Sunday, May 24, 2015

Two Major Leaguers KIA during World War II

Since it is Memorial Day Weekend here in the United States, what better way to commemorate the effort given by our troops than to shed light on the two Major Leaguers who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II.

From the moment when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on that fateful "Day That Will Live in Infamy", December 7, 1941, superstar, reserve player and minor leaguer alike served the nation's armed forces during World War II. It is estimated that over 500-major leaguers and many more minor leaguers served during World War II. While only 2 major leaguers lost their lives in the conflict, there were an estimated 139 minor leaguers that lost their lives in World War Two. Gary Bedingfield's wonderful and informative website Baseball in Wartime and his book Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service are two amazing resources to look up who those players were. On to honoring the two major leaguers who were killed in action during World War II.

- Elmer Gedeon
Gedeon was born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 15, 1917 and was the nephew of former big leaguer Joe Gedeon. Gedeon was a three sport star at the University of Michigan and made the majors with the Washington Senators in 1939. His stint with the Senators was not very memorable since he appeared in only five games with the Nats. In those five games, Gedeon batted .200 with 3 hits in 15 at-bats with an RBI and a run scored. He would be sent down to Charlotte of the Piedmont League for the 1940 season, and was recalled to Washington at the end of the season but didn't play in a game. Gedeon would never play in the majors again.

Gedeon received his draft notice in January 1941, and would later be transferred to the the Army Air Force in October, 1941. It was here where Gedeon would shine and meet his final fate. According to the biography on Elmer Gedeon on the aforementioned Baseball in Wartime website:
Flight training was always a hazardous time and almost claimed the 25-year-old's life on August 9, 1942. Gedeon was the navigator in a North American B-25 Mitchell medium-sized bomber that struggled on take-off from Raleigh Airport, North Carolina. The plane clipped pine trees at the end of the runway and plunged into a swamp before bursting into flames. Despite suffering three broken ribs, Gedeon managed to free himself and crawl from the wreckage, then realized crewmate Corporal John Rarrat was still inside. Gedeon returned to the burning plane without a moment's hesitation and pulled Rarrat to safety. Corporal Ros Ware died in the crash, Rarrat succumbed to his injuries at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, and the five other crew members all suffered serious burns and broken limbs. Gedeon was hospitalized for 12 weeks. In addition to broken ribs he suffered severe burns to his back, face, hands and legs, some of which needed skin grafts.
Gedeon would be promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant and was awarded the Soldiers' Medal for his heroics (Gedeon would later be promoted to his highest rank of Captain).

According to pilot's superstition, Gedeon was quoted as saying "I had my accident. It’s going to be good flying from now on,". Unfortunately for Gedeon it was not to be so. Again referring to the aformentioned Elmer Gedeon biography on the Baseball in Wartime website:
With his duties as operations officer, Gedeon was not a regular flyer but on the afternoon of April 20, 1944, just five days after celebrating his 27th birthday, he piloted a B-26B, one of 30 Marauders that left Boreham Field that afternoon to bomb a German VI site being constructed at Bois d'Esquerdes, France. It was the group's 13th mission.
It was nearly 7:30 P.M. when the group approached the target area and encountered blinding searchlights and intense, accurate, heavy anti-aircraft fire. The sky was suddenly full of puffs of black explosions that were silhouetted against the searchlights. These explosions generated hundreds of pieces of jagged steel that could easily set oxygen and gas tanks blazing, or rip through the wings of a plane and just as easily through the bodies of the men inside. Lining up to make the bombing run the flak grew heavier, thicker and more deadly, causing planes to bounce around from nearby bursts.
Gedeon's bomber dropped its bombs and had just passed over the target. “We got caught in searchlights and took a direct hit under the cockpit,” recalled co-pilot James Taaffe. “I watched Gedeon lean forward against the controls as the plane went into a nose dive and the cockpit filled with flames. He must have been thinking, 'Oh, no. Not again.'” [9] Taaffe, with his clothing on fire, desperately struggled to open the pilot's and co-pilot's top hatches. He looked back and saw no movement from Gedeon as he scrambled to safety through the hatch. Descending through the night sky he watched the flame-engulfed airplane spiral out of control and explode on impact with the ground, carrying Gedeon and five others to their death. The other crew members were Second Lieutenant Jack March, Staff Sergeant Joseph Kobret, Sergeant John Felker, Sergeant Ira Thomas and Private Charles Atkinson.[10]
Gedeon was reported missing in action - his fate unknown, because Taaffe had been taken prisoner by German soldiers and was being held at Stalagluft 3. It was not until May 1945 that Elmer's father, Andrew A. Gedeon, received word from his son's commanding officer that the graves of the missing airmen had been located in a small British army cemetery in St. Pol, France. Elmer Gedeon's body was later returned to the United States and rests at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
For Further Reading:
Elmer J Gedeon from the American Air Museum in Britain website
- Elmer J. Gedeon's statistics from Baseball

- Harry O'Neill
Harry Mink O’Neill was born in Philadelphia on May 8, 1917 and as Gedeon was, O'Neill was a standout athlete in college. O'Neill attended Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and was a three-sport star. After graduating college, O'Neill signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics on June 5, 1939. He would be the third string catcher for the Athletics in 1939 making only one appearance in that season. According to the article Harry O'Neill by Gary Bedingfield, Frank Fitzpatrick, and Bill Nowlin from the SABR Baseball Biography Project:
O’Neill made his only major-league appearance on July 23, 1939, as a late-inning defensive replacement for Frankie Hayes against the Tigers. It was a blowout of a ballgame, with the Tigers leading 9-1 after three innings and 15-3 through seven. Hayes was 0-for-4 in the game, and finally Athletics manager Earle Mack – who had taken over from his father, Connie Mack, in late June when Connie became ill – decided to give Hayes the rest of the day off and put in O’Neill behind the plate. O’Neill never got a time at bat, and was not involved in any fielding plays. He caught the fifth of Philadelphia’s five pitchers, Chubby Dean.
O'Neill would finish his major league career with a .000 batting average and played part of the 1940 season at for the Harrisburg team of the Class B Interstate League.

In September 1942, O'Neill would enlisted with the Marines Corps and was sent to the Marine Officers' Training School at Quantico, Virginia where he would graduate with the rank of Second Lieutenant. O'Neill would join the 4th Marine Division at Camp Pendelton, California. O'Neill would rise to the rank of first lieutenant and would be shipped out to the Pacific theater with the 4th Marine Division in January 1944. According to the Harry O'Neill biography page on the Baseball in Wartime website:
With the division's 25th Weapons Company, O'Neill made major amphibious assaults at Kwajalein later that month, then at Saipan in June. On June 16, 1944, he suffered a shell-fragment wound to the right arm on Saipan, and was sent back to a hospital ship to recover. He returned to active duty on July 22, 1944, and participated in the assault on Tinian. On February 19, 1945, the division landed at Iwo Jima and moved inland, over extremely difficult terrain. After an intense Allied artillery bombardment of enemy positions on March 5,1945, elements of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions attacked on the morning of March 6. Fighting was heavy throughout the day with the enemy offering stiff resistance and subjecting the Marines to continuous small arms and mortar fire. By 5:30 P.M. on March 6, the Marines had made small local gains, but First Lieutenant O'Neill was dead. He had been killed by a sniper. O'Neill was one of 92 officers of the 4th Marine Division who lost their lives on Iwo Jima.
O'Neill was originally buried at Iwo Jima with 7,000+ Marines. His remains would later be interred at Arlington Cemetary in Drexel, Pennsylvania in July 1947.

For Further Reading:
Iowa Jima: Red Blood on Black Sand from the Fighting Fourth of World War II's website
- Harry M. O'Neill Class of 1939 Induction Class of 1980 of the Gettysburg College Hall of Athletic Honors page
- Harry O'Neill's statistics page from Baseball

I would recommend that you read the much more in-depth articles on Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill on the Baseball in Wartime website and the Harry O'Neill article by Gary Bedingfield, Frank Fitzpatrick, and Bill Nowlin from the SABR Baseball Biography Project. You will not be disappointed.

If you happen to be at a ballgame this weekend, give a tip of your hats and honor Elmer J. Gedeon and Harry O'Neill with a moment of silence and thanks for their ultimate sacrifice in helping us enjoy the game that they both spent time playing. Rest in Peace Captain Elmer J. Gedeon and First Lieutenant Harry M. O'Neill. Thank you for your sacrifice. You'll never be forgotten.

Until Then Keep Playing Ball,
Baseball Sisco