The Greatest Generation came to Iroquois Middle School on Friday to give a living history lesson.
Four World War II veterans shared their experiences with eighth-grade social studies students.
The men, all in their late 80s, told how they had plans for college and careers, but that all changed when the United States joined the war following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
Eighty-eight-year-old Dick Gibbons of Scotia said he was called to serve, like many other young men of that era.
“When we got out of high school, no question about where we were going,” he explained. “We had four choices: We could either go into the Navy, Army, Coast Guard or Marines.”
As a member of what was then called the Army Air Forces, Gibbons flew endless missions in a B-24, patrolling the West Coast of the United States. He was prepared to deploy to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, but the war had ended by that point.
Gibbons told the students to continue to protect freedom and not let anybody tamper with the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
William Rochelle, 89, of Glenville, was entering his freshmen year of Buffalo Teachers College in November 1942 when he and his buddies enlisted. Becoming a pilot involved extensive training.
“You don’t go into the Air Corps … and just get into an airplane and start flying,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. There’s a tremendous educational process where you’re constantly learning.”
Rochelle said he had to go through extensive basic and combat training. At one point, he trained from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with breaks only for lunch and drills. The one good thing is he ended up with a year’s worth of college credits when he left the military.
He recalled training in Las Vegas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee.
“It was a nice way to see the country, if you had time to look at it,” he said.
Rochelle flew 31 bombing missions over Germany and Austria before the war in Europe ended May 8, 1945.
John Moehle, 88, of Scotia, said he had to grow up overnight when he joined the Army infantry.
“I was a senior in high school one day, and two weeks later, I was on my way to basic training,” he said.
He became familiar with weaponry during basic training. He spoke about some of the weapons that were used, including the Bangalore torpedo — an explosive charge of TNT in a long, metal tube that could be shoved under a barbed wire fence and detonated.
“As you detonated it, the flying shrapnel blew a 4-foot wide path through the barbed wire,” he said.
This torpedo also worked well in clearing enemy bunkers.
“Shrapnel would ricochet off the inside of the bunker, and there was little or no chance that anyone would survive,” he said.
War also exposed the men to unforgettable images, such as the concentration camp in Dachau, Poland, that the Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division liberated. As a member of that unit, 87-year-old George Williams of Niskayuna saw the camp after the war.
“We went into the chambers where they were told they were going to take a shower, but actually, they were gassed to death,” he said. “Then we went into the cremation chamber, where they had four ovens and they would cremate the people.”
All that was left were small bone fragments, according to Williams.
“The bones were thrown in a pile, and that’s where they were,” he said, pointing to the corner of the auditorium near the ceiling to indicate the height of the pile.
All of them missed the creature comforts of home. Williams said he didn’t like having to drive a Jeep.
“I wanted a car that had windows, electric wipers, windows you can roll up, and heat,” he said.
The veterans noted the country was united during World War II in a way it hasn’t seen since. Everyone made sacrifices, and there was rationing of fuel and food.
Moehle didn’t like the Army meals. The troops were encouraged to take as much as they wanted, but to eat what they took.
“They didn’t want to see people dumping a lot of food when the homefront was being rationed,” he said.
Rochelle remarked that when he enlisted, he wasn’t much older than the students in front of him.
“One of the remarkable things to me about World War II is that the fate of the world was placed in the hands of kids, and we were asked to do the job,” Rochelle said.
This is the 15th year teacher Dennis Frank has brought in the veterans — some of whom have spoken at the school five years in a row. They are able to make a much more personal connection with students than any history text could, according to Frank.
“I think it’s one of the most uplifting days for my students and my colleagues,” he said.
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