to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Between every battle, we went back to Maui for training, and it was beautiful.”

His next combat was at Saipan from June 15 to July 9, 1944.

“We always landed on the first day of battle, and I was the luckiest guy in the world: I never got hit. But I always felt terrible when one of our guys got killed,” he says. “After Saipan, we fought at Tinian and then went back to Maui for more training. Then we landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 and fought until March 26, 1945.

“Oh, that was tough! We had an awfully hard time getting off the beach, unlike the other battles. We had to crawl over dead guys. We had a great sergeant. He hollered, ‘If we don’t get off the beach, we’ll all be killed.’ He stood up and shouted, ‘Load your guns and shoot anywhere.’ ”

It wasn’t that easy. Members of the company were lugging parts for a powerful artillery piece, the 75 mm Pack Howitzer.

“We had a number of cannons with us, and we each had a part to carry. I also had my .50-caliber machine gun,” McGovern says.

But faced with the prospect of being slaughtered on the beach, he said the company embraced the sergeant’s call to move. “We followed the sergeant, and me and all my buddies got off the beach. We advanced 100 yards farther onto the barren island, and that’s where we set up our guns and started firing.”

Although 68 years have passed, the memories of the many casualties from the war in the Pacific are still hard to take, bringing tears to the aging warrior’s eyes.

“Our division in those four battles suffered 17,722 casualties,” McGovern says, pausing for a moment to pay homage to the Marines with whom he served.

McGovern earned an individual citation for bravery from his unit commander, and the division as a whole received two Presidential Unit Citations.

His personal citation states, in part, that in the battles at Saipan and Tinian, “Corporal James J. McGovern by his cool and capable execution of his duties prevented enemy infiltration from disrupting the supporting fire of the battery. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest tradition of U.S. Naval Service.”

As he recites those words, he again pauses, overcome with emotion, before saying, “The Good Lord was looking after me. I survived.”

Back home, he joined up with the union bricklayers employed at Shirley-Herman Co. and, after a decade, started working for other contractors.

“I was later elected business agent for Local 45 of the Bricklayers.” he says. “Then I was asked to serve in Washington, D.C., as the refractory director of the International Union of Bricklayers. I served for seven years and retired back to Buffalo.”

At 92, he says, he remains “the luckiest guy in the world.” He and his wife, Joan Dorr McGovern, raised three daughters and a son.

Weather permitting, James McGovern adds, he spends his time tinkering in the yard and enjoying the sunshine.

Sitting in the family backyard on Townsend Street on Buffalo’s East Side in the summer of 1942, Matthew Gagat listened as his older brother Jim spoke of wanting to enlist in the Marine Corps, eager to fight in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

It seemed odd to Matthew.

Jim Gagat had returned home a few years earlier from a stretch in the peace time Army. Jim and another brother, John, joined the Army during the Great Depression “to alleviate the pressure on our widowed mother,” Matthew Gagat said.

But in the backyard on that summer afternoon, Jim harbored revenge. Only after being pushed on the question of why he was so gung-ho on returning to the military did he explain his reasons.

“He told us he wanted to join the Marines. I told him he was married and had two girls. I said, ‘Why don’t you stay home with the family, and I’ll join the Army.’ I was single. But then it came out. Jim said he wanted to get at the Japanese for killing his Army friends over in Pearl Harbor, where he had been serving,” Matthew Gagat recalled.

There was no talking Jim out of going into the Marines. He joined and quickly advanced in rank to 1st sergeant.

As a member of 6th Marine Division, Jim Gagat fought many battles with many opportunities to avenge the deaths of his Army buddies, but the harshest encounter occurred when he participated in the invasion of Okinawa, where the enemy was firmly dug in.

Matthew Gagat said he, too, was sent to Okinawa, but by the time he arrived, the battle was already won.

“I was a master sergeant in charge of about 50 mechanics and welders, and our job was to repair the 40-ton tanks, half-tracks and other vehicles,” Gagat said, adding that he had no idea his brother had fought at Okinawa, since troop movement was classified information.

As the head of the machine shop on Okinawa, Gagat had access to a Jeep.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play Gen. MacArthur.’ The Japanese soldiers who had been captured and pacified were working for us. Using hand signals, because I didn’t speak Japanese, I taught one of them how to drive a Jeep, and he drove me around the island. I was just like an officer with a driver.

“The Red Cross had this station with coffee and doughnuts, and we drove to it, and I turned around and to my surprise I saw a Marine cemetery. It was for members of the 6th Marine Division, where my brother served. With that I got up and started walking and reading the names. I didn’t know if I’d find my brother there.

“But after going 15 or 20 feet, I stopped and said to myself, how am I going to react if I see my brother’s name? So I turned around and got away from there.”

Matthew Gagat later learned that his brother had “just barely survived” the Battle of Okinawa.

“Jim was on a hospital ship when I was on Okinawa. He had multiple wounds and was on his way to San Diego. He was eventually discharged and went home,” the younger brother said.

Two other brothers also managed to survive the war: John, who served as a guard at the Panama Canal Zone, and Bill, a member of Navy, who served on a destroyer.

Out of the four brothers, Jim was changed the most by the war.

“Jim was not the same happy-go-lucky guy. He moved to California with his family. He bought a small house and got a job in security where they only hired former Marines. When I visited him out there, he was never the same,” Matthew Gagat said. “He would lean against a tree and just stare into the distance.”

To this day, even at 95 years old, Gagat says he can still recall the sadness in his brother’s face.

Fran Lucca knew he was a long way from home during his first mission on a destroyer escort. The vessel was protecting a World War II convoy of supply ships headed for Wales in an Atlantic Ocean infested with German submarines.

It was damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, in the spirit of the old Navy saying.

Well, not exactly – at least not in Lucca’s case.

He was below decks in an ammunition hold handing up 3-inch shells when the captain’s voice came over the ship’s public address system ominously alerting the crew that they were under attack by a German sub.

“Torpedo off the starboard side,” the captain said.

Lucca, barely 18, was in a rough spot.

He was surrounded by ammunition, and if the torpedo hit, Lucca would be blown to kingdom come.

“I just had this rush of some kind come over me as I stood in the ammunition hold,” the 88-year-old Navy veteran from the Town of Tonawanda recalls. “The skipper diverted the ship, and I could hear the torpedo’s propellers swishing past the bulkhead.”

Realizing he had been spared, Lucca said, “Oh, my God, it went by.”

And to think that less than a year earlier, he had been safe behind a desk as a senior at Annunciation High School on the West Side.

“A week after I had graduated, I had my orders in my pocket and was on my way to Sampson Naval Base on Seneca Lake,” Lucca says.

The next convoy that Lucca and his shipmates on the destroyer escort USS Burrows (DE-105) helped protect was Africa-bound. Here was the scene: One convoy was in front of them, and one in back. There also was the fact that, tactically, convoys – which often had as many as 100 ships – were a choice target for the German air force. If they could obliterate these floating supply lines that carried everything from food to ammo, the land-based troops would suffer.

So, arguably, Lucca’s job as a radio man was every bit as important as those of the troops on the battlefields.

As the convoy progressed to Africa, Lucca says, he was monitoring the airwaves, but the Germans were jamming their signals.

“I was able to copy just enough Morse code from Washington, D.C., to learn that the convoy ahead of us was destroyed by German bombers,” he says.

With that information, the fleet commander ordered all of the ships in the convoy to begin belching up smoke through special smoke-producing devices. The smoke screen worked.

“The Germans flew right over us. You could hear the engines of their airplanes. Unfortunately, they got to the convoy behind us and bombed them,” Lucca says, speculating that those ships did not have enough time to create a smoke cover.

In total, the Burrows made 16 crossings of the Atlantic and waged more than a dozen depth-charge attacks against submarines.

After the war ended in Europe, it was full speed ahead to the Pacific and more attacks on enemy subs, as U.S. forces gathered for a massive invasion of Japan that was called off after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The fighting, at long last, was over.

“It was thrilling as we sailed into Tokyo Bay,” Lucca sais. “The skipper called us all up on deck.”

What the captain said tempered the excitement of the moment.

“The shore of the bay was lined with cannons, and the captain told us if we had invaded, our job was to ground our ship and serve as a communications center for the invading forces,” Lucca says. “The captain said that with all those cannons, we would not have lasted five minutes.”

The Japanese, Lucca added, had not gone peacefully into the night.

“Before surrendering, they had filled the surrounding Pacific waters outside Tokyo Bay with thousands of mines, and our job along with other gunships was to destroy them with gunfire,” Lucca recalls.

That accomplished, he and other destroyer escort sailors were sent on a reconnaissance mission to a city near Tokyo.

“We landed wearing our dungarees and armed with .45-caliber handguns,” he says. “We were among the first to go ashore.

“Some of the people there didn’t even know the war was over. They looked at us and wondered what we were doing there. They were frightened, but we were nice to them. We returned to our ship and reported what we had seen.”

By March 1946, his service was completed. Back home, the affable Lucca started a career in journalism writing for newspapers, United Press International and broadcasting that would eventually be crowned with his induction into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

The father of nine children and eight stepchildren, Lucca also remained endeared to military service, joining the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, for which he serves as captain of the Buffalo chapter.

Destroyer escort sailors, he said, played a vital role, pointing out that before destroyers were assigned to naval convoys, the crucial supply ships were little more than sitting ducks for enemy subs.

“We chased and darted from the submarines, and we watched up above for enemy bombers,” Lucca remembers.

“Our greatest accomplishment on the Burrows was that we never lost a ship in the convoys that carried troops, munitions and fuel.”

...

Fran Lucca, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Town of Tonawanda

• Branch: Navy

• War zones: Atlantic, Europe-Africa-Middle East, Pacific

• Years of service: 1943-46

• Rank: Radio man third class

• Most prominent honors: Navy Combat Medal, European Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (Japan)

Specialty: Radio operator, pointer on 40 mm anti-aircraft gun crew

Edgar L. Hoffman arrived at Utah Beach five days after D-Day, the Allied invasion at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

The bloodiest of the fighting was finished. Yet right there up in the sky, he says, was a German airplane buzzing the troops as they moved off the beach. But it soon became apparent that the plane was nothing more than a gnatty nuisance rather than a genuine threat.

“It was the last plane the Germans had in that area, and the pilot was just being an aggravation. Some of us shot at him with our rifles. He was harmless because he had no ammunition,” says Hoffman, who served with the 312th Service Group supplying bombs and ammo for the 50th Fighter Group, which had P-47 Thunderbolts.

Throughout the war, the planes provided the aerial charge ahead of the tanks and ground troops of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army to soften up the German lines as the Allies reclaimed Europe from the Nazis.

But for Hoffman and his buddies, it was first things first.

They moved off the beach about a mile inland and took up residence in a hedgerow for about a month.

“One day, I spotted a Jeep pull up at the end of our hedgerow, and Gen. Eisenhower, Gen. Bradley and Gen. Montgomery all got out and had a brief conversation and then left. I think they were checking on how things were going. I felt a little shocked to see them.”

The excitement of seeing the supreme Allied commander, Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; the invasion force’s U.S. commander, Army Gen. Omar N. Bradley; and his British counterpart, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, soon passed, and one afternoon during a lull, the 19-year-old Hoffman and another soldier decided to go out and do some souvenir hunting.

“We ought to have had our heads examined. We didn’t know if the area had been cleared of mines. I found a dead German in a foxhole and took his rifle,” Hoffman says. “I later sold it for $25.”

He soon learned that shots from a rifle, while a necessary tool of war, were nothing compared with the damage that bomb-laden planes could inflict on the enemy. He witnessed that firsthand as fighters and bombers flew directly overhead en route to Saint-Lô, a Normandy town controlled by the Germans.

“I watched for an entire day as bombers and fighters flew above us coming from England and heading to Saint-Lô. I was amazed at the sight. There was one wave after another. When we later passed through Saint-Lô, it was nothing but a hole in the ground,” says Hoffman, a Canisius High School graduate.

The first airfields where the 312th serviced aircraft were often nothing more than coils of metal unrolled by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide a flat takeoff and landing surface for the planes.

“The pilots needed a smooth surface because the ground beneath was uneven,” Hoffman says. “The ground had been used by farmers and had rolls in it.”

As the Allies advanced, he says, “We were able to use the airfields the Germans had built and civilian airfields. We went all over hell’s half-acre. There was a lot of action. Our company supplied the bombs and ammunition for the airplanes.”

Two days after Paris was liberated, Hoffman and other soldiers could not resist a visit.

“It was wild. The French were still shooting off their guns in celebratory fire,” he says. “Then I made a second trip there a while later. Some of the guys wanted us to buy perfume so that they could send it back to their sweethearts and wives. We went right to the Chanel shop. We stayed overnight, and someone stole all the perfume from our Jeep.

“When we got back to the company, we thought the guys would murder us, but they were understanding.”

At the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Hoffman says, he and his buddies were at the German-Austrian border.

“We were so close to Hitler’s hideout, the Eagle’s Nest, Berchtesgaden, that some of the guys made a trip there and took everything they could grab, from linens to a special Luger that had a 9-inch barrel and a leaf sight. I bought it for a hundred dollars, and 20 years later, I sold it for a hundred dollars. One of my smarter moves,” Hoffman ruefully recalls.

After having survived the war, Hoffman notes, the trip home nearly killed him.

“We sailed for home out of Brussels on a Victory ship, and let me tell you, we were in one of the worst storms. The waves would go over the top of the bridge, and the back end of the ship would be out of the water,” he says. “You could hear the propellers, and the ship would shake. It was a bad ride. Everybody onboard was sick, sick, sick.”

Once back in Buffalo, life was smooth sailing.

He married Patricia J. Dietzer, whom he had met as a young teenager when he had a newspaper route on Sterling Avenue in North Buffalo.

“I was 2 years older than her,” he says, “and we started dating after the war.”

The rest is history.

They raised three children, and Hoffman supported them by selling printing supplies for more than 30 years.

“My wife worked for 25 years as a secretary at Ken-Ton schools.”

This past September, they celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.

Reflecting on his military service, Hoffman says, “It made me grow up in a hurry.”

Born in the cottage of his maternal grandmother in a mountain village in Croatia, John Gojmerac would not arrive in the United States until he was 14.

His father’s dream was to buy a sprawling farm in what was then Yugoslavia. To do that, Peter Gojmerac had moved to the United States and earned enough money to buy the farm, a few hours from the cottage where John had been born.

“My mother would rent out some of the fields to other families. We had a forest and we built our own home with lumber from it,” the 89-year-old Gojmerac recalled of the old country.

When World War II started in Europe, it was on to the new country – America.

Peter worried that John and older brother Charlie would end up drafted into the Yugoslav army. Having served in World War I, Peter wanted to spare his sons the hell of war. The plan backfired. The United States went to war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

In time, both of Peter’s sons were drafted into the Army.

“My brother Charlie served as a cook at quite a few camps in the United States and eventually was sent to Hawaii to fight the Japanese, but then the atom bombs ended the war,” he says.

Unlike Charlie, John Gojmerac fought on the front lines in some of the bloodiest battles against the Germans.

When members of the 3rd Infantry Division landed at Anzio, Italy, the enemy was bent on pushing them back into the Mediterranean Sea.

“Anzio was my first battle, and I got hit by shrapnel in my left leg. A shell had exploded close to me and knocked me out. My left eardrum was also punctured,” he says. “When I came to, I realized I was in a no-man’s land. I crawled to a ditch. There were about half a dozen of us.

“The medic bandaged all the guys up who were wounded, and we were in the ditch from about 11 in the morning to 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. A sergeant was in the ditch, and he was wounded, too. He told us no one was coming for us, but if we went about 200 yards, we would be out of the shelling and there would be more medics at a tent.

“The shelling was continuous. I think the enemy knew there were wounded soldiers in the ditch and they were aiming for us. The sergeant said to crawl or walk – any way you can navigate. My leg was hurting pretty bad. I used my rifle like a cane. We made it down to the tent.”

An ambulance later transported Gojmerac and others to a field hospital.

“They operated on my leg that night,” he says. “The next day, they took all the guys in the recovery tent down to a pier and put us on a hospital ship and took us down to Naples, where there was an Army hospital. I was there about a month and a half.”

Healed, Gojmerac rejoined his outfit.

“I was back in time for the big push. We broke out of Anzio and pushed towards Rome,” he says. “When we got to the outskirts of Rome, the Italian people informed us that the Germans had left Rome. We were there two weeks. Then we started training for the invasion of southern France. We were seasoned troops, and there was no way the Germans could stop us.”

Nevertheless, that didn’t translate into a cakewalk.

When Gojmerac landed in France, he again had a close brush with death.

“Stop, John!” another soldier shouted, having spotted a sign indicating danger. “John, you’re in a mine field!”

Gojmerac stopped cold in his tracks.

“The Germans hadn’t had time to remove the sign, and I hadn’t seen it,” Gojmerac says. “… It had the word ‘mine’ written in German on it and the skull and crossbones. I retraced my footsteps out.”

And though the Germans had forgotten to take down the sign, they sure didn’t forget how to use their weapons – something Gojmerac has never forgotten.

As a technician responsible for setting up lines of communication, he was among the first to enter a new area of operations in order to string out telephone cable so that the platoons could stay in contact. Such work made him and his buddies easy targets.

During one mission, as they unspooled cable on the shoulder of a hillside, they came under fire from two German soldiers dug in at the bottom of the hill. The three Americans raced for cover and, spotting a foxhole, leapt into it. Not long after, Gojmerac realized that his buddies were mortally wounded.

With the Germans still shooting, Gojmerac could do nothing but hunker down and spend the night in the foxhole with the bodies of his dead buddies. The next morning, he saw his chance to make a break and took it as the Germans, perhaps assuming that all three Americans were dead, came out from their hiding spot and began shooting the breeze.

Was it a ploy?

As Gojmerac ran for his life, the enemy sent a hail of bullets his way, and the young GI tripped and began tumbling down the hill. But he survived unscathed.

The Americans continued their progress deeper into France, and it was in the Vosges Mountains that Gojmerac was wounded a second time, though not by Germans.

“It was very confusing. The Germans did not know where we were, and we did not know where they were,” he says. “We stopped one morning while the captain was getting orders. He told us to wait. I was standing, and there were two American tanks at the bottom of the hill we were on.

“They assumed we were Germans, and they took a shot at me. The shell hit a tree and exploded, and the shrapnel hit my butt.

“The medic hollered, ‘Did anyone get hit?’ I had to drop my pants. He said to me, ‘John, it looks like someone cut you with a knife, but it’s not bad enough to send you away.’ He patched me up, and I walked around with ripped and bloody pants for days.”

Whether the tank crews heard the outrage of Gojmerac’s platoon members is unknown. But Gojmerac certainly heard them. “They screamed ‘Are you blind! Can’t you see we’re GIs? Go find some Germans!’ ”

The third and final time that Gojmerac was wounded occurred as the division was closing in on the Rhine River in Germany.

“An enemy mortar shell exploded near me. Some of the shrapnel hit me in the shoulder,” he recalls. “I was sent to the field hospital and then to an Army hospital in France, and that was when the war ended.”

Home in the United States, he landed a job at the General Motors forge on Kenmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.

“My father had planned to move us back to the farm in Slovenia after the war, but we had lived here so long he realized that none of us, himself included, wanted to go back,” Gojmerac says. “We were used to American life. So he sold the farm.”

At age 33, Gojmerac got around to settling down. He and some friends went up to Toronto for a Croatian concert.

Disappointed, they left early and headed to a dance hall. There, he met his future wife, Jean Roberts, who hailed from England. They married and raised four children.

Jean Gojmerac, who helped coax her husband to tell his story, says he is a humble and private man and for years would not even speak of the war. “The first 10 years of our marriage, he never told me about his military service,” she says.

John Gojmerac only agreed to tell of his service after a grandson, fascinated by the history of World War II, begged him to share his story, so that it would not be lost to time.

When Gojmerac had finally gotten all the details out, he remained shy but sounded happy.

...

John Gojmerac, 89

• Hometown: Jesenovica, Croatia

• Residence: City of Tonawanda

• Branch: Army

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service: 1943-45

• Rank: Tech corporal

• Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, four campaign ribbons, Presidential Unit Citation

• Specialty: Field telephone installer

This is the story of how a scrap of paper and a certain word written on it saved a young man’s life.

When 18-year-old Bruce T. Barber was drafted into the military in World War II, he was soon on his way to Camp Upton, Suffolk County, where he was processed, he says, “like cattle into the Army, along with 18,000 other youngsters.”

Well, of course, that was the case. World War II was raging. Germany and Japan sought to conquer the free world.

“Casualties were high. Our ranks were being depleted. In the Pacific, it was malaria and jungle fever claiming many of the soldiers,” Barber says, recalling how he received a number of inoculations at Camp Upton. “You walked between eight medics, and each gave you a shot on each arm. Guys dropped like flies.”

For Barber, though, he wrote his own lifesaving prescription.

“We were in a huge room and given index cards,” he says. “An officer said, ‘Write your name in the upper right-hand corner, your serial number in the left-hand corner and below that, your occupation.’ ”

Barber reflected for a moment. He had come straight from Bennett High School and had never worked. But he recalled his hobbies of model-making and artwork: “So I listed myself as an artist and turned the index card in.”

He arrived in the Pacific in January 1944 aboard the former civilian ocean liner, the Matsonia, along with 5,000 shipmates, all members of the 41st Infantry Division, which had already been fighting in the Pacific for more than 18 months and needed replacements.

Barber’s first enemy encounter occurred at Hollandia, New Guinea.

“It was a major operation involving aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers that shelled the harbor. When we landed, we had air support,” Barber says. “But everyone was surprised because there was very little resistance. This was the first of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s leapfrogging strategy which isolated major pockets of Japanese army troops, literally cutting them off from supplies.”

The next target was the island of Biak, part of the Dutch-owned Schouten Islands.

“The value of Biak was that it had three airfields, which were a threat to the American advance,” Barber says. “The major obstacle of Biak was its caves. Biak is a coral upthrust completely formed of coral. The Japanese were inside the caves that were part of a huge palisade overlooking both the airstrips and beachhead. That’s what made it so difficult.”

The cover of one magazine from that time, Barber says, described the taking of the island as “Bloody Biak.”

“The enemy was raining down fire on infantry troops trying to reach the airfields,” he recalls.

So commanders decided to fight fire with fire, dropping combustibles above the caves and then igniting the material after it had seeped through the porous coral.

Barber, though, had been spared the beachhead blood bath. He says he had previously been reassigned from his infantry platoon to the division’s reconnaissance unit, where he scouted out other sections of Biak to draw maps and locate a high-priority target.

“We were looking for a prominent Japanese admiral protected by elite Japanese marines,” Barber says. “We never found him but ran into ambushes and got into firefights. After everything cooled down at Biak and the airstrips were secured, myself and two other companions who’d also been taken out of the infantry unit decided to revisit our old platoon.

“When we found our platoon camp, we were shown into the tent, and I turned and asked a survivor what was the reason for so many empty cots. He said three-quarters of the platoon were casualties of the fight to gain the airstrips. I was puzzled, and when I returned to camp, I asked the commanding officer why I had been plucked out of that platoon.

“He said all of the commanding officers of the division who needed replacements visited the division command post and went through the alphabetized index cards that had traveled with the troops. He told me, ‘I was looking for a replacement artist map-maker and got past the A’s, and there was B, and under it, ‘Barber,’ and under that, ‘artist.’ He did not know I was not a professional artist, but only a mere student of art.”

Ever since then, when Barber recalls this war story, he ends by saying, “The index card saved my life.”

After returning to Buffalo, he attended Albright Art School, which launched his career in advertising.

And it turns out that the 18-year-old draftee was right about himself when he dashed down the word “artist.” Throughout his life, he often spent his spare time as a watercolorist.

Three of his paintings are in the permanent collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

“Ironically,” he says, “one of them is of Biak. It’s a war scene.”

Eighteen-year-old Robert N. “Lefty” Lowenstein had been working for a couple of years for the old New York Central Railroad in the Black Rock yards as a clerk.

A pretty important job for a teenager, but his responsibilities would be raised to a much higher level with the Army in World War II.

“I was part of an Underwater Demolition Team, and we had trained in Fort Pierce, Fla., in 1943 with the Navy,” Lowenstein says.

A year later, he was part of the first wave in the historic Allied invasion at Normandy, arriving at about 6:20 a.m. June 6, 1944: D-Day.

Before the troops could storm Omaha Beach, which would become known as “Bloody Omaha” for the large number of casualties, an obstacle course had to be cleared so that landing craft could get close to the shore to discharge troops.

“The goal was to blow up these hedgehogs and steel fences that were stuck in the water like toothpicks,” Lowenstein says. “Some of them had Teller mines attached to the tops of them. When the tide was high, you couldn’t see them and the boats could hit them.”

But before the plan could be executed, the enemy unleashed a withering barrage of firepower.

“We had gotten out of the boats and were attaching explosives to the obstacles, and the Germans were firing everything they had, and it was like rain hitting the water,” Lowenstein recalls, explaining that if he wanted to live, he needed to get out of the water.

But it was much easier said than done.

“Ahead of me was another guy, and I said to myself, ‘If he gets onto the beach, I’m going to,’ ” he says. “I watched him run out of the water and onto the beach and drop. Then he got back up. He ended up 75 yards from the pillbox that was shooting an 88 mm cannon at us.

“After I saw him make it, I started running. And when I got to the beach, I laid on the sand while battleships were shelling the beach. I could see black smoke in the distance, and then a minute later, the shell passed over and sounded like a freight train and landed about 200 yards from us. The explosions were so powerful they almost lifted me off the ground.”

It was a bewildering and frightening experience. When he was finally able to take in his surroundings, he says, “I looked up and down the beach, and there were only three or four other guys who’d made it. I felt all alone.”

He also felt extremely fortunate to be alive.

“I was hit twice in the helmet, my gas mask was shot through, and my canteen was shot through,” he says. “When I went to clean my rifle, the stock was gone. My nose and ears were bleeding from the concussions of the blasts.”

Horror was everywhere.

Twenty feet away, he noticed a solider stand up, armed with a bazooka and taking aim at the pillbox.

“There was this big explosion, and when I looked back at him, the upper part of his body was gone,” Lowenstein says. “But the lower part was still standing, and then it fell over. I wished I was in big hole for cover.”

Yet despite the bloodbath, the desire to defeat the enemy was not diminished.

Lowenstein and his company commander managed to climb atop the living quarters’ portion of the pillbox.

“We were up in the open, and the Germans were still shooting from other locations,” he says. “… I threw a hand grenade to the captain, and he was lying next to a chimney pipe, and he dropped the grenade in and it landed in a potbellied stove below – and that really rattled those Germans.

“I spoke some German I had learned from my grandmother when I was kid. I shouted down for the Germans to come out with their hands up and 13 of them climbed up the steps from the pillbox. We told them to go to the beach. It was only a hundred feet away, and I don’t know what happened to them.”

At about 8:30 a.m., a Naval destroyer, the USS Frankford, resumed shelling the beach.

“They were the heroes of the beach,” Lowenstein says. “If they hadn’t started shelling, I don’t think we could have held the beach, and I don’t think I would be here today. The boat had a nickname, ‘The Hot Dog.’ ”

Thanks to “The Hot Dog,” the Underwater Demolition Teams were again able to resume removal of the obstacles, and troops were able to land on the beach.

A few days after the invasion, Lowenstein got a look at himself in the mirror, and his face was marked with tiny boils.

“I went into this house, and a woman gave me some water and I washed my face and started squeezing out little pieces of steel shrapnel,” he says.

It was a small price to pay compared with the one paid by many of his buddies in combat.

“Nineteen of our guys are buried in a cemetery over there, and the rest of the bodies were sent home,” Lowenstein says, unable to recall how many members of his company gave their lives on D-Day. “We lost so many.”

After the war, Lowenstein returned to the railroad and worked for almost 44 years before retiring more than three decades ago. A widower and father of four daughters, he says that one of the most memorable events in his retirement was a visit to Normandy.

“I went with two other guys about 15 years ago. We visited Omaha Beach and the cemetery above it. We found the graves of our buddies, because they had little American flags on them,” Lowenstein says. “On each of those graves, we placed a rose.”

In his senior year at Salamanca High School in the early 1940s, Lawrence E. Haley hopped a freight train bound for Buffalo to check out the employment picture.

“I was on vacation from school and wanted to see what kind of jobs they had in Buffalo for when I graduated. I ran into some hobos at the end of Main Street and asked them, and they told me people were always needed for the lake freighters,” the 88-year-old Haley recalls.

So when he graduated, he followed the hobos’ advice and became a deck hand on the C.S. Robinson, which transported iron ore from Minnesota to the steel plants in Buffalo, Cleveland and Ashtabula, Ohio. It was quite an adventure for a 17-year-old.

But an even greater adventure awaited Haley – World War II.

“I heard that experienced deckhands were needed for the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine. There were hundreds of Liberty ships that had been sunk. They were sinking them faster than they could build them,” Haley said. “I went to the Old Post Office in downtown Buffalo to enlist, and they told me I was needed in the Merchant Marine because of the high fatality rate.”

Then 18, Haley did not blink at the risk of possibility of ending up in a watery grave.

“I didn’t know fear at that age,” he said.

Haley was soon making trans-Atlantic runs from Boston to Europe, carrying “ammunition, all kinds of weapons, Jeeps, ration boxes, shoes,” he said. “When the troops saw us, they were a glad bunch of guys. Without the supplies, they knew they were beat.”

As Haley started returning safely from one cruise after another, word began to spread among other members of the Merchant Marine that he was one lucky guy.

“Any ship that I was on was never sunk,” he says. “Other guys wanted to start serving on my ships. They thought that I would be a good luck charm. I was proud of it.”

He explained that some of the success in his 15 trips across the ocean could be attributed to the cold-water shipping routes that his vessels traversed.

“The German submarines didn’t like the icebergs and the weather,” Haley says.

When the D-Day invasion of Normandy occurred June 6, 1944, Haley’s ship sailed from Southampton, England, across the English Channel to France.

“We were one of the first Merchant Marine ships to dock at Le Havre, where we unloaded supplies,” he says.

While on a brief leave there, Haley said he went ashore and started making inquiries about the location of his brother Don’s Army Ranger unit.

“They had started moving so fast across France that I didn’t get to see him,” Haley says.

He wishes he had.

“One week before the war ended in Europe, Don was killed by a sniper,” he says.

For Haley, there was little time to grieve. It was on to the war in the Pacific.

“The government put about 2,500 troops on our boat when the war ended in Europe, and they were so excited,” he says. “They thought they were coming home. They were tired of fighting. They thought they were headed to Boston to be discharged.

“When we went through the Panama Canal, they were a sad bunch of sacks. They knew where they were going.”

The ship was headed to Japan for the planned invasion.

“We waited about a week near the seaport of Nagoya, and then President Truman ordered the atom bombs dropped, and the war ended,” Haley remembers.

“The troops on our ship cheered and cheered and cheered. Our ship was directed back to San Diego, and they all went home – and me, too.”

And what a relief it was.

“Let me tell you,” he says, “nobody knows the tension of waiting 24 hours a day to get torpedoed unless you are a Merchant Marine or sailor. You’re worried every second.”

Back home, Haley worked construction for decades with Holmes & Murphy of Orchard Park. He married Jane Sullivan, and they raised a family of seven.

In all these years since the war, Haley says, he has not forgotten his older brother, Don.

“My parents had the choice of having Don’s body shipped home or having it buried in Europe. They decided that he should be buried with his buddies,” Haley says. “One of these days I am going to get over to the cemetery in Margraten, Holland, and visit his grave. My younger brother, Bill, has already been there.”

His younger brother visited Don’s grave soon after serving in the Korean War, Haley says: “Bill told me there are white crosses as far as you can see.”

Lawrence E. Haley, 88

• Hometown: Johnsonburg, Pa.

• Residence: Arcade

• Branch: Merchant Marine

• War zones: Atlantic and Pacific

• Years of service: 1944-46

• Rank: Able seaman

• Most prominent honors: Atlantic War Zone Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

• Specialty: Deck maintenance

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, was known for his trademark corncob pipe.

But 89-year-old Frank R. Klinger, at the time a sailor on the light cruiser USS Phoenix that somehow survived the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, can attest that MacArthur also enjoyed puffing on a cigar every now and then.

It is a detail that Klinger personally learned when he wasn’t busy with his shipmates battling the Japanese naval fleet or helping pave the way for troops to storm various enemy-controlled islands in the Pacific.

Most of the time, Klinger caught only a passing glimpse of the famous general when he boarded the Phoenix, but one evening, the 18-year-old sailor, standing watch topside, was ordered to scold MacArthur – not realizing, of course, that he was the general.

Off the shores of New Guinea, Klinger recalls, he was gazing out into the twilight from his watch post taking in two Liberty ships from the Merchant Marine that had been badly damaged and were going to port.

“The torpedo holes in them were just above the waterline and so big that you could drive a semi truck through them,” he says. “I thought that they must have sealed off the other compartments and dumped the ballast to keep them afloat.”

But his ponderings were soon disrupted by a cabin door opening not far from his station. A cloud of smoke belched into the night air.

“You could see two people inside were smoking cigars,” Klinger says. “I was wearing a headphone set and reported it to the central station, the main battle room, that there was cigar smoke. I was told to go over and inform the people that there was no smoking allowed topside at night.”

Smoking, Klinger explains, was not allowed at night because the glow of the burning tobacco in the darkness might tip off the enemy to the location of a ship.

“As I got close, a Marine sentry put his rifle against my chest and stopped me.,” Klinger says. “He asked me what was I doing, and I told him that I was told by central station there’s no smoking topside. That’s when Gen. MacArthur heard me. He turned around and faced me, and I saw it was him.

“He saluted me, and I saluted him. MacArthur asked me what was going on, and I told him what central station had told me. MacArthur said to me, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was that dark out.’ My knees were shaking a little bit. I probably started stuttering.

“He thanked me and saluted me again, and I saluted him, and he went back inside the cabin.”

The Marine sentry then pulled the rifle away from Klinger’s chest, and he returned to his watch station.

It is a moment that Klinger has cherished his entire life.

And while he was nervous that evening, it does not compare with the emotional intensity he experienced battling Japanese kamikaze pilots who sought to sink ships.

“You forget everything except concentrating on the mission at hand,” Klinger says. “I was setting fuses for 5-inch shells that weighed anywhere from 70 to 100 pounds. The Phoenix shot down a total of eight planes.”

But that was just part of the fierce action that Klinger and his crew members frequently experienced. There were battles with Japanese warships and invasions of islands.

For Klinger, the Battle of Surigao Strait remains among the most vivid. It was fierce and quick.

“It happened at night, and there were a total 48 warships involved,” he says. “The Americans and Australians had six battleships, eight cruisers and 22 destroyers, and the Japanese had two battleships, two heavy cruisers and eight destroyers. The battle lasted only 25 minutes.”

What happened?

“We sank all of the enemy’s ships or they were in the process of capsizing.”

When the smoke cleared, Klinger says, he was ordered to inspect the main deck of the Phoenix for fires and injuries.

“We weren’t hit at all,” he says, “but there were so many empty shells on the deck, it looked like cut firewood.”

Klinger says he considers himself fortunate that he survived the war with barely a scratch. His brother Benny also made it home safely from the war. The same cannot be said about their older brother Stephen, who served in the Army Air Forces in Europe.

“Steve was a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, and while they were over the bombing target, a German fighter plane started shooting its cannon, and one of the shells hit my brother and killed him,” Klinger says. “The B-17 pilot said Steve had been shooting at the plane when he was hit. That was in October 1943.”

The heroic tail gunner was later buried in Cambridge, England.

Back home, Klinger’s mother, Isabelle, also suffered an injury at a Buffalo war plant making machine-gun shell casings. Sections of three of her fingers on her right hand were amputated after being crushed in a stamping machine. But that could not begin to compare with the loss of her son Stephen.

“She would sit on the edge of her bed and cry and say to me, ‘Is Stephen ever coming back?’ I would tell her that where he’s buried, they will take care of him forever,” Klinger recalls. “He’s in a beautiful military cemetery … with all his buddies.”

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Howard H. Kirst can tell you exactly how many gallons of gasoline the quartermaster company he served with provided during training maneuvers for the 4th Armored Division while they were in Tennessee preparing for war.

“We pumped three million gallons of gasoline from rail tank cars and tank trucks into 5-gallon gas cans for those maneuvers back in 1942,” said the 94-year-old Kirst.

Several months later, when the 4th Armored Division packed up and headed to the European Theater of World War II, the Army brass proved forgetful.

Everyone went except for Kirst’s unit, the 3874th Quartermaster Gasoline Supply Company.

“We didn’t receive orders to go, and it was about six months later that the Army found us,” he said. “We should have been in the same boats with the 4th Armored Division.”

As it turns out, it was a voyage Kirst says he was happy he missed.

The 4th Armored Division, in time, participated in one of the most brutal fights of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, fought in heavy snows and record-breaking cold.

“I knew men who slept in their sleeping bags with snow piled on top to prevent them from freezing,” Kirst said.

And though the gasoline supply company had slipped through the bureaucratic cracks once, it did not happen a second time. By October 1943, the company was on its way to WWII’s Pacific Theater, where Kirst discovered the flip side of extreme cold, sweltering days in which the mercury hiked past 100 degrees.

Settled in New Guinea for a spell, the company maintained a gasoline supply depot. Now you might think that kind of job relatively safe in a war zone that saw thousands of GIs slaughtered as they charged onto the beaches of various Pacific islands on the way to Japan.

But consider this: The quartermaster company handled thousands of gallons of gasoline stored in 55-gallon drums, and that made them a choice target for Japanese fighter planes. If the fuel was blown up, that would cripple the Allied Forces.

“At dusk for months we had ‘Wash-Machine Charlie’ flying over us to drop his bombs. We called him ‘Wash Machine’ because his plane’s engine sounded like a washing machine. One night he dropped his bomb in a coconut grove behind us, and it killed two officers in their tent.

“Shortly after that, the machine gunners on off-shore islands hit Charlie’s plane, and it exploded behind a cloud. The next morning debris washed ashore,” Kirst said.

Another story Kirst recalls demonstrates the absolute brutality of war.

“When our troops were in a battle for the New Guinea island of Noemfoor, the Japanese were cornered and ran out of food. They started cutting flesh from wounded and dead Americans and eating it. I did some research on this years later and found newspaper stories in Australia that detailed it,” Kirst said, adding that he landed on Noemfoor and had personally heard the horror stories after the island had been taken.

As the Allied forces continued to move north in the Pacific Ocean, Kirst participated in the battle for the Philippines and recalled how the infantry was moving so fast that its vehicles ran out of fuel.

“Our company was the first non-combat unit sent into Manila to refuel the troops and the fighting was still going on. Manila was more devastated than any city in the world except Warsaw in the war,” Kirst said, adding that he was startled at the devastation he witnessed. “There was nothing there.”

Children who had lost their parents, he said, would come up to the troops with tin cans “and wait until we finished eating and beg us for scraps that were left in our mess kits.”

Even today, Kirst says, he can remember the faces of those hungry children.

“They were living in garbage dumps.”

In 1945, after a year in the Philippines, he returned home and joined the family business of wholesale tobacco and candy sales. The career change from Army to civilian, he said, was a natural fit.

“As the supply sergeant for my company, I provided all of the cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco for the men. So I have been a pusher of tobacco all my life, though not a user,” he wryly explained.

On a not so wry note, Kirst said that for 29 years his quartermaster company met annually, “but today there are only three of us left.”

And the reunions are no more.

As a young man, John Ellerton worked at a bank performing clerical duties, but he felt he could do better for himself and marched off to a state employment office.

There, he looked across the desk at the employment counselor, an older, white-haired woman. She asked, “What is your main goal in life?”

Without hesitation, Ellerton answered, “Well, I want security.”

Ellerton, now 90, says he never forgot her answer:

“The only security you get in life is your own self-development.”

She then gave him a job lead for office manager at a National Cash Register branch. He was hired, but about two years later, Uncle Sam informed him that his services were required elsewhere.

There was just one problem: Ellerton had been raised in a strict religious home where the Ten Commandments were taken seriously, particularly “Thou shall not kill.”

He considered seeking conscientious-objector status, but Ellerton first consulted the Bible, opening up to the Old Testament and reading about the battles fought by the Israelites to survive. That, he says, broadened his perspective, and he became a soldier.

After scoring high on an aptitude test, he was sent to the University of Florida to take courses to become an Army engineer, but the overwhelming need for replacement infantrymen ended his studies and he was assigned to Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army.

“I traveled over to Europe with 42,000 soldiers on the Queen Elizabeth,” Ellerton recalls. “They had taken all the furniture out of the ship and put thin plasterboard covering over all the walls.

“The ship constantly changed course so that it would avoid being targeted by German submarines, and, in fact, we never saw one.”

Once the Allied forces secured Normandy, Ellerton says, he and others were assigned to guarding a submarine base along the coast of France that had been built by the Germans. After that, they joined other troops in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. Brutal winter weather, he says, often stymied tanks and other artillery.

“There was no way we could move the cannons we were assigned to because of all the ice. Even the tanks couldn’t get traction. Eventually, it was straightened around,” says Ellerton, who would rather downplay the blood and gore of war, which did not spare him.

During the battle, a German artillery round landed not far from his cannon and unleashed a spray of shrapnel.

“I got some shrapnel embedded in my leg, and it disabled me,” he says. “I don’t remember how I got to the field hospital, but I’ll tell you: Those medics had a lot of guts, and they got me there, and that’s how I got a Purple Heart.”

Ten days later, Ellerton returned to his unit and continued the march to Germany.

“We had to cross the Saar River, and the Germans had blown up all the bridges. It was quite a wide river. That’s where the engineers came in, and they assembled pontoon bridges away from river,” Ellerton recalls. “Before we pushed the pontoons into the river, we had lined up walls of artillery, all of our guns, hub to hub. There was a complete line, and a barrage started at 3 in the morning to soften the enemy.”

At daylight, the engineers finished the job, and pontoon and footbridges were in place.

“As the tanks started up the hill from the river, they were interspersed with infantrymen walking between them, but the Germans were nowhere in sight,” Ellerton says of the last great push he participated in during the war.

And as peace swept over Europe in May 1945, he says, he could not help but notice the cordial relations between American and German soldiers.

It amazed him, he says, at how hostilities had suddenly vanished.

Back in the United States, he resumed his job with National Cash Register as an office manager but quickly started working his way up the sales force ladder, often traveling across the country.

“I was available for use by the regional branches when they had deals that required specific assistance,” Ellerton says of his 54-year career with the company. “I never went to college, but I had experiences, and I benefited by those experiences. I put them away in my mind for future reference.”

And, of course, there was the advice he took to heart so early in life from the state job counselor before he was summoned to war:

“The only security you get in life is your own self-development.”

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

At age 12, Donald W. Seefeldt learned the definition of backbreaking work as a farmhand in Medina. His chores, before and after school, included milking cows by hand, pitchforking loose hay to feed the cattle and cleaning up endless piles of manure.

Six years later, when he was drafted into the Army, he breezed through boot camp with plenty of muscle to spare. He says he was assigned to one of the toughest boot camps, Fort McClellan, Ala., where he also received advanced infantry training.

“The captain was a Southern guy, and he was rough – a mean dude – and one day, he made the challenge that anyone who could beat him through the obstacle course could have seven days off from getting up at reveille, and I challenged him and beat him,” the 88-year-old Seefeldt says.

The captain, he recalls, was in disbelief and offered his congratulations.

“I was only 18 years old, and no one had ever beat him before,” he says. “Instead of getting up at 5 a.m., I could sleep until 9 a.m. I sure did enjoy that.”

But challenging times that would test not only physical strength but mental endurance lie ahead. In May 1944, Seefeldt and fellow members of the 4th Infantry Division set sail for Europe and arrived at the end of June at Normandy, weeks after the D-Day invasion.

“We went in as overstrength,” he says, “and on June 25, we took the port at Cherbourg. It was a pretty good battle. The reason I remember it so well is, everything happened on the 25th, and my birthday is July 25, and that was the date of the bombing of Saint-Lô, and the first wave of our planes somehow got screwed up and dropped the bombs on us.

“Then, on Aug. 25, we liberated Orly Airfield in Paris. I was one of the very first guys who went in.”

There was hardly any resistance, he says.

“I like to say that President Roosevelt shook a lot of hands,” Seefeldt says, “but he never kissed as many women as we did when we liberated the airfield.”

Did he enjoy the smooching?

“Oh, yeah.”

On Sept. 25, 1944, he says, his unit “hit the Siegfried Line,” where the Germans had all their pillboxes and dragon’s teeth – pyramids of concrete to block tanks – “but we went through there.”

Right after that, he says, he suffered a personal setback that no amount of farm work from his younger days could make him strong enough to repel – a case of battle fatigue.

“Today they call it post-traumatic stress. In World War I, they called it shell shock. You’re just wiped out,” Seefeldt explains. “They flew me back to England. I was in the hospital about a month and a half. From what I remember, they gave me a shot in the arm, and all I know is it wiped out my memory.

“But believe it or not, I still have dreams about being in battle to this day.”

After his stay in England, he was sent to France and served with an engineering outfit. “We piped gasoline through 4-inch and 6-inch lines,” he says. “Our biggest problem was sabotage. The French would drill holes in them and tap them and sell the gasoline.”

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Seefeldt returned home to Orleans County and eventually found work with a farm supply store, where he remained for 35 years before retiring.

Over the years, he married three times and outlived each of his wives. He also helped raise a family of 10 children, with seven of them still alive.

And though it may sound unusual, he says the losses of fellow soldiers on the various battlefields of World War II helped him cope with the losses he experienced in his family life through the years.

“The way things happened in the infantry,” he says, “you had to get used to it. You just make up your mind. Life has to go on.”

And it is that lesson, he adds, that is carrying him through his later years.

“I’ve even done a preplan for my own funeral,” he says. “That takes the sting out of death.”

Hard luck hit the Allan family in 1940 when John T. Allan, a carpenter and father of two sons, died of a massive stroke.

His older son, also named John, quit high school and started working as a butcher to help support his brother, Paul, and their stepmother, Ida.

Then more bad luck occurred.

“John took ill, and I had to quit high school and go out and work to help the family,” Paul E. Allan recalls. “I worked for three different truck farmers in Gardenville. My stepmother worked as a nurse’s aide at Mercy Hospital in the emergency room, but we needed more to make ends meet.”

Allan, though, entertained some lofty notions about his work life.

“I thought I’d like to fly and enlisted in 1944 with the Army Air Forces,” he says, not yet aware that his flyboy dreams would lead to quite a financial boost.

As a farmhand, his monthly pay was about $40; as a sergeant on a B-24 bomber, it was $117. His family back home sure appreciated the extra money.

But Allan paid a high price for his wages, flying from Okinawa up to Japan, nestled in the bomber’s nose, where his twin .50-caliber machine guns were located.

“I would joke with the pilot that I arrived at the bomb site sooner than he did because my turret was ahead of him,” Allan says. “He’d smile when I told him.”

As the “lead” crew member, he realized there was a good chance the enemy, if coming head-on, would most likely take aim at him first.

“One time, as I was climbing into the turret as we approached the target site, either the pilot or co-pilot warned us that a Japanese Zero fighter plane was coming right at us with guns blazing,” Allan recalls. “That was kind of scary. He just made one pass and went on his merry way.”

When the mission was completed and the B-24 was preparing to land, the pilot asked Allan to check the left landing gear.

“It looked OK to me,” Allan says, “but when we touched down, the tire was flat. We started to sink, and the pilot and co-pilot put their feet on the brakes and pulled the throttles back on the two right-side engines and pushed the two left throttles forward to put more speed on, and we landed in a third of the normal runway it would take to land and straight as an arrow.”

The pilot was 21 and known as “the old man.” That landing made him a wise old man, not to mention a hero.

“It could have been pretty rough for us,” Allan says. “When I had looked out the plane’s window and saw the tire, there was no weight on it, so it had looked OK.”

In the weeks before the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Allan and his fellow crew members were no strangers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from about 15,000 feet above the cities.

“We were mostly bombing factories and train yards. We dropped incendiary and general-purpose bombs,” he says. “Our plane was usually the first ahead of the squadron because of the fact that we were a radar unit. That allowed us to pick up railroad tracks, rivers, streams. In the dead of night, we could tell exactly where we were.”

Three days before the first of the two A-bombs was dropped, Allan recalls seeing a notice that warned bomber crews not to fly within a certain radius of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ When they dropped the bomb, three days later, we knew what was happening.”

The war ended Aug. 14, 1945. But Allan’s service continued just outside Tokyo.

Part of Kelly’s Cobras with the 494th Bomb Group. He and his fellow airmen wore an insignia that featured the head of a cobra holding a bomb. That did not go over well with the local citizenry they sometimes encountered.

“They’d shake their fists at us and yell,” Allan recalls. “We didn’t understand a word of the Japanese, but we knew they didn’t like us.”

Back home, Allan attended agricultural college and graduated in 1948 from Cobleskill State College. That opened the door to working at dairy farms, milking cows and cleaning barns. His hard work advanced him to milk testing with the Dairy Herd Improvement Cooperative, and he worked for the organization for 40 years until retiring in 2002.

Allan had married Amelia Landahl, and they raised two sons. After 59 years of marriage, his wife died Dec. 6, 2013, and he says he sorely misses her.

“She cooked my meals for me. Now I have to cook for myself and, even worse, eat what I cook,” Allan says, managing to maintain a sense of humor.

...

Paul E. Allan, 88

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Springville

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• War zone: Pacific

• Years of service: 1944-46

• Rank: Sergeant

• Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal

• Specialty: Armorer/machine-gunner on B-24 bomber

After graduating from South Park High School, Richard P. Baumgardner enlisted in the Navy, eager to follow in his older brother Bernard’s footsteps.

But when Rich returned from the recruiting station to his parents’ home on Keppel Street in South Buffalo and announced his act of patriotism, he hit rough seas. The family had already given their older son to the war effort, and one was quite enough.

“My father objected. I was 17 years old, and he didn’t want me in the service. Bernard was already in,” the 91-year-old recalls. “My father went down and got me out of the Navy. I wasn’t old enough.”

When Baumgardner turned 18, he and a buddy went to the recruiting station, and this time Rich succeeded in enlisting in the Marine Corps. He says that he cannot remember his father’s precise reaction but that there was no doubt he was displeased.

Not long after, Baumgardner was shipped to the Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division and would participate in several major battles. “It wasn’t easy” is all he will say.

His wife, Eleanor Rosten Baumgardner, who occasionally chimes in as her husband is being interviewed, cheerfully remarks – with just a pinch of loving sarcasm – “He makes it sound like it was a picnic.”

More than 100,000 U.S. service members gave their lives as the Allies fought from one Pacific island to the next, moving ever closer to Japan. And perhaps because of the great sorrow in those memories, Baumgardner would rather discuss happier moments, like two unexpected reunions during short breathers amid the battles.

The first involved Baumgardner and his brother, a radioman on a “landing ship, tank,” or LST, that was docked at Saipan in the Mariana Islands. “My brother was on watch, and someone on the ship shouted to him, ‘Your brother is here to see you.’ I went onboard. We hugged and cried a bit,” says Baumgardner, who, in recalling that reunion so many years later, still finds himself overcome with emotions.

An article in The Buffalo Evening News recounted the meeting, based on a letter from Bernard to their mother, Catherine. The article began with the missive’s opening line: “Get set for a surprise, ma. Rich and I finally got together. ….” It was their first time seeing each other in 2½ years.

The other unlikely reunion occurred on Tinian, another island in the Marianas, where the Marines had fought. Baumgardner said he received word that his friend Ed Herbst, with whom he had enlisted in the Marines, was on the other side of the island. Wasting no time, Baumgardner hitched a ride across the island and visited with his buddy from South Buffalo.

“It was great to see him,” he says. “It was a short visit.”

Baumgardner also recalled that while on Tinian, he and other Marines were camped on a beach and that the living conditions were hazardous.

“We would have Japanese fighter planes strafing our tents,” he says. “We’d get out of the tents and dive for cover.”

After the Battle of Okinawa, the Marines moved ever closer to Japan and finally set foot there after the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945.

“We were assigned to Nagasaki,” Baumgardner says. “It was bombed out. It was just devastation.”

When he returned home, “I landed at San Diego and went to Camp Pendleton,” he says, “and then I took the train to Bainbridge, Md., where I was discharged.”

He and his wife raised three children, and he supported the family as a skilled tradesman at General Motors, retiring in 1987.

“I’m still kicking,” he says, adding that having a caring and loving wife has made all the difference. “She’s what keeps me going.”

Richard Baumgardner, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Marine Corps

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Corporal

Most prominent honors: Two Bronze Stars, Combat Action Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, American Campaign Medal

Specialty: Infantry

Robert F. Rohde, 91

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Lancaster

• Branch: Army Air Forces, Air National Guard

• War zone: China-Burma-India Theater

• Years of service: 1942-83

• Rank: Lieutenant colonel

• Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal with two battle stars, Conspicuous Service Cross

• Specialty: Pilot on C-47 Skytrain

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

At age 12, when Robert F. Rohde was a Boy Scout, he was at a troop meeting in Riverside carving an airplane out of a block of wood when Scoutmaster Francis Ford walked up to him and asked if he’d like to go up in an airplane.

“I nearly fell over when he asked. I said, ‘Yes!’ He was a pilot, and he took me up in a Piper Cub at the airport in Cheektowaga,” the 91-year-old Rohde recalls as if it were yesterday. “I just loved it, and said I wanted to be a pilot.”

After he graduated from Riverside High School in 1941, Rohde enlisted in the Civilian Air Patrol, the training unit for what was then the Army Air Corps, and took up residence on the second floor of the University of Buffalo’s Lockwood Memorial Library, a makeshift barracks.

“We studied meteorology and navigation and practiced marching in UB’s back parking lot under Col. Oury,” Rohde says. “We learned how to fly at the Buffalo Airport.”

After completing his courses, he was activated and sent to Denton, Texas, where he trained to become a glider pilot. But due to a glut of glider pilots, he soon found himself at a base in Stuttgart, Ark., where he pulled shifts working in the base kitchen and digging a swimming pool for officers.

“We were using shovels to dig the pool, and this first sergeant came to the top of the hole we were digging and said, ‘We need some volunteers for liaison pilots,’ ” Rohde says, “and I stopped and asked my friend Arnie what a liaison pilot was and he said he didn’t know, and he wasn’t volunteering. I told Arnie, ‘It must be better than this,’ and I raised my hand with one other guy.”

The same night, he was on a train to Waco, Texas, where he learned the skills of a liaison pilot.

“Our job was to fly a Piper Cub and perform reconnaissance duty for combat troops, letting them know where the enemy was situated,” says Rohde, who was promoted to staff sergeant.

But before he was sent overseas, he made a case with the battalion commander at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma to let him train with the big boys, the pilots who could fly twin- and four-engine airplanes.

At 21 years old and with his brand-new twin-engine C-47 Skytrain cargo plane, he was soon on his way to the China-Burma-India Theater, making a pit stop in Cairo, where he saw the Sphinx and rode a camel. In India, he toured the Taj Mahal, but what he would see the most of in that far-flung corner of the world were the Himalayan Mountains, while he was going “over the Hump” to resupply troops in Burma who were battling the Japanese.

“There were no roads in Burma, and everything had to be dropped, either free drops at 150 to 300 feet or parachute drops at 300 to 500 feet,” Rohde says. “We’d use parachutes for the 50-gallon drums of fuel and heavier items, but food and ammunition, that was pretty packed up, and could be free-dropped.”

It was exhilarating and dangerous work, with the Japanese often shooting at the unarmed cargo planes as they flew low to make the drops.

“When you’re low and flying between two mountains, you could see the bullets actually hitting the mountainsides,” Rohde says. “With every drop, you changed your approach on the target to stay out of the gunfire. Guys who didn’t would get shot down.”

Even with those precautionary maneuvers, he says, his plane was often struck with bullets. “When we’d come back to our base in India, they would patch up our plane.”

The weather, he says, was the biggest challenge.

“In monsoon season, we’d fly through terrible rain, thunderstorms, ice storms and fog. I had a surface ceiling of 14,000 feet, and when the plane was loaded, it was lower than that,” Rohde recalls.

“The mountains went up to 29,000 feet. We weaved our way through the mountains. We would use the aluminum on the ground from planes that had crashed to guide us. We called it the ‘aluminum trail.’ ”

To stay alive, pilots had to be imaginative, Rohde says, remembering how one of his buddies got the better of a Japanese Zero fighter plane.

“He had this Zero on his tail,” Rohde says, “and he took him up a dead-end valley and at the last minute dropped his landing gear to slow the plane and made a tight turn and the Zero crashed right into the mountain.”

Rohde also proudly recalled helping a famed figure who hailed from South Buffalo.

“We supplied Maj. Gen. William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan’s units with supplies about 100 to 150 miles behind enemy lines in Burma where they raised hell with the enemy,” Rohde says, remembering that Donovan had established the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA.

After the war, Rohde knew he wanted to keep a hand in flying and joined the Air National Guard at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and was twice called up to active duty stateside during the Korean War and the Berlin Crisis, when Soviet leaders in 1958 demanded that the United States and the other allies vacate West Berlin. In 1983, he retired from the Guard.

Returning to civilian life, he began with Buffalo Savings Bank in 1948 as a file clerk.

“It was the lowest job, but the bank sent me to school and I worked my way up the ladder and – would you believe it? – I retired as the bank’s corporate secretary,” Rohde says.

He and his wife, Antoinette Tamila Rohde, raised five children, all of whom graduated from college with master’s degrees. And on April 30, the former military officer and bank executive and his bride will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary.

“We’re happily married,” he says. “It’s always been a happy life for us.”

Attending Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, hoping to one day become a physical-education teacher, Robert E. Pope received a draft notice in 1942 that led to him put his physical abilities to the test in combat, hauling a machine gun across Europe.

But his biggest test of physical endurance would come in surviving as a prisoner of war. It happened just after the pivotal Battle of the Bulge started Dec. 16, 1944. Pope and other members of the Army's 590th Field Artillery Battalion had advanced too quickly.

“Our battery had moved up so fast to the front lines in the Ardennes Forest that we were cut off from our supply lines,” Pope recalls, “and on the night of Dec. 2, our commanders told us that we were going to surrender in the morning because we were surrounded.”

At daybreak Dec. 21, German troops entered, from both sides, the valley where the 120 soldiers were trapped. The surrender went peacefully.

“The Royal Air Force had bombed the railroads, and we had to march in subzero weather for 100 kilometers to where the railroad had not been bombed,” Pope says. “I have no idea where that was.”

But he vividly remembers the forced march.

“We had very little to eat, and what there was went to the guards. When we would stop at a farm, we scrounged around to find turnips, a carrot or anything else,” he says. “We marched nine days before we were placed in railway boxcars.”

That almost proved to be a deathtrap.

“While we were waiting in the boxcars, the train was strafed by U.S. P-47 fighter planes that thought the train was carrying supplies,” Pope remembers. “A shell came through the boxcar I was in and killed the guy standing next to me. The guards let us out, and we ran into a field of virgin snow and we spelled out 'U.S. PWS.'

“We left out the 'O' in 'POW' because we wanted to do it fast before the planes came back. When the planes returned, they flapped their wings at us, recognizing that we weren't supplies – we were American prisoners.”

A couple of days later, he and his fellow soldiers arrived at Stalag IV-G in Oschatz, Germany, between Leipzig and Dresden.

“We were there for about 10 days for interrogation, then the privates and private-first-class soldiers were put on a train and taken to Leipzig,” he says. “… They put is in what was a nightclub before the war that was in the suburbs. That's where we stayed at night.

“Every morning, we got up and had our meager breakfast, barley soup, then a piece of bread and liver sausage to take with us.

“At night, we had barley soup again. We boarded trolleys to the railroad station, and then we would go out on flatcars to where the railroad had gotten bombed out the night before and work on it. If you haven't seen it, that is heavy work.”

The POWs would fill in bomb craters with heavy gravel, lift replacement railroad ties into place and install new sections of steel train track. It was arduous work for soldiers on a near-starvation diet.

However, the enemy didn't care about that. The dimensions of the railroad track were what mattered.

“After the inspector measured to make sure the width of the track was right,” Pope says, “we would pound spikes in to hold the track.”

On the night Feb. 21, there were no air raids. “So the next morning,” he says, “we worked in the city on trolley tracks. At noon, the sirens went off, and a few minutes later, B-17 bombers appeared, one wave after another for over three hours. They were dropping 1,000-pound blockbusters and 250-pound incendiary bombs.

“We were not allowed in the bomb shelters with the citizens and had to stay out in the streets during this bombing. This raid virtually leveled the city. There were fires all over, and the city was demolished.”

Yet only a few POWs perished, compared with the many civilians.

And if the day had not already been trying enough, when the bombing concluded, the trolley line that transported the prisoners had been destroyed, Pope says, “and we had to walk 12 miles back to prison.”

After that, the misery continued until the Germans combined Pope's unit with a larger contingent of prisoners. They moved about like Gypsies, going from one farm in the countryside to another, in search of food and water.

“Then one day, when we were at a farm and told to fill some empty milk cans with water, we went to a farmhouse across the street,” Pope says, “and when we were behind it, we realized there were no guards who could see us, and we went out through the woods behind the farm until we came to a road and started walking on it.

“We walked for 36 hours. At one point, we saw dust in the distance and hid. It was a good thing. A German halftrack came by with SS troops, and they would have killed us. Then as we came up by a farmhouse, we saw a German soldier on the porch kissing a young woman.

“There was a fork in the road, and we didn't know what to do. We saw that the soldier's gun was against the house. So we yelled, 'Which way Americanos?' And the German, without breaking the embrace, pointed us in the right direction.”

A short time later, there was more dust, but this time, it was being kicked up by the wheels of an American Jeep.

“A captain and a sergeant were in the Jeep,” Pope says, “and they asked us if we came from a group of prisoners, and we said, 'Yeah, there's about a thousand, and they are 36 hours back on that road.' ”

The next day, a convoy was sent, and the other prisoners were liberated.

For Pope, the physical trial had been intense. He had gone into the Army weighing 175 pounds and was now 125.

“At Camp Lucky Strike in France, they had full breakfast, lunch and dinners and had eggnogs in between the meals,” Pope recalls, “and when I came home, I weighed 155 pounds – but I looked pregnant because it went on my stomach.”

His psyche, he added, had taken a pounding from the trials of war, but he resolved to move forward, telling himself, “That was my past. I'm going to work on my future.”

His dream to teach physical education never panned out. He eventually settled in Western New York and served as a fundraiser for various building projects, including structures at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and what is now Women & Children's Hospital.

But his biggest accomplishment, he says, was raising money for the construction of Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

“I don't consider myself a hero,” Pope says of his wartime service. “I consider myself a survivor.”

Robert E. Pope, 90

Hometown: Englewood, N.J.

Residence: Clarence

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Prisoner of War Medal, European Theater Medal

Specialty: Machine-gunner

Robert W. Lally’s dream was to fly for the Army Air Forces, but a childhood injury to his left arm disqualified him from heading into the wild blue yonder to crush America’s enemies in World War II.

Yet everything happens for a reason, so they say. And had it not been for that injured left wing of his, Lally’s heroic actions on Dec. 1, 1944, in a German farm field would never have happened, and his wounded sergeant would have been left for dead.

Lally, as it turned out, served as Sgt. Richard Smith’s guardian angel, wings and all.

It happened in the weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, in another lesser-known battle, Operation Queen, designed to push through the Siegfried Line across the northern plains of Germany to Berlin. It failed and took with it many of Lally’s beloved comrades, a fact that he still mourns decades later.

But Sgt. Smith would not be among the dead.

Around midmorning on that first day of December, when the fog had lifted, the battle began. Almost immediately, the sergeant suffered a machine-gun wound to the head as he crested a steep embankment. Lally later discovered him lying facedown in a field of bushy, unharvested sugar beets.

“I had been further ahead as a scout and was crawling back from the point of the attack when I saw him. I then encountered a couple soldiers who had been with him, and they told me what had happened. They tried to get back up to him, but the machine gun drove them back. They yelled to him and, of course, he couldn’t answer. They were sure he was dead because they’d seen him get hit,” Lally recalled.

Behind the embankment in the safety of a flowing stream ribboned by woods, Lally said, his heart would not allow him to retreat without knowing for certain that his sergeant was truly dead. Smith was someone he had admired.

“He was one of the few noncommissioned officers that treated me fairly.”

Mustering his courage, Lally, who held the rank of private at the time, moved upstream some 40 yards and then scaled the embankment out of view of the German machine-gunner.

“I crawled in a deep plow furrow alongside the unharvested field that provided some cover and found him lying facedown in a pool of blood, apparently dead.”

Lally got the shock of his life, though, when he touched one of Smith’s boots.

“I just shook the boot a little, and his eyes opened. He couldn’t talk. He was still in shock. He wasn’t about to move. I was exhausted and couldn’t drag him. It took me about 10 minutes to convince him to move. I told him that if he could get up enough energy and just crawl, our two comrades were down below in a big shell hole beside the stream, and they could move him.

“I told him to go first because I knew the first guy always had the better chance of making it without being shot. It’s a surprise. He did, and he tumbled down into the wooded draw that was being bombarded with shells bursting in the treetops.”

The miracle, Lally said, continued.

“We were half-carrying him, supporting him, and after two or three hundred yards we stumbled on a forward first-aid station of the 2nd Battalion. The doctors there patched up his face and put him out on a stretcher, and he was loaded into an ambulance and was transported back to Holland.

“A doctor in Holland realized how badly he was hurt, and he was airlifted to England. The doctors in England told him he would have been killed if the path of the bullet had varied even slightly. The bullet had entered just below his left eye and left behind his right ear.”

After four months of recuperation, Smith returned to the front lines.

“We gave each other a big hug. There wasn’t too much conversation. The war was raging on, and you don’t have time for conversation.”

Long after the war, in their later years, Lally and Smith, who lived in Mechanicsburg, Pa., rekindled their acquaintance with plenty of time to reminisce about the war they helped win.

In a 1988 letter, shortly before he died, Smith wrote to Lally expressing his gratitude for his service to Company L “and especially to me. I may not have had the chance to go turkey hunting … if not for your heroic deed. God bless you and your family.

“Always Your Friend, Sgt. Smith.”

...

Robert W. Lally, 90

Hometown: Springfield, Ill.

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Army

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: 1942–1946

Rank: staff sergeant

Most prominent honors: 2 Bronze Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: infantry scout

At 18 years old, Robert F. Batt enlisted in the family business of hanging wallpaper and painting with his dad, Eugene, throughout the Tonawandas.

It was hard work, he recalled, “and you had to push yourself, but we never had to advertise because of our good reputation. Word of mouth was the best advertising.”

Perhaps that’s how Uncle Sam learned of Robert’s work ethic and explains why he received a draft notice in May 1943 at 27 years of age, married and the father of a baby girl.

Batt’s skills, which included carpentry, landed him in the Army Engineers, where he was taught how to disarm mines and other unexploded ordnances.

“I did quite a bit of construction and destruction in Europe,” the 98-year-old Amherst resident mused.

What he vividly recalls is his arrival at Normandy’s Utah Beach about a week after D-Day on June 6, 1944.

“We’d dig out the unexploded anti-personnel mines and booby traps in the fields. We’d put our hands under the mine to make sure there wasn’t a second one beneath the first one. One of the tricks the Germans like to do was place a second mine under the top one, thinking we wouldn’t check, and then the second would explode,” Batt said. “We would gently feel around under the top of the first mine.”

Ever so carefully, Batt explained, he and his fellow engineers would disarm the devices and place them in a heap for detonation.

A member of 368th Engineers, Batt said they also cleared roadways in the villages and towns of France that had been blocked by fallen trees and by collapsed buildings damaged from artillery and air assaults. “We used heavy equipment to clear the roads to make way for the transport of munitions up to front lines.”

Another job was the construction of a gasoline pipeline from Omaha Beach to the front lines.

And while the engineers were not routinely tasked with engaging the enemy, as the infantry was, they certainly took their share of enemy fire and, at times, doubled as infantry.

“During the Battle of the Bulge, we backed up the infantry because there were such heavy losses. We were there in case we were needed. We mostly came under artillery fire. It was scary and noisy, too,” he said.

As the war progressed into Germany, Batt said, his unit went underground – literally.

“We were assigned to the coal mines just over the border from Belgium. At one of the mines, we had to splice back together a cable for the elevator. The Germans had intentionally cut it. We went down into the mine, myself and a corporal. We were looking for contraband,” he said.

And wouldn’t you know it, they hit pay dirt.

“We found boxes of rifles, pistols and ammunition, and we found some food stored down there.”

Topside, the food was put to good use.

“We met displaced people who had been brought in from Italy and Yugoslavia, but mostly Italians, who were used as slave labor in working the mines for the Germans,” he recalled. “They hadn’t been fed in weeks, and we gave them the food we found in the mines. There were sausages and lard that was in sealed, five-gallon buckets.”

The sight of these displaced people, dressed in rags and shoeless, he said, “really shook us up.”

Batt also had some other disturbing yet memorable encounters, but not with civilians. Instead, the big guy himself, Old Blood and Guts, officially known as Gen. George S. Patton, head of the 3rd Army.

“He yelled at me back in England when we were working at headquarters. He said we weren’t doing a good job building Quonset huts. I was in charge of the detail. I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘If this job isn’t done by tonight, I’ll have your stripes.’ We finished the job that night.

“I met him a few days later, and he said, ‘You’re doing a good job, and that’s what I like to see.’ Then when we were putting up a flagpole at headquarters, I was at the top of the pole painting it, and Gen. Patton’s dog was grabbing onto the rope that was dangling from my bosun’s chair.

“The general said to me, ‘Is that dog bothering you?’ I said, ‘He’s not helping matters any.’ The general kicked that dog, and it must have went four feet. I was relieved. I could have fallen out of the chair.”

After the war, Batt felt supreme relief to at last be back home painting and wallpapering as a civilian. The family business had come to a halt in 1944, when his father passed away from a massive heart attack.

“I started the business back up. I put one advertisement in the Tonawanda News in 1946, and that was it. I got my customers back, and I got new ones.”

In 1981, Batt says, he and his wife, the former Dolores Behm of North Tonawanda’s Gratwick section, retired to the South after raising two daughters and a son. Last year, after 32 years in the Florida sunshine, they returned and took up residence at Amberleigh, a retirement community in Amherst.

While he misses Florida’s warmer weather, Batt says he is proud that he and his wife hold the distinction of being married the longest of any their fellow residents, with a record 74 years of marital bliss.

His memories of the war are not so blissful, he says, and are never far away.

“I try to think of some of the funny things that happened. Not the rough stuff.”

And what amuses him?

“Like the time our captain was the first to dive into a foxhole, and he found it was full of water, and another guy dove in on top of him.”

Edward J. Haslinger found work at Liberty Wire Works at Elmwood and Kenmore avenues in Buffalo, thanks to his Uncle Martin who worked at the plant back in the early 1940s.

Haslinger helped build wire coverings for the running parts of manufacturing machines to prevent workers from getting injured, and he also built window cages for factories to prevent them from being vandalized.

The 22-year-old Haslinger, who previously had been unemployed, was grateful to his Uncle Martin, a World War I veteran.

Then another “uncle” found work for Haslinger: It came in the form of a March 1941 draft notice from Uncle Sam.

“Back then, before we went to war, draftees served a year, and then they were discharged,” Haslinger says. “I was looking forward to getting out the following March. I’d taken a train from the foot of Main Street in Buffalo to Fort Niagara in Youngstown. I was issued a uniform that was from World War I.

“When I put the uniform on, it had leggings that went up from your ankles to the knees. Two weeks later, when I was at Fort Bragg, N.C., standing for inspection, the sergeant looked at me and said, ‘What are those and where the hell did you get them?’ ” Haslinger recalls of the unwanted attention caused by his goofy-looking leggings.

The sergeant, he says, promptly ordered him to take a hike straight to the base supply unit for a proper pair of military trousers.

“I must have been the most embarrassed guy in the world wearing those leggings,” he says. “They were all looking at me. I said that was what I was issued at Fort Niagara.”

When it came time to assign Haslinger a specialty, a supervisor looked at his civilian résumé, and the word “wire” jumped off the page. He was directed to work as a telephone wire and radio communications specialist. Apparently the supervisor hadn’t read very closely to see that Haslinger’s experience with wire had nothing to do with phones and radio waves.

Haslinger had no choice but to follow orders, of course.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he learned that his service in the military would not conclude in a few short months, as he had planned.

“We were told of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and that we were in for the duration of the war,” he says.

By 1943, he was in the Pacific serving with the 192nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 43rd Infantry Division and caught the tail end of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

“I didn’t see too much action there,” he says, “but it was the first place I was up to my ankles in mud. When we arrived, it was pretty well in check. The Marines had gotten there first.

“I was on so many islands in the Pacific, and there was action; I wish I could remember the names of the islands. When we landed on one of them, the enemy planes were strafing us, and we had to dive for cover.

“My last invasion was at Leyte in the Philippines. By the time we hit the beach, it was very dark. We were supposed to have landed at daybreak. But it was night, and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. They said find a place to sleep and we’ll call you in the morning.”

Other members of the infantry, Haslinger says, “had pretty much driven the enemy away,” heading toward Manila.

With the island conquered, the Americans “set up camp,” Haslinger says, and he was among the soldiers who remained there until the war ended in August 1945 “when they dropped the A-bombs.”

Though he was never wounded, Haslinger contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne tropical disease.

“It was worse than malaria,” he says. “When I returned home, I had a relapse three days before my marriage in January of 1946. I didn’t think I’d make my marriage.”

But he did, marrying Rose Hoak, to whom he has been wed for 68 years.

In 1949, he was hired by the Buffalo Fire Department, and his last assignment was as an assistant radio dispatcher, taking him, in a way, full circle back to his roots as a “wire” man.

At age 96, Haslinger says, he is pretty certain he is the oldest retiree from the city firefighting force.

How does that make him feel?

“Very old.”

...

Edward J. Haslinger, 96

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1941-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal

Specialty: Telephone wire and radio communications

Duke L. Williams was not about to let others in his family best him when it came to patriotism and wartime service.

His devotion to America took him to enemy islands in the Pacific during World War II, then to postwar atomic bomb tests performed at a Pacific atoll and finally back to the Pacific aboard a battleship in the Korean War.

He has suffered from radiation poisoning throughout his life and, ironically, lives not too far from the Manhattan Project’s disposal site off Model City Road in Lewiston. It is there that waste from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan and nuclear tests at Bikini atoll has been stored for decades.

But Williams’ war stories begin when his stepfather, Luther Ogden, was drafted into the Army in spring 1943. Williams’ 15-year-old brother, Ford, was also in the Army, having pulled a fast one by claiming he was 18.

“I thought I better join the crowd. Everybody was leaving, and so two days after I turned 17, I had my mother sign papers allowing me to enlist in the Navy,” Williams says.

After completing amphibious and gunnery training in San Diego, Williams was on his way to the war in the Pacific, first with a stop at Pearl Harbor, where he saw firsthand the carnage caused by the Japanese sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

“Our next stop was Guam. We had a night landing maneuver there,” he recalls, “then we went on to the Palau group of islands and hit the island Peleliu to take control of an airstrip.

“It was a dirty fight. The enemy had so many natural caves, and we had so many casualties. The brass had planned to secure the island in 72 hours, and it took 70-something days.

“They hadn’t been aware of one single cave on the island before we went in, and there were over 100 of them. The enemy troops were waiting on us. They were all in the caves during the shelling from the battleships. We delivered tanks, ammunition and troops to the beach.

“The first couple waves had it pretty tough. We lost seven out of 17 amphibious landing craft tanks.”

At one point during the battle – which was controversial because an airstrip had already been secured during the battle for the island of Saipan – U.S. soldiers and Marines had been forced from their field positions, Williams said.

“They were driven back out onto the beach, and the Marines had to be brought in a second time to reclaim the lost ground. I would have fired Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur then instead of later,” Williams says of his distaste for the controversial commander.

To this day, he says, it upsets him that thousands of Americans were killed and wounded for a tiny spit of land “that wasn’t needed.”

After World War II, Williams returned home for 65 days of leave and then was back out to sea to serve as something of a guinea pig with other members of the military aboard ships in the vicinity of Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. Two atom bombs, known as “Able” and “Baker,” were set off in summer 1946 to gauge the impact on naval vessels anchored with animals aboard in the lagoon at the atoll.

“For the first bomb, we were about 7½ miles away from ground zero at Bikini. The second bomb was twice as strong, and we were 17 miles away,” he says. “With the first bomb, we had to turn our backs to the blast and were only allowed to look after it had detonated. We saw the big mushroom cloud. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

“The second bomb was detonated underwater about 100 feet at the bottom of the lagoon. We were able to watch that one, and I saw a mechanized landing craft blow right in two, with one half going 2,000 feet in the air. There was nothing but water – just a big, big plume of water.

“The USS Arkansas, a battleship that weighed 33,000 tons, was anchored in the lagoon, and the bow of it went straight up in the air, and then it sunk straight down into the water. I thought, ‘Let me get the hell out of here.’ ”

That didn’t happen. He shuttled scientists to the other target ships that had survived in the lagoon so that instruments measuring radiation levels could be recorded.

“They were interested in how fast the radiation would decrease,” he says.

However, the radiation did not dissipate quickly enough, Williams says. As a result of that radiation, he has struggled with thyroid problems and cancer throughout his life.

“When 89 percent of us who were out there came down with thyroid disorders or cancer, it makes you wonder,” he says. “When they removed my thyroid in 1980, the VA in Buffalo listed the reason as hereditary. It’s kind of hard to accept that.”

His service to the country continued when he was called up from the Reserve to serve in the Korean War. “I was on the battleship Wisconsin and we went up and down the coast of the Korean Peninsula supporting the Marines and Army. We’d break up the hordes of Chinese troops and tank attacks by firing our 5-inch and 16-inch guns.”

At one point, the Wisconsin blew up a railway, halting the movement of an enemy troop and ammunition train.

“When the train engineer tried to back up, we blew up the tracks behind him, and then it was just target practice, blowing each rail car, until we got hit by an 8-inch shore battery gun.

“We didn’t want to be hit twice, so we took off, and once we were out of the 8-inch gun’s range, we turned around, and that was end of the shore battery. We took him out with one 16-inch shot.”

After the Korean War, Williams continued to serve at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

“Our job was operations and working in the air control tower,” he says.

In 1958, he said goodbye to the military and took up another challenging line of work as an ironworker, helping build radar towers in the Arctic and the oil pipeline in Alaska.

Residing on Lewiston’s Langdon Road, not far from the Manhattan Project waste-storage facility, he wryly says of what’s there: “Oh, it won’t hurt you. Don’t be afraid.”

This hard-as-nails 87-year-old veteran of two wars then adds an ironic chuckle.

Warren J. Eberhardt, 88

Hometown: West Seneca

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, European-African-Middle East Service Medal

Specialty: Lead scout, infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Even now, some seven decades later, the first thing Warren J. Eberhardt will tell you is that he is grateful he made it back home from World War II with his left leg still intact.

The 88-year-old veteran from Amherst suffered a severe shrapnel wound to the leg when he was taking cover in a foxhole on the front lines in Germany.

“I still have my left leg. I also have a scar starting on my left thigh and running down to my left knee, about a foot long,” he says of the lifelong reminder of how close he came to losing the leg.

The college-bound teenager had been drafted in August 1944, weeks after being among 25 who graduated from Ebenezer High School in West Seneca.

When he should have been buckling down and taking notes from professors, he was instead getting high marks in Army infantry. In fact, his physical dexterity took him to the head of the class as a scout among scouts.

“At Ebenezer High School, I was able to do handstands and go down the steps on my hands. I also walked around the gym on my hands,” he says of his physical gifts. “I could also do handsprings and flip over.”

More than able to get around, Eberhardt often found himself way ahead of his platoon as the lead scout in search of Germans.

Once while out on night patrol, he recalls, he noticed a barn with light visible from under a closed door. But this time, he happened to be with another scout. Lucky for him.

“We opened the door, and there were half a dozen Germans, and we took them prisoner,” Eberhardt says.

Having the German last name of “Eberhardt” printed above the breast pocket of his uniform had proved to be a secret weapon, according to his wife, Gale, who helped her husband of 43 years remember some of his war stories.

“When they saw his name, they thought he was German,” she says.

“But I was German from Buffalo, N.Y.,” her husband adds with a chuckle, recalling how the enemy soldiers surrendered to him, thinking he might be a comrade once removed.

His luck, however, dried up April 3, 1945, when he was out scouting and took cover in a foxhole that Germans targeted with an artillery round.

Medics transported the wounded Eberhardt from the front lines to a field hospital. He knew he had suffered facial injuries, he says, but was unaware of the wound to his left leg.

“When it was Warren’s turn to be treated,” his wife says, “he tried to stand up and could not. That’s when he realized he was wounded in the leg. In the foxhole, he had put his hands up to his face to protect his eyes.”

That defensive reflex saved his eyes but resulted in a shrapnel wound to his right hand, and the shrapnel succeeded in knocking out one of his upper front teeth.

“When I returned home, I went to the dentist, who happened to be my grandfather, and he took care of my teeth,” Eberhardt says. “I wound up losing two other teeth from the injury, (but) I can’t complain.”

After the war, he not only took care of improving his physical appearance by way of his grandfather’s dentistry, but also wasted no time improving himself intellectually. He attended the University of Buffalo in 1946 and graduating in record time with an accounting degree in 1948.

For more than half a century, he worked as an accountant, and he and his wife raised two daughters, Ellen and Linda. And as a man of numbers, perhaps the most important figure in his life has been two – as in, two working legs.

“The left leg was almost off, and it came around and healed up,” says Eberhardt, expressing gratitude.

Leslie R. Stainbrook, 89

Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Paratrooper

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

No way, Les Stainbrook thought, when he received an invitation to become a paratrooper at Camp Forrest in Tennessee.

Nineteen-year-old Leslie R. Stainbrook had no interest in jumping out of airplanes into what would surely be enemy territory during World War II.

He ended up being sweet-talked into the highly hazardous job, but as it turned out, he never got the chance to jump behind enemy lines.

“My platoon leader was Jackson Roach, and he was a very nice guy. He told me that if I signed up as a paratrooper, I would receive 50 extra dollars above my base pay. In those days, my base pay was $78 a month,” Stainbrook says. “He thought I’d be interested in the extra money and that I would do a good job, so I gave in and signed up.”

Stainbrook says his first leap out of an airplane surprised him:

“On my first jump, when the parachute opened up, I said something like, ‘Oh, my God. This is really fun.’ ”

In Europe, he was set to parachute into the Battle of the Bulge in early January 1945, but the jump was canceled because of a low ceiling of clouds and bad weather. Instead, he and fellow members of the Army’s 17th Airborne Division were trucked to the frontlines to assist 101st Airborne Division paratroopers who were surrounded by German forces.

“We drove on trucks piled with ammunition boxes throughout the night, and we didn’t have any idea where we were going,” he says. “When we arrived, the boxes were unloaded, and we went into combat.

“A few days later, I was going up to the top of a small hill to see where the enemy was so that I could tell my men where to direct their fire. An 88-millimeter shell struck me in the chest and knocked me unconscious.

“When I came to, a bunch of my guys were standing around me, and I told them to spread out because if another shell came in, it would kill us all. Most of them moved away, but two or three stayed there with me.

“I stood up, and one of them picked up a shell that had split in half, and we theorized that the round, smooth part of the shell had hit me. If the jagged part had, I wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”

Stainbrook recalls that rather than seek medical attention, he continued fighting.

Later that same day, the company commander took a small group of soldiers aside and asked for a volunteer to retrace their steps to an area they had passed earlier. It looked as if it might be a suitable site to set up camp away from the bullets and artillery shells.

“The commander wanted someone to go back and make sure that it was safe for the rest of the unit,” he says. “I wasn’t that enthused about it, but when nobody volunteered, I said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ The commander said he would get someone to go with me, and he got a young lad.

“We were put on a jeep, and it took a half-hour, and finally when we got there, the driver gave us a telephone, and he went back to the outfit. My job was to call when we looked around and say if it was safe. We found a one-man foxhole and climbed in it, and I kept calling and calling to report it was safe, but the calls never went through.

“The two of us were in the foxhole, and during the night, there was a German patrol that went by. They were 25 feet from our foxhole. As they were walking, you could hear them whispering and their feet crunching on the snow. We didn’t have any problem, but I told the lad, ‘Give me your grenades,’ which he did, and about a half-hour later, another German patrol went through.

“They were within 12 to 15 feet of our foxhole. I was ready to throw the grenades. I figured that would take out more Germans than shooting a rifle. I didn’t want to start anything. They walked right on by and didn’t see us or acted that way. The next day, I still hadn’t contacted our unit, and we were frozen. I said, ‘We can’t stay here.’ At 10 or 11 in the morning, no one had showed up.

“So we went out the way I thought we drove in and walked down the road and came to a fork, and I took a guess, and it was the right way. As the Good Lord would have it, a while later, I came across a line of GI trucks that were stopped. I knocked on the side door of the last truck and got the lad inside so he could warm up.”

Stainbrook continued farther up the convoy, hoping to find someone he knew, but exhaustion set in, and he asked the driver of another truck to let him in the cab to warm up.

“I told him I was with B Company, and we’d been out all night,” he recalls. “He said they were transporting food to B Company but had to stop because of shelling. I got a meal, and then I was taken to a first-aid station, and they took off my boots. My feet were black up to above my ankles.

“I can’t tell you how, but I was taken to a hospital in Paris and then evacuated to England. I don’t remember leaving the hospital. The only thing I recall is four prisoners of war putting me on a hospital ship. I stayed at the hospital about 2½ months and then returned to my outfit.”

Stainbrook’s feet were never the same, partly lacking sensation and always cold.

After the war in Europe was won in May 1945, he returned home to Western New York on leave and was preparing to head off to Japan for an expected massive invasion when the war in the Pacific ended after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.

Victory allowed Stainbrook to return to his job at the A&P supermarket in University Plaza. He eventually advanced into the personnel department and continued until the chain closed in this region. He found work with a food broker and later took a job at his church, The Chapel, visiting the sick and those who were homebound, retiring in 2003.

He and his wife, the former Bernice Brunner, raised a daughter, Sandra, and a son, Mark.

With the help of a cane, the 89-year-old veteran says that he is still able to get around on his own.

“I’m glad I can do that much,” he says, expressing gratitude for having survived the war.

Bill Strapko and Roscoe C. Brown Jr. shook hands and grabbed each other’s shoulders.

They’d never met before, but these veterans knew each other – perhaps in a way only they could understand.

They had stared down death together and come out World War II heroes.

Strapko, 95, of North Tonawanda, was a B-17 Flying Fortress first pilot during World War II, helping lead some of the United States’ most famous missions. He received recognition for his role in the 1945 bombing of Berlin on Saturday at the Return of the Red Tails gala in Horseheads.

The event was hosted by the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who escorted Strapko and the other American bombers into enemy territory that day.

Brown, 92, the Airmen’s flight leader for the bombing, delivered Saturday’s keynote address.

For Michael Joseph, chairman of the Return of the Red Tails Gala, witnessing the veterans greeting one another was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

“The fact that you had them there is amazing,” Joseph said. “They’ve gone through wars and here they are, captains of their mission 69 years ago, and they’re still here and still speaking and sharing their stories with their fellow Americans.”

Strapko met six other Airmen on Saturday, as well. All seven are between the ages of 88 and 93.

Strapko jokes that he first met Brown at the library, where he read about his conquests. The Tuskegee pilots were America’s first black military airmen. Brown graduated from the Tuskegee Flight School and became a flight leader of the 100th Fighter Squadron in the 332nd Fighter Group.

They and the Air Force bomber pilots formed an extraordinary team.

The mission that day in Berlin set seven World War II records, including the tally for most German jets destroyed by one bomb group on one mission (six) and the mark for the longest escorted bomber mission over Europe.

“No one has anything close to that in the whole war,” Strapko said.

He recalls coming in for a briefing and seeing a rolled-down wall map of Europe. When the presenter pointed to Berlin, the room started buzzing excitedly. The hype only increased when the soldiers heard the Red Tail Tuskegees – so named because of the color of the stabilizers on their planes – would be their escorts.

“We knew it was historic because it was Berlin,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “We anticipated there would be some opposition, but we didn’t know it’d be the German jets. I told my group to drop the fuel tanks and follow me, and we chased them away.”

The Airmen had a nearly flawless day, suffering only a few casualties, even though the Germans fired just about everything they had in their arsenal.

At a Tuskegee Airmen gathering in 2008, Corning businessman Daryl Denning told Joseph, “Were it not for the Airmen, I would not be married to my wife. On one of the most dangerous missions in World War II, my father-in-law was escorted by the Airmen and probably would not have survived if the Airmen were not on that mission.”

Denning’s father-in-law?

It is Strapko. So when this event was slated for Horseheads, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Buffalo, Joseph gave him a call.

“I didn’t expect to be invited – why me?” Strapko said. “But when you see all” the records from the Berlin mission, “you know why.”

Strapko completed 20 missions in one month before the war ended, none more publicized than that at Berlin.

Inside Strapko’s home, his medals are arranged neatly next to a scrapbook on his coffee table. Flip the book open and the first page reveals a handsome couple in their early 20s.

“That was my beautiful wife,” Strapko says, his eyes welling with tears. “She passed away about two years ago.”

Strapko takes a journey through the pages of the book, a collection of laminated memories from World War II. A black, hard exterior bookends newspaper clippings that detail wartime achievements.

As Strapko shares his tale, his white hair is parted immaculately – a straight-up military man to this day – and he sports glasses reminiscent of basketball coach John Wooden. Most striking, however, is the effervescence in his blue eyes, which both light up and grow heavy when the topic shifts to his late wife, whom he married in 1941. The former Irene Chodacki passed away unexpectedly in September 2011.

He clings to memories of his wife and World War II.

Strapko stood out at classification in Nashville, Tenn., where Army Air Forces cadets underwent testing and were split into different sectors. That was after basic training in Atlantic City and 10 weeks of classes at Indiana Central College, where he studied geography and aerodynamics, “things pertaining to flying,” he said.

He later became a bomber pilot in Columbus, Ohio, where he received his wings and commission to second lieutenant.

Before joining the military, Strapko was a standout athlete at North Tonawanda High School. He was one of the first people inducted into the Lumberjacks’ basketball hall of fame and turned down a football scholarship to St. Bonaventure University.

For a physical specimen, transitioning to the Army Air Forces seemed natural. He also had a mental edge, having learned all his life from his father – an immigrant who found ways to provide food and shelter for his family throughout the Great Depression though he couldn’t find work.

“God, I learned a lot from him,” Strapko said. “Boy, he knew how to take care of his family.”

Strapko seemed bred to be a leader, and he fulfilled such prophecy throughout his military career.

He is not pleased, however, with the way he has been treated by government officials since it ended. For more than a decade, he has sought a Distinguished Flying Cross, for which he was recommended after the Berlin mission.

One photograph in his scrapbook shows Strapko, a moment after stepping off Big Yank at the end of that mission, being greeted by reporters and photographers there to cover his recognition.

He didn’t know why they were there and didn’t find out his supervisor had recommended him for the award until 40 years later by happenstance. He has since applied for it and sent letters to numerous politicians, but he has only received the Air Medal, a lesser award.

“They all give me a lot of baloney and hot air,” Strapko said. “It just kills me because I earned it; I should have gotten it.”

Though he has not received the Distinguished Flying Cross he believes he deserves (he’s still fighting for it), Strapko did accrue a lifetime of lessons during the war, lessons he carries with him today.

He shares so many stories – like that of the deadly Memmingen mission, or the time he was so exhausted when his group reached Wales that he slept for 28 hours – that a Cliff Notes version couldn’t do his military career justice.

Yet the many dangerous adventures he experienced during World War II didn’t rattle him.

“A lot of the guys, they get stressed out, they break down, they go nuts and everything else,” Strapko said. “It didn’t affect me at all. Not one bit. For my age, I’m not nervous, I’m not trembling.”

Strapko’s time as a bomber pilot didn’t hurt his health, but it did impact his outlook and the lens through which he views the world.

“You go on one of those missions and believe me, it’ll affect you your whole life,” he said. “I learned about myself – that I could face things that I thought I could never face before.”

Reliving the World War II years gives Strapko vigor.

“Bill, when he arrived, he seemed to be very frail,” Joseph said of Saturday’s Return of the Red Tails event. “But as night wore on, he seemed to grow stronger. He was thriving on this.”

That evening, Bill Strapko was right where he wanted to be – surrounded by fellow veterans, reliving the war, shaking hands and sharing stories that have aged 69 years but have not diminished in significance.

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On March 23, 1943, Wayne G. Cooper, a senior at LaSalle High School in Niagara Falls, celebrated his 18th birthday by driving into Buffalo and enlisting in the Navy.

“I wanted to serve my country and be an electrician. I realized my dream. They called me to service in August of that year after I’d graduated,” Cooper said.

And less than a year later, he fought in the pivotal Battle of Saipan, on a strategic Pacific island with landing strips that would make it possible for America’s B-29 bombers to fly nonstop to and back from Japan.

“There was no place to stop for refueling, that’s why we needed that island,” Cooper said.

The brutal fight for Saipan lasted a month and the 70th anniversary of its start falls on June 15.

“The first night of the invasion, we took in several wounded Marines and we asked them how the invasion was going, and they told us they lost about half their division,” Cooper recalled. “It was very sad to think of all the lives that were lost, and it was only the first night of the invasion.”

He said he counted his blessings that he was on the ship, even if he was a sitting duck for enemy bombers.

“I was an electrician on a repair ship. We repaired everything from battleships down to landing crafts,” Cooper said. “We even repaired our own ship during the Battle of Saipan. We were hit with an anti-personnel bomb that was loaded with steel shrapnel.”

The bomb caused minor damage to the ship when it exploded at about 1 a.m. June 21, but it killed two sailors and wounded 11 others.

“We had been called to our battle stations at 12:30 a.m. and when the bomb hit, it made me realize we were in a war,” Cooper said.

Japanese “Betties” flew overhead dropping more bombs and causing heavy damage to the rest of the fleet, while troops on Saipan fought an entrenched enemy. But on July 9, the battle was won and B-29s had a place to land.

But there was no relief.

On July 24, the Battle of Tinian began in order to secure additional airstrips.

“We had a lot of B-29s and needed more airstrips,” Cooper said.

The first night of that battle was something of a repeat of what had happened at Saipan. The USS Norman Scott, a destroyer, tied up beside Cooper’s ship, the USS Phaon, and wounded were once again taken aboard.

“We had doctors on our ship and we provided the primary care for the wounded, and then the next day we placed the wounded on a hospital ship,” Cooper said.

And once again, the Americans won. Tinian was taken on Aug. 1.

Shortly after that, the Phaon’s crew was granted shore leave, be it ever so short.

“We were allowed to go on shore at Saipan and play baseball and have some recreation,” Cooper said. “It was just for one day and I was very grateful. I’d been on my ship the whole time I was out there.”

But there was a war to be fought and plenty of work.

“We repaired ships during the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines, right up until the end of the war.”

After 29 months at sea and about 2,000 repair jobs, Cooper and his crew mates returned to the United States and he was discharged from Lido Beach, Long Island. He took the train back to Niagara Falls and worked with his father, who had started Cooper Signs in 1922.

“I had worked for him in high school and worked for him again after the war when we started getting calls for neon signs, which were becoming popular. I went to the Neon School of New York on the GI Bill and came back and built a sign company shop on Military Road in the Falls.”

For the next several decades, Cooper prospered as a sign maker, retiring in 1987. His son, John A. Cooper Sr., now operates the business.

Among the highlights of his work with neon, the elder Cooper said he designed and built an elephant balancing on its head outside Honey’s, a Pine Avenue pizzeria; a second elephant sign with a crown on its head promoting “Jack’s Used Cars”; and Page’s Whistle Pig neon sign with a pig whistling neon musical notes.

In retirement, Cooper said he keeps busy woodworking and enjoying his family.

And he also takes time to gratefully reflect on having survived the war.

“I thank the Lord,” he says, “for keeping me safe through those many dangerous battles.”

...

Wayne G. Cooper, 89

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: Aug. 13, 1943 – May 20, 1946

Rank: Electrician’s mate, 2nd class

Most prominent honors: Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal, Combat Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Electrician

Heinz A. ‘Dutch’ Wolf, 90

Hometown: Aulendorf, Germany

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Rank: Staff sergeant

Most prominent honors: Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters

Specialty: Waist gunner on B-17 bomber

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Even though he will turn 91 on Tuesday, Heinz A. “Dutch” Wolf still counts his blessings that his father and mother moved the family from Germany to Buffalo in 1927, avoiding the possibility of him one day becoming a Nazi under Adolf Hitler.

“My dad had fought four years in the German army in World War I. He served on the Eastern Front against the Russians and then on the Western Front, where his malaria recurred,” Wolf says. “They sent him back by train to a nursing facility, and bombs were dropped out of airplanes by hand, and he was struck with shrapnel at a railroad station.”

That proved lucky for Otto Wolf, who recuperated for an extended period in a hospital in Reutlingen, Germany.

“My dad told me that saved him from getting sent back up to the front lines – no-man’s-land – because almost all the men in his regiment died there,” he hays. “That was when the Americans had come into the war.”

Otto Wolf’s luck continued at the nursing facility.

“He met my mom, who was working there as a volunteer,” Wolf says.

Their marriage brought son Heinz and daughter Lore, who at ages 5 and 8, respectively, made the journey with their parents on a freight and passenger steamer from Germany to the United States, where Otto had brothers living in Buffalo.

“My dad was a Social Democrat, and he really had to get out of Germany. Hitler and his gang hated the Social Democrats,” Wolf says.

But at 19, Wolf would begin his journey back to Germany as an American airman, fighting against his native land, where grandparents and other relatives still lived.

After being drafted, he volunteered for the Army Air Forces and served in the 8th Air Force as a waist gunner in a B-17 bomber, also known as a Flying Fortress, in the 350th Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, which had its own nickname – “The Bloody 100th.”

Wolf and his fellow crew member flew 30 successful daylight bombing missions from England to Germany, often encountering anti-aircraft fire.

“There weren’t many German fighter planes because their air force was pretty much decimated at that point,” Wolf says, “but the flak – that was our problem. On one flight, we lost our tail gunner on one of the toughest targets in Germany, a synthetic oil plant that was still going.”

An 88 mm artillery round had exploded into the rear horizontal stabilizer of the B-17 and killed the tail gunner, Wolf said.

“We couldn’t keep up with the rest of formation, and we were all alone flying home from Germany,” Wolf says. “The pilot had a hell of a time. We were lucky. We had a good pilot.”

Another time, returning from a bombing run above Munich, one of the four engines quit, and again their aircraft was unable to remain in the formation. And if that wasn’t enough, the plane also ran out of fuel in the home stretch.

“We were trying to land in Rochester, England, and had circled around the city, trying to get to the landing strip when we ran out of fuel and crash landed between two rows of apartments on a hillside,” Wolf says. “There was just enough room. That was really luck.”

Emerging from the wreckage, the crew was greeted by Britons, who took them to a pub for a celebration that lasted three days, with temporary housing provided in an apartment above the watering hole.

“We had a ball there,” Wolf says. “We gave our parachutes to the women, who used the material to make clothing.”

After the war, Wolf returned to Buffalo grateful to be alive and began an apprenticeship as a plumber, following a family tradition of learning a trade. His father had been locksmith.

But Wolf was ambitious and took a civil service test that opened the door for him to join the Buffalo Fire Department, working for 23 years as a firefighter and, on the side, operating his own plumbing business.

He married Rita Heaney, and they raised two daughters.

Throughout his long life, he says, his passion and hobby has been skiing, including service in the ski patrol at Holiday Valley, which continued up until two years ago.

“Skiing is the best sport in the world,” he says of the thrills of swooshing down a slope with fresh powder.

Intense as that experience may be, he says, it doesn’t begin to compare with what it was like to fly over enemy territory and stare death in the face.

Merton L. Haynes was trained as a forward observer aboard an L-4 airplane, a job that provided ground troops with the latest information on where the enemy was located or headed.

But as is often the case in the military, there was a change of plans.

“The captain told me there were too many forward observers when I arrived in England and that I could pick any other job that I wanted. I decided to be on the M-7 tank,” Haynes said. “My naïvete at the time led me to think a tank would be the safest place to be.”

He soon found out that serving in a tank corps was dangerous business.

During the Battle of the Bulge, he recalled how the tanks moved under the cover of night, but that Germans were often aware of their movement and fired 88 mm shells to stop their progress.

“They shot the shells about three feet above the ground trying to hit us. You never knew if you were going to be hit,” Haynes said. “I was fortunate, but the driver of our tank wasn’t. The tank was open on top, and he had gotten a cinder in his eye. He stood up and tried to get it out and was shot by a sniper who was in a tree and could see into our tank.”

A moment later, Haynes received a follow-up lesson in the brutality of war.

“The sergeant in charge of our tank pulled the driver’s body from the floor and pushed him out onto road and we pulled over to the side and waited for the medic to collect the body.”

Many other lessons awaited him.

“It was one incident after another in the Battle of Bulge. There was 20 to 30 inches of snow on the ground, and we lived on K-rations, but I never got a cold for all the time I was outside,” he said.

One of the worst incidents occurred outside a small Belgium town when hot meals were being served over a stretch of about four days. The kitchen truck was parked beside a barn, he said, and each day he and his crew members eagerly showed up for chow.

“We’d sit on what we thought were logs but one day when the snow melted we realized we were sitting on German soldiers who had been frozen,” he said,

His closest brush with death occurred one night when he was preparing shells for the next day’s artillery barrage.

“It was hard work, and sometimes I broke a sweat even in the winter getting the shells ready,” he said. “My uniform was soaking wet with sweat, and I got out of it and went into my bedroll in my long johns.

“I was in this foxhole sleeping when an ammo truck drove over it and caved in the walls. I must have been there five hours and it was hard to breathe. I could hear soldiers walking around above me in the morning. One of my friends said, ‘You know Mert always gets up at the crack of dawn. Something must be wrong.’ They started digging where my foxhole had been and first they found my pants, then my jacket, helmet and they finally found me and pulled me out.”

“I couldn’t move. It took about two hours beside a fire before I could move,” he said.

The horror continued in the coming weeks and months.

“We liberated the two concentrations camps, Mauthausen and Gusen. The prisoners were skin and bones. I remember they fought over bread. We gave them everything we had.”

Other liberated prisoners, he said, beat captured German soldiers as payback for the horrendous treatment they had inflicted at the camps.

Decades later, his memories of the liberations came flooding back when he and other members of the 11th Armored Division met for a reunion in Washington, D.C.

“We visited the Holocaust Museum, and they had opened it specifically to receive the battle of colors of the 11th Armored Division. It was very real, the only thing missing was the odors and sounds of the concentration camps.”

A modest man, Haynes said the reason he shared his memories was to ensure that the bravery of the 11th Armored Division would not be forgotten.

...

Merton L. Haynes, 92

Hometown: Bingham, Iowa

Residence: Lancaster

Branch: Army

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: March 1943 – February 1946

Rank: Corporal

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, two battle stars, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Tank ammunition handler

Richard F. Carrigg, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: European Theater, World War II

Years of service: March 1, 1943 – Oct. 1, 1945

Rank: Technical sergeant

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, European Theater Medal

Specialty: B-17 engineer and top turret gunner

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

After graduating from Canisius High School in 1941, Richard F. Carrigg went against his parents’ wishes that he enroll in college. Instead, he went to work for what was supposed to be a year before continuing his education.

He found employment at the Curtiss Wright airplane factory off Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, where the P-40 Warhawk fighter plane was produced. On Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Carrigg showed up for work and realized just how serious the situation was.

“We had a tunnel entrance to the factory and as I entered it, I looked up and there was a soldier with sand bags and a .30-caliber machine gun. I said, ‘Oh boy’ to myself,” recalled the 91-year-old World War II veteran.

Building airplanes, he said, inspired the direction he would take in the war effort.

“I knew what I wanted to do when I was drafted. I went to the old post office in downtown and signed up for the Army Air Corps.”

The soldier manning the .30-caliber machine gun had appeared imposing to young Carrigg, but a year later at 19, he was airborne in a B-17 G model serving as both the engineer and the top turret gunner with two .50-caliber machine guns at his command.

“The .50-caliber was a deadly weapon and I had two of them. I flew 32 missions and saw a lot of combat. I was given credit for shooting down a German ME-109 fighter plane,” Carrigg said.

His first mission was on May 3, 1944.

“We went on a bombing run to Berlin and let me tell you, that was a way to break you in,” he said. “Berlin was protected by some 1,500 anti-aircraft guns.”

After his seventh mission, he remembers settling into his bunk in a Quonset hut back in England, listening to a trumpet player’s melodic notes coming over the radio when several fellow gunners charged into the hut blaring their discontent.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and they said, ‘Go see the notice on the bulletin board. See what’s waiting for you.’ So I went out and there was a notice from Gen. (James ‘Jimmy’) Doolittle saying, ‘Attention all flying personnel of the 398th Bomb Group, you will now fly 25 additional missions to the ones you have flown.’ I had seven missions in on my original 25, and now I had to start from scratch.”

The justification behind the increase, Carrigg said, was that P-51 Mustang fighter planes had been introduced to the European Theater and had the capability of accompanying bombers going to and from their distant targets.

“Doolittle felt that since we were now getting better protection he could up the ante,” Carrigg said.

Doubling as the engineer, it was Carrigg’s job to make sure the mechanics of the plane functioned. If the bomb bay doors refused to close, which happened three times on his flights, he had to crank them shut by hand.

“The pilot would be screaming at me, ‘Get those damn doors closed.’ They would be a big drag on the plane and we would be falling out of formation.”

Other times when an engine was shot up or busted on its own, he transferred fuel intended for that engine to the plane’s three other engines, making sure the shift in weight from the fuel did not cause an imbalance.

“I’d have to set up a special fuel transfer pump to feed the other tank engines,” he said.

But it was up in his turret, a bubble of plastic on top of the plane, where Carrigg carried out some of his most crucial duties, shooting at German fighter planes looking to knock out the Flying Fortresses and their payloads of bombs as they flew in formation to and from their strategic targets.

In recalling the ME-109 he shot down, Carrigg said, “An alert came over the radio, ‘Bandits in the area.’ I swiveled the turret around and spotted the fighters maybe a mile away. They started to move ahead of us. Of course they were faster than we were. They did a pursuit curve and tried to strafe our squadron.”

Carrigg set his sights on one of the fighters that was up higher than the others, having procured a dangerous perch from which to pick off B-17s.

“I could see the flashes coming from his wings where his guns were mounted. He was coming in at about 10 o’clock and our plane was on the outside of the formation. I had a clean crack at him. He’s firing and I’m firing. But with the .50-calibers, you could only do short bursts before the plane’s instrument panel started vibrating. The pilot shouted to me, ‘Short bursts.’

“I had him right in my sights and with a short burst, the next thing you know, there’s a big cloud of black smoke and the fighter just went nose down. Our pilot screamed out, ‘You got ’em!’ It happened on our way home from a bombing run above Munich.”

Carrigg succeeded in escaping injuries during his 32 missions. His entire 10-member crew was fortunate, except for the bombardier, who suffered minor flak wounds once.

“When I think about it, bombing oil refineries in Hamburg ... going to Berlin, I don’t know how we got through it. The flak was so damn thick, how we didn’t get shot down, it’s just a miracle. We were lucky, very lucky.”

Back home, his good fortune continued. He married the girl he left behind, the former Betty McCabe, and raised a family of three daughters. He found work in the auto industry and retired in 1982 as the chief engineer at the Ford Stamping Plant’s powerhouse.

Alvin R. Kalicki, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Pinellas Park, Fla.

Branch: Army

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: 1943–1946

Rank: private 1st class

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Asiatic-Pacific Medal, Philippines Liberation Ribbon

Specialty: litter bearer

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

When he wasn’t shooting at the enemy in the various battles fought on the islands in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, Alvin R. Kalicki helped the battle-injured troops by carrying them to safety on stretchers.

“We’d take the wounded to first aid stations or to the beaches and put them on the landing crafts that took them out to the ships,” Kalicki recalled of his duty in battles at New Guinea, New Britain and the Philippines.

In order to reach those felled by the enemy, Kalicki and other litter bearers sometimes would have to fight their way to them, he said. “The enemy was always around and you’d shoot to scatter them.”

And though he escaped battlefield wounds, he lost 50 percent of his hearing from the massive shells fired overhead from U.S. battleships seeking to destroy the enemy as troops stormed the beaches.

“The exploding shells would make me deaf for awhile,” he said, adding that he was grateful to be spared becoming a victim of friendly fire. “None of the shells landed on me, but they were pretty close.”

Yet this mayhem was merely a warm-up for what Kalicki and other soldiers witnessed when the war in the Pacific ended. In the weeks and months after the world’s first atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively on Aug. 6, 1945, and Aug. 9, 1945, troops were ordered into the areas to help in the cleanup.

“When we went to those cities, it was one big mess. Buildings were flattened, streets were torn up and there were bodies still around,” Kalicki said “The smell of death was terrible. It was our job to remove bodies, putting them on trucks so they could be taken away.

None of the soldiers, he said, were given protective gear to shield them from the lingering radiation.

“All we had were our steel helmets. We weren’t given gloves. We worked with our bare hands,” he said.

For years, it seemed as if he had escaped the perils of radiation, but about 10 years ago, Kalicki came down with cancer – first of the prostate, then of the throat.

“I figure the cancer was the result of working in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was probably over there about a month,” Kalicki, 89, said. “I received treatment at the VA’s Bay Pines Hospital in St. Petersburg. I have good days and bad days. My voice is hoarse and I’ll have coughing spells and I urinate frequently.”

Now Kalicki wants to move back to Buffalo, believing he will get better and quicker medical treatment at the Buffalo VA.

“From what I hear, thousands of other veterans are moving to Florida and I don’t know how the VA will be able to care for all of them,” Kalicki said.

He is so determined to return north that he and his wife, the former Florence Loszka, have put their house in the St. Petersburg area up for sale.

In fact, he and his family members hope that if someone reading this story knows of individuals looking to relocate to Florida, they will reach out and consider buying the Kalickis’ home in the Sunshine State. Anyone interested can contact Kalicki’s son Kevin at his email address, [email protected].

In fact, Alvin Kalicki says he is even looking forward to again experiencing Buffalo-Niagara winters.

“Do you know it has been 14 years since I have seen snow,” he said of his eagerness to return to his native roots.

Henry M. Kurowski, 90

Hometown: Sochaczew, Poland

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Staff sergeant

Most prominent honor: European Theater Medal

Specialties: Rifleman, platoon sergeant

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Henry M. Kurowski’s parents had gotten word when they were young and living in their native Poland that the streets of America were paved with gold.

Brimming with ambition, each arrived separately in the United States in the early part of the last century. Andrew Kurowski left the family farm behind. So did Rose Lada. The young man and woman met in Chicago and were soon married.

Saving every penny they made, they purchased fields back in Poland and methodically assembled a large parcel so they could one day return.

“Back then, farmers were considered well-to-do in Europe,” Kurowski said.

By the early 1920s, following his father’s service in the U.S. Army in World War I, Kurowski’s parents returned to Sochaczew to make their living off the land, but shrewdly kept their options open.

“My dad reported to the U.S. consul in Warsaw every six months to renew his visa, and he was told on one of those visits that war was coming to Poland and they should move back to America,” said Kurowski, who was born in Poland in 1924. “They sold the farm, and around 1936, they moved back, this time settling in Buffalo.”

Buffalo, he said, was attractive to them because of its big Polish immigrant community.

The prediction of war proved accurate, and though the family had escaped, Henry Kurowski returned to Europe at age 20 a U.S. soldier just in time for the final days of World War II’s epic Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.

“The battle was almost over when I arrived. I was a replacement. The Germans said they would be back in Paris by Christmas, but we were taking prisoners,” Kurowski said. “They were old men and young kids. A lot of them were shell-shocked and out of their heads. They dug holes with their entrenching tools and lived in them in the POW camps.”

Some of the prisoners, he recalled, tried to escape.

“They would crawl toward the fences around the camps and get shot,” Kurowski said, adding that, as a sergeant, he was spared guard duty. “I just posted the guards.”

With the war just about over in the spring of 1945, he asked his commanding officer if he might be granted a leave to visit nearby Poland but was turned down. Though disappointed, he was delighted when one day, out of the blue, a Polish soldier serving in Germany called out his name:

“He looked at me and said, ‘Weren’t you the kid at the farm?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, you used to come up to the house and visit my brothers and my 15-year-old sister.’

“This guy was a farmer and a neighbor.”

The visit cheered him. He would have something to talk about back home in Buffalo when he was reunited with his two brothers who also were in the military – one of them serving in Alaska and the other in the Middle East.

But Kurowski did more than reminisce when he resumed civilian life.

He returned to his job at the Chevrolet plant in the Town of Tonawanda but left several years later when he hit it big in the stock market. Yet he stayed in the neighborhood, purchasing a Niagara River marina across the street from the auto factory.

“I had 17 aluminum boats and used to rent them out for people to fish off Strawberry Island. It was a famous area for muskies,” Kurowski said, adding that Sheridan Park Golf Course was conveniently located a couple of miles away.

“Golfing was my hobby. I was a better-than-average golfer and got three holes-in-one at Sheridan, one at Brighton Golf Course and another at Fonthill in Canada.”

In 1985, he sold the marina but has regularly continued to visit there, where he maintains an office.

And while he was lucky in business, true love eluded him. “I had a girl that I wanted to marry, but I got drafted, and while I was in the service, I got a letter from my family saying, ‘Hey, your girlfriend got married.’ ”

But that once-removed “Dear John” letter happened a long time ago, and Kurowski said life has been very good to him.

Arthur J. Daigler Sr., 92

Hometown: Clarence

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, American Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Radio operator

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

One of 13 children, Arthur J. Daigler Sr. graduated from St. Mary’s Elementary School in Swormville and, after a year of high school, put aside the books. With so many mouths to feed, he was needed to help support the family.

He worked for several years at Buffalo Arms until another relative – Uncle Sam – summoned the 20-year-old Daigler.

Less than two years later, as radio operator with the Army Signal Corps, Daigler waded onto Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, one day out from the initial D-Day invasion at Normandy. He had heard about the deaths of many American soldiers the day before and counted his blessings that he was not assigned to those first waves on “Bloody Omaha.”

“If I had gone that first day, I probably wouldn’t be here,” says Daigler, 92.

But it was no cakewalk when he and other Signal Corps soldiers jumped from their landing craft onto Omaha Beach.

“There were a few bodies still floating in the water, and myself and another soldier had to help one of our friends who was a littler shorter than us get through the water to the shore,” Daigler recalls. “We got our arms around his arms. It wasn’t easy. We were all weighted down with our backpacks and rifles, and I had a generator with me.”

On land, they went to work stringing telephone cables for the next few days in the fields beyond the beachside cliffs.

“Barrage balloons floated above us to prevent the German airplanes from strafing us. The balloons were attached to the ground by steel cables,” Daigler says. “We didn’t worry too much about German troops. Most had been pushed back, but at times, we did hear gunfire.”

After the Battle of Saint-Lô, he recalled moving into that French town and stringing more telephone cable.

“The phones allowed the officers to stay in touch.”

Then there was a scare. Orders went out for everyone to put on their gas masks.

“We didn’t know where the gas was coming from,” Daigler says. “I had to help my buddy put his mask on, but it turned out there was no gas.”

Then there was the shrapnel from a bomb that narrowly missed his head while he was transmitting encrypted messages from a tent that doubled as his living quarters.

“I never knew what I was sending because it was coded. I’d be in the tent for hours and days sending out messages,” Daigler says, recalling how his ears were antennas of sorts listening for the enemy. “I could hear enemy planes, and one time a plane dropped a bomb near us, and shrapnel hit the wooden box my radio was in. If the box hadn’t been there, I would have been hit in the head.”

The radio survived, he says, though it “was kind of beat up.”

War also provided him with the unexpected.

As his unit through France and then into Germany over the next several months, Daigler met an American woman.

“She told me she was from Milwaukee and had come to Germany before the war,” he remembers, “but I can’t remember the circumstances of how she got to Germany.”

Back home, Daigler’s dad was doing his part in the war effort working for Bell Aircraft in Wheatfield, and when a job transfer came up, the father had even pulled up stakes and moved the family to Burlington, Vt., to another Bell plant.

Daigler, after being honorably discharged in 1945, joined his parents there, and he, too, worked at the Bell plant. It seemed he was setting down roots in New England. He married Pauline Muir, a Burlington area native, and the couple had the first of their four children in Vermont.

But when General Electric purchased the Bell facility, Daigler says, he lost his job. He was able to return to the Wheatfield plant, where he worked as a machine operator 38 years before retiring in 1982.

His military service, he says, remains a big part of his life, and last year he traveled on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, to visit the National World War II Memorial.

“It was emotional,” Daigler says, “really something to see.”

Walter T. Cholewa, 91

Hometown: North Tonawanda

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

War zone: Italy

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Seaman

Most prominent honor: Navy Commendation Medal for meritorious service against German aircraft at Salerno

Specialty: Aviation ordnance and gunnery

By Lisa Khoury

News Staff Reporter

Imagine wondering what it would be like to think you could die at any moment. Then imagine thinking that almost constantly for six days in a row.

Walter T. Cholewa doesn’t have to imagine. Even at age 91, he vividly remembers what it felt like to continuously contemplate the prospect of death from Sept. 11 to 17, 1943, in a World War II battle off the shores of Salerno, Italy.

Yet that is hardly his most unforgettable war memory.

Yes, the Navy veteran certainly remembers those days during September 1943. Sometimes, he even feels himself rocking on a ship on the Mediterranean Sea. He still can visualize German planes dropping bombs 5 feet away from him – splashing into the sea instead of onto his ship – as the Allies invaded Italy.

Yet the veteran’s most unforgettable war experience occurred while on leave in November 1943 – the moment he walked inside his family’s North Tonawanda home. They had heard rumors that he was dead. “My mother was dressing my little sister on the chair,” Cholewa recalls as he begins to cry.

Choked up, he could barely articulate the rest of the story.

“My little sister was so surprised. She went to school and told everybody, ‘My brother’s home. He’s a hero.’ My dad came home from work, and I tapped him on the shoulder. …”

His father was shocked, he flailed his arms, and his paycheck went flying, Cholewa remembers.

In the last seven decades, Cholewa has never suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and has barely talked with friends and family about his duty at sea and the invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland. His take on the war has been simple: He did it to serve his country, and that felt natural to him.

He had dropped out of North Tonawanda High School at 17 and found work after his father had been laid off. That, too, seemed the natural thing to do to help out his parents and nine siblings, he said. In fact, his life has revolved around how he can serve others.

And he says the war never changed his approach to life.

“I think I stayed the same; the war didn’t bother me,” he said.

But at any moment during those six days, Cholewa and his 27 fellow sailors on the Merchant Marine vessel SS Williams Dean Howells could have been killed. Working on an upper deck of the ship during the prolonged German attack, he said, he kept his hands glued to his anti-aircraft gun while trying to defend the crew and the ship.

That meant limited rest and food. He kept a hammock next to his gun and grabbed some shut-eye at night.

Cooks would climb up to his gunnery station to bring him a sandwich if he was hungry.

“I saw two of those bombs coming, and I thought for sure they were going to hit us,” he said.

The planes that had carried them were close enough so that Cholewa opened fire.

“All of the sudden,” he said, “both those planes disappeared. I don’t know where they went.”

As he sat in the living room of his modest North Tonawanda home, Cholewa paused while sharing his war story. Had he shot the planes? “I don’t know.”

The possibility still haunts him, though he knows he was defending himself and his country.

While in the Navy, Colewa sent half of his $21 paycheck to his family each month.

Today, so many decades later, Cholewa is no less kindhearted than he was when he left school as a teen to earn money for the family.

Just ask his second wife, Addie, whom he married 10 years ago. She barely has to do a chore in the house.

“When I would dust, I would just dust,” she said. “He takes the lampshade and vacuums and cleans the lamp. He makes the meals. He does everything. He cooks, dusts, vacuums, does the wash, washes the floors; he painted the family room – he even shampoos rugs.”

And don’t get her started on his delicious homemade pierogi.

Life is just heavenly with him, she said, recalling how before she met him at a dance a decade ago, her years had been filled with caring for sickly loved ones who have since passed away. Now, she said, someone is caring for her.

All of which has come to symbolize Walter Cholewa: family man, serviceman, caregiver, man of action.

email: [email protected]

Want to honor a veteran? Contact News Staff Reporter Lou Michel at [email protected] or call 849-5594

John D. McAlpine, 86

Hometown: South Buffalo

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Navy

War zone: Asiatic-Pacific Theater

Years of service: 1943-47

Rank: Boatswain’s mate second class

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal

Specialty: General sea duties

By Shawn Campbell

News Staff Reporter

John D. McAlpine was a mere 15-year-old when he walked with a friend on South Park Avenue at Bailey Avenue in his native South Buffalo and casually uttered the words that would change his life.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we go join the Navy?’ ” the 86-year-old McAlpine says, recalling a conversation with his buddy, Wally Martin.

It was November 1943, World War II was at its height, and serving your country was “just the thing to do,” McAlpine says.

Admittedly a poor student, McAlpine didn’t mind dropping out of South Park High School as a sophomore.

He and Martin quickly headed to a recruiting office downtown and obtained copies of their birth certificates at City Hall for 50 cents.

But it took a little fudging for him to be able to enlist.

“We just changed the last number on the birth – made a ‘6’ on it instead of an ‘8’ so I would be 2 years older – so I would be 17,” McAlpine recalls.

One of McAlpine’s friends, whose father was a notary public, stamped his enlistment forms, while two other friends in a pool hall forged his parents’ signatures.

More than a week later, McAlpine’s mother and father, John and Janet, finally found out where their son had ventured to – Sampson Naval Training Station near Geneva.

“I called my parents from there and let them know where I was,” McAlpine says. “My mother, she wanted to get me out, while my father said, ‘Let him be.’

“I wasn’t one bit worried. I was very excited. This was what I wanted to do. This was great for me. This was real enjoyment. I was almost like on a vacation.”

Soon after, McAlpine was bound for the Pacific.

For the first few months, he enjoyed his time aboard the destroyer USS Howard, meeting other sailors, learning how to handle guns and participating in target practice.

The excitement came to a quick halt, however.

On Oct. 24, 1944, McAlpine’s task group, Taffy 3, consisted of five small aircraft carriers, three destroyers and three destroyer escorts.

Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf on Oct. 25, 1944, in the Philippines, a powerful Japanese naval fleet had reduced Taffy 3 to three carriers, one destroyer and two destroyer escorts.

“It wasn’t until we started to see action that it wasn’t …,” McAlpine remembers, pausing to collect his emotions.

“This is when I have some trouble,” he says, with tears welling in his eyes. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”

Saying the next four words was difficult for the Orchard Park resident: “People had to die.”

McAlpine still thinks about the sailors who lost their lives that day and considers himself fortunate.

“We lost 50 percent of our task group,” he says. “I didn’t know at the time, but I found out later on that some of those guys were in the war for three days. That was a rather difficult time.”

After what was left of McAlpine’s small task group put up a spirited fight, the Japanese surprisingly retreated, and further American casualties were avoided.

“There was two big (Japanese) battleships, like 10 cruisers and a fleet of destroyers, maybe 10 or 12. … They came down on us,” McAlpine says.

“We were a small task group. We didn’t even have any armor-piercing bombs. … We weren’t meant to fight a naval war.”

McAlpine was wounded in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and received a Purple Heart. A Japanese kamikaze struck his destroyer, killing six of his shipmates and wounding about a dozen others. McAlpine was hit in the leg with shrapnel.

“I’ve never seen so many airplanes in my life,” he says. “There were hundreds of them – everywhere. … They were just diving down towards the ships and smashing into them. I saw aircraft carriers getting hit and cruisers getting hit.

“This plane got down and it got close to the water and it was just skimming along. … All of a sudden, his one wing broke off, and he tipped a little. …

“Our ship tried to turn to get away from him. We were maneuvering all the time, but he just kept following us, and we just turned and he hit the back end of the ship.”

The Howard then returned to Guam to be repaired in preparation for an expected invasion of Japan.

That invasion never took place, though, because the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

“They dropped those beautiful two bombs – saved us a lot of lives,” McAlpine says. “I don’t think I would have been here if we’d have ever invaded Japan.”

McAlpine was honorably discharged Nov. 4, 1947, and returned to South Buffalo, where he soon met Sally Watts, who would become his “loving, understanding wife.” They have been married for 66 years and have four children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Over the next five decades, McAlpine worked as a die setter at J.H. Williams, a tool manufacturer in Riverside; a new-car salesman at John Maroone Ford in Cheektowaga; and a counselor for emotionally troubled teenage boys at Baker Hall in Lackawanna.

Following an industrial accident at age 22, a portion of McAlpine’s right arm was amputated, but that didn’t stop McAlpine from becoming an avid golfer. He joined the National Amputee Golf Association and played in tournaments throughout the country for many years.

In 1988, he recorded two holes-in-one in a span of three days – one ace on the 12th hole at Brookfield Country Club and the other on No. 12 at Springville Country Club.

Feeling bored upon retirement from his counseling job at Baker Hall, McAlpine got a job as an adult resident assistant at Hilbert College. Twenty-two years later, he still works there from September to May as a desk attendant at Trinity Hall.

“It’s a good college, and the people are really great to work for,” McAlpine says.

“I work six hours a day, five days a week. I work from 1 until 7, my wife gets rid of me, and it gives me something to do every day.”

As for that high school diploma he bypassed when choosing to serve? Through the state’s Operation Recognition program, McAlpine finally became a South Park graduate in June – nearly 71 years after he walked alongside Wally Martin and decided to join the Navy.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, presented McAlpine’s diploma at the school’s commencement ceremony.

“The kids all got up and gave me a standing ovation,” he says. “That was really great. I made kind of a smart remark. I told the president, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to make your 20th reunion.’ It was really an emotional night.”

email: [email protected]

Donald A. Stevens worked at shaping sheet metal into structural parts for airplanes at the Glenn L. Martin Co. factory in Baltimore. Each day, he left work wondering what it would be like to fly a fully assembled aircraft.

So one day, at age 21, Stevens and a co-worker, who wondered the same, showed up at the Army Air Forces recruiting station and enlisted into the Aviation Cadet Program.

“All the way along, I didn’t know if I was going to make it from one phase to the next: preflight, primary flying, basic flying and advanced flying,” Stevens says. “At primary flying school, the instructor knew in about six hours whether you had the coordination to fly.”

In the end, Stevens passed with flying colors and, by late June 1944, he and his crew picked up a brand-new B-17 Flying Fortress in Savannah, Ga.

Six days later, they touched down in Italy, having taken the long way in order to refuel. There were stops in New Hampshire, Newfoundland, the Azores, Africa and finally Foggia, Italy.

Getting there, it turned out, was the easy part.

Stevens and the nine fellow crew members flew a total of 35 bombing missions, but none was more challenging than the one on Aug. 19, 1944.

“The most exciting mission was over the Ploesti oil refinery in Romania,” he recalls. “It was my seventh mission, and we were the last bomber group in. It happened on my birthday. … We were on the bombing run, and I was co-pilot that day observing off my right wingtip and saw four anti-aircraft shells go off.

“We continued on the bombing run, and I saw a second group of four anti-aircraft shells go off at the same altitude, only closer this time. I was hoping that we could drop our 500-pound bombs and get out of there. We were flying at 26,000 feet, and once we dropped the bombs, our plane would pick up speed and get out of the range of the anti-aircraft guns.”

No such luck.

“We took a direct hit on our No. 3 engine. Following that, we lost the superchargers on engines No. 1 and No. 2. That slowed the pressure of fuel going into those engines.”

•••

Hometown: Village of McGraw, Cortland County

Residence: Gowanda

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: Europe

Years of service: Active duty, 1942-45; Air Force Reserve, 1945-70

Ranks: Active duty, first lieutenant; Air Force Reserve, lieutenant colonel

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Air Medals, numerous campaign ribbons

Specialty: B-17 pilot

•••

Creeping along in last place, Stevens’ B-17 arrived over the oil refinery and managed to drop its payload.

With that accomplished, the crew faced the challenge of returning to Italy.

“We slowly lost altitude with our one good engine and became vulnerable to enemy fire, but four (P-51) Mustang fighters escorted us into Yugoslavia, which was more or less friendly territory.”

Then the escorts broke away, and there were more difficulties. The B-17’s instruments were out of commission.

“We were in the clouds and couldn’t tell if our plane was level or not and we were dropping. We were at 3,000 feet, and the enemy started shooting at us. We headed over the Adriatic Sea to get out of range and thought we would have to ditch the plane.

“We called air-sea rescue, but at the last minute, we spotted our base. We were flying at 500 feet, and our gas tanks were reading empty.”

Still, they were not home-free.

“Our flight engineer told us we couldn’t land because we only had one wheel down. So we did a 360-degree turn over the end the of the runway – not knowing if we’d have enough fuel – and when we came in for the landing, the engineer was still cranking the tail wheel down.”

Incredibly, the plane landed safely. Mechanics who repaired the aircraft later told Stevens that the fuel tanks were bone-dry.

“We must have landed on fumes,” he says.

Coming home last, Stevens found out, reaped an unlikely honor. He and his crew would go down in history as the last Allied bomber to drop bombs on Ploesti, the strategic oil refinery that had fueled the German war machine.

“Russian ground forces moved in after our bombing run and took over the refinery.”

After the war, Stevens got married and graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. Soon after, he joined Alliance Tool Corp. as one of 60 workers and advanced to become a partner in the company.

The company, with seven divisions and 1,400 employees in 1979, was purchased by Gleason Works. In 1981, Stevens retired.

“It was a dream deal,” he says of the sale. “I always tell people I was born at the right time. The war came along, and instead of being drafted, I enlisted, and after the war, there was all kinds of work, and you could be successful.

“The world needed everything.”

William R. Goodwin, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1941-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honor: European Theater of Operations Medal

Specialty: Supply engineer

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

William R. Goodwin is a modest man who was thrown into one of the biggest days in American history during World War II. By no means is he a war hero, he says, but he is willing to talk about the challenges the Allies faced on D-Day, June 6, 1944, so that the heroism of fellow soldiers will not be forgotten.

His story begins with a hardscrabble life that toughened him up for the military. Goodwin worked as a painter and paperhanger but says he was willing to do any kind of backbreaking labor if it would help his family pay the bills.

“We were going through the Great Depression, and you did anything to make a buck,” he says.

He was drafted in his late teens, and the work Uncle Sam had in mind for him was arduous and put his life on the line.

Goodwin served in the Army with a supply unit, and in the months leading up to the invasion of Normandy, he and fellow troops practiced in the rough waters of the English Channel, never knowing when the invasion would begin, since it was top secret.

“We were out on the channel for days at a time practicing,” he recalls, “and we lost some ships because the Germans would fly over and bomb us.”

During one of those practice drills, he says, his unit received word that it was heading to the French coast.

“There was an announcement that came over the speakers of the boat from some general telling us this was not a maneuver, that it was the real thing,” he remembers.

How did he feel?

“It’s hard to say how I felt when I heard that.”

He was, however, certain he was in harm’s way, but took comfort in knowing that Allied warplanes were showering Normandy with bombs to soften up the enemy before the ground forces landed.

Now it is one thing for the infantry to charge onto the beaches – a deadly duty, given the entrenchment of the Germans in their bunkers and pillboxes. But for those tasked with bringing in the supplies, including Goodwin, it was a job they performed over and over during the invasion.

“We came over in big barges filled with gasoline, ammunition, vehicles and food. We filled these cargo nets and lowered them with a crane into smaller landing crafts. Then we would climb down rope ladders into the crafts and head for the shore and unload the supplies,” Goodwin says of the work he and other supply engineers repeatedly performed at Utah Beach.

He said he felt fortunate to be at Utah, rather than next door at Omaha Beach, where casualties were especially high.

Still, he was in the thick of it on the morning of June 6.

“The airborne paratroopers were the first in. The infantry was next, and not much later than that, around 6:30, we landed and started bringing in the supplies,” Goodwin says. “We were strafed occasionally by German airplanes.”

Supply engineers, he explains, had to work with the tides, as they rose and fell, to deliver support vehicles onto the beach.

“We’d have to wait for high tide to raise up the landing crafts after we’d delivered vehicles,” he says. “Then we would go back out and get more.”

Throughout it all, he marveled at the bravery of his fellow soldiers and never wanted to forget their courage and sacrifice. He said his job, at this late moment in life, is to recall that.

And with his mission accomplished, he ended the interview.

Pam Bartkowski will never forget the scene three years ago, when she and her father, Richard Snethen, visited the National World War II Memorial.

An Army veteran, Snethen wore his old uniform and all his medals as they visited the monument in Washington, D.C.

When Snethen’s shoestring came undone, Bartkowski told him, “Dad, stand still and let me tie your shoe.”

A stranger around Bartkowski’s age overheard their conversation.

“Sir, it would be an honor to tie your shoe,” he said.

And then he bent down and tied her father’s shoe.

That moment stunned Bartkowski, but seeing the man tie her 90-year-old father’s shoe wasn’t the only image from their trip that stuck with her.

“When we got to the waterfall and the stars, my dad went into a salute,” she said. “Everybody in that whole area of the monument moved away from the wall. It was just spectacular. I’ve never seen anything more moving than one of these soldiers in uniform saluting his comrades.”

Snethen, tall and thin – he is 6 feet tall and says he has shrunk – is as patriotic as they come.

He lives in the Amberleigh senior living complex in Williamsville these days, and he flies an American flag on his porch. On one wall of his apartment hangs a painting of a bald eagle with an American flag behind it. On patriotic holidays, he sports his uniform, as he did for this interview.

“This is 70 years old,” Snethen said, peering through gold-rimmed glasses and rocking back and forth in a wooden rocking chair.

Snethen loves telling stories from his service as a lieutenant with counterintelligence – like the time he helped organize security for Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. But he insists, “I’m not a hero.”

Snethen said he is proud of his service in WWII for two reasons: First, he couldn’t help but be proud based on how he and other veterans were received at home when they returned. It was a much warmer welcome than what soldiers of the Vietnam War received, which still bothers Snethen.

And second?

“The other thing obviously is, we won,” Snethen exclaimed.

He originally planned to enlist in the Marine Corps with five friends shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But when they walked into the recruiting station, an officer pointed at Snethen and said: “You might as well go. We won’t accept you because you’re wearing glasses.”

All of Snethen’s friends were accepted, and all were killed in the war – four “somewhere in the Pacific,” he said, the other on Okinawa.

“It was probably my luckiest day, actually,” Snethen said of being turned away.

Snethen was a junior at Rutgers University when he attempted to enlist. So upon his rejection, Snethen returned to school. Once he graduated in January 1943, he went to work with his brother on a farm.

In 1944, Snethen was drafted into the Army and he went to processing at Fort Dix, N.J.

That’s where he “learned one of the first rules in the Army, which is never volunteer for anything,” Snethen said.

He was put on kitchen duty one night from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. His job consisted of taking the rind off slabs of bacon.

“We had a mountain of sliced bacon by the time 3 in the morning came,” Snethen said. “It looked like Mount Everest.”

After processing, he went to basic training in Spartanburg, S.C.

He made an impression, and Snethen’s first sergeant suggested he volunteer for Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in Georgia.

There, Snethen received his commission as an infantry officer. Once again he stood out, receiving promotions to lieutenant, platoon leader and company commander.

Snethen then was selected for the Counter Intelligence Corps, a World War II and Cold War investigative agency run through the Army.

When Gen. MacArthur visited the Philippines, Snethen was the commanding officer of the 1135th Counter Intelligence Corps, which was to provide security for MacArthur. Snethen and his unit were anxious.

“Fortunately, most of” the people in the Philippines “thought he was a tin god anyway, so most weren’t going to shoot him,” Snethen said, “but there were some dissidents in the Philippines that we were very concerned about. We were afraid some of them might think this was a good opportunity to make a big name for yourself. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

As far as he knows, Snethen said, MacArthur didn’t say a word to anyone the whole time he was there – until right before he was about to board a plane to leave.

“He turned around and he said, ‘I salute the 1135th Counter Intelligence Corps for the great security they’ve provided me at all hours,’ ” Snethen said. “He turned around and got in the plane, and we all breathed a big sigh of relief.”

After being discharged in 1946, Snethen resumed his studies and earned his master’s degree in science from Colby College in Maine. He went on to become a science teacher for seven years in Woodstown, N.J.

He moved to Great Valley, near Ellicottville, hoping to work on a farm. When he realized he couldn’t make a living farming, he returned to teaching – this time as a biology teacher at Springville-Griffith Institute.

He moved to Amberleigh in 2005 when his wife died. Sometimes on patriotic holidays – yes, wearing his World War II uniform – he delivers poems that he writes.

He delivered one such address this past Memorial Day at Amberleigh:

“These stone sentinels stand with their new flags unfurled; to remind us all of those who served us well!

“We remember those words spoken long ago, ‘Four score and seven years ago…’ to remind us to dedicate this day to all who served us well.

“Taps reverberates with solemn melancholy tones to remind us of an unknown poet’s words: ‘Rest easy, sleep well, my brothers, know the line has held. Your job is done. Others will take up where you fell. Rest easy, Peace, Peace, Farewell.’ ”

Carlo A. Ettipio, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army

War zone: World War II, China-Burma-India Theater

Years of service: 1942 – 1945

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Too young and too weak were the reasons Carlo A. Ettipio was given when initially denied a job at a Buffalo foundry after he quit McKinley High School.

Ettipio would not take “no” for an answer and showed the foundry foreman his calloused hands from digging ditches with his father. That sold the foreman on the West Side resident who soon proved he could handle the work.

“I was a molder and poured the metal into molds,” the 91-year-old Ettipio said. “It was awful hot in the foundry.”

The experience proved good training for his World War II service with the famous Merrill’s Marauders, a special unit established to frustrate the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater.

“We landed in Burma and our job was to try and open the Burma Road so we could ship supplies to the Chinese who were fighting the Japanese,” Ettipio said.

Often soaked in sweat back at the foundry, Ettipio found he could withstand the muggy jungles of Asia and the relentless monsoons. The fierce sun was another story.

“One day we were building a camp to bring in more troops and I rubbed the back of my neck and it was all burnt,” he said. “I went to the first aid unit and they said it was nothing, just a little burn.”

The real danger was the enemy who blended in with the surroundings.

“It was all jungle and mountains. It was rough. You very seldom saw the Japanese. They were all camouflaged.”

That type of warfare, Ettipio said, put him and his comrades on high alert, watching for even the slightest signs that something wasn’t quite right.

“If you saw a tree move or maybe a bush move, you’d make sure there was no one behind it. You wouldn’t shoot at first because that would give away your position.”

On several occasions, Ettipio’s patrol came in direct contact with the enemy.

“One time my buddy and I were leading a patrol and he hit the ground and started shooting. I dropped to the ground and the enemy threw a grenade that landed between us. We were about eight to 10 feet apart. The grenade exploded and rolled him around a few times, but he was able to get up and he ran back screaming, ‘I’m hit. I’m hit.’”

Ettipio, meanwhile, pressed himself against the jungle floor waiting for other soldiers to move up and help him fight. That did not happen and after about 10 minutes, which seemed like 10 years, Ettipio realized he would have to move out.

“They weren’t coming for me, so I decided to join them.”

As he made his way back to the patrol, a bullet struck him in the right leg and he hit the ground.

“I carried a first aid kit and I put a patch over the top part of my calf.”

He then continued back, assisting others who had been wounded get to the medical tent.

“When we got there, I was told I was going to be shipped to a hospital, but I didn’t want to go. I knew if I went I would not be with my platoon, and I wanted to stay with those guys because I knew them and trusted them. So the doctor gave me three days of light duty and I stayed.”

Ettipio’s buddy who had been hit by shrapnel from the grenade was sent to a hospital and later reassigned to another platoon.

“He ran away and came back to our platoon and the commander called the other platoon and said he’s with us, so he didn’t get in trouble. He wasn’t called a deserter. He just wanted to be with his friends who he knew better. He was like me and wanted to stay with the experienced people.”

The Burma Road eventually opened up.

“But we had a nice long battle for about two or three weeks before it happened. Then we built a camp and some big shot from England, a general, gave a speech thanking us for all the work we did, and I thought we going to go home, but he ended the speech saying, ‘Good luck wherever you go.’ We went to China, where we trained the Chinese on how to fight.”

Ettipio finally did make it home, where he says he became a man of leisure before setting out to find steady employment.

In time, he landed a job at the former General Motors axle plant on East Delavan Avenue and retired from there in 1980 after 32 years. He also married the former Marion Guastaferro and they raised a family of four children.

These days he says he rarely thinks of the war, except when people ask.

“And then I don’t tell them half of the stories,” Ettipio said.

Why not?

Memories of young lives suddenly cut short, he says, cause pain even decades later.

email: [email protected]

John F. Canale, 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: enlisted February 1943 – November 1945

Rank: 1st lieutenant

Most prominent honors: Army Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: B-17 navigator

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

John F. Canale had a ringside seat above Europe during World War II, tucked into the Plexiglas nose of a B-17 bomber as its navigator.

“I could see the flak as we flew into it. Flak is from the fragments of a bomb that is set to explode at the altitude of the plane,” Canale explained. “You just gritted your teeth and you hoped it didn’t hit your plane.”

Canale had enlisted in February 1943 with the intention of becoming a fighter pilot. A freshman at the University of Buffalo Law School, he put his books aside, believing it was his duty to defend America.

“It also gave me the chance to select what branch I wanted to serve. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and that’s how I started out. But my depth perception was way off,” he said.

During flight training school in Tennessee, Canale recalled a hair-raising session when he was flying alone in a PT-23 single-engine aircraft.

“We were taught that as we approached the runway when we were 6 inches above the ground, you pulled back on the stick and stalled the engine out and you mushed in for a three-point landing. I always had trouble with landings, and this time when I looked out over the side of the open cockpit and thought I was at 6 inches, I actually was at 30 feet in the air.

“When I stalled the engine, I came down like a ton of bricks. The two wheels under the wings went right through the wings. The propeller hit the ground and the body of the plane twisted and went into a ground loop.”

Oh, and one other thing: “I also bumped my head.”

Needless to say, his visions of aerial dogfights were finished.

“My training lieutenant said, ‘Canale, you’re washed out. You’re going to navigation school.’ I was heartbroken.”

In retrospect, he said the job switch was a blessing.

“It kept me in the country for another four or five months to finish navigation school while my buddies from fighter training school were getting shot down over Europe.”

As the navigator on a B-17, also known as the Flying Fortress, he had a better view of the horizon than even the pilot and copilot. But the view came at the price of great hazard.

“The Plexiglas was easily torn by the flak.”

And while on a mission a few shy of his 20th with the 615th Bomb Squad, flak knocked out his instrument panel and almost took him out as well.

“It’s the closest I ever came to getting killed. I was wearing a World War I steel helmet and flak vest and the flak came in behind me in the space between the helmet and vest cutting my jacket, shirt collar and tie and nicking my neck,” he said.

If he’d gone to the hospital after the mission, he could have received a Purple Heart.

“I didn’t think it was bad enough to go to the hospital, but the bombardier also had been hit by flak and got some cuts on his arm. He went to the hospital, got stitches and a Purple Heart.”

Canale does not regret passing up on the esteemed Purple Heart.

“Guys that were seriously injured deserved it.”

And not all of his 35 bombing missions were peppered with enemy gunfire or flak.

“We called those missions milk runs.”

The bombing targets, he said, were usually fuel depots, oil plants, airplane factories and Berlin.

During what he believes was his most interesting mission, Canale said two of the four engines on his B-17 were knocked out by flak.

“We couldn’t keep up with the formation of other B-17s. We were losing altitude and speed. Two German fighter planes started circling us and we were about to get shot down. Then two P-51 fighters, our boys, showed up, and the minute they showed up, the Germans left. The P-51s, one on each of our wings, escorted us into friendly territory.”

After safely landing, he says, he and the nine other members of his crew tried “everything we could” to learn the identities of the two fighter pilots, whom they considered their guardian angels.

“We sure wanted to thank them and at least buy them a drink, but we never could find them.”

When the war ended, Canale returned to law school in September 1945, entering an accelerated program that allowed him to complete three years of law school in two by attending summer classes.

To this day, Canale still practices law at the Bouvier Partnership in downtown Buffalo.

“I practice negligence law for plaintiffs and defendants. I go into the office every Friday.”

A widower who had been married 67 years to the former Gladys “Becky” Beckett, he and his wife raised three children.

“My wife died in December and boy, do I miss her,” Canale said, but adds that he has plenty of company with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

And he has his fellow lawyers, with whom he enjoys breaking bread on Fridays.

Stanley Markut, 94

Hometown: Vawkavysk, Poland

Residence: Sloan

Branch: Polish army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-48

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: Polish Army Medal, Polish Wounded Star (equivalent of Purple Heart), British Defense and War medals

Specialty: Main gunner in Sherman tank

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Husband and wife Stanley Markut and the former Antonina “Tola” Klimaszewska knew the oppression of World War II long before they started fighting in the Polish army and years before they married.

In 1939, when Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed a nonaggression pact and divided Poland, the Markut and Klimaszewska families along with more than a million other Polish citizens were sent to work camps in Siberia. Markut was 20; Klimaszewska was 14.

Markut’s infant sister died of malnutrition at a timber-harvesting camp where he and the rest of the family – his mother, stepfather and three other siblings – struggled to survive.

Klimaszewska’s youngest sister died at another labor camp, where her mother would, in time, also perish. Her father, separated from them, worked in an iron mine.

At 16, Klimaszewska caught a break. The deal between the Germans and Russians had soured and Russia was now at war with the Nazis. A cousin forged papers saying she was 18 and needed for service in the Polish army to fight the Germans.

As a member of the Polish army, Klimaszewska, now 88, managed to arrange for her only surviving sibling, another younger sister, to be sent to a Polish-run orphanage in South Africa.

Following service in the Middle East with the Polish army’s all-female 317th Transport Company, 2nd Corps, Klimaszewska’s unit shifted to Italy and played a crucial role in the battle at Monte Cassino, providing supplies that ranged from food to weaponry.

Markut revels in telling of his wife’s service, more than his own, because he is proud of her deeds and a devoted spouse of 60 years.

“My wife was always close to the front lines. The unit had something like 300 women in it. I admire her for serving,” Markut says

Tola has difficulty hearing, but keenly remembers all she went through and has written down some of her experiences. While at midnight Mass for Christmas 1943, before going to Italy, she remembers having these thoughts:

“… I just sat there thinking of the events that brought me here, wondering what had happened. What went so terribly wrong in this world to cause such devastation, uncertainty and fear? Something deep within willed me the determination to stay alive and to keep my spirit from being crushed. I prayed to God and felt peace. I still do.”

As for Markut, after two years in Siberia, he, too joined the Polish army in early 1942 and was assigned to a tank outfit stationed in Scotland – the 1st Regiment, 1st Division of the Polish army. For almost two years, he and other Poles prepared for what would become the biggest amphibious military raid in history – the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Markut and his regiment, attached to Canadian forces, rolled onto Juno Beach a few days after the initial invasion and headed to the small French city of Caen. On their way out of the city, they encountered German forces.

“We lost many soldiers right away,” he recalls.

There followed an even bigger battle at Falaise.

“We were closing the gap on Hill 262 that the German tanks were passing through to get away,” Stanley Markut recalls, “and my tank was struck with anti-tank bullets. Right away there was an explosion of our ammunition and the oil from the engine started to burn.”

It took a heavy toll on the five-member tank crew.

“I was hit very badly with shrapnel and was on fire,” he says. “Two others in my crew were killed. Another member jumped out and tried to help me get off the tank’s turret. By this time, my whole right side was on fire. He left me halfway hanging out of the tank because his hands started burning from the oil on me. Somehow, I managed to fall to the ground.”

Markut lost consciousness amid heavy fighting and awoke sometime later to find he had been moved to a path in a wooded area. The right side of his face, his right hand and right leg were extensively burned, yet he says he could still walk with help.

“I was lucky. I didn’t have any broken bones.”

Along the path were 15 other wounded comrades. “I looked around, and there was still shooting going on and then German soldiers came – five or six of them,” he says. “One of the German officers came to our captain and said, ‘You speak German?’ He did, but he said, ‘No.’ The German officer then started kicking him.”

Markut assumed he had become a prisoner of war, but about two hours later, his fortunes changed. The battle went in favor of the Polish tank regiment.

“The Germans left us and our soldiers came and started moving the wounded not very far to outside a little building,” he says. “There must have been a hundred wounded Polish and German soldiers there.”

Markut noticed something strange: Polish and German doctors were working together.

“There were our doctors and German doctors helping both Polish and German soldiers,” Markut remembers. “The German doctors still even had their pistols on their sides.”

At sunset, the German physicians surrendered their sidearms, he says.

“We were moved to a chicken shed, where there were many other wounded soldiers,” Markut says. “Later in the night, somebody came and said, ‘We will move you to the hospital, but you have to volunteer because we will be crossing close to the German lines and you could be shot.’ I said, ‘OK,’ but only a few others volunteered. We were put in three halftrack trucks.”

A Catholic priest serving as a chaplain in the Polish army, he later learned, had volunteered to lead the hazardous undertaking and ended up fatally wounded.

Markut arrived at a Canadian field hospital, and doctors started removing shrapnel from him.

“In the morning, I woke up in a different tent,” he says. “My right hand and right leg were encased in something like a balloon.”

At a hospital in Birmingham, England, he received skin grafts on his face and recuperated for eight months.

“I was then sent to Scotland to our Polish headquarters and placed in a convalescent home,” he says, “and that’s when the war ended.”

After regaining his health, Markut continued to serve in the Polish army until 1948 in England, when he joined the Polish Resettlement Corps, also in England, in order to avoid returning to communist-controlled Poland.

Tola had also been transferred from Italy to England and did not want to return to their native land, either.

“I had my papers to move to the United States, and I was looking to get married before I left,” Markut says. “I met Tola, and we were going together for a couple weeks. I thought I better propose and see if she is willing.

“I said, ‘Look, Tola, I got my papers for the United States. I got a sponsor already in Buffalo. I would love to have you as my wife, but at the same time you’d have to go to the United States with me.’ ”

Markut then revealed that while he loved her, he was light on cash:

“I told her, ‘I have to admit that I don’t have enough money to pay for your ticket to the United States.’ She laughed and said, ‘You son of a gun. So you want me to marry you and go with you to the United States and pay for my own fare. So what should I say? Better I should look for somebody with money.’ Then she laughed again and said, ‘OK.’ ”

They married in 1954, and at the end of 1955, expecting the first of their two children, sailed to America.

Markut supported their family working as a machinist at the Buffalo Forge plant on the East Side, where he retired in 1984, while Tola operated her own small business producing custom-made drapes.

In reflecting on his journey through life, Markut says:

“So many things you go through in life, but it turned out beautiful. My wife and I are very happy.”

Indiana Hunt Martin, 92

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Women’s Army Corps

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Mail clerk

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Seventy years have passed since Indiana Hunt Martin joined the military and went to war.

When she completed her service, Martin was on her way to a better life as a government office worker and a long way from the orchards of Lewiston, where she had picked peaches to help support herself back in the early 1940s. But one thing was missing: She never received her military medals.

That will change Thursday when her medals are presented during a 10 a.m. ceremony at Medallion Post 13, AMVETS, in Riverside, making right the government’s decades-old oversight.

At age 92, Martin says it is a joy to be finally recognized for her service, thanks to other female veterans who brought it to the attention of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

How she came to join the military in 1944 reflects just how difficult it was for African-American women to improve their lot, even at a time when other women – think Rosie the Riveter – were filling jobs in war factories replacing men who had gone off to war.

After Martin graduated from Niagara Falls High School in 1940, she says, her goal was to land an office job, having prepared herself by taking business classes.

But the business world, she discovered, was not interested in hiring her. So, like her mother, Martin supported herself by cleaning houses. Then she got word that the government, which had purchased several thousand acres of orchards in Lewiston for its TNT manufacturing plant, needed people to pick peaches.

“I read this article about the Army replacing men with women in certain jobs so that the men could go and fight overseas. They called it the Women’s Army Corps,” Martin says. “My brother was already in the Army in Europe, and really, I wanted to leave Niagara Falls and see if I could do better some place else, so I joined the Army.”

She imagined herself perhaps working for the Army in New York City, where her mother was living, but the Army had other plans.

“I went right into basic training and then was part of the first black WACs to go overseas,” she says. “There were 800 black women in the 6888th Central Postal Battalion.”

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she recalls, was nerve-racking.

“We were worried about submarines or getting bombed, and at one point, we did have a scare,” Martin says.

But they made it unscathed to England and took up residence in an abandoned school for boys in Birmingham.

“We had to clean it up before we could live in it,” Martin says.

Then there was the other mess. Mountains of mail from the United States that had not been forwarded to GIs.

“The soldiers had been moving across Europe, and the mail was never sent. They didn’t know where to send it to, and we had to readdress the mail,” Martin says. “We spent about three months doing that.”

And while they were far from the front lines, at night Martin said the other WACs watched as distant exploding enemy bombs lit up the sky.

“We could see the flashes of bombs, and we never knew if the Germans would bomb Birmingham,” she says. “Trenches had been dug for us just in case. We called them mud holes.”

But as the enemy edged closer to defeat, Martin and her fellow WACs ventured out of Birmingham and took in the English countryside and London, as well.

“The English were nice to us,” she says. “We went to shows and things like that.”

At war’s end in May 1945, the 6888th relocated to Rouen, France.

“We crossed the English Channel, and when we landed in Rouen, that place was really torn up. Buildings were bombed and caved in. It was a mess,” Martin recalls.

Once again, the WACs set to work processing mountains of undelivered mail.

“We were stationed inside an old factory,” she says.

But with peace restored and the mail flowing, the WACs were able to travel on their days off, taking trips to Paris and other cities.

“Some of the girls even went to Germany. I had a trip to Paris for two weeks on my vacation,” she says. “Paris is a beautiful city. I went to the Eiffel Tower and remember having lunch there.”

Martin’s battalion, its work finished, returned to the United States.

Upon returning to civilian life, she applied for a job with the U.S. Department of Labor and was hired as a typist in New York City, where she lived with her mother.

By 1949, Martin had seen enough of the world and wanted to return home to the Falls, and she made the transition to a job with the New York State Labor Department.

“I applied for a transfer and became the first black office worker in Niagara Falls.” Her daughter, she said, has also gone on to achieve success in life.

“She’s a registered nurse and works as a charge nurse at an assisted-living facility Laurel, Md.” Martin said proudly.

But on Thursday, a chapter of Martin’s own success story will at last be completed when Higgins presents her with her military medals at the AMVETS post, 25 Review Place, behind Riverside Institute of Technology.

“So many of us got married after serving in the war, and our last names changed and that’s probably why I didn’t get the medals,” Martin says.

And though the honor is long overdue, she says, it’s better late than never:

“It’s wonderful that I’m getting them.”

Adrian F. Dedecker Jr., 96

Hometown: Millburn, N.J.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Captain

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-44

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Adrian F. Dedecker Jr. had begun a career in banking, but with World War II raging, the young man decided that serving on the front lines was more important than clerking at First National Bank of Millburn in northern New Jersey.

After graduating from Officer Candidate School, Dedecker was commissioned as an Army second lieutenant at Fort Benning, Ga., and soon on his way to the campaign in North Africa.

“I remember it was flat and it was hot,” Dedecker says of the battlefields where he encountered German and Italian forces.

But it is one battle in particular that sticks out, probably because it was his last.

While charging toward the enemy during the March 1943 Battle of Maknassy in Tunisia, Dedecker says he and his platoon came under heavy fire.

“The enemy was closing in on us,” he says, “and I was shot in the hand, leg and back.”

Incapacitated, he was found several hours later by German troops and taken prisoner. A fellow prisoner bore the brunt of his capture, ordered to carry Dedecker on his back.

How far they journeyed, Dedecker no longer remembers, since so much time has elapsed, but he does recall ending up across the Mediterranean Sea in an Italian hospital.

With the help of old newspaper clippings that tell of his wartime plight, along with some assistance from his private duty nurse, the 96-year-old retired insurance executive shared his story on a recent afternoon sitting out on the patio of his Amherst home.

First, there was terrible news. Shortly after he was wounded, his parents received notification that their son was missing in action, but that news was soon replaced by good news. Vatican authorities, acting in a humanitarian capacity, got word to the Dedeckers that their son was a prisoner of war.

Dedecker had been transported from Italy to Germany, where he was placed in another hospital before going to a POW camp. British medical officers, prisoners of war themselves, ran the hospital, and Dedecker recalls that the medical treatment was a step up from his first hospitalization.

“The Germans left the British medical officers alone,” he said in speculating why the care was superior.

During an abbreviated stay at a POW camp, Dedecker learned that he was to be part of a prisoner exchange. He was so excited by the news that he wrote a letter to his folks with a cryptic message indicating his upcoming release. “Watch the papers for imports and exports and see if you can find me a job,” Dedecker wrote.

Later, when he returned home, he explained that he dared not come right out and tell his parents the good news for fear of arousing the ire of the Nazis, who, at a whim, could call off the exchange.

The swap occurred, and Dedecker sailed home on the Gripsholm, a Swedish ship, arriving April 13, 1944.

He returned to civilian life, completing more schooling in banking and insurance. He then left New Jersey to find his fortune. Arriving in Buffalo around 1948, he helped found an insurance agency, Matthews, Bartlett and Dedecker, on Delaware Avenue downtown.

For decades, he prospered in his career and as a family man. He married Janice Betz of Buffalo, and they raised two sons.

A lifetime has passed since the war and Dedecker, a widower, enjoys passing what time is left to him listening to the music of the Big Bands on his patio. When winter comes, he heads to a second home in Naples, Fla.

“I’m proud of my service,” he says, tears forming in his hazel eyes. “I got to fight for my country.”

Albert W. Burghardt, 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, European Theater of Operations Medal

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Albert W. Burghardt’s feet served him well 70 years ago, as he and fellow American soldiers marched along the Champs-Élysées in late August after pushing the German army out of the hedgerows of Normandy and then forcing them to flee Paris.

French citizens, 12 deep along the famed boulevards, cheered wildly for their liberators.

“It took us about eight hours to march through the city. We were on our feet a long time, but it was great because we got a day off from fighting,” said Burghardt, whose feet, over time, would never let him forget his service.

After the triumphant march, the 28th Infantry Division bivouacked that night in a Parisian park. Their glory, though, was short-lived. The 28th soon marched into one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest required that the infantry push through the dense and mountainous forest. Tanks and other heavy equipment floundered on what Burghardt said amounted to goat trails.

“To give you an idea of what we were up against, the Hürtgen Forest would make Letchworth State Park look insignificant,” Burghardt says. “Our objective was to get to this big dam up in the mountains so that the Germans could not release the water to flow into the lowlands where the English were going to attack.”

But before members of the 28th Infantry could secure the dam, the Germans opened up floodgates and jammed them so that they could not be closed.

“The Germans,” Burghardt says, “were good fighters.”

In early November, his regiment, the 110th, was ordered to assist the trapped 112th, which was in the lead and had reached Schmidt, a German town. As they marched along what was known as the Kall Trail, Burghardt said the enemy bombarded them with heavy fire that caused tree canopies to explode into “tree bursts,” sending showers of shrapnel onto soldiers below.

At one point as they trudged up and down the mountains in an icy rain, Burghardt recalls coming upon four dead Americans strewn about like “rag dolls.” A fifth soldier, he noticed, was in a sitting position and appeared to be in a daze, perhaps staring at his blood mixing with rivulets of rainwater.

“As I passed him, I looked at his face, but I’m thankful that I didn’t recognize him. It had to be one of the fellows I knew because of the line of march and the time element,” he says. “I was able to look down inside of him because of the large wound in his shoulder. I am quite sure that by the time I passed him, he was dead due to the depth of the wound.”

This grim encounter took place in a matter of seconds, he says, but it seemed like hours as he trudged past.

In total, the 28th Infantry suffered more than 6,000 casualties in the battle.

“When we arrived to assist the 112th, we got trapped, too,” Burghardt says. “Our command post called us on the radio and told us we were completely surrounded and that they couldn’t get to us to help us. We were to break up into small groups and get out as best we could. They wrote us off.”

On the night of Nov. 8, 1944, as cold rain continued to make life miserable for the soldiers who lacked winter clothing, Burghardt says, they managed to make it down a mountainside where they came upon a stone bridge spanning the swollen Kall River.

There was a problem: A German patrol was guarding the bridge. “It was damn dark, and they couldn’t really identify us,” Burghardt recalls. “Besides, it was raining so hard and our group was bigger than theirs, so we went by with no action taken.”

Soon after, the Germans blew up the bridge, trapping many other American soldiers. Some tried to swim across the Kall but were swept away.

“When we arrived at the top of this valley, we came to a flat area where we were challenged in English by a sentry,” he says. “Whoever was leading us satisfied the outpost that we were GIs and we passed through to our company area. We were too tired to dig in. We just laid down and went to sleep.

“At first light, when I awoke, I was covered with the first snow of the season on Nov. 9. The medics arrived and were checking everyone. When they came to me, they asked me how I was, and I said that other than being cold, wet and hungry, I was ‘OK.’ ”

Burghardt was far from OK.

He had come down with trench foot, a malady that would haunt him all his life.

“They asked me how my feet were. I said, ‘OK’ and proceeded to take my M1 rifle and hit my left foot with the butt of it and felt nothing,” he says. “They had me take my boots off and examined my feet. They were as white as the new snow. The medics wrote out a casualty tag and put it on me.”

While waiting to be evacuated, Burghardt took a closer look at his rifle and noticed that 6 inches of the barrel had been blown off – “probably taken off by shrapnel.”

After being placed on the stretcher, Burghardt says, a sense of relief flowed through him. But within a couple of days, agony replaced the relief as the blood in his legs tried to resume normal circulation.

“They had to give me some kind of heavy sedative for the pain,” he says. “It took time for the blood to get back down into my feet.”

When he returned to the United States for more medical care, Burghardt was unable to walk for six months.

“After I came out of the service, no one wanted to talk to me because I had a disability with my feet,” he says. “Employers would tell me, ‘Come back on Monday,’ and then I’d come back and they’d say ‘We got someone a little more experienced than you.’ ”

But he persisted, and with support from his wife, the former Ella Bryant, he carved out a place for himself in the work world, stocking shelves, welding and, for many years, serving as a sales representative in the chemical industry.

Now with Burghardt at age 92, his feet, which once had taken him across France, have given out. He manages with a walker in his home and in a wheelchair outdoors.

He says that he is grateful to still be alive but laments that there are no others alive from the 110th Regiment, at least that he knows of. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

“I have had so many close calls,” he says, “a cat would be envious.”

George C. Derby, 87

Hometown: Olean

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Deployments: Pacific (World War II) and Alaska (Korean War)

Years of service: 1943-46 and 1950-51

Rank: Machinist’s mate third class

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Heavy-equipment operator

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

At age 16, George C. Derby altered his birth certificate to increase his age by a year. He then went with his mother to the Navy recruiting station in Olean, and she signed the papers to allow him to enlist at “17.”

Kathryn Derby most certainly knew that her son was not 17, but she also knew how much he wanted to serve his country.

“Everybody wanted to join the Navy or Army at that time, and my mother agreed to sign the papers,” George Derby, now 87, recalls. “I’d just finished my second year of high school, and within a few days, I was in the Navy.”

During his physical exam up in Buffalo, a doctor determined he was colorblind. Rather than send the youthful patriot back to Olean, the doctor assigned Derby to the Navy’s Seabees, the heavy-equipment operators who build military infrastructure.

There was just one problem: Derby had no idea how to even drive a car.

“I learned how to drive on a six-wheel dump truck,” he says.

And that turned out to be an uphill battle of sorts.

“All the guys wondered why I would stop the dump truck at the bottom of a hill and put it in low gear. I didn’t know how to double-clutch,” Derby says of pushing the clutch in, revving up the engine and putting it into a lower gear without stopping.

But by 16½, Derby was in the Pacific building runways for bombers – skipping from one island to the next, inching ever closer to the Japanese mainland – so that the planes could drop their payloads and make it back before running out of fuel.

Derby operated bulldozers and diesel-powered shovels that dug up the coral used to make the runways.

“We’d use the bulldozer to level the coral, then run a sheet-foot roller with all these little pegs in it,” he says. “We’d then level it with a grader, and we’d use the roller again without the pegs in it, a flat roller. We went through mountains of coral. Sometimes we’d have to keep repeating the process to make the runways level.”

There seemed to be no end to the work.

On the island of Tinian, their job was to build four runways, each 500 feet wide and 10,000 feet long.

The task sometimes turned them into sitting ducks. The Seabees were menaced by “Washing Machine Charlie,” the name given to a Japanese pilot who frequently bombed their island at night.

“We called him ‘Washing Machine Charlie,’ ” Derby says, “because his plane sounded like a washing machine.”

On Tinian alone, Derby and his fellow Seabees in the 13th Naval Construction Battalion experienced 50 bombing raids.

“We’d crawl under a truck for cover. Where else could you go?” he says of the flat expanse where he and other Seabees worked.

When the runways were completed, Derby says, it was quite a sight.

“All you could see,” he says, “was this endless silver – all these bombers, 300 or 400 of them parked all over the airport.”

Derby later learned that the first runway he and his colleagues constructed at Tinian was used by the crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945 on Hiroshima.

It was on that runway while it was still under construction, Derby says, that four Japanese fighter planes on a daytime mission came roaring in and strafed him and other Seabees, but he and his buddies avoided being wounded.

By the time the Enola Gay had lifted off from Tinian on its historic flight, Derby and his crew were long gone, building runways on the island of Okinawa, ever closer to Japan.

“The purpose of the runways on Okinawa was to give planes that had been damaged a closer place to land after they’d gone on their bombing runs,” Derby says.

But the war in the Pacific soon ended after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and by March 1946, Derby was back home in Olean – still a teenager at 19.

“I went back to high school with all the little kids,” he recalls. “There were about 40 of us who did that after the war.”

He soon married and became a family man with two children, though in 1950 Uncle Sam reached out to him, informing Derby there was still unfinished business with the military.

Part of the Navy’s Inactive Reserve, Derby was called back to active duty for the Korean War and sent to Alaska’s Adak Island, part of the Aleutian chain in the Bering Sea.

“I was the old man at 23 years old and in charge of the motor pool. The Seabees built barracks and a concrete runway there,” Derby says.

For a year, he served on Adak before returning to civilian life.

“It was nothing but winter and wind up there,” he recalls.

Back home, Derby returned to work in an Olean tire repair shop. He later moved to Buffalo to work as an adjuster for U.S. Royal Tires. A decade later, he left that job to work for Loomis-Root, a Buffalo tire equipment dealer, and eventually retired, only to discover that sitting still disagreed with him.

Loomis-Root, which had moved to Amherst, hired him back part time, and he worked there until he was 82.

Although now retired, he hasn’t been grounded by age.

Derby owns a two-seat, single-engine Cessna airplane, which he flies regularly, and serves as president of the Clarence Flying Club.

When asked why he is so active, Derby answers with a question:

“Why not?”

In his mind’s eye, John V. “Jack” O’Connor still can visualize the battle scene in Belgium seven decades ago.

His 101st Airborne Division was taking a pounding from an undetected German tank in January 1945, a month into the Battle of the Bulge that began 70 years ago Tuesday.

About a foot of snow had fallen. O’Connor, now 89, saw a tiny black square more than a mile away and quickly figured that the tank’s fumes had melted the snow there.

Focusing on that dark spot, O’Connor, working as a squad leader, saw a flash of light.

“The tank commander fired his gun, and I knew it would take five or six seconds for the shells to hit us,” O’Connor recalls. “I said, ‘Hit the ditch. One’s coming in.’ It hit pretty close. But I got everyone in.”

O’Connor later called for a direct airstrike on that German tank, and when that was carried out, he thought of his best Army foxhole buddy, Richard Olson, who had suffered a serious arm wound just hours earlier in an attack that killed two paratroopers.

“When the bomb knocked the tank out, I said to myself, ‘This one is for you, Richard,’ because I was ticked off that he was wounded.”

After a postwar victory parade in New York City in January 1946, O’Connor and Olson lost track of each other.

Until last month.

That’s when a Lewiston Public Library project and the O’Connor family’s desire to solve the mystery teamed up to put the two men in touch.

It started when Michelle A. Kratts, the library genealogist, asked around for a World War II veteran whom her son Brendan could interview for a library project. O’Connor agreed, and during the interview, he showed Brendan a photo of himself with Olson. Kratts later took her research skills to the Internet, searching for Richard Olson and the 101st Airborne Division – the “Screaming Eagles” – and finding that he was being honored in his home state of Missouri.

After O’Connor agreed that it wouldn’t be too upsetting to reopen some of his most disturbing World War II memories and images, his sister, Maureen O’Connor Weber, called Olson in Missouri, reaching his wife, Mary Lee.

Here’s how Weber, who calls her brother Jack, recalled that conversation:

“ ‘Hello, Mrs. Olson,’ ” she said. “ ‘My name is Maureen O’Connor Weber, and my brother is Jack O’Connor from the 101st Airborne.’ ”

“Would his name be John?” Mrs. Olson asked. “My husband has been looking for him for years.”

“I said, ‘Mrs. Olson, I think I’m going to cry.’ ”

“She said, ‘Don’t cry, dear.’ ”

On Nov. 15, four days after Veterans Day, the two men talked for the first time in almost 69 years. They’ve now talked about six times.

As O’Connor wrote, in a longhand note to his buddy, “I can’t believe we found each other after all these years – 69. It’s like a closed door opened for me.”

Weber, who said she has always been proud of her older brother, is grateful this decades-old mystery has been solved, closing a gap in his history of military service.

O’Connor’s daughter, Lorraine O’Connor-DeRosa, agreed with her father that renewing the friendship with Olson has opened new doors. “I had heard most of the war stories,” she says. “But now this has led to more stories that make my brother (Daniel) and me proud.”

O’Connor was 18 when he enlisted in the Army in June 1943, after having worked for a bake shop and at Nabisco Shredded Wheat.

“I was patriotic as hell, but they were going to draft me, anyway,” he says.

O’Connor also was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, suffering shrapnel wounds in his back and over his left eye. But he stayed on the front lines.

That prompted what had to be the scariest letter, from a congressional office to his mother, Loretta.

“It has been with regret that I have learned through the War Department that your son, Pfc. John V. O’Connor, was wounded in action in Europe,” the letter stated. He later sent his family a letter saying he was all right.

After the war, O’Connor and his wife, Evelyn, settled in the Town of Lewiston and later Grand Island. They had three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and he retired from Occidental Chemical Corp., where he worked as a pipe fitter.

O’Connor still can spin a yarn or two, although some of his tales may not be fit for a family newspaper, including stories about his giving a pack of cigarettes to the exiled king of Spain in Switzerland and whipping Mickey Rooney in checkers.

After all these years, renewing acquaintances with his buddy Olson in person may be difficult for O’Connor, as physical limitations make it hard for him to walk more than a few yards.

“I wish I could pay you a visit, but it’s more than 20 feet to get there,” he wrote to Olson.

Then he signed the letter, “Your Best Friend, John O’Connor, Fellow Paratrooper.”

John V. O’Connor, 89

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Grand Island

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Corporal

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, European Theater of Operations Medal with three battle stars, Presidential Unit Citation

Specialty: Paratrooper

Alvin R. Hardy, 94

Hometown: Getzville

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Before Uncle Sam requested his services by way of a draft notice, Alvin R. Hardy found contentment working in the shipping department at the Columbus McKinnon chain factory in the City of Tonawanda.

It was steady work, and he enjoyed it, but with the draft notice in hand, Hardy dutifully headed for the draft board office on Main Street in Williamsville. That same day, he ended up on his way to World War II.

“A whole bunch of us went to Buffalo where we took the train to Niagara Falls and then we went to Fort Niagara in Youngstown,” he recalls.

Boot camp followed at Camp Wheeler, Ga., followed by advanced training. Then, Hardy and his comrades were packed into the RMS Queen Elizabeth and shipped to England to prepare for an anticipated invasion of Europe, though the location and time were top-secret.

“There was this beach in England that we would run onto from the English Channel,” Hardy said.

Practice ended the morning of June 6, 1944, with the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Waves of troops charged off landing crafts onto the French coast and into a barrage of German artillery fire, many spilling their blood and sacrificing their lives.

“There were five beaches, and we landed at Utah Beach. There was a lot of noise. All the shells going off and that stuff. Some of the soldiers were hit and floating in the water,” Hardy says. “I was scared.”

Yet even with death all around him, he says, it didn’t occur to him that he might die.

“You just kept on going forward,” he says. “Getting above Utah Beach wasn’t so bad. The incline wasn’t that steep, but next to us at Omaha Beach, it was tough.”

Though spared wounds on that momentous day in history, Hardy soon had a brush with mortality in the Battle of Cherbourg. A piece of shrapnel walloped his left shoulder from behind.

“That was a big port we were fighting for, and I was hit on June 23,” he says. “They took me to a field hospital and got rid of my old, rotten clothes. They wrapped me up in a sheet and a blanket. A day later we were taken to a hospital in England.”

Doctors operated and removed the shrapnel, which Hardy says bulged out of the front side of his left shoulder. For four months, he recuperated in England before being shipped back to the United States, where he was hospitalized for several more months before being honorably discharged in May 1945, when the war in Europe ended.

“I still don’t have full use of my left shoulder,” Hardy says.

Yet he was able to return to Columbus McKinnon.

“I went back to the chain works and worked as a forklift operator. I worked there until 1985. That’s when they closed up the Fillmore Avenue plant in Tonawanda and I retired.”

He and his late wife, Ruth Crittenden Hardy, raised four children.

As for the war, Hardy says he has never forgotten his service. Battle scars on his shoulder, he said, remind him.

And there is even a pleasant memory.

Twenty years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the invasion, Hardy and his youngest daughter, Lynne Bain, visited Normandy.

“It was a lot better then,” Hardy says. “It was all clear.”

William A. Brudo, 91

Hometown: Evans

Residence: Lake View

Branch: Marine Corps

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Presidential United Citation

Specialty: Battalion clerk and secretary

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

After graduating from Hamburg High School and Stratford Business School in Buffalo, William A. Brudo decided that his next course of study would be a hands-on experience in defending democracy.

He picked the Marine Corps as his teacher, enlisting because he had always admired the leathernecks’ reputation as the first to lead the charge in defending America and their motto, “Semper Fi,” or “Always Faithful.”

With World War II in full swing, Brudo felt certain he would see infantry action, but the Marine Corps decided to make use of his business skills and assigned him as a battalion clerk in charge of making sure the troops were properly supplied with ammunition, food and whatever else was necessary to win a war.

But don’t think for a minute that Brudo was spared the dangers of war in the Pacific. He landed at the Battle of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands with the 4th Marine Division in late January through earlier February 1944.

“After that, we returned to Maui, and we built back up to strength and then the division went back out again,” he says. “I was fortunate to be in the rear echelon for the battles of Saipan and Tinian. I probably would have been killed. There were a lot of casualties.”

Brudo, though, was part of the crucial battle at Iwo Jima, an island needed for its strategic location to place fighter planes within range of Japan, so that they could escort B-29 Superfortresses on their bombing runs to the enemy’s homeland.

“We landed at Iwo Jima, and I was there a month. I got to see them raise the flag at Mount Suribachi. It was a wonderful feeling to see that. Suribachi was the highest point on the island,” Brudo says of what became an iconic moment captured in a photograph Feb. 23, 1945. It depicts five Marines and a Navy corpsman planting the flag in victory atop Suribachi.

Yet it was beneath Iwo Jima, Brudo says, where the real menace was situated.

“Underneath the island there were all kinds of tunnels like the inside of an anthill,” he recalls.

“The enemy had guns, ammunition, food and even hospitals. We used flamethrowers on the tunnels, but they only shot the flames so far. At night, when we stood guard duty, the enemy would push out its artillery guns from the tunnels and shell us. We weren’t hit, but we could hear shells going over our heads.”

After Iwo Jima, the division again returned to Maui and this time began training for what was expected to be the invasion of Japan.

“I knew the casualties would be great. The Japanese had these little submarines that were filled with just enough fuel to go out and blow up our ships and not return back to port,” Brudo says. “It reminds me of terrorists in Afghanistan who wear the explosives around their waists for suicide missions.”

Thankfully, Brudo says, the invasion of Japan never happened.

“President Harry Truman dropped the bombs, and I can tell you there were a million lives of Americans that were saved because we didn’t have to invade Japan,” Brudo says of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The Japanese surrendered and that was the end of the war.”

Back in civilian life, Brudo worked at several jobs throughout his career, including at the Pennsylvania Railroad, Crescent Tool Co., Marine Midland Bank, and in his final years back at the railroad working for Conrail.

Married for 67 years, Brudo and his wife, the former Gertrude Tonder, raised two daughters and have five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Of his military service, he says, “You never forget it. I visualize it every day.”

And what does he see in his mind’s eye?

“Getting off the ship on one of those rope ladders into a landing craft and wondering if you’re going to break your leg. That’s just one of the things I remember. I could talk all day about it.”

Robert O. Anderson, 89

Hometown and residence: Akron

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, Army of Occupation Medal

Specialty: Military Police

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Robert O. Anderson can tell you about what he witnessed at one of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps he was among the first to inspect at the end of World War II.

But Anderson is a gentle soul and would rather put aside those gruesome memories and, at least for a while, chat about other wartime stories before discussing the horrendous crimes against humanity.

He remembers the RMS Queen Mary, a luxury cruise ship put into service as a troop transport, although his trans-Atlantic voyage was anything but luxurious.

“We were assigned to staterooms that were supposed to accommodate two people, but they put bunk beds in them for six to eight troops. We’d get to sleep in a bunk bed one night, and the next night we were out on the promenade deck in our sleeping bags. Then the next night back in the bunk beds,” the 89-year-old Akron native says.

Yet he was glad to be aboard the jam-packed Queen Mary because it was known to be the fastest of the troop ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean and did not require an escort.

“We would zigzag our way across. The Queen Mary traveled at 30 knots,” he says.

Hitler was so frustrated by the Queen Mary’s success that he offered $250,000 and the Iron Cross to the U-boat captain who succeeded in sinking the vessel, which could carry as many as 16,000 troops in one crossing.

No German submarine captain ever succeeded in claiming the bounty.

“You can bet we were glad when we made it across the Atlantic,” Anderson says.

Arriving in Glasgow, Scotland, Anderson and fellow members of the 508th Military Police Battalion boarded a train south to England where they remained stationed until shortly before the Battle of the Bulge started Dec. 16, 1944. “We crossed the English Channel for France, and I think we were more concerned then about being sunk by U-boats then when we crossed the Atlantic.”

The battalion, assigned to Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army, climbed aboard railroad cars, which turned out to be a big step down from the Queen Mary.

“We were placed in boxcars which were called Forty-and-Eights in World War I. That meant the boxcars could carry 40 men and eight horses. At least we didn’t have to walk. We eventually ended up in a place called Aachen, a German city, and there was devastation everywhere.”

Buildings were flattened into piles of bricks, statues that had adorned the town were rubble, and civilians were nowhere to be seen. It was a ghost town.

He and fellow members of the Military Police were given the job of protecting supply lines for the Allies who progressed deeper into the enemy’s homeland.

“The supply lines included troops, ammunition, artillery, fuel and food,” Anderson recalls. “We were stationed at every major crossroad and wherever they might make a mistake and make a wrong turn.”

Other assignments carried out by the 508th required guarding pontoon bridges that the Army Corps of Engineers had built across the Rhine River.

“I remember the civilian population was coming out and trying to get away from the Russians. They were crossing the river from east to west.”

German civilians, he said, were frightened of the wrath of Russian soldiers.

As the war ended, Anderson and his fellow MPs were among the first groups of soldiers to liberate the Nazis’ Dachau concentration camp, where horrific crimes against humanity had been committed and tens of thousands of Jews and others had been killed in the Holocaust. “There were bodies stacked up and some of the prisoners who had survived gave us tours of the camp, showing us where prisoners had been taken for showers and gassed,” Anderson says. “There were also ovens where they were cremated. Anyone who says that this did not happen is wrong. It did happen. I witnessed the results.”

With the war ended in Europe in May 1945, the 508th served as part of the Army of Occupation, assigned to Munich.

“Munich was busted up pretty bad, but some of the historic parts were saved,” he says, “and by then, the German people were beginning to clean up and make a place to live. That impressed me, but they were desperate for food and would come around and take our garbage.”

A year later, Anderson was back home. “I worked that summer in Niagara Falls at Great Lakes Carbon Co. as a painter. My sister lived in the Falls,” he says.

But he soon left for Michigan State University and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He returned home in 1950 already married to his high school sweetheart, Coralyn Kenward.

National Gypsum in Clarence Center hired him as the plant engineer, and in 1956, he moved over to Carborundum Metals in Akron, later transferring to Carborundum’s Niagara Falls plant. He retired in 1986 from that facility as head of the technical branch of the Electro Minerals Division.

About five years ago, Anderson says, something incredible happened. He reconnected with Joe Sensenbrenner, with whom he had served in the 508th.

“Joe lived in Wisconsin, and I called him and he ended up coming here and visiting me,” Anderson says.

“It was extraordinary to see someone after such a long period of time. He’s the only one I’ve run into that I served with. He died about a year later.”

Pierce L. McLennan, 88

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-47

Rank: Corporal

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, Presidential Unit Citation

Specialty: Paratrooper

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

At age 16, Pierce L. McLennan figured he knew all he needed to know as far as book learning went. So he quit McKinley High School.

Inspired by an uncle who worked as a boat captain on the Great Lakes, McLennan headed to the Lake Carriers Office in downtown Buffalo and got his paperwork in order for employment on a steam-powered lake freighter.

“I thought it would be a great adventure for a 16-year-old. I went to Cleveland, Chicago and Duluth, all the cities on the Great Lakes,” he recalls.

In time, the thrill wore off. Quitting school had been a mistake.

But this was not the time to resume his education. Uncle Sam needed him for World War II.

“After I was sworn in to the Army at the Old Post Office, there was this guy sitting in the corner. He was recruiting for the paratroopers,” McLennan says. “He was dressed in these shiny boots, and his pants were like blouses. He looked real fine, and I decided to volunteer as a paratrooper.”

By late spring 1945, McLennan was heading to Manila Bay in the Philippines to become a member of the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, which was training for the anticipated invasion of Japan.

“We were going to jump into Japan for the invasion, but then President Truman dropped the atom bombs and the war ended,” McLennan says.

He expressed gratitude for that decision, for it avoided what promised to be a bloody battle on the Japanese homeland.

“They would not have given up. They would have fought to the end,” McLennan says. “They couldn’t surrender.”

But McLennan, it turned out, faced his most dangerous moments a couple of years later on American soil.

He and other paratroopers were rolling down the runway at Pope Field, N.C., inside a C-119 Flying Boxcar transport plane on a training jump. One of the two engines started to sputter.

“It sounded like the engine in a car missing, not running smoothly. Many of us thought something was wrong. We said, ‘Jeez, that sounds like hell,’ ” he remembers. “But the pilot must have figured it was OK. We were about 10 feet off the ground at about 150 mph when there was a big explosion and the pilot tried to set the plane back down.

“But he had run out of runway, and we were racing across this grassy field and he was trying to stop the plane. Just before he stopped, there was this 10-foot-deep gully out there, and as the plane stopped, the nose dropped into the hole.

“The Boxcar tipped forward, with the tail end of the plane sticking up about 10 feet. There was black smoke and flames, and everyone was trying to get to the rear doors.

“Each of us had about 50 pounds of equipment on us, and we were trying to climb up and out of the back doors. It was panic time. Some of the guys were screaming and yelling, ‘Get me out of here!’ We were slipping and sliding on the floor. It sounds like a Charlie Chaplin movie.”

Amazingly, everyone got out safely.

The Army never released news of the accident, he said.

“There was no acknowledgment anywhere that this accident had happened. When you think about it, how close did we come to being burned alive? I went back the next day and took a photograph of the plane that I still have.”

Of the 42 paratroopers involved in the accident, about 20 quit and were transferred to infantry outfits.

“The rest of us were told we needed to go up the same day and jump,” McLennan says.

Any fright that McLennan might have had from the harrowing experience drifted away as he safely parachuted to earth later that afternoon, he says. “I was a lucky guy.”

Such events, he says, create a bond among paratroopers.

In 1981, McLennan says, he and 10 other former paratroopers formed the Niagara Frontier Airborne Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, carrying on a tradition of “a real band of brothers.”

To celebrate his 60th birthday, McLennan said, he revisited his daring past by making a parachute jump.

“We went up about 2,200 feet and jumped,” he says. “It was a thrill. Oh, Lord, did it bring back memories!”

And, he says, he may not be finished with parachuting:

“I’m thinking of doing a jump on my 90th birthday – July 14, 2016.”

Theodore J. Drews, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Marine Corps

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-47

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Sharpshooter Badge

Specialty: Combat engineer

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Even at age 89, Theodore J. Drews has vivid memories of World War II’s historic Battle of Iwo Jima, which marks its 70th anniversary on Thursday of next week.

Ted Drews still has nightmares of fellow Marines he helped bury in temporary graves on the strategic Pacific island that provided crucial landing strips for Japan-bound American bombers.

Yet a year before that bloody battle that began Feb. 19, 1945, it would have been hard for Drews to imagine he would be part of it. He says he had been leading the “good life” back in Buffalo. A senior at Hutchinson-Central High School on Elmwood Avenue, he worked after school and on weekends as an usher at the Century Theatre at Main and East Mohawk streets.

Close enough to walk to work from school and home, Drews says, he lived at 31 W. Eagle St., where the new Erie County Family Courthouse now stands.

“In fact, when I looked out my parents’ bedroom window as a boy, I could see old Erie County Hall on Franklin Street, and I learned to tell time from the clock on top of County Hall,” he says.

At 18 and even though he was still in high school, Drews’ time as a civilian ran out.

“They needed bodies, and, like a lot of other people, I received a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt drafting me into the military,” the Town of Tonawanda resident says. “I left behind the good life.”

After completing basic training at Parris Island, S.C., Drews says, he was soon on his way to the Pacific to help in the push to take over the islands that would bring U.S. forces ever closer to Japan.

“Our job at Iwo Jima was to move replacement troops from the beach up to the front lines and also bring supplies up to the front lines,” Drews says of his duties with the Headquarters & Service Company of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion.

Rated as a sharpshooter, Drews said he was fortunate he did not have to put his skills with a rifle to work in direct combat with the enemy. But he was close enough to witness enough horror at Iwo Jima to last a lifetime.

“We would see Marines just as they were when they died, and you just don’t lie down when you die. I saw dead Marines sitting, arms and legs in the air,” he recalls. “I still occasionally have dreams about that. But I’m lucky I have a good family.”

Phyllis Drews, his wife, says that as the decades passed, her husband’s nightmares intensified. “He would wake up calling for help or he would fall out of the bed. I think that as he got older, it was harder for him to repress those memories,” she says. “About eight years ago, he went to the VA and got help. Since then, he rarely has the nightmares. I can’t say enough good things about the VA.”

Besides witnessing Marines who had died with their boots on, Drews also had the grim task of transporting deceased Marines to a temporary cemetery on the island.

“Some of these Marines who were wounded later died on the USS Hope, a hospital ship, and we’d have to take their bodies back to Iwo Jima where they were buried in these big holes that had been dug and had separate graves,” Drews explains.

Amid the sadness, Drews says, he took pride whenever he happened to look in the direction of the island’s Mount Suribachi. Atop it flew the American flag, placed there by five Marines and a Navy corpsman – an image captured in a photograph that became an iconic symbol of U.S. victory in the Pacific war.

In the weeks after the battle ended March 26, 1945, Drews transferred to Guam to work at a station where submarine personnel returned for rest and recuperation. Ironically, that was where Drews fell ill, suffering from tuberculosis.

“I was shipped to a hospital in Riverside, Calif., for about six weeks. Then I ended up in Sunmount, N.Y., up in the Adirondacks, and I was there for two years.”

When he returned home in 1947, he attended New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences, a forerunner of Erie Community College, and studied electrical technology, which opened the door to a career in heating and air conditioning. In the early 1980s, however, he was laid off. It happened at a particularly challenging time. He and his wife had three of their five children in college.

Drews says he started taking civil service exams and secured a job with the City of Buffalo as a lift bridge operator during the navigation season and as a signal department employee in the winter.

“They called me a bridge operating engineer. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” he says. “When I retired in 1996 at 70, my wife and I did a lot of traveling to Europe, Pearl Harbor and Alaska. But I’ve slowed down quite a bit.”

Yet in the summer months, Drews says, he and his wife of almost 55 years reside in their 38-foot house trailer in the rolling hills of southern Erie County.

“I have a big deck that I sit on and have a bottle of beer,” he says, once again enjoying the good life.

Henry W. Moskal, 93

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Sloan

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honor: European-African- Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two battle stars

Specialty: Armored ordnance

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Seeing the horror of the Nazis firsthand, Henry W. Moskal decided he would spend the rest of his life retaliating with kindness.

That decision occurred after he and other soldiers liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp April 15, 1945.

“There were prisoners there who were walking skeletons. Some of them had prison-striped uniforms, shabby. Others had nothing on,” Moskal recalls. “They’d come up to us in pairs, supporting one another. They had no strength. No food. And, boy, did we get chewed out by the medics when we gave them food.

“They said, ‘You can’t feed them. No solid foods. You’ll kill them.’ We were told the prisoners could have liquids, but no solid foods.”

Moskal, 23 at the time, was shocked beyond words at the inhumanity of the Nazis in World War II.

“That was the day I got christened as a real Christian Catholic,” he says. “Christians do not believe in inflicting suffering or killing people. I later fell on my knees and gave thanks that I was able to get there and help liberate the camp.”

A member of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army, Moskal and other soldiers then liberated a prisoner of war camp in Moosburg, Germany.

“The guys there were pretty skinny, and one of them was from West Seneca, but I didn’t see him there, though years later I visited him when he was dying. His name was Mr. Gillogly,” Moskal says.

Months before the liberation of the two camps, Moskal remembered how word had spread quickly among the troops that Patton had asked the highest-ranking chaplain he could find for prayers when they were at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

“Patton asked the clergyman to pray for the fog to lift so that our planes could get up in the air and look for the German tanks. Patton said he was going to see what standing the reverend had with the Guy Upstairs,” Moskal says.

“The fog did lift, and everything worked out good for the clergyman.”

After the war, Moskal worked as a mechanic repairing trucks for decades.

“They made me the boss at Ryder Trucks. They sent me to schools all over,” he says. “They were good to me.”

His public service in civilian life also hit high gear as he and his wife, the former Natalie Skop, raised two children, JoAnn and Paul.

“I served 24 years in the Village of Sloan’s government. At one point, I served simultaneously as an elected Village Board trustee and as an elected member of the Board of Education. Nobody else wanted to serve on the School Board.”

He credits his wife, who died 18 years ago, with inspiring him to take on the additional Board of Education duty.

“We built John F. Kennedy High School while I was on the School Board,” Moskal says.

In time, he was elected mayor of Sloan and served two terms. “After that, I didn’t run for a couple years, but members of Sloan Active Hose Fire Company insisted I run again for the Village Board and I served another eight years,” he says. “I was a volunteer firefighter, and they trusted me to look out for things.”

Even now, at his advanced age of 93 and legally blind, Moskal continues to serve others.

“I belong to the Legion of Mary, and I ride with another member who is a World War II veteran and we visit the sick,” he says. “We do it at least two or three times a week. If I can put a smile on anyone’s face, it’s worth me trying.”

It’s his war experiences, he says, that give him the drive to spread joy.

“Had I not experienced what I saw at that concentration camp,” he says, “I probably never would have realized how merciful we need to be. We have to take care of one another.”

Louis B. Goszewski has always been a man on the move. But before agreeing to tell his story about serving in the Navy during World War II, he cautioned that, if it starts to snow, he will have to delay his tale and go out to plow.

Plowing?

“Sure, I plow the parking lots at St. John Gualbert Church and School and the Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. VFW,” he says. “You know, I’m only 91.”

That said, he quickly jumps to the heart of his war story, telling how he served as a troubleshooter aviation mechanic on the flight deck of the USS Randolph.

“We had 105 airplanes. That’s a lot of planes. On the flight deck, that’s where I saw a lot of action. Below deck, you don’t see much,” he says.

That changed quickly one evening in March 1945.

During what appeared to be a lull in the action, Goszewski visited the aviation repair shop on the mezzanine deck of the aircraft carrier, just below topside. Several other mechanics invited him to join in their card game.

“I said, ‘I don’t play cards,’ and I decided to take a shower,” he says. “I was walking away toward my locker and I never made it. We were hit by a kamikaze twin-engine bomber. There was nothing left to the guys at the card table where I’d been a minute earlier. Nothing.”

The alarm for general quarters sounded, and Goszewski rushed to his battle station on the flight deck, where he manned a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun. When it was determined that no other enemy planes were around, he and other crew members went to work putting out the fires caused by the enemy plane.

“It must have been loaded with bombs to cause the kind of damage it did. We were still afloat, but some of our own ammunition and oxygen bottles were exploding,” Goszewski recalls.

“We fought the fire all night long until maybe 9 in the morning; plus other ships were pouring water on us from their fire hoses.”

When the smoke finally cleared, 27 crew members had died, and more than 100 were wounded.

The USS Randolph, until then, had inflicted a lot of damage during battles to retake the Philippines and capture Iwo Jima.

“We also had sent out the first airplanes that raided Tokyo,” Goszewski remembers.

And while it seemed as if the USS Randolph’s war days were all but finished, the ship swiftly returned to action.

“We had thought we were going to have to go to some dry dock,” he says, “but there were repair ships nearby, and they had enough steel that they were able to fix our flight deck and we were back in service in about 10 days.”

It was on to the Battle of Okinawa.

“That went on quite awhile. The Japanese were really buried in there,” he says. “ They were in those caves, and they had some air power from other islands.”

The fight started April 1, 1945, and concluded June 22.

“It was a tough one. We were at our battle stations all the time.”

After that, the USS Randolph remained on patrol in the Pacific until the war ended in August 1945.

“We then went to Hawaii to replenish our supplies before going back through the Panama Canal to Baltimore, where we refurbished our ship as a troop carrier,” he says. “I’ll never forget the number of bunks we put in – 4,888 – in the hangar deck because there were no airplanes.”

The Randolph then shoved off for Italy with 800 Italian prisoners of war.

“It was a beautiful, sunny day when we arrived in Naples, and I thought we would get some liberty,” he recalls, “but the captain said, ‘Nobody gets off the ship.’ We were told people were poor, they had nothing, and we could be robbed.

“The next day, it was pouring rain and our U.S. Army soldiers were coming onboard from open trucks they’d been transported in. Those guys were soaking wet. We brought back 6,500 soldiers in one trip to New York City.”

Soon after, Goszewski was discharged from a Navy base at Lido Beach on Long Island, and he returned to Cheektowaga.

For many years, he and his five brothers – four served in different branches of the military in World War II – ran a construction company, building houses and some commercial buildings.

To this day, he still does small construction projects and credits his wife, the former Franny Filarecki, with making sure he stays active.

“I’m aiming for the century club,” Goszewski says, “I want to live to be 100.”

Eager to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, Robert H. Herman could not wait until he was 18 to join the Marine Corps and fight in World War II.

So he convinced his parents to sign the enlistment papers giving their approval for him to join at 17.

“That’s just what we did,” Herman says. “We did what we had to do.”

His brother, he says, loved his work in the Pacific war zone identifying enemy aircraft.

“Charles loved airplanes,” Herman recalls.

After the war, Charles Herman, 90, of Elma, pursued his love of aviation and learned to fly. To this day, the older brother owns two planes.

But this is the younger brother’s story and how his dream of fighting for America ended when President Harry S. Truman ordered the world’s first atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

“We were on our way to Japan for the invasion, but the Japanese quit after we dropped the bombs,” Robert Herman says. “A lot of Marines stayed alive because of that.”

And though the war was won, some of the enemy soldiers refused to believe that it was over and remained hidden in caves on various Pacific islands, Herman says, recalling his own experiences on Okinawa.

“I never saw them, but we would set food out for them at the front of the caves. They were soldiers, and we respected them for that,” says Herman, 88. “They’d take the food when we left.”

Herman was later transferred to Japan and got a firsthand look at the devastation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

“I was amazed,” he said, explaining that since so much time has passed, it is hard for him to recall all of the specifics of what he saw, but with some prodding from his wife, Patricia Reynolds Herman, he added, “There was nothing left.”

Patricia Herman is quick to recall a more pleasant memory that her husband had shared with her of how he became friends with a Japanese woman who worked at the base where he was stationed in Japan. “Oh, he admitted that to me,” the wife says with amusement. “I guess it was nice to have somebody to do things with.”

But soon after the war, back home in the Ebenezer section of West Seneca, Robert Herman’s attentions turned to the 16-year-old Patricia, who made her presence known to him at a firehall dance.

She said she had recognized him from a military photograph she had seen of him displayed on a table in the home of Herman’s sister-in-law, who was her friend.

“I thought he was kind of cute,” Patricia Herman says.

At the dance, she recalls, she noticed him on the firehall staircase.

“He was probably looking at all the girls. I went up to him and said, ‘Hi, Bob, you don’t know me, but I know you.’ ”

Then to create an air of mystery, Patricia walked away.

Bob, she says, asked another fellow “who’s that good-looking girl” and found out her name.

They soon married and went on to raise three children, with Bob Herman supporting them by working as a roller at the Bethlehem Steel plant, where, after 35 years, he retired in 1983.

Whatever became of that portrait of the handsome young Bob Herman dressed in his Marine uniform?

“My sister-in-law gave me the photograph of Bob, and I still have it,” Patricia Herman says.

“We’ve been married 66 years, so I think it’s going to last.”

Joseph W. Perrin, 90

Hometown: Elmira

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Rank: Radioman third class

War zones: Atlantic, Mediterranean, Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two battle stars, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

Specialty: Radio operator

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

“As soon as I graduated high school, zing!”

That’s how Joseph W. Perrin describes his introduction into the Navy.

By early summer 1943, the draftee was getting another education at Sampson Naval Training Center on Seneca Lake. From there, he headed to Pier 92 Naval Receiving Station on the Hudson River in New York City.

“I was there about two weeks and went aboard the USS Livermore, a destroyer, and stayed on it for the duration of my service,” Perrin says. “We escorted supply ships most of the time – but, once in a while, troop ships – across the Atlantic.”

To defend these crucial World War II convoys, the Livermore dropped depth charges on German submarines, “but we never got any confirmed kills,” Perrin says.

Even so, the blast from a depth charge is something he never forgot.

“The depth charges looked like big oil drums. We could launch them or drop them over the fantail. About 30 seconds to 1 minute later, there would be a big spray, and we’d feel the vibration throughout the ship,” Perrin recalls.

In the Mediterranean Sea, the Livermore often stopped at North African ports.

“One time, we got a look at soldiers in the French Foreign Legion,” he says, “and it sounds awful, but they looked like a ragtag bunch. They were supposed to be such an elite outfit.”

In March 1944, the Livermore fought in the Battle of Anzio, shelling a fortified enemy high above the western Italian shore.

“The Germans were on high ground, and that put us at a disadvantage. We had to fire our 5-inch and 40-millimeter guns at their strongholds,” Perrin says, adding that enemy observation planes dared not fly anywhere near the hail of fire put out by the ship’s heavy guns.

Then it was on to southern France, where the Livermore fired on enemy positions in Marseille and provided cover for Navy minesweepers. After France, the Livermore sailed east to the island of Malta and docked, the 90-year-old former sailor recalls.

“We went ashore and visited some of the catacombs where the early Christians worshipped and were buried,” he says. “At the time, I thought it was strange, but it was quite a wonderful experience. It was so different.”

That was the extent of his sightseeing as a sailor.

With the war won in Europe, Perrin and his crewmates headed for the Pacific to prepare for an invasion of Japan. That journey took them to where the war for America had begun – Pearl Harbor.

“We were waiting in Pearl Harbor to head to Japan,” he says. “But when the atomic bombs were dropped, that is when the war ended. Japan surrendered.”

But Perrin’s service was unfinished. “We went to Japan as part of the occupation force,” he says.

Unlike other service members who in their time off visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the bombs had been dropped, Perrin says he never had the chance. “That’s was probably a good thing,” he says. “There might have been some of that radiation still around, and who wants to see all that devastation?”

After the war, he headed up to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. “We picked up a bunch of Marines and took them to San Francisco. Then we went back through the Panama Canal to Charleston, South Carolina,” he says. “From there, I took the train up to Sampson and was discharged from where I started out.”

In civilian life, he became a New York State prison corrections officer. He married Marilyn Van Epps, and they raised three sons. In the prison system, he rose to the rank of deputy superintendent of security and retired in 1987.

“Every once in a while, I think about my service,” Perrin says, “and get out my copy of the ship’s log. It brings back memories.”

Phillip T. Paonessa Sr., 95

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Wheatfield

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven campaign ribbons

Specialty: Quartermaster

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

After graduating from Trott Vocational High School in the late 1930s, a young Phillip T. Paonessa worked in Niagara Falls during a time when jobs were plentiful.

Later, when he returned home from World War II, one of those jobs put him in the same taxi with a woman who had sent him a “Dear John” letter while he was overseas. But there are a lot of miles to cover before getting to that story.

Paonessa’s first job after high school was at International Paper Co. on Buffalo Avenue, earning 49 cents an hour. Always ambitious, he quit the paper mill to take a better paying job at Oldbury Chemical Co., also on Buffalo Avenue, where he earned 69 cents an hour.

Then, in 1942, Uncle Sam put a hold on his career advancement, summoning him to serve in Europe.

It took 13 days in a massive convoy to cross the Atlantic. The rocking of his ship in the ocean’s swells, he said, wreaked havoc on his, well, digestive abilities. But there were bigger worries to be concerned about when they cruised into the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa and their first port, in Algeria.

“The German planes were strafing us a lot in Oran. We had all these air bags floating above the port to fend off the Germans from dive bombing us,” the 95-year-old Paonessa recalls. “It was kind of shaky. We had buildings with deep cellars where we took cover.”

No one he knew died in the attacks, he says, “but a lot of the civilian population was killed.”

Soon, the 301st Quartermaster Company was sailing to Italy.

“It took us three days to get across the Mediterranean,” he says, “and I remember that there were Arabs fighting with us, and they had brought their goats onto the boats to make cheese with the goat milk.”

After landing in Naples, the quartermaster company immediately started transporting ammunition and food to the front lines.

“We were mostly afraid of being strafed by German planes, and a couple of times, it happened,” he says. “I remember jumping off a truck, and my foot caught a strapping that was across the back of the truck, and I fell on my knee. I was put in a field hospital for a couple days and then returned to my company.”

After the Germans gave up Rome, Paonessa and his fellow troops headed by boat to southern France for that invasion.

“We got through Marseille safely and headed all the way up to Paris, which had already been liberated,” he recalls. “Then we went into Germany. That was a little rough. I was in Cologne, and it had been blown all to hell. All I recall is a church steeple standing. The rest of the city was rubble.”

He also served in the German cities of Stuttgart and Frankfurt.

“That’s when the war ended; it felt pretty damn good,” he says. “We all felt that way at the time.”

Returning to his hometown, he soon married Mary A. Sofia, and they raised four children.

For 13 years, Paonessa supported his family as a bus driver with Niagara Frontier Transit, driving various routes in the Falls. In 1962, he changed careers, serving as a state park police officer for 26 years before retiring in 1988.

Oh, and what about the woman to whom he’d given his heart, only to be jilted after going off for war?

Always looking to get ahead, Paonessa also worked a part-time job as a cabdriver when he first returned to civilian life, says his son, Phil Jr.

Paonessa’s first fare, the son says, was to pick up a woman at a small grocery store downtown.

“When he looked up at the fare, it happened to be Ellen. She started crying and told him how sorry she was,” the son says. “I told Dad that years ago, a man called Harry Chapin wrote a song that reminded me of what happened to him. Ellen is now deceased.”

The song, of course, is “Taxi,” and its most famous line is “Harry, keep the change.”

So did Paonessa’s former fiancée tell him to keep the change? Phil Jr. says, “I asked Dad if she said, ‘Keep the change,’ and he said he couldn’t remember.”

Thomas C. Brown, 94

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Staff sergeant

Most prominent honors: European- African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Motor pool supervisor

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Long before the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement started boarding buses to head South and make a stand against racism, Thomas C. Brown and a group of fellow black soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., stood up against bus drivers who denied them transportation during World War II because of the color of their skin.

In the months before the all-black outfit headed to Europe, where its members would be putting their lives on the line to defend America, Brown recalled how the public buses transporting Fort Dix soldiers into town on their days off were always filled to capacity with white soldiers.

It hadn’t taken long to realize the buses leaving the base were intentionally following a route that went to the barracks of white soldiers first and, at the last stop, left no room for the blacks.

“When we had time off, we wanted to go into town, and we couldn’t get to town because there was no transportation,” Brown says. “By the time public buses went around the base, they were loaded and there was no space for us.”

He and his fellow African-American soldiers would not stand for the unequal treatment.

“One morning, we stopped a bus as it was entering the base, and we chased off the five passengers and turned the bus on its side,” he says. “We sat on top of it and shot off our guns a couple times to let them know we weren’t kidding. Someone called in a preacher who was black, and we explained what was happening, and he spoke with the base commander.

“About 4 hours later, we got transportation and we turned the bus back over on its wheels.”

So in the midst of a war against Germany and Japan, this group of black soldiers first had to win a stateside battle against discrimination.

When it came to transportation, Brown was already something of an expert, long before the military.

After leaving vocational school on Eagle Street in the late 1930s, he found work at the Buffalo Courier-Express, loading bundles of newspapers onto a truck whose driver delivered the morning paper to East Side stores and newsstands.

Brown rode along as what was known as a “hopper,” hopping out at each stop to deliver the bundles. The pay was $7 a week, and with the nation still reeling from the Great Depression, he says, it was good money.

“The driver picked me up at my house at Sycamore and Spruce streets every night and would drop me off back home in the early morning,” Brown says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license at first, and he taught me how to drive. When I got my license, I drove the truck by myself and delivered the papers. There must have been about 700 papers on my truck.”

His work at the Courier went on for several years, the 94-year-old West Seneca resident recalls, until “Uncle Sam came along with a draft notice.”

“When the Army found out I could drive, they put me in with the engineers, and I drove a pickup truck,” he says. “Three months later, they made me a sergeant and shipped me to Fort Dix, where I trained other African-Americans and three white officers on how to drive dump trucks. It was a learning period. We were all fresh off the streets, even the officers.”

About 12 months after the black soldiers had ended the discrimination of bus rides into town, Brown and his company were shipped overseas, starting first in North Africa, then over to Italy and, at the end of the war, France.

“I was in charge of the motor pool,” he says. “I had 54 dump trucks, and when one of them broke down, I would go out and service it.”

This may sound like a reasonably safe job in a war zone, but Brown will tell you differently, especially when he pulled double duty, delivering ammunition to the front lines. German planes prowled the skies looking to knock out supply lines.

“One time in Italy, I was driving a weapons carrier on my way with another sergeant to pick up a load of ammunition,” Brown remembers. “The other sergeant said to me, ‘Look at that.’ I looked up and saw a German plane coming right at us. I hit the brakes, and we jumped out just in time. We hit the ground, and the truck went up in the air after it was hit by a bomb. The truck was destroyed.”

To this day, Brown says he remains grateful that the truck was empty.

“If we had gotten the load of ammunition, I wouldn’t be here,” says. “We wouldn’t have had a chance. We were pretty shaken up that morning.”

By the afternoon of that same day, he was assigned another truck, and the work of war continued.

His happiest moment occurred when he and his older brother, Harry, also a sergeant, had an unexpected reunion in Italy.

“It was a Sunday morning, and we had a religious service,” Thomas Brown recalls, “and the preacher mentioned the name of another all-black outfit that was in charge of an ammunition depot, and I said that was my brother Harry’s outfit. I knew his outfit, but I didn’t realize it was just ahead of ours.

“The preacher didn’t have any transportation, so I drove him to that outfit so he could conduct a service, and I saw my brother was in the office there. I was sitting in the truck, and he came out, but he couldn’t see my face. I was about 15 yards away. I started talking loud and really nasty and he shouted, ‘Who the hell is that talking?’

“I turned around to face him, and I said, ‘Hey, Sgt. Brown.’ He caught my voice and said, ‘Oh, my kid brother.’ I got out and we shook hands and hugged. I settled down, and he settled down, and we went to the service. It was held right out in the open. We were together about an hour.”

Both brothers made it home safely from the war, and Thomas Brown found work at the Chevrolet plant in the Town of Tonawanda for eight years. He later drove his own taxi on and off for the next 45 years, providing him with cash to open up a string of businesses on the East Side.

They included gasoline stations and automotive repair shops and four taverns. But age, he said, eventually caught up with him, and he retired.

“I made a bundle of money and spent a bundle of money,” Brown says.

But it is his war memories these days that he often thinks about, frequently sharing them with his brother-in-law, World War II veteran Archie Galloway, who until recently lived at the same West Seneca apartment complex as Brown.

“After the fighting was over in Europe, I started visiting the towns in Italy and France,” Brown says. “Because I was a sergeant and worked in a motor pool, no one questioned me when I’d get in a truck. I’d go out most of the time by myself. I’d make friends wherever I went. I had a girlfriend in every town.”

Jerome A. Skorupa, 90

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-46

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honor: Combat Medical Badge with four battle stars

Specialty: Ambulance driver

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Jerome A. Skorupa did not land at Normandy for the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, but he was in the thick of war on the other side of the English Channel, removing the wounded from ships and transporting them to hospitals and rehabilitation centers in England.

Now 90 and more than seven decades away from those frantic days, Skorupa believes that he and his buddies should have been awarded battle stars for their support service to the troops of Normandy. Though not officially “in combat,” their service helped save many lives, according to Skorupa’s loved ones.

And they say that providing him with this final battle star, so late in life, would be a fitting tribute for a man who has always put his country first.

His patriotic call to duty came in the summer of 1943. He was expecting to return to East High School on Northampton Street for his senior year, but a draft notice arrived that August. Although his education was put on hold, he says, “we had to support our country.”

After five months of training at Fort Lewis, Wash., he was on his way to World War II, certain that it would be in the Pacific. He was, after all, already on the West Coast.

But the Army defied logic, he says, and placed him and his outfit, the 598th Ambulance Company, on a series of trains that took them east to Manhattan.

“We went over to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. There were 18,000 troops on that ship,” he recalls. “Can you imagine? It was like a little city, and there were no escort ships. We zigzagged our way across the Atlantic to avoid German submarines.”

After five days, the troops landed safely at Edinburgh, Scotland. Then it was south to Weymouth, England, where he and the other ambulance crews unloaded the returning wounded from the Normandy invasion. Not long afterward, he, too, was on the European continent, working the front lines in several major battles that earned him four battle stars.

“We serviced mostly the armored divisions – the 7th, the 5th, the 9th and the 10th – and we also serviced infantry divisions. When we went into the Battle of Bulge, we were assigned to the 10th Armored Division under Gen. Patton.”

Like many other soldiers, Skorupa realized that Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was not out to win a popularity contest.

“He was real mean. He meant business,” Skorupa says.

Skorupa recalls the general demoting a sergeant from his platoon because the man had raised the canvas top over his Jeep to stay out of the rain.

“The sergeant was from East Aurora, and Patton busted him down to private,” Skorupa says.

“The order of the day had been to have the tops of the Jeeps down. The general didn’t care who got wet. That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

But there was more than Patton to be concerned about.

Rescuing the wounded and transporting them to medical stations was dangerous work. Enemy snipers often fired on the ambulance crews. And there was the horror of encountering the newly wounded.

“We would pull soldiers right out of the tanks. Some of them were half-burned,” Skorupa recalls. “It was very messy, but we had to do it. A lot of those guys were half-dead.”

When it finally came time for Skorupa to return home after the war, he was placed on a ship at Marseille, France, with 5,000 other soldiers.

“We were delayed from leaving because another ship carrying prisoners hit us and tore a hole in the side of our ship,” he says. “I would have arrived home on my birthday, but the repairs delayed us a day.”

After being honorably discharged, Skorupa returned to East High and earned his diploma. A year later, he married Stella Marczinski, now his spouse of 67 years whom he refers to as “my darling wife, Stella.”

The couple raised four children, and Skorupa supported the family working at M. Wile & Co. as a clothing cutter for 43 years, shaping fabric for Nino Cerruti and Johnny Carson suits.

And while Skorupa would like to receive a battle star for aiding the wounded from D-Day, he is content to recall what he believes was one of his most patriotic acts that happened several years after the war. He and nine other area veterans founded the Hank Nowak Post 45, AMVETS, in Orchard Park.

Nowak, a Buffalo native, was a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the first National League pitcher to die in military service in World War II. Nowak was killed New Year’s Day 1945 in Belgium.

“My brother played ball with Hank at East High School,” Skorupa said. “I met Hank, and he was a very sincere, nice person. He knew baseball.”

Raised on a farm and handy, with lots of different skills, Herb Keough proved a good fit for a combat engineers unit in World War II.

After leaving the Southern Tier, he attended mechanical classes at Alfred State College and could repair just about anything.

“As combat engineers, we would say we could fix anything but a broken heart or the break of day,” the 94-year-old Keough says as he shares his story of Army service.

But he openly admitted he did not want to go into the service. He had just married and had established himself working in an auto and body repair shop, just outside Geneva.

“I was just getting started,” he says. “I was married, had a new car and a good job.”

Yet Keogh says that it never crossed his mind to refuse Uncle Sam’s call to duty, and he was soon in Africa serving as a member of the 2759th Combat Engineers Battalion. One memorable stop was in Algeria.

“We guarded an airfield in Oran,” he says, “but were doing other things. I remember one time this anti-aircraft company wanted more cases welded to the sides of their guns so that they could reload quicker by having more ammunition at hand. It was so hot that you didn’t dare lay your tools in the sand. You stuck them up straight in the sand. That way, they didn’t get so hot. If you laid them in the sand, you’d burn your hands.”

After leaving Algeria, it was on to Italy.

“We were always right behind the infantry,” he says.

But the job of building roads to supply the front lines sometimes proved impossible, especially during the Italian rainy season.

“The mud was so deep, we couldn’t move our bulldozers. Everything came to a standstill. Then, one day, I saw the infantry was using mules to cart ammunition to the front lines, and I thought to myself, ‘What a way to run a war.’ ”

Next stop for the 2759th was Corsica, in preparation for the invasion of southern France.

“When we got to France, of course, the infantry had taken over pretty well,” he recalls. “We started moving toward Germany, and the Germans still had some planes left and they were harassing us.”

The engineers pressed onward, building and repairing several bridges along the way to cross rivers.

“One time, when we were rebuilding a bridge that had been bombed, we were making our own concrete out in the woods,” he says. “We had other people cutting lumber for the deck, and we were welding steel I-beams on the bottom of the bridge. We’d get paddled out into the middle of the river in a little barge with an arc welder. The arc would shoot a flame up into sky that you could see for miles at night, and this single German plane would come out when I was working. I would listen for the direction it was coming in, and I would go behind the concrete support.”

It might seem an unnerving experience, but Keough says he found a way to cope as the enemy plane spat bullets at him.

“Whenever I went out on the barge, I brought a bottle of champagne with me to keep my spirits up,” he says. “When I hid behind the concrete abutment, I would take a swig.”

And how did he get the champagne?

“We had just pushed the Germans out of a town and they abandoned truckloads of champagne they’d stolen from the French,” he says. “I sent one of my 2½-ton trucks up and had it loaded with champagne. So we had lots of spirits.”

The only thing better than free booze, he says, was his return home when the war ended.

After a mere two-week break, Keough was back at work as an auto mechanic. Sadly, though, the time and distance caused by the war had turned his marriage into a casualty.

But in time, he found new love and married his boss’ daughter, the former Ruth Whitehead, and eventually came to own the business, which evolved into a Hudson automobile dealership.

“We raised a wonderful family,” Keough said of their three children.

But the endless work involved in running the Waterloo car dealership wore on Keough, and he sold the business. A few years later, he says, “the perfect job” presented itself in the form of an offer to serve as the Western New York regional director of the Vehicle Safety Division for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

He moved around, first to Buffalo, then Holland, and eventually to Java, where he still lives on a 65-acre farm and manages to stay busier than men perhaps half his age.

“I used to cut my own trees out back and bring them to a sawmill in the yard and make lumber,” he says. “Four years ago, I cut enough lumber for hardwood flooring for my daughter’s home in Duluth, Minn. It was beautiful cherry wood. I drove it out to her home on a trailer with another one of my daughters.”

That’s not all.

“Over the years, I’ve cut lumber and helped neighbors build barns and two-car garages with it,” he says.

And while he has stopped selling lumber, Keough continues to cut his own firewood.

“I burn 20 cords of wood a winter,” he says, “but the whole neighborhood helps me cut it.”

As for World War II, Keough says he has succeeded in “blanking out the bad, bad stuff” and recalls only “the crazy things we did as young engineers who sometimes had too much time on their hands.”

Such as the time they built a camp for a company of nurses.

“We built an outhouse and put a speaker inside the hole and ran the wires and a microphone to a nearby woods,” he says, “and when someone went into the outhouse, we said, ‘Ma’am, would you mind moving over? We’re painting down here.’ ”

He still chuckles at the memory but is not without sympathy for those targeted by the practical joke.

After all, he’s in his mid-90s and regarded as a gentleman.

Herbert F. Keough, 94

Hometown: Birdsall

Residence: Java

Branch: Army

Rank: Staff sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Combat engineer

At 18 years old, Richard G. “Dick” Matthies was drafted into the Army’s 17th Airborne Division. He regularly flew training missions in gliders that relied on the winds to stay aloft.

“When you’re 18, we thought we were indestructible, and we could rule the world,” Matthies said of gliding in the canvas-made aircraft.

In truth, he says, he was putting up a brave front, and perhaps it was this pretending that prepared him, in a sense, for stepping onto a grand historical stage – the European Theater of Operations in World War II. It was a dramatic acting troupe like none other; they called themselves the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the “Ghost Army.”

They could have won an Academy Award.

Their job was to pretend to be a fully outfitted combat unit.

“We had inflatable tanks, artillery, vehicles and a complete outfit of rubber dummies that we inflated and looked like soldiers,” the 90-year-old veteran recalls.

To give this charade even more credibility, another company of ghost soldiers operated recording devices and speakers that blared out the sounds of tanks and trucks starting up and moving amid the recorded voices of men shouting to create the sound of an army on the move.

The fake unit was often situated right on the front lines so that the enemy could see and hear it.

It was so believable, Matthies says, that the Germans often responded with artillery fire.

And while Matthies and his buddies succeeded in their trickery, death was ever present.

“There was one time when our company commander and his assistant officer were riding in a jeep, and I was in the second jeep behind them,” Matthies recalls. “We were out reconnoitering, and we caught mortar fire from the enemy. There was a tree burst right above the commander’s head, and he was hit with shrapnel.”

Matthies and another soldier raced to find a medic, but by the time they returned with first aid, the commander had died.

“We were devastated,” he says. “It was bad. It was unnerving.”

But the Ghost Army’s secret mission continued.

“We couldn’t tell anyone what we were doing,” he says. “If we did, we would have been court-martialed.”

Matthies says that his unofficial main job was to serve as a shield for his lieutenant colonel: “He was afraid of being shot in the back when he was riding around in his jeep. So he had me sit behind him in the jeep.”

Fortunately, his unofficial role as a human backstop was never put to the ultimate test.

His official job, he said, was to help the lieutenant colonel read maps to determine the placement of the inflatable artillery pieces.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Matthies says, he was overjoyed to leave behind both his official and unofficial duties and return in July to Pine Camp in upstate New York.

“It’s a funny thing. My whole unit was sent from Pine Camp to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and I was discharged from there on my 21st birthday,” he says, “but I could have been discharged from Pine Camp, which was fairly close to Buffalo.”

Having completed a course in photography at Seneca Vocational High School, Matthies pursued a career as a professional photographer.

“I started out in a portrait studio in East Aurora,” he says, “and later I went to work for a company named Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory that became Calspan. I took high-speed motion pictures of automobile crashes (for tests at Calspan), among other things.”

One of the benefits of seeing staged crashes, says the former soldier who created staged combat outfits, was being inspired to drive safely.

“It kind of woke you up seeing those crashes,” said Matthies, who over the years spent many happy summers with his wife, the former Lydia Becker, on their boat in Chautauqua Lake.

As for his war service, Matthies says, he was spared “bad memories,” and attributes that to the resilience of youth.

Richard G. Matthies, 90

Hometown: Orchard Park

Residence: East Aurora

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five battle stars, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Planning and operations

Norman J. Zimmerman worked hard on the homefront during the first couple of years of World War II, helping build airplanes at the Curtiss-Wright plant in Cheektowaga.

The military wanted him in a uniform, but his skills as a master electrician resulted in two deferments because of a greater need to crank out planes for the war effort. A graduate of Seneca Vocational High School, he had first worked at the new General Motors plant on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda.

“But they needed electricians at Curtiss-Wright,” the 98-year-old Depew resident says.

At age 25, his skilled labor was no longer enough to keep him from the battlefield.

“I guess they needed men in a hurry, and I was drafted,” he says.

Zimmerman was soon part of a massive troop buildup intended for the Allied invasion at Normandy, which would come to be known as D-Day – June 6, 1944.

“I landed seven days out from D-Day at Omaha Beach. It was very bad, very bad. There were a lot of dead soldiers. The Red Cross was there. We were in hurry to get out of there,” Zimmerman recalls. “We traveled fast. We were ahead of the game. We had the Germans on the run at that time.”

One of his first major battles was at Saint-Lô, France, where his unit encountered German SS troops. “They were the elite class of German soldiers. We lost many of our soldiers at that time,” he says. “We then headed through France and into Belgium. A lot of civilians were out and waving at us. We had liberated them.”

But brutal times still awaited Zimmerman and his fellow soldiers in the 2nd Armored Division as the Germans prepared to make a final offensive push in the Battle of the Bulge.

“We got our notice on Christmas Eve 1944 that our unit was leaving and going into combat the next day,” Zimmerman says. “It was in the Ardennes Forest, where the big evergreen trees were and it had started to snow. We had 2 or 3 feet of snow. We couldn’t make any movement too fast.”

The plan had been “to go in fast and come out fast.”

Winter was not on their side.

“We were pinned down about 10 days, and we weren’t really dressed for this kind of weather. But we managed to capture about 25 Germans on top of this hill. We took them as prisoners. They had some of our Red Cross trucks up there that they had confiscated earlier and we got them back.”

The victory provided a sense of satisfaction, Zimmerman says, though it was not enough to ward off the bitter cold.

“I was assigned with a sergeant to take back the prisoners, and they were in worse shape than we were,” he says. “But both of my lower legs and feet were frozen. We walked into our old front lines, and our Army was waiting for us. They saw us coming. I was immediately taken to a field hospital. They cut off my pants because both my legs were swollen and they were afraid to touch them.”

Over the next week, Zimmerman says, he was transferred to several hospitals, and each time, doctors were reluctant to provide treatment. “My legs and feet were black and blue, but fortunately, they got better as I went back, all the way to Cherbourg,” he says. “Then they flew me to Warminster, England, to a rehab where I stayed until the war ended. When I got better, they asked me if I was willing to stay a little longer and help them with supplies coming off ships in Antwerp, Belgium.”

Though he could have returned home, Zimmerman chose to stay. “They needed electricians and mechanics,” he says.

By the summer of 1945, he was back home and soon employed as an electrician at the Pillsbury flour mill on Buffalo’s waterfront, where he worked more than three decades before retiring in 1978. He and his wife, the former Terry Halsey, married 21 years ago after the deaths of their spouses.

The marriage is still going strong, says Zimmerman, a 60-year member of Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. Post 6251, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and George F. Lamm Post 622, American Legion. “We’re still walking around. We still go shopping together and we’re members of the Lancaster Senior Center,” he says.

And while his once-frozen feet continue to serve him well, memories of the war still cause him nightmares.

“I visualize myself being back at the Battle of the Bulge, sleeping in the foxholes with all of the snow,” he says, “and it wakes me up.”

Norman J. Zimmerman, 98

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Depew

Branch: Army

Rank: Technical sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Two Bronze Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Infantry

As young boy, Leonard J. Pawlowski dreamed of being a sailor.

There was something intriguing about the line “Join the Navy, See the World.”

So in his senior year at Emerson Vocational High School, the 17-year-old told his buddy Chester Budziszewski of his plans to quit school and enlist. The idea of seeing the world appealed so much to Budziszewski that he begged Pawlowski to wait a few weeks until he, too, turned 17.

The fact that America was fighting World War II hadn’t really crossed either teenager’s mind.

“We were a little too young to understand what the hell was going on in the world,” Pawlowski recalls.

Budziszewski managed to persuade his parents to sign the early enlistment papers allowing him to join at 17, but Pawlowski says he took no such chance.

“I forged my mother’s signature,” he says, “and when I told her I was leaving for the Navy, she didn’t say anything.”

After basic training at Sampson Naval Training Base on Seneca Lake, Pawlowski was assigned to LST-981 – a landing ship, tank – while Budziszewski served on a Liberty ship as part of the gun crew protecting the vessel, which transported supplies to Europe.

Pawlowski’s assignment put him at center stage for what would be the biggest amphibious invasion in history – D-Day on June 6, 1944, at the beaches of Normandy.

“I’d been reassigned to LST-521,” Pawlowski says, “and it was one of the biggest LSTs we had. We transported in tanks, trucks, jeeps, personnel plus whatever went with it – food, ammo. That first time we landed at high tide in the pre-dawn. You couldn’t see anything.

“We were under orders not to fire because there were German planes flying overhead looking for us. They didn’t want us to give away our location. There was one German plane that flew so low over the beach I actually could make out the outline of the pilot sitting in the cockpit. The ship next to us opened fire, which it shouldn’t have.

“Every third bullet was usually a tracer. It’s like a stream of red light, and these were going over my head. There were suddenly tracers all over the place. The other ships had started shooting, but as far as I know, the plane got away. It disappeared into the dark.”

At daybreak, the crew of LST-521 unloaded its cargo of troops and trucks and headed back to England