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War Stories Precede Opening of New Oyster Bay at War Exhibit

The Oyster Bay Historical Society completed the third event in their new focus, Oyster Bay at War, a roundtable discussion held on June 28 at the Oyster Bay Community Center. The first event in the series was the Canteen Dance held on June 6, the 65th anniversary of D-Day; the second was the roundtable discussion, and the third, the opening of the exhibit at the Earl Wightman House, the headquarters of the society. The fourth and final part of the series will be the publication of the summer edition of The Freeholder, dedicated to the stories of Oyster Bay Veterans of World War II.

At the roundtable discussion, listeners heard much of what will be in the new edition, being edited by OBHS Director Tom Kuehhas. The intent of this delving into local history is part of the fundraising efforts of the society to raise funds for the Angela P. Koenig Research Center to house their treasures. The society still needs to raise less that $200,000 to bring their dream of building the research facility by completing a matching grant of $300,000.

“Oyster Bay at War” is currently on view. It tells the story of the men – and women – who fought in World War II. There are photographs of the young service people showing an eagerness and determination not seen today – it was a very special time in history. There are descriptive plaques that tell their stories.

Some of that history was shared on Sunday, June 28 at a roundtable discussion at the Oyster Bay Community Center, with OBHS Director Tom Kuehhas asking questions, such as “When did you enlist?” He encouraged the men to tell their own stories. Some of them are already part of the exhibit since the project involved Mr. Kuehhas interviewing about 24 local veterans.

Mr. Kuehhas thanked his staff, Curator Yvonne Noonan Cifarelli and Archivist Phil Blocklyn, for their help in the project, as well as the interns and volunteers who transcribed all the interviews. He singled out Nick DeSantis for “rounding up the first crop of veterans.”

Roundtable participants included: Nick DeSantis, John LoRusso, Donald Gromisch, James Mooney, Paul Noonan, Sam Lucchesi, Gene Abbate, Ray Boffardi, Tony Fabbricante and Dominick Villani.

Each man’s view of the war reflected his own personal experiences. Mr. DeSantis was stationed for three years in England, working on aircraft engines; Mr. LoRusso was in the Seabees doing roadwork, using the labor of German prisoners of war; Mr. Gromisch served in the Korean War but gave a historical overview of WWII - as 2,490 days of war; Mr. Mooney served as a naval fighter pilot fighting the Japanese. On Dec. 1, 1941, he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and on Dec. 7, 1941 war was declared and he was under obligation to serve, he said.

Former Centre Island mayor Mooney said they believed it would take two to three months to end the war, but “four years later and tens of thousands of casualties and finally we did it.”

Mr. Noonan hoped to be a sailor but ended up in Patton’s 3rd Army. Mr. Lucchesi grew up in Astoria and volunteered to serve. He interviewed for the Air Force, was sent to Governor’s Island with the Army where he thought he would be in construction and ended up fighting in Belgium, France, and Germany.

Eugene Abbate served in the Navy under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. of whom he said, “He could find a fight where there was none.”

Mr. Boffardi served as a signalman. He talked about being on the bridge of the USS Barber, a ship being attacked by kamikaze planes in the Pacific War.

Anthony Fabbricante served in the Coast Guard stationed on Fisher’s Island, fighting the very real danger of German submarines who were on their way to destroy the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. He then worked as a firefighter on the west coast where the Japanese were sending over paper balloons, carrying bombs, that set off forest fires.

Mr. Villani was in the army, and was sent to rescue General Patton’s son-in-law, in what was described as a suicide mission and not sanctioned by the Army. There were devastating losses and a lack of ammunition and he was captured by the Germans and became a prisoner of war.

Each story was compelling and it was actually hard to stop the men, once they got started talking. Mr. Kuehhas knew their stories and kept the discussion on time since it was the introduction to the exhibit.

Mr. DeSantis was one of the last speakers and to answer Mr. Kuehhas’ question about commanding officers and told the story of the mass bombing of Germany. The British had the night bombing hours and the Americans the daylight bombing hours and took very heavy losses because of it. With no experience in that new type of warfare, only 50 percent of the planes would return to the airfield. In the 8th Air Force they were using B-17s and B-24s. He said, “We made a lot of mistakes. The planes were not fitted out for the trips. The Germans had superior fighting planes and ours were sitting birds when over Germany.”

He said they were suicide trips because they were still learning the techniques for that kind of fighting. Each ship had a crew of 10, he said. It was very depressing for them when the men didn’t come back. He said the movie 12 O’Clock High told the story of that experience. “They were guinea pigs the first four months as the leaders found out our weak spots.” They were identified as needing fortified ships, and to fly higher. He said, “When we had time off we went into the bars. The air crew wanted to be friendly but no one wanted to talk to them and tell them they were sitting ducks.”

Finally the men refused to go up in the planes and the colonel in charge tried to yell at them and get them to fly. It didn’t work and a new commander was sent in to solve the problems.

“Colonel Wilson was a full colonel and a former fighter pilot, a young kid and an ace. He was 28 years old when he came over to us. We were told he shot down many planes. He had a wonderful personality. He knew how to get along with the men and they wanted to follow his orders. He put them at ease and found that there were problems – they were not flying in the right formations. He had them practice, practice, practice.

“He held several months of training flights where the crews learned how to fly high; and fly in-formation to keep each other safe. After that the troops felt more confident and they began flying out again.

“Later they added more machine guns including tail gunners and turrets on top and flying in an interlocking field of fire to protect each other,” he explained. “But after D-Day our losses changed because we were bombing specific areas, where we weakened them and ran rampant over the Germans,” he said.

Mr. DeSantis had praise for the young colonel and much praise for the British people who kept on going in spite of the constant bombing of their country resulting in the loss of homes and family.

“The buzz bombs kept going until they ran out of fuel and hit schools, churches and homes. It went on day in and day out. The British had to bury their dead, some without funerals, as they went back to work. Essentially the British men were fighting in Africa and in their other possessions, so the young boys and old men were in uniform. Most workers were women, doing amazing jobs. They just adored us when they saw us. The Germans could have ‘come across the pond’ at any time. It was only 21 miles. They had their backs against the wall. The fortitude of those people was amazing,” said Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. Lucchesi said, “Our peers are called the Greatest Generation, fighting in a war we didn’t want. Now this is really the Greatest Generation. They don’t know who they are fighting. Their enemy can be walking beside them.”

“The boys who died are the real heroes,” said Mr. Boffardi.

The last speaker was Bob Martin, who sat in the audience and who said he served first in the Merchant Marine, but ended up in Japan during the occupation and had visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the atom bombs were dropped. He said, “I think there should be other ways than wars.”

Mr. Kuehhas said his last question, if the afternoon had gone along quicker, would have been what the veterans’ thoughts were of what would have happened if the bomb wasn’t dropped.

For example, the Japanese had hundreds of thousands of American prisoners of war and the order had gone out that if the island was invaded the prisoners would be killed immediately. Add to that toll, the Japanese civilians were being told to fight for their country door to door. Mr. Kuehhas said that the Japanese were giving children bamboo spears to defend their homeland. “Imagine what that would have done to the American fighting men to have to fight children,” said Mr. Kuehhas. The general consensus is that if the war hadn’t ended when it did the casualties would have been devastating for both sides, he said.

(Editor’s Note: This writer may be partial to Nick DeSantis’ stories about England during WWII because my father was in the National Guard and was drafted at age 38 and spent part of his time in service in the Savarnac Forest in England. He was a Sergeant stationed at a railroad depot where supplies were being readied for the D-Day invasion. I have many memories of reading V-Mail from England with stories about the British. While working at the Douglas McAdams Advertising Agency in New York, I was the assistant of Typographic Director Sam Halpert who served with the American Air Force in England. For the rest of his life he wore the blue knit tie and socks that were a part of his uniform while there. He too had great stories of the British people.)