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The Sergeant John W. Gabersek Jr. Memorial Scholarship
Sergeant John William Gabersek Jr.
A Soldiers Soldier
Please leave a virtual message for Johnnie.
A Soldiers Story - Sergeant John William Gabersek Jr.
400th Medical Collecting Company - 37th Infantry Division
Drafted in October
of 1942, Uncle Johnnie served in the Pacific as a Combat Medic NCO with
the 400th Medical Collecting Company attached to the 37th
“Buckeye” Infantry Division. Participating in the Liberation of
the Philippines, he saw his share of combat, including hand to hand
within his own foxhole. During the battle for Luzon in June of
1945 a Japanese Tank spotted John and approached his position.
Trying to evade the metal beast as it approached, the tank hit John at
it passed him by injuring his shoulder severely. While recovering
at a field hospital and despite his injuries John continued to care for
the sick and wounded by administering medications and treatment to the men. A good natured
and kindhearted man, he was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, The Victory Medal,
The Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, The American Campaign Medal and the
Philippine Liberation Medal. He
ended his service as a Sergeant in January 1946. Upon his arrival
back in Pittsburgh he walked the 20 miles to his West Newton
home. On that journey a group of teens pulled up along side and
acted like they were going to offer him a ride. After slowing
down they sped off with a wise crack teasing John about the heavy duffle bag
he was lumbering. On Memorial Day 2004, he and I attended the WWII Memorial Dedication Ceremony in
Washington D.C. were he shook the hands, kissed and hugged nearly 1000
well wishing people. Accompanying my uncle to the WWII Memorial was
one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.
Since that time, we've taken part in many reenactments together, visited the
Memorial over a dozen times, and toured many sites in and around Washington D.C.
Always in uniform, Johnnie is a living example of "the greatest
generation". Please continue to read Johnnie's complete military story below.
Hometown – West Newton, PA
2 Months - Medical Basic 521 -- 36 Months - Medical NCO 673
400th Medical Collecting Company - 37th Infantry Division
1 Combat Battle Star - Luzon Campaign - Philippines Liberation
Good Conduct Medal - American Campaign Medal
Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal - Philippine Liberation Medal
WWII Victory Medal - Expert Rifleman Badge
Inducted 31 October, 1942 -
Fort Meade - Camp Grant - Fort Lewis - Troop Ship
Pearl - Luzon - USS Anderson - San Diego - Camp Atterbury - Discharged 20 January 1946 - Pittsburgh - Home
3 Years, 2 Months, and 20 Days in the service of his country.
Uncle Johnnie's Story
Great Uncle John and his brother Frank left West Newton Pennsylvania on Halloween Day 1942. John was born in 1920 and was older than most as he boarded a troop train, destination Fort Meade Maryland. He and his brother were amongst the 700 area residents who were inducted or volunteered into service throughout the war. In 1940 there were 2765 residents of West Newton. More than 1/4 of the population leaving at one point or another for distant battlefields. Johnnie left his parents, wife Beverly, and sister's Frances (my Grandmother), Emma, Jennie, and Marie behind.
My mother, 7 years old then, recalls the day as the family said goodbye. “It was quite a tearful event with many a perspective soldier leaving for boot camp. One recruit yelled out to his loved ones from the departing train, “I hope you live forever, and I hope I never die” to which everyone laughed." All were not so lucky. In that small southwestern Pennsylvania town, 23 of the 700 white stars in windows turned to gold.
Above: John stands in front of the train depot at West Newton PA - Taken August 21st, 2008
Johnnie's Garrison Photo was taken in late 1942.
Uncle John and brother
Frank arrived at Fort Meade Maryland for basic training.
Surely, having the company of each other would no doubt help each in their transition from citizen to soldier.
Above: The train depot at Fort Meade Maryland. The station is still there just like it was!
I took that photo in the Fall of 2006. Many thanks to my good friends the Torey's.
When John left his home in West Newton he left very pregnant wife Beverly behind. Beverly gave birth to a baby girl, Darla Gay Gabersek, about 2 weeks after John arrived at the training base. Johnnie was filled with anxiety over not being there with Beverly and baby Darla; he was determined to get home. He asked the company commander for leave yet none was given. Still, Johnnie was determined, even if he were to go AWOL. “If it were not for Frankie and five other guys, I would have been out of the there.” In the middle of the night, Frankie and those men stopped John while he was climbing up the camp’s fence. The company commander and the MP’s would have certainly chosen another way to stop Johnnie, so not a word was ever spoken of it.
Private John Gabersek
Uncle John and brother Frank completed basic training and each assailed to the rank of Private.
Two months into service, John was promoted to Corporal.
With two stripes on his sleeves, he soon found himself on stage in front of the whole battalion, leading them in Physical Training. The company commander barked an order to John in which he instinctively followed. “Gabersek, lead the men in PT!” John was selected by the officer because of his well carrying voice. He was soon assigned to be a Platoon Leader and had his own room in the barracks, the envy of all the men.
Corporal John Gabersek
In the spring of 1943, Corporal John Gabersek and his brother Frank said good bye to Fort Meade and each other. Frankie departed to Massachusetts for amphibious training and Johnnie departed for Camp Grant Illinois for basic medical training. Before taking their new posts, the two brothers were sent home on leave. Back in West Newton, Johnnie finally held baby Darla in his arms for the first time. The fireplace in the back ground has always intrigued me. In the fall of 2007, John and I, along with Frank's wife Libby went searching for it. Along the Youghiogheny River near the shadows of the West Newton Bridge we found the house. However it was dark and we couldn't find the exact place. This fall, we will again return to the shores of the river and snap a few more pictures for all to see.
An article about John from the McKeesport Daily News, clipped by sister
Johnnie and Baby Darla Gay and Johnnie and Frankie 1943
Camp Grant Illinois
It was here, at Camp Grant, where John’s leadership abilities continued to shine.
The Officers and Men of the
sprawling camp were there to greet John and train him in the skill of
healing a wounded soldier.
The photo below, taken in 1941, is just of the officer cadre, which indicates the size of the vast camp.
In the summer of 1943,
Corporal Gabersek continued his studies as a medic
and attended leadership school for non-commissioned officers.
Winter 1943 and Spring 1944
Camp Grant Illinois was located near Rockford and had been an Army training base during WWI.
The camp no longer exists but in the hearts of many a men.
Promotion at Fort Lewis Washington
In 1944 Uncle John was
transferred to Fort Lewis Washington where he took advanced medical
The Certificate below was for Johnnie Completing the Weapons Instructor Course at Fort Lewis in September of 1944.
His manner and behavior was
rewarded with his first commendation - the Good Conduct Medal.
John was then promoted to sergeant.
In addition to his medical training, John was schooled in infantry tactics and maneuvering, including duties on the firing range and camouflaging the airstrip.
John leads a patrol of men at Fort Lewis.
John and his men were led in weapons training by 2nd Lt. Green, who was “a real nice guy”. While commanding his troops on the firing range in which live ammunition was being used to simulate combat conditions, 2nd Lt. Green inexplicitly rose up during the exercise. John shouted to him, “Get Down! Get Down!” but it was too late and Lt. Green was killed by machine gun fire. For some time now I have wondered who was 2nd Lt. Green and if his family ever knew what really happened to him. Since I've started my research, so many miracle's have happened. I hope that one day Lt. Green's family stumbles upon my web page and learns that someone still thinks so highly of him, my great uncle John.
Shipping Out and Off to War
In May of 1945 John's Unit, the 400th Medical Collecting Company left Fort Lewis by train to San Francisco for a transport ship to the forward area of the Pacific. Getting ready to set sail from San Francisco, the ship (unknown) got under way on April 8th, 1945. After engine trouble, the ship returned to the port. The follow day, April 9th, the ship once again set out into open waters. Reports of a Japanese Submarine patrolling the waters outside the port prompted a quick returned back to the safe confines of San Francisco Bay. Two days later, after the all clear was given, the ship again set sail for the Asiatic Pacific Theater of operations. While on board, Johnnie had developed a boil under his arm. This was a common thing during the war. While ascending a flight of stairs while aboard ship, a fellow soldier pushed him from behind breaking the boil open resulting in great pain. The ship arrived on the 13th of May near the Philippines.
The 37th Infantry Division
To the best of my knowledge, the 400th Medical Collecting Company was attached to the 37th Infantry Division. After I acquired a unit patch and showed it to John, he said to me, "well that looks familiar!" So I can only deduct from his response that I finally had a missing piece of the puzzle. His records show that he earned his battle star during the Luzon Campaign on the Philippine island. The 37th "the Buckeye Division" took up positions in support of the final assault of the Baguio Mountain Area.
It didn't take long for Uncle John to get into some sort of trouble. Japanese soldiers were always trying to find ways to kill American's. As Johnnie has told me, the Japanese tried to lure unsuspecting soldiers out of their foxholes in the dark of night. Saying "hey Joe, hey Joe!" hoping that the GI would give a away his position inside the hole. On more than one occasion this happened to John and in one of those instances he ended up killing a Japanese soldier who came looking for trouble in John's foxhole. "Many nights you would wake up and find one of your buddies dead, still in their hole." It didn't take long for the Company to learn the Jap's sneaky tricks and to sleep with one eye open and one hand on their bayonet.
Although the resources are scarce on the 37th's actions on Luzon, I've learned first hand from John's memories of what it must have been like on the island. His recollections of seeing MacAurther's body double get killed by a Japanese sniper vividly occupy his mind. He also recalls the line up of GI's outside native tents as purveyors of the oldest profession practiced their trade with American and Philippino men. He later had to treat many of these men for venereal diseases. He still speaks to this day about the carriers of the worst cases being sent to a place called "Leper Island" where no one ever returned from. To add insult to injury, he found himself evading a Japanese patrol by hiding in a swamp using bamboo sticks as a method to breath while submerged under the water. Ironically, his brother Frank was also on the same island as John although he didn't know it until after the war. For that story, please visit his brother Frankie's page.
The Patrol...and a missing Purple Heart
While on patrol with a number of soldiers to whom Johnnie served as medic, a Japanese tank spotted their line and sped towards the soldiers. Uncle Johnnie tried in vain to evade the tank yet the beast came on too quickly. The tank hit John injuring his shoulder severely and knocking him unconscious. He awoke at the aid station where his wounds were being addressed. After regaining his senses, he saw so many other soldiers in worse shape than himself. Despite his own injuries, Johnnie began attending to the needs of his brothers in arms by administering medicines and dressing wounds to those less fortunate. As Medical NCO, part of his duties were to write injury reports. According to my great uncle he did not write a report on himself nor did any of his colleagues that he recalls. If there was a report, it was destroyed in the fire which swept through the St. Louis Records Center in 1973. I continue to research and hope that a veteran from John's unit or someone from the aid station may still remember this particular event.
With that in mind for the past few years I've been trying to gather enough information to justify the issuance of The Purple Heart Citation for John. His injuries were sustained in combat due to that run in with the enemy tank and although not shot, stabbed, or wounded by a explosion, none the less getting swashed by a tank yields the same results. Perhaps there was a report written by the attending doctor, but I have no idea how to obtain that record if even one exists. I have acquired his state side medical records, but there is no mention of any overseas treatment. Sixty years ago, his pride, motivation to return to duty as soon as physically possible, and of course being in a combat zone, prevented John to apply for the citation personally. When I asked him why, he said to me. "I was just trying to stay alive. I didn't care about any medal back then." Yet later in life, and through my prompting, he is interested in being so honored. Although he was awarded monthly compensation for the injury after his honorable discharge in 1946, the VA was unable to help me in finding the action or the medical report that enabled John to be awarded the disability.
I can only hope that by some stretch of miracle that there is a list of fellow soldiers or some unit history that may exist which would have the evidence I need to proceed. 89 now, my Uncle John remarkably is still in great spirits yet his mental awareness is waning. I know that it is only a matter of time before he walks his last patrol yet I hope that before he does he returns to the WWII Memorial wearing the Purple Heart proudly on his uniform...(I'm sorry my friend, I just couldn't do it.)
That Big Boat Home
Coming back to America should have been the highlight of Uncle Johnnie's service but it was a bitter sweet homecoming. The USS Anderson was sent to bring Johnnie and his men back home, but the Destroyer just returned from bringing back Japanese prisoners of war. Below deck the living spaces were awash with human excrement. "These Japs were like animals in a cage and they shit all over the place." To make life more interesting, the Army was charged with cleaning up the ship. To make it even better, after the ship was cleaned, another set of soldiers got to ride it home. The Anderson returned a little over a month later, and you guessed it, more Jap POW's and another mess to clean. Well, second time's the charm and Johnnie got to leave the Island on the 27th of December 1945.
The USS Anderson was at the battle of the Coral Sea, Midway,
Santa Cruz Islands, Kwajalein, Leyte Gulf, and served in the Occupation of Japan.
Once arriving in San Diego he traveled by train to Camp Atterbury Indiana where he and his service to the nation ended on the 20th of January, 1946. Upon arriving at the camps, his unit was escorted though a series of barracks to complete their separation papers and preparation to return to society. Having brought back many souvenirs, samurai swords, flags, papers and such. Well the jockeys at Camp Atterbury seized their opportunity to steal the returning soldiers loot. The scheme was to bring the soldiers into one barracks, tell them that they would be allowed to come back for their things, and then lead them out the back into the next barracks. Well this went on for some time, in and out of barracks for one piece of paperwork after another. By the time they reached the end of the line all their gear and bounty was gone. Needless to say, Johnnie was really upset. He said he felt cheated by these guys who "did nothing but stay in the states while we nearly got killed." I don't think he really missed these things until I started talking to him about it in 1995. Most likely he had more important things to worry about, like getting back home to see his now 3 year old daughter, Darla Gay.....
Darla and her Dad - Spring 1946
60 Years Later - A New Mission
One for me to remember...and for you to enjoy.
In July of 2005, I asked my Great Uncle to join me in attending the 2005 D-Day reenactment. Born in 1920 and considering his age my uncle was still in pretty good health. Although he still had his aches and pains, his mind is sharp as a two-day-old razor. It was to be a trip of nearly 800 miles over a 4-day period for him. A trip geared around medications and needs that most of us don't have to deal with. After a bit of persuasion, I convinced him to go. He hesitantly agreed.
As the event approached and with his promises to attend I set out to get my reenacting friends from the 28th Division talking and working together. It was a labor of love, love for my uncle, and those who went before him who wore our nation’s uniform. I have spoken to Johnnie a number of times regarding the quality guys we have in our unit and the reenacting community as a whole. We all share the same interest and bring to the table our own perspective of what our forefathers did and history presented some 60 years ago. I wanted John to meet all the guys who mean so much to me.
So Johnnie and I set out on our journey back in time on a Thursday morning driving to his Sister-In-Law’s home in Madison Pa were we spent the night. I had already worked an 8 hour day the previous day then drove 8 hours more that evening to get to John's, so pulling into Aunt Libby's driveway after a 4 hour drive from DC was a welcomed sight. Aunt Libby is the widow of Johnnie’s brother Frankie.. Like Johnnie, she is one of our families last surviving links to the era. She was very excited to see Johnnie after about a year. We talked a lot about Uncle Frank, shared photos old and new, ate like Kings, and prepared to get under way the next morning.
The following day we said our good-byes and we were on our way up to Conneaut. On the way and nearly out of gas, we stopped to fuel up the tank and our belly's. 25 minutes later back in the car and already up the highway a few miles, Johnnie started fumbling around for his keys and his wallet. The keys were found but the wallet, well, it was MIA. Having last saw it in the store we hightailed it back there in hopes that it was lying in the parking lot or within the store. Upon our arrival, no one had seen his wallet; it wasn't in the parking lot, not in the car, nowhere. Both he and I were in a panic knowing what a big weekend this was for the both of us. What a way to start the trip! Johnnie was beside himself… After searching high and low, from the other side of the parking lot I see Johnnie holding aloft his wallet. It was in his pocket the whole time. What a relief! Most people would have been angry yet all I could do was give him a big hug and say "let's go!".
We then arrived at the park and met Sarah Lawrence the entry checkpoint. As part of the organizing committee, Sarah and I spoke a few times on the phone and exchanged a few emails regarding the event. She was anxious to meet Johnnie and he, like many spry vets, always want to meet a pretty lady in uniform. Johnnie was not disappointed.
Shortly after our arrival our unit started to arrive. First on the scene was Captain Vinski and he was the first of our unit to fall victim to Johnnie’s wisecracks and jokes. Johnnie has a way to always put a smile on your face even when so much is on your mind. His joke, “do you know what burns me up?” is a classic and together we just know that right time to tell it and when to pull that punch line “a flame about this high” out of his hat. As the men began to arrive, many others in our unit fell to that same corny joke. Makes me wonder how many times Johnnie has told it and how many people have laughed with him over it. Yet there was this blonde we met at the WWII Memorial who for some strange reason just didn't get it. Things that make you go hummmm..
In the evening we set out for a bite to eat and then returned to the camp to say goodnight to the guys in the unit. Johnnie began to open up to the men in the unit regarding his days and nights as a soldier fighting in the Philippines against the Japanese. It was a beautiful warm evening, one most likely similar to many in which he lived in a foxhole with his buddies so long ago. The next day was surely to be a long one so we called it a night and headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep.
As usual Johnnie was up before me yet returned to catch a few more winks before the days activities began. At breakfast we met Dave Taylor, a German reenactor and his family along with some of the Navy crew before we headed off back to the 28th’s lakeside camp. Things were getting started quickly with the opening ceremony beginning at 0800. Johnnie was asked by the committee to hold the American Flag aloft for the public and attendee's as Dave Norris beautifully sung the Star Spangled Banner. I know my uncle well, but I do not think that he expected this sort of thing. You could see the honor and pride in his face as a tear rolled down his cheek as Dave sung. In his dress uniform and decorated with what he calls “my credentials”, he was the embodiment of all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the era who proudly wore the uniform of the United States. Seeing John at that moment is a moment I will always remember.
After the anthem, Johnnie helped me set up my display of a variety of gear, my footlocker and so on. We had a chance to visit a couple of the vendors and he just looked at me when he saw some of the prices. I could tell he was a bit in sticker shock. I told him, its supply and demand, that's why the prices are so high on a lot of things. He still thought it was “highway robbery”. Most would agree.
We returned to the 28th camp just as Patrick Nicholson of Pittsburgh Pa approached in his Jeep. With still so much still remaining to assemble of my display, Johnnie relived a moment from his past by hopping on Patrick’s Jeep. Pat gladly agreed to drive him around and visit the various units about the encampments. That brief time allowed me to get organized and gave Johnnie the chance to enjoy what was happening around the event without me tagging along. Upon his return I just knew he had a great time. You could see in his eyes the 23-year-old Sergeant reemerging.
Soon it was time to assemble our unit before the first battle. Capt. Vinski along with Sgt’s Caskey and Rush reviewed our collective group and issued orders for the day. Uncle Johnnie, a platoon Sergeant himself looked on in review. If I only could have read his mind I’d probably get a great start on writing a book. You could see it in his eyes; he wanted to give the orders!!! As we prepared to get underway, the committee had set up a special seating area for the veterans and their families. I asked Johnnie to have a seat knowing full well what a long day this was going to be for him. I introduced him to a few fellow veterans and they struck up a good conversation. As the crowds begin to assemble, I returned to my unit as we marched towards the sand and the awaiting landing crafts.
Uncle John has a personality like no other person that I have ever met. He can walk up to a complete stranger, strike up a conversation, and become your friend in an instant. Always saying hello to everyone he meets or even passes by, he has a special way with kids. As our unit loaded onto the first landing craft, I took one last photo of the veteran's area from the inside of the boat some 300 yards away. The picture captured John once again making a new friend. He was talking to a little boy no more than 4 years old as he was being held in his father's arms. It was classic Johnnie…caring more for others than his own comfort.
Our boat was the
first boat off the beach. After about 45 minutes of riding around
in a circle, most of the guys were growing a bit tense. Yet some
believe it or not even found the idle time a good chance to
sleep. (It must have been those damn sea sickness pills Doc gave
us.) For me this was a good time to catch up with friends and
acquaintances from past events. It's a great experience to get to
know people who share the same passion for the past as I. Seeing
those P-51's come into view brought the air of excitement back to the
boat. It was finally show time!!!
With last minute instructions given out by our Navy friends and the Allied Air Corps taking their first runs at Gerry, the boat surged forward towards the beach. Captain Vinski gave us a last moment rally point and we were ready to hit the sand. The ramp was dropped and off we went; our friends from the Navy giving us a feet dry landing.
After reaching the dunes our guys loaded up and formed into squads ready to get into the fight. At that moment, all I could think of is my Uncle; my Uncle Amin Isbir. Uncle Amin was a member of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion which landed on Omaha Beach Easy Red One sector in the second wave of the invasion. Although I never knew my Uncle Amin, at this moment I knew that I was in the same position as he some 60 years ago. To me this event is personal, one that captures the essence of freedom in a single day. To the public watching, only a few in the crowd can fathom the struggle for survival on that “Day of Days.” Yet each of us, whether allied or axis, try our best to commemorate that day and remember the men who fought on both sides of the wire.
Leap frogging forward under the leadership of Capt Vinski and Sgt’s Caskey and Rush, the men of the 28th stepped into no-mans land, a section of beach clear of obstacles and no place to hide. If this were a real landing this would have been the Germans killing zone. We were all out there like squirming worms on the sand. With all the noise and confusion, it was difficult to stay together as a group, but somehow we managed until the last 50 yards. At that point guys were running short of ammo and dropping like flies. I ran to the last hedgehog and much to my surprise 3 guys from my unit were there setting up a demo charge. I said to them, “What the hell are you guys doing here, setting up a hotel?” “No! But were getting ready to blow one up Stitch!” Well this was no place for me and I took off running for the grassy knoll in front of the German lines for some much needed cover, rest, and reloading. Within a few seconds, some more olive drab buddies joined me in the grass. We took a short breather and watched in awe as our air cover screamed by over our heads. Ahead of our tired yet determined group was some barbed wire. Reaching down for my cutters I slithered up the grass to cut the wire. Well it wasn’t really wire, just black colored clothesline! Since my wire cutters hadn’t seen action for some 60 years, it took what seemed like forever to cut through that rope. I would have been killed for sure right then and there, but life as I knew it, went on.
The main group of German reenactors took the brunt of the Allied assault. However, at the far end of the line was a German Pillbox with about 5 guys manning a sandbagged position. Shortly after the left side of the German line began to surrender, the remaining allied soldiers on the far end of the field made their move towards the sandbagged bunker. There were only a few allied soldiers with me and none that I knew. The elevation and slope of the ground in front of the bunker was extremely steep. Yet two of us made it to the top capturing the entire position and all of its’ Hun inhabitants alive. One of which was my friend John Dubbs, a fellow 28th Division Reenactor yet today dressed in a German uniform. It was safe to say that John was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I almost yelled… “Drop the Chalupa!” I am sure the crowd would have got a kick out of that, but instead I did my meager best at mustering up some cheesy “hands up kraut boys” to get them to surrender. Perhaps the crowd expected some sort of bayonet charge and that would have been fun, but oddly they did not clap or cheer once all the Germans put their hands up. Perhaps they couldn't believe that anyone could make it up that 80 degree slope and were just as surprised as John and I. In a way, this reminded me of the part in Saving Private Ryan where GI’s shot two surrendering German soldiers as the final positions were taken. Perhaps that’s what the crowd wanted, but there really wasn’t any point to doing that.
After the Battle
Since 2003 I have participated in this event. After each engagement I feel a bit out of sorts with myself. The adrenalin rush is over, the noise abates, and the air gets strangely silent. It’s a bit of a dream, the dash across the beach and onto the bluffs leaves you hot and sweating, and you’re tired, exhausted and perhaps even hurt. A friend of mine, Mike Williamson, another 28th guy, chatted with me for a bit behind the bunker and offered up some powdered energy mix to add to my canteen. He could tell I was exhausted and low on fuel. For years he’s portrayed a Chaplin, and although I can’t quite recall what he said to me, the tone of his voice brought me down from the hyped-up state of mind I was in. I am sure that this very scene played out for real as the afternoon progressed on June 6th. Exhausted soldiers, mentally wasted, seeking salvation being offered by their buddies, medics, chaplains and God himself.
A few moments later, a good friend and his 2 boys from Pittsburgh spotted me. “Eric that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. My kids can’t believe what they just saw. Awesome, just awesome.” For the last two years, I’ve asked my buddy to bring his two kids, 9 and 13, up to see this event. His ex-wife wouldn’t allow him because she didn’t want to expose her boys to the violence. I assured him that this event was a valued lesson in history and it would be worth the trip no matter what the consequences the ex had in mind. “You were right Eric, this was entirely worth it and you can bet we’ll be back next year.” When you speak so highly about an event such as this and then hear from someone who took a chance to see it for the sake of his boys education, you couldn't believe how satisfying his words were to my ears. It made me very proud to portray the men who made the ultimate sacrifice. To his boys, I was a hero and as we chatted I knew I needed to make my way back to find they real hero, uncle Johnnie, who was probably looking for me by now. "I see you a bit later later Gary, I've got to go find my uncle..."
As I made my way back towards John, a number of people in the crowd approached me and thanked me for putting on a good show. Although I said, “you’re most welcome”, I then pointed to the area where the vets were sitting and said, “don’t thank me, thank them.” I then walked slowly back to find Johnnie who was waiting for me right were I left him. I asked him if he was okay, not knowing if what he just witnessed would have an effect on him in any way. “Fine,” he replied. The man of usually a mile a minute with words said very little. Although he did not tell me so, I think he was proud to see all the reenactors out there doing their best to keep the past alive. I asked him, "What did you think?" He replied, "Pretty good Eric, very good..."
A few months ago I approached the Conneaut Chamber of Commerce offering a unique perspective on WWII. In hopes that my family’s story would be published as part of their commemorative program, I forwarded a brief history to their chairperson for consideration. My family had an extraordinary amount of 12 veterans serving at one time. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been lucky enough to collect enough information on all of them to put together a written history of photos, enlistment dates, and honors received for each. The Chamber agreed to publish the stories much to my delight.
Although I knew ahead of time that those stories were to be included in this years’ program, I kept that a secret from my Uncle John, who is the last of the 12 still alive today. Ironically, before we departed my Aunt Libby’s home two days before the event, it was one of the few times that Johnnie thanked me for being so involved with his life. “I have to give you a lot of credit for remembering my brother and all the rest of our family who served. No one would have gone through all this trouble, and if it wasn’t for you it would have all been forgotten.” With great humility, I accepted his praise. You couldn’t imagine his surprise to find his own photo and story in this years’ program plus that of his brother and the 10 other relatives. He was absolutely thrilled and taken aback by what he read and saw in the program.
My family photos are the most important piece of my footlocker display.
Walking together we made our way back to the 28th’s base camp. The crowds began to gather around the displays and the men who just “fought” the battle. Many of our guys had already stripped down to their undershirts due to the heat. I didn’t waste any time in joining them. Although this is not the proper way to greet the public, some things have to be overlooked, after all, this is supposed to be living history. So many people want to see and learn about what the soldiers carried and their weapons, kid’s especially. Often times you don’t have even a moment to grab a bite to eat or have a drink from your canteen. Although I had a lot of stuff in my display, this year I had my Uncle with me, and to me he was the star of the show. My M1, combat knife, binoculars, or an old Life magazine, could never eclipse the importance of the 12 portrait photos lying there on my cot that serve as the cornerstone to my display.
During this brief period between battles, some of the guys who I’ve met previously swing on by for a brief visit. One such friend portrays a German soldier, Ken Bruce. I don’t know Ken very well, but we always make it a point to say hello and see how each other is doing. It goes to show you that no matter what side of the line you’re on, everyone in this hobby can be friends with each other. This hobby is not about politics; it’s about remembrance and the men who fought it. Sadly, there will be few left to honor and a lot more to remember in the coming years.
A Rendezvous with Destiny
Time seems to never stand still at these events and although the schedule is meticulously planned to fill the entire day with activities, there really is no need to account for every last moment. Three years ago, there was a soccer game planned, a sort of play on the WWII Movie “Victory”. Although I’ve been playing soccer at a semi-pro level for years, there really wasn’t time and the game never happened. No great loss even for a soccer nut like me. This year, a baseball game was scheduled, never happened. No big deal. Heck last year I brought my glove, tossed the ball with a one of our guys, and in 3 minutes quit because there are just too many other things to do. If this were a three-day event, then there might be time to have something between the units, but not for a one day thing. There’s just enough time to catch your breath and that’s about it.
So in what seemed to be about 30 minutes from the last battle, we were ordered to form up for round two. For whatever reason, the second engagement fields only about 60% of the first. My guess is that probably a lot of the GI’s are tired, or they are out of ammo or just want to watch the battle for themselves, which is something I have never done. From my perspective, this event is something I look forward to all year long. Getting in that boat, running across the sands, and seeing, hearing, and yes sometimes feeling the rush of the wind pass by as that P-51 screams overhead is something you just can’t do anywhere else. It takes a lot of work to get this event to happen and I have nothing but true appreciation for the folks who work so hard to make it so.
Most of our guys were ready to go for round two and for some this was their first experience of being part of our group with arms. A few years ago I met a young man at our annual 28th Division event held at the Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Pittsburgh. Tim Gilliam, then 15, volunteers his time there on the weekends. His 18th birthday came just in the nick of time this year and he took the field with us in celebration. As we marched down to the landing craft, I can’t help but notice the children who watch our formation as we descend down the bluffs. In comparison to my age, Tim too is still a kid. At 18, he would have been the typical soldier on D-Day; green and with no prior experience. But just like the fellows of yesteryear, we lent our knowledge and experience to those new-bees, loaded into our boat, & prepared to get underway again.
Ramps up and were heading North in full reverse. Spit, spat, sput… Something is definitely wrong. Our Navy crew looks concerned as smoke starts to spew out of the engine room. When one of the crewmen emerges from below decks with a respirator on, that’s a bad sign. Makes you really appreciate operation Overlord and the amount of planning that went into it for the real landing. All the planes, boats, transports, gliders, paratroopers, glider infantry, straight legs, coastguardsman, aircrews, ground crews, pilots, air controllers, doctors, nurses, cooks, UDT’s, Naval Beach Battalions, chaplains, and sadly grave diggers who made it all possible. It is hard to fathom. So we’re stuck on the sand bar and there isn’t anything we can do about it but wait for the other boats to make their landings and join in. I felt bad for the new guys, especially Tim since it was his first event. Yet as a three-year "vet" of D-Day Conneaut, I appreciated the second feet dry landing of the day.
Like a swarm of angry olive drab and khaki bees we leave the boat and head again for the grassy yet dangerous dunes. My thoughts again return to my great uncle Amin Isbir. Coxswain Amin Isbir was 36 years old on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. He landed on the shores of France at 7:35 in the morning aboard LCI-L #88 along with fellow members of his 6th Naval Beach Battalion Platoon C-8. He survived on the sand for a little more than an hour. The oldest of 9 American born children, his death effected his mother the most. In July, 2005, I returned to Pittsburgh to collect my belongings for a move to Tennessee. My visit was highlighted with a visit to Amin’s sister Della’s home where she has a collection of documents from Amin’s service. When I called Della on D-Day weekend this past summer, I asked her what she knew about his death. She said, “Well you need to call Joe Vaghi.” “Who’s Joe Vaghi?” “Joe was Amin’s commanding officer and he’ll tell you what you want to know.” So like a good little soldier, I did what she told me to do and let my fingers do the walking.
Little did I know that I would spend the next 2 hours on the phone with not only Amin’s Commanding Officer and Beach Master for the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach, but one of my Uncle’s best friends. For 61 years, Ensign Vaghi had never spoken of the events leading up to and surrounding my uncles’ death until my call. My Aunt Della and her mother never wanted to hear the details of what happened to their brother and son. This conversation eventually led to the miracle which took place on May 21st of 2009.
Our unit once again moved forward in a leap frog motion across the sand towards the German positions. But where were they? Taking a nap? There were so few of our brothers in arms this year. Something about a uniform rule kept a lot away from what I was told. Hell, the common person couldn’t tell the difference between a polka dot and a pea dot if it hit them right in the eye. But the guys in gray that were up on the bluffs were experts in deadly accuracy as I was to soon find out. From the earlier battle, I knew that the far end of the line got little attention. I tried to get our commander to rally the troops towards that side of the field, yet the pyrotechnics this year stopped our south easterly advance. A huge burst blew up nearby leaving a lasting impression on the FNG and "vet’s" alike. That burst was an omen to come for little ole Stitch.
A few moments later I was severely wounded by a mortar round that landed close by. Witnesses to my fragging were was the Company Chaplin and Medic who rushed to my aid. “Oh God, say it ain’t so, it’s Stitch!” Offering my soul as retribution and confessing my sins to the padre, then accepting a drink of energy enhancing elixir from doc I was soon forgiven, healed, reborn, and back into the fight in no time. Well the German mortar crew after witnessing this amazing recovery must have been laughing hysterically as they reset their tube. After a 25-yard dash ahead I took a nosedive to the sand to reload. Just then, I saw the two Germans drop in another round. I was just too tired to get up and get moving. Based upon experience from prior events I know how accurate those guys are. With all that death surrounding the boys on D-Day, I wonder how many soldiers said to themselves, “just kill me already and get it over with.” A few seconds later, that mortar round found it’s mark perfectly and nearly split my frog’s legs in two. I was vaporized...
Ironically it was a flying object that killed my uncle on D-Day as well. The pyro burst moments before seem to set the stage for my own demise. Just prior to my uncle’s Amin’s final moments, a huge explosion sent a jeep high into the air. Returning to earth, the vehicle landed directly upon my Great Uncle killing him instantly. Amin Isbir is buried in France overlooking the sands of Omaha Beach where he died so others can be free. In 2006, my cousin Jim Ameen is making the trip from Florida to attend this years’ event. Jim and I met ironically at a WWII event. He recognized Amin’s brother John whose photo I had in a family album. This amazing story of our Uncle Amin’s death was the catalyst of each of us becoming a WWII re-enactor. Jim and I met in our early childhood, but had not seen each other for well over 30 years. We were brought together again due our mutual interest in honoring our family by a chance meeting in Miami Beach. But that’s another story!
By 5 in the afternoon and with little to eat since before 8 I start to get pretty shaky. Sooner or later I’ll begin to start taking better care of myself. Often times I go without eating until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and today is no different. At this point, I’ll eat just about anything, but I know that the American Legion has come to the rescue offering up a delicious pasta and meatball dinner served up to all the reenactors. Uncle Johnnie too has been on the go since before 7 this morning. He hasn’t had much to eat either and is getting quite tired. He’s got that look on his face… when are we going to get something to eat?
Memorial Day Weekend 2006
I’ve seen this look before on his face before. Johnnie and I have been to the WWII Memorial about a dozen times. Each time we go, we’re there for hours telling stories, answering questions, sharing photos, posing for more, and you guessed it, getting hungrier by the minute. Dressed in uniform, Johnnie looks dignified and like the true soldier he was. We field the same questions over and over and have developed a routine to make our visit there something a little less boring and a lot more educational for the visitors, especially the kids. Dragged to DC kicking and screaming by their parents, these kids don’t want to be there in the first place. So with Johnnie’s jokes, we turn a pretty boring day into the unexpected.
So armed with a top five list of oddball answers to the most typical questions asked over and over we wait for the right moment to have a little fun over and over.
“Are you a WWII Veteran?” Johnnie… “No, Civil War” (Believe it or not, some think he's serious.)
“Where did you serve?” Johnnie… “In the chow line.” (This one usually gets people laughing.)
“What division were you with?” Johnnie… “Well, we were all united, so there were no divisions.”
“Where are you from?” Johnnie… “My mother.” (This gets most people frustrated.)
did you fight?” Johnnie… “In the ring.” (Classic Johnnie
Where did you serve? Underneath the Lieutenants and the Captains.
And a new one
that Johnnie surprised me with the other day only 2 days after having a Heart
Attack on October 23rd 2009
I'm so hungry, I can eat the hind end out of a hog!
A wounded soldier from the War of Terror and John share a moment.
By the time we’ve made it to #5, people are a little bit pissed or laughing so hard that they can’t stand it. When we need to be we’re quite serious, but most of the time we’d rather be laughing than crying. We’ve had our special moments, lying plaques and wreaths at the Pennsylvania monolith, but putting a smile on a kid's face is what the most important thing we do there. There’s always a message that Johnnie tells these kids, be good to your parents and work hard to make something of your life. My favorite photos of John at the Memorial are when kids surround him as he shares his experiences. Kids are eager to learn about WWII, yet they only have 2 pages in their history books to consult while in high school. When all the Veterans are gone, it I’ll be up to the reenactor to tell their stories and I’ll be doing my best to tell them the way Johnnie does.
After 2 heaping helpings of delicious pasta, meatballs, salad, and all the cookies you can eat, along with sitting down with some of great fellows in our unit, the dinner was capped off with a beautiful sunset. Another day has ended, but the fun hasn’t. We’re off to the USO show assembled by Lisa Torey, one of the event organizers. At the WWII Dedication, Uncle John enjoyed the pre-dedication ceremonies so much that he still carries a picture in his wallet of him dancing with a USO singer. The music and entertainment revitalized John and once again that smile was back on his face. Click the picture to the left for a small portion of "Babyface".
After the show Johnnie and I retreated back to the 28th encampment where a number of the guys are enjoying the evening. In January 1946, Johnnie last wore the uniform of a United States soldier. Yet his recollections of that time are a clear as spring water. Having escorted John to so many trips to the WWII Memorial, I thought I knew all of his stories, yet after today’s gunfire and activities, old memories resurfaced. Yet the most important memory John recalls is the first one he told me years ago about the day he and a Japanese tank had a rendezvous. When Johnnie first told me what had happened to him, I’ve always wondered why he was never issued the Purple Heart. He said to me, “I didn’t even think about it then, we still had a job to do and despite being hurt, I was still helping other guys who were worse off than me.” So it’s been a mission of mine to see that Johnnie gets what he deserves. Although Johnnie’s been awarded a 30% disability from the army, unfortunately, any documentation that may have supported the issuance of the Purple Heart was destroyed in a fire in 1973. It’s been a long and slow road. With all the changes to government policy in the wake of 911, it’s been extremely difficult to talk to anyone about this without Johnnie and I being in the same room at the same time. The frustration is at times overwhelming, but I’m not going to give up until he is awarded what he truly deserves...
With another long day ahead of us we decided to call it a night and get back to the hotel. However, the excitement of the day wasn’t over. You never know with Johnnie what might happen next. Truth be told, Johnnie’s a chick magnet. His personality is as charming as his appearance. When I show women his garrison photo from 1943 I haven’t met a woman yet who hasn’t said what a handsome man he was. As we were walking to our room we said hello to two women who were walking their dogs. Wouldn’t you know it, but Johnnie soon found himself in the Jacuzzi suite alone with two women. Well, I don’t have to tell you, but what happens in Conneaut, stays in Conneaut.
The Trip Home.
After enjoying another breakfast back at the hotel surrounded by people who where either participants in the D-Day reenactment, helped make it happen, or just witnessed the yearly event, Johnnie and I packed up our car and headed back to the lakeside camp to somehow squeeze in all the rest of my gear. Even though it was still early in the morning, only two of our guys were still back at the camp trying to do the same thing. Events like this happen only a few times a year and many of the reenactors pack as much gear and memorabilia into their vehicles as possible. Although I’ve only been a part of this hobby for just over 3 years, I have acquired quite a collection. With all the stuff lying camouflaged under a standard G.I. issued pup tent, Johnnie once again looked at me as if I where a little crazy as I started tearing down. Despite the hodge-podge of packs, web gear, a footlocker, stove, two tents, and the 20 helmets I picked up for one of our members back home in Pittsburgh, he couldn’t believe I was able to pack it all in.
I'm always looking for gear to add to my collection!
If you have something you would like to donate please email me.
I will treasure and proudly display it.
Before we left for Pittsburgh, Johnnie and I returned to the bluffs that overlook the beach and out into Lake Erie. “What a difference a day makes.” Hard to believe that the day before 350 reenactors, 3 Navy ships and 3 airplanes turned the now tranquil park into a bloodless battlefield. It was a beautiful morning as Johnnie and I sat on the park bench. I asked him, “How do you feel?” Johnnie’s reply, “With my hands.” I knew then he was feeling all right.
When I asked Johnnie to join me in attending a reenactment my biggest fear was that he would experience some mental trauma from his time in service. With all that shooting and wool clad actors on hand, one never knows. Although the chances of that were remote, I needed to fit something into the trip that would bring Johnnie back to the 21st Century, a place where a kid can be a kid regardless of age.
In 2003 Bill Chessman, another 28th man, asked me if I had ever saw a duck walk on a fish’s back. I looked at him as if he were crazy and said I’d have to see it to believe it. See it I did. There is such a place where scores of ducks walk on the water and never get their feet wet: Conneaut, Pennsylvania. Thousands, perhaps 100,000 carp line the shores of the Conneaut wetlands forming a living floor of fleshy fish. It’s an unbelievable site, but even more remarkable is that the ducks do walk right on top of the fish. It’s truly is a bizarre place.
So with one final surprise in store for John we leave behind the now tranquil shore and small town charm of Conneaut Ohio and make our way south to Conneaut Pennsylvania. Johnnie had no clue where we were going or why I stopped to buy 5 loafs of bread along the highway. To make it even more a surprise, I asked him to keep his eyes closed until we reached the spillway where a pool of thousands of carp stack like cordwood in collective slurry. “Okay, open your eyes.” “Good God! I have never seen so many fish before in my life. There are thousands of them! Look at all those $*#@ing fish! Wow...!!!” Well the fun was just beginning as we wasted away the next hour feeding the fish with all of that bread. For those who met John at the reenactment, you could imagine what effect something like this would have on him. Again, he was a kid, and to me, the effect of seeing all those fish was just what the Doctor ordered and what I had hoped for. For anyone going to Conneaut next year, this place is a must see. Thank you Bill for sharing this secret with me. Soon the bread was all gone, and we had to leave the fish behind. Needless to say they were still hungry despite the hundreds of loafs people feed them daily. (If you go, I recommend bagels. The bagels are too big for the fish to bite into and they chase them around like a slippery football. It's truly comical, and tossing a couple of them in to the mix at the same time, well, just stand back.)
Now back in the car, we head to drop off those helmets for a friend who restores them in Pittsburgh. Upon arrival, Johnnie takes one of the helmets, crowns himself with it, and knocks on the door of my friend and fellow reenactor Tom Ruso. As soon as Tom opened the door, the laughs began. As I said previously, Johnnie can make a friend in a heartbeat. Despite the fact that Tom just had a painful accident at work just days before, Johnnie’s foxhole humor had Tom rolling in laughter from the get-go. Despite all the fun we were having which included a local politician who was soliciting the vote, we needed to move on to destination Alexandria Virginia. Although Johnnie had intended to return home with me to Tennessee, his back and drain of the last few days traveling had taken their toll. We still had 5 more hours to go and needed to get back on the road.
One more stop to make and we were back on the Turnpike heading east. My Uncle Tuench Povirk, a 4 battle star veteran of the pacific campaign, made his home is in nearby Irwin Pa. His widow Rosie still lives at the same address. Although only related via marriage to my mother’s parents, Rosie and Johnnie grew up together in West Newton Pa. Having not seen each other since the late 80’s, Aunt Rosie knew John’s voice immediately. After exchanging pleasantries, I handed Rosie one of the event programs that contained her late husband’s photo and unit details. She was so happy to see both Johnnie and I in the same publication along with her brother in law, Dan. Rosie then presented me two letters that Uncle Tuench wrote in 1943 to his mother, my great-grandmother Mary Povirk. Without a doubt, this part of our trip was one of the most enjoyable segments. Although ailing, Aunt Rosie is still strong at heart and spirit. Our visit was brief, but will long be remembered.
Back now on the highway, we stopped for a bite to eat in Breezewood PA. We were seated at a table adjacent to a couple of young fellas who were speaking what I thought was German. Of course, Johnnie said hello as usual and they replied in kind. I asked them where they were from and they proudly said they were from the Netherlands. Their faces were sunburned so I asked them where they were today. “We’ve just come from visiting the WWII Memorial in DC.” Instantly, Johnnie and I had a couple of new friends. They were thrilled to meet an American Soldier, Uncle Johnnie. Johnnie had a few photos left over from the D-Day event and so he signed a photo for each of the two men. It was a thrill for those guys to meet Johnnie and wouldn’t you know it, Johnnie would grease these guys with the “Do you know what burns me up?” joke before they left.
Arriving back in DC
about 8 PM, it was another long day and the end to an unbelievable journey; a
journey back in time, to honor and remember, to dream, to laugh, to cry, to
celebrate the freedoms we all so enjoy, to be a part of something special, and
to share the life of my Great Uncle with all the friends I had, we made, and
lives he touched. Until recently, Uncle Johnnie lived alone in Alexandria
Virginia just outside of D.C. His recent health problems forced him to
take up residence in a nearby assisted living home. Up until June 2006, he
worked nearly every morning at the nearby 711 making coffee for no pay; he
exercised regularly, and took the time to be outwardly nice to everyone that he
met. In my opinion he’s a role model to follow, a hard worker, and up
until recently, an under appreciated combat veteran. If you have
already met John, you have already experienced the effects of his charm and
demeanor. For those he’s yet to meet, hopefully my recollections of what
could be his last combat mission have set a smile on your face as well.
Since that time, we've made 2 further D-Day Conneaut trips together plus Johnnie also attended the 2008 Reading Air Show as well. In 2008 in Conneaut, friends of ours helped build a 10 ton sandbagged bunker to which our group, the Sixth Beach Battalion, led by Johnnie, won first place for best in show. Although John and I had already left for the evening by the time the award was handed out at the USO Dance, he and I sat alone together enjoying an ice cream at the Conneaut Dairy Queen. Although I was disappointed when I heard the news the next day, not that we had won mind you, but that I could not hand the award to him at the USO show in front of all our friends. It would have been fitting for Johnnie. Yet I somehow felt our 1/2 hour enjoying our ice cream was reward enough.
Last of the line..... Photo taken April 21st, 2007.
Johnnie walked his last patrol November 16th 2009.
Rest in Peace my friend. I will love you always.
Johnnie's funeral service and memorial video can be watched by clicking here.
Click on the WWII Memorial Photo to enjoy Johnnie at a place he loved so much.