July 21, 2007
Passing into history
Thinning ranks of World War II veterans leave some stories untold; others are preserved.
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Former village of McGraw trustee Ted Doty, a veteran of World War II, stands at the war memorial he helped design at McGraw Cemetery.
Photo provided by David Gerber
Carl Gerber, seated, and fellow soldier Olean King are seen in a Jeep in 1944 Belgium.
CORTLAND — In 1952, when Ted Doty was the general manager for the Detroit Tigers’ minor league farm team, he was asked to host the American Legion baseball series.
Legendary Boston Red Sox left fielder and Marine Corps veteran Ted Williams was at nearby Cherry Point, N.C. — the two-time American League MVP was getting checked out on a new fighter jet in preparation for being sent to Korea — and Doty, a World War II veteran who had scoured the Caribbean for enemy submarines, managed to bring Williams over to spend a day with the players.
“He spent the morning showing these boys how to play the outfield, how to hit; and he must have talked to every single one of them,” Doty said.
A few years later, Doty, a McGraw native, returned to Cortland County and continued to be a friend of veterans for more than 30 years as the director of the county Veterans Services office.
“I just felt that I should do something for my fellow man; I just felt that it was a good thing,” Doty said of his time in the office.
David Gerber said he thinks this kind of dedication defines his father’s generation of veterans. World War II veteran Carl Gerber died June 10, leaving behind a record of service to both his country and his hometown of Marathon.
“All these guys — you could multiply this by thousands,” David Gerber said. “Maybe it is true that they’re the ‘Greatest Generation’ — I never bought into it like Tom Brokaw did — but maybe there’s something to it.”
In 1950, several years after John Best Jr. came home from a three-year tour in North Africa during World War II, he met and married Mary Thomas Best.
The 84-year-old John Best died June 21 at Cortland Regional Medical Center, and his widow said the Queens-born former Post Office employee had left the stories of his war experiences untold.
“He drove the cars for the generals and the other bigwigs,” Mary Thomas Best, of Lime Hollow Road in Cortlandville, said last week. “But as far as war stories, he never told any.”
In 2004, there were 3,969 veterans of military service from any period in Cortland County, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This year the number is projected to be 3,667.
The decrease is expected to continue, but it isn’t clear if this takes into account recent conflicts such as the one in Iraq.
More than 3,080 men from Cortland County served during the war, according to a list of World War II service members on file at the Cortland County Historical Society, and 73 Cortland County men were dead or missing in 1946.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that according to one analysis, there were 114 veterans in Cortland County who were 85 years old or older in 2006; this figure could also include veterans who did not see combat during the war or who served in later conflicts, such as the Korean War.
Local Veterans Service Office Director Carl Bullock said he did not know how many World War II veterans there are locally, but said that New York in 2005 had estimated there were 200,400 World War II vets living statewide.
With the loss of veterans of every stripe, their personal histories are fading, some lost forever.
The servicemen spotted enemy submarines or repaired American subs. Some drove Jeeps and others were suspended over a dark city in the Plexiglas turret of a B-17 bomber.
Although 83-year-old Marshall Welch, of Freeville, tried to remain modest, he was still proud to have served in the Navy, “the best outfit there is — especially submarines, the elite of the Navy.”
“I’m not bragging, but you have to be pretty fit to get in,” Welch said July 3. “We were a proud bunch of guys. We knew what we were doing.”
A self-described poor country boy born in Deposit in Broome County, Welch quit school at 16 and found his way to Binghamton, where he worked in a war materiel factory prior to the United States’ entrance into the conflict on Dec. 11, 1941.
An avid baseball player, the young Welch had run headfirst into a tree while absorbed in chasing a pop fly one day, and he fudged his medical history in order to enlist in 1941 at the age of 18.
“I enlisted because I didn’t want anything to do with the Army. I didn’t like their lifestyle — living off of K rations, sleeping in the mud,” he said, also remembering disabled World War I infantry veterans.
“One thing about submarines — you either come back or don’t come back. None of that … in between stuff.”
Welch was a mechanic for the diesel engines that the subs used when they ran on the surface.
Although he saw combat in the North Atlantic shortly before the war in Europe ended, Welch was on his way through the Panama Canal when the Japanese surrendered and did not earn enough combat points to return home.
Betraying the age-old rule of military service — don’t volunteer for anything — Welch and 25 others signed up for a mystery assignment shortly after war’s end. They were flown down to Bermuda and charged with sailing a captured German U-boat up to New London, Conn.
After chipping paint and scrubbing the sub from top to bottom, Welch and the crew embarked on a war bond promotion, giving tours of the ship to the public.
He finally was discharged in 1946.
Beginning in 1943, Merle Homer flew 35 combat missions out of Foggio, Italy, as a bombardier on a B-17 with the 348th Squadron of the 15th Air Force.
The Groton-born 88-year-old remembered his longest mission, on Thanksgiving Day 1944:
“They put extra fuel tanks on one side of our bomb bay, and we went to Berlin, Germany, to bomb a tank manufacturing facility,” Homer said at his home on Route 13 in Cortlandville. “When we got back to Foggio, they had eaten Thanksgiving dinner and there was none left for us. The commanding officer said, ‘This will never happen again — you don’t eat until the crews get home.’”
The Flying Fortresses never came back from a mission without holes in them, especially over the heavily defended oil fields in Turkey, and Homer said he was hit in the shoulder by a piece of flak that had come through the nose of the plane. Fortunately, his flak suit let him get away with just a large black-and-blue bruise.
Carl Gerber, of Marathon, had to talk a doctor out of amputating part of his leg after being wounded in Germany near the end of the war in Europe.
Gerber walked the battlefields of North Africa and Sicily, the sands of Omaha Beach, and the hills of Ardennes, rifle in hand as he established lines of communication for the artillery batteries.
He was in the 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One.
Although David Gerber said his father was willing to talk about his service, he would be more likely to talk about a funny story revolving around a card game than any of the “really bad stuff.”
“He was awarded the Silver Star. I never knew what he won the Silver Star for; I know he won it in North Africa” David Gerber said.
Now, the family is hoping to obtain Gerber’s service records so they can find out for what, specifically, he was decorated.
“He’d probably be mad at us if we looked for it during his life. He probably felt that he was just in the right place at the right time to help out,” David Gerber said.
At the insistence of his family, Carl Gerber did write an account of his time overseas. While describing the campaign in Tunisia sometime around the winter of 1943, Gerber simply wrote that “It was in that time frame, I was awarded the Silver Star.”
After the war
An outgoing member of the Homer Avenue Methodist Church and member of several community and veterans groups, John Best did tell his wife that the cars would have to drive without lights in compliance with blackout regulations, and would often discover sheer cliffs alongside the roads where he had driven a commanding officer to a late-night rendezvous with a girlfriend.
“I never asked him, the kids never asked him or anything because he didn’t want to talk about it,” Mary Thomas Best explained. “I figured something bad might have happened to him, some of his buddies might have been killed or something. One time, he did say that one had been killed right next to him.”
Homer, the bombardier, acknowledged that his service overseas probably affected him less than it did the members of the regular Army.
“Some servicemen don’t want to talk about it. But we didn’t see the beat-up bodies that the guys did on the ground,” Homer said. “Of course, I saw the planes go down and the guys in parachutes.”
Flying over the beaches of Normandy at 20,000 feet in the early morning hours prior to the Allied invasion, Homer remembers feeling the concussive blasts of the Navy’s big guns and being unable to believe anything on the ground could survive.
David Gerber said his father, like many other European Theater veterans, shook throughout the first 25 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.”
“The fact is, he saw so much of it. He was there early, probably fought in no less than seven major campaigns and countless minor skirmishes,” David Gerber said, “and I think it just reordered his life.”
For more than 60 years, Carl Gerber corresponded with a Belgian family and an English family with whom he and his buddies spent two of their rare respites from battles. The week after his father died, David Gerber was returning phone calls and writing letters to these lifelong friends.
“If I find anything that I admire — and I admire a lot about my father — I think it’s amazing that amidst all this carnage, that these guys could still go out there and win friendships with these families,” David Gerber said.
Veterans committed to each other
A McGraw native, Doty, 87, spent his time in the Army Air Corps stationed on the island of Trinidad, in the air looking for enemy subs below.
He had the pleasure not only of refueling the plane of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, but sitting across the table from and speaking with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“We talked quite a bit about a great many things — about her wanting to be the mother of all of us who were overseas,” Doty said.
After the war, Doty worked as a general manager for several small minor league baseball teams, as well as an All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League team before the wartime women’s league was disbanded, along with other odd jobs.
Doty was active in veterans organizations at the local and state levels and served on the McGraw Village Board for 12 years.
Mary Thomas Best said her husband joined many fraternal and veterans organizations when he was still unattached after the war, and still remained involved in the VFW, American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans throughout his life.
Welch, the submariner, said he will miss working with Carl Gerber at American Legion functions, in which they both were very active, as well as honoring their comrades at the annual Memorial Day parade.
Gerber served as justice of the peace in Marathon for 25 years and as a town assessor for four years, and was a 60-plus year member of the Marathon American Legion post.
A few years ago, Gerber worked with other Marathon Legionnaires to compile a list of more than 250 veterans of World War II from the Marathon area, which is now on display at the Marathon Post Office, High School and Legion.
“His entire life was predicated on his war experiences — good and bad,” David Gerber said, as he looked over a scrapbook filled with memories of his father.
“That these people could get on with their lives afterwards, from just the little I’ve heard, is amazing.”
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Event gives lift to airport’s image
CORTLANDVILLE — As April Scutt and her mother, Paula Mauzy, ducked under the helicopter’s whirling blades and made their way toward their waiting family, any doubts about sending the two soaring over Cortland in a helicopter were erased by Mauzy’s childlike grin.
“Yeah, looks to me like they had a pretty good time,” said Ed Evans, Scutt’s fiancé, chuckling at his future mother-in-law’s windblown hair. “She’s never been up before, so we were a little worried, but how can you not love something like that.”
Evans and his two younger sisters Nicole and Kayla, along with his aunt, Jean Walsh, Scutt and Mauzy, showed up at Airport Day at the County Airport on Route 222 Saturday with the sole intent of taking a ride in a helicopter.
They were not disappointed.
“It’s like you’re just gliding through the air,” said Kayla Evans. “It’s a lot cooler than a plane because you’re not stuck looking through one window, you can see everything in every direction.”
Besides helicopter rides, offered for $35 a person by Camillus-based Highland Helicopters, Airport Day offered visitors the chance to get an up-close look at various types of small aircraft, including both planes and gliders, and to learn about the history of aviation.
“It was really a great event, we had some great volunteers, beautiful weather and the public really came out,” said Deputy Highway Superintendent Bob Buerkle, who helped organize the event and said that attendance for the day ranged between 1,000 and 1,500 people.
A total of 80 airplane rides were given at the event, Buerkle said, along with 35 helicopter rides, and a total of 40 aircraft were on display, including single- and twin-engine planes, amphibious planes, gliders and helicopters.
Pilot Bill Bush typically keeps his plane in Skaneateles, but Bush said he often stops in Cortland for fuel and maintenance, and was glad to put his model 172 Cessna Skyhawk on display.
“It’s the highest production airplane ever made, they’ve been making it since the mid-1950s, so it’s probably the least exciting plane here,” Bush said. “But it’s easy to fly, easy to maintain … I love taking it to things like this.”
On the opposite spectrum in terms of uniqueness, Bush pointed to an autogyro, a small aircraft that looks like a helicopter, but differs in that its rotor is not powered, Bush said.
Instead, the rotor gathers speed from the forward motion of the aircraft, in order to keep the aircraft airborne, Bush said.
“These things actually fly a lot more like an airplane, with the way you control the rudder, than like a helicopter,” Bush said.
Meanwhile Dylan Porter, 9, was checking out a blue and yellow, lightweight CGS Hawk, with his mother, Dorsey, and his younger sister Desirey, 1.
“His dad’s a Marine so we go to a lot of military and air shows … he loves planes,” said Dorsey Porter. “We live just up the road, so when we drove by and saw it was an airplane show we figured we’d stop in.”
Dylan Porter said he had a grandfather who flew a bomber in Vietnam, and a cousin with a serious World War II plane interest, and that he hoped to someday learn to fly.
“There’s definitely a lot of cool planes here,” Porter said.
While many visitors walked around the runway looking at the various planes, others were in one of the airport’s hangars, where an educational film on the Blue Angels was being shown and various tables were set up with information and aviation-themed activities.
Russell Mosher, a high school cadet member of the Civilian Auxiliary Air Force, based in Ithaca, was showing children how to make homemade flying devices, such as a paper helicopter and “loop flyers” made of straws and circular strips of paper.
“I guess I have way too much time on my hands,” Mosher said as he tossed an oversized loop flyer he’d put together.
Buerkle said he was grateful to a number of business and civic groups that participated in the event, and that he planned on turning Airport Day into an annual event.
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