Tag Archive | "World War II"

Art and War: Alexander Russo Shares His Experience as a World War II Combat Artist

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“Combat Artist: A Journal of Love and War” by Alexander Russo cover.

“Combat Artist: A Journal of Love and War” by Alexander Russo cover.

By Tessa Raebeck

Art and combat don’t often go hand in hand, but for Alexander Russo they are forever linked.

Mr. Russo will visit Guild Hall Saturday to sign and read from his book, “Combat Artist: A Journal of Love and War,” a straightforward account of his time spent in the Naval Reserve, serving with Naval Intelligence as a combat artist during World War II.

The first and youngest personnel to volunteer and engage in the Naval landings in Sicily and Normandy, Mr. Russo is now Professor Emeritus at Hood College in Maryland and is the former Dean of the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.

The graphic results of Mr. Russo’s time spent in combat form part of the navy’s Historical Records of World War II. In the book, the veteran also explores the growth of the artist following the war, in his struggle to continue a career in fine arts.

A reception with the author is Saturday, May 17 at 1:30 p.m., followed by a reading and book signing from 2 to 3 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.

WWII Ended 65 Years Ago

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web Veterans I 004

Not many veterans of that global conflict are still with us. To commemorate the sacrifices they made to preserve our freedom, the Express will publish the stories of a few of the men and women in our community who served the nation in a time of great peril. 

By Jim Marquardt

Bill Connelie from Brooklyn had volunteered as an aviation cadet in January 1942. The war wrenched him and hundreds of thousands of other young Americans from peaceful lives into dangerous adventures in places they never heard of.

After the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Japan’s forces thrust across the South Pacific and occupied Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. From an airfield under construction there, the Japanese planned to attack Australia and the New Hebrides. In August 1942, in America’s first offensive action, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and began a long bloody battle to hold it against repeated assaults.

The Marines were still fighting Japanese hold-outs when Bill Connelie arrived on Guadalcanal in March 1943 with the U.S. Army Air force. Barely a year after he enlisted, the 21-year old was navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress operating from the island’s patched up airfield. Bill and his crew hunted enemy submarines and bombed Japan’s bases on Bougainville, Munda and other strongholds. On most of his 60 missions, Bill’s plane was attacked by Zeros, the famous Japanese fighter planes. He thanks the rugged B-17 for getting them safely back to base though full of holes from machine-gun fire. Every night the Japanese bombed the airfield to keep the Americans on edge.

In January 1944, the Air Force ordered Bill back to the States to train navigators on the new, long-range B-29 Superfortress. Practice flights from Puerto Rico to Norfolk, Virginia, roughly simulated the distance and direction the B-29s would fly from the Mariana Islands to Tokyo. During his military service, Bill rose from second lieutenant to major. After the war, he spent 30 years with the New York City Police, reaching the rank of Assistant Chief of Department. He later became Superintendent of the New York State Police. Retired in 1983, Bill moved to Wickatuck Hills in Noyac. Now 89 years old, he recently pinned pilot’s wings on one of his grandsons at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Carmine Martino left his home in the Bronx at age 18, joining the Army Air Force in October 1943. He always had been fascinated by planes, built models as a youngster and hoped to become a fighter pilot. The Air Force sent him to Gulfboro, North Carolina, where he was devastated to discover his eyesight couldn’t make the grade. Instead he was sent to Army schools to learn engine mechanics and airplane instrumentation.

He began working on B-24 bombers at Kessler field in Mississippi before being transferred to Selfridge Field, Michigan, where he serviced P-47 Thunderbolts, powerful, new fighter-bombers built by Republic Aviation. Carmine helped train Free French pilots who came to Selfridge Field to check out the new planes, then flew them to Europe to fight the Luftwaffe. At one point in the war years, the famous African-American Tuskegee airmen took instrument training at Selfridge.

At war’s end, after serving nearly three years, Carmine went back to his father’s butcher shop in the Bronx while studying on the GI bill at NYU and CCNY for a teaching certificate. He concentrated on special education and later instructed teachers in that discipline in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Now living on Noyac Road. Carmine will be 85 this year.

Andy Neidnig lived a quiet life before World War II, thinking only of finishing college and getting a job. A few years later he was fighting to survive, coming close to being killed battling the German army in Europe. Andy grew up in Ozone Park and graduated from Manhattan College in 1941. At that time, young men were required to serve a year in the military and Andy wanted to get it over with so he could move on with a career. He didn’t know the Army would take five years of his life. Once the global war was underway, he was promoted to corporal and sergeant, then was sent to Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Eager for action he was shipped to an infantry unit in the Second Armored Division that was advancing into Germany in 1944. He no sooner joined the division than the Battle of the Bulge erupted and his unit raced into position to block the German advance.

They confronted elite Panzer divisions in Belgium in bloody fights with the outcome in doubt for over a month. On Christmas morning, 1944, Andy had hitched a ride on a Sherman tank when a shell hit the tank and sent him flying. A little later while talking to another officer he heard a sniper bullet zip by his head. They captured the sniper and found he was wearing American Army boots, probably from a fallen soldier. His closest brush with death was near a small Belgian village. He was walking alongside a Sherman tank when it was hit on the other side by a rocket from a “panzerschrek”, the German version of our bazooka. A huge red flash knocked out the Sherman tank and killed his captain. Out of his company of 60 men, 48 were killed or wounded. In the fiercest winter of the war, men who fell froze in position. Andy jokes that while he was sleeping on icy ground, Army regulations took $30 room and board from his lieutenant’s salary of $175 a month. The Bulge broke German resistance and the European war ended a few months later. He and his buddies waited fearfully for orders to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan, but the A-bomb ended the war.

Andy remembers his homecoming as a quiet reunion with his family, without fanfare. He says he thinks frequently about his experiences so many years ago when his only hope was to survive. He and his wife moved permanently to their home on Glover Street in 1982. He will be 91 on July 3rd.

Marty Trunzo, whose real first name is Mario, was born in Calabria, Italy, and arrived in the U.S. at age 11. He didn’t realize he’d get a free trip back not many years later, courtesy of the U.S. Army. Marty’s Barber Shop opened on Main Street in 1930 where he groomed Sag Harbor men until he was drafted in April, 1942. After boot camp at Ft. Dix, Marty joined the 389th Port Battalion attached to the 36th Infantry Division.

 “I asked an officer why they had us climbing up and down rope nets. He said just to keep you in shape. Next thing I knew we were invading North Africa. That wasn’t so bad. It really got ugly when we landed at Anzio in Italy. The Germans had a huge railroad gun we called the Anzio Express, and they pinned us down for months, inflicting terrible casualties. When I got ashore an Italian Army captain said ‘Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’”

As the war neared its end, Marty, then a sergeant, was put in charge of the Hotel Picha Cusa on Ischia, an island near Capri that the Americans had taken over as a rehab center. When he was told that an American general was arriving for inspection, Marty commandeered a weapons carrier and sped to a fishing village where he exchanged GI rations for fresh seafood. After a delicious dinner, the general asked Marty how he was able to turn out such a splendid meal. Marty confessed his bartering excursion. The general said, “Well okay, just don’t get caught.”

Marty’s worst experience came after the shooting stopped. A little Italian boy playing in the rubble picked up a German mini-bomb. It exploded and he was bleeding profusely. Marty rushed him to a hospital where they were able to save his life, but the boy lost his hand. Marty still shakes his head in sadness when he tells the story. 

East End Thoughts: May 1945

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By Richard Gambino

Sixty-five years ago, on May 6, 1945, the last German submarine sunk by the Allies in World War II, the U-853, was downed by U.S. warships and aircraft about 22 miles from Montauk Point, off Block Island. On the previous day (my sixth birthday) the same submarine had torpedoed and sunk the U.S. coal ship, Black Point, killing 22 of her crew. In fact, after Germany declared war on the U.S., on December 11, 1941, the first Allied ship sunk by a U-boat, the tanker, Coimbra, on January 14, 1942, was also off our shore.  And much of the Battle of the Atlantic, in which 2,828 of our ships were sunk by U-boats, and in which we sank 632 of the subs, was fought off Long Island. People here called the police to report debris washed up on our ocean beaches, including the bodies of dead seamen. Appropriately, as it were, on May 7, the day after the U-853 was sunk, the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Doenitz, authorized Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe, the next day. (Hitler had committed suicide on April 30.) Last year, a relic of that war, right here at home, brought me to a standstill.

I’m an amateur nature photographer. So in April ’09, I was hiking alone through Camp Hero State Park about 1.5 miles west of the Montauk Lighthouse, carrying my photo gear. I was inland of the high dunes there when I came to a break in them that allowed me to walk through a winding area that led right to the ocean’s edge. I came to a very rocky small beach, intent on taking photos of where the ocean approached the bluffs on either side of me. Instead I stood there, unmoving. In front of me, to my left, was what appears to be part of a reinforced concrete fortification, of the kind we’ve all seen in films, used against us in World War II by the Germans at Normandy. But this was right here, to protect us from those same Germans. Once sitting high and dry, decades of coastal erosion has brought the ocean to it.

As a matter of fact, the East End was involved in World War II right to the end of its twin forks, and beyond. In the earliest months of the war, civilian boaters in Greenport, with their boats, were recruited as volunteers by the U.S. Coast Guard. The boaters were given military two-way radios, a minimum of training, and asked to sail the ocean nearby at night to find U-boats, and to rescue survivors of ships sunk by the subs. The U-boats stayed underwater in daylight, but had to be on the surface at night running their diesel engines to charge the batteries that powered the subs when underwater. The first of the Greenport “picket boats,” the Two Pals, sailed on its first patrol from the town on July 29, 1942. One night, the crew of one of the boats, using only its sails, to stay silent, heard diesel engines. Then men’s voices. Speaking German. The Greenport sailors quickly calculated their location, then sailed from the area as fast as possible, and radioed the U-boat’s position to our military.

In the early 1990s, I had another surprising reminder of the war, this time in Southold. “Skip” Goldsmith took me inside a large building in which his father’s “The Boat Shop” had made one hundred and thirty-eight 25ft. and 33ft. wooden “Plane Rearming Boats” for the Navy, used to ferry supplies between seaplanes and shores. To my amazement, wood-working machinery was there as it was left at war’s end, and a 1945 calendar still hung on a wall. Nearby, the Greenport Yacht and Ship Building Company made 49 minesweeping vessels for the Navy, eight of them weighing 205 tons each, and 41 of them each weighing 278 tons, all with wooden hulls, which would not set off mines with magnetic triggers.

At Camp Hero there are several wartime structures, as there are also at the Shadmoor Preserve west of it, including big concrete bunkers and small sentry shelters. At Hero one may also see large concrete bases on which once sat coastal artillery aimed out to sea. These included sixteen-inch guns, the largest artillery the U.S. had, meaning they fired 2,000 lb. armor-piercing explosive projectiles, 16 inches in diameter and several feet long, which had a range of over 20 miles. When their crews practice-fired them, the resulting concussions rattled buildings in Montauk village, and the guns’ reports were heard over both forks.

Why coastal defenses here? Well, late on the foggy night of June 13, 1942, a German submarine, the U-202, sat off the beach at Amagansett. From it, four Germans in German military uniforms paddled a rubber raft to the shore. Shortly after they landed, they changed into civilian fishermen clothes.  They had come in uniforms so that if they were captured on landing, they would be treated as prisoners of war, and not spies or saboteurs, who under international law, were usually executed. Soon after they landed, a young Coast Guardsman patrolling the beach on foot, alone, came upon them. In perfect American English — each had been raised in the U.S. — they offered him a bribe. Being unarmed and outnumbered, he pretended to go along with it. But when he left them, he ran to alert the military. The four Germans buried their raft and uniforms, and also explosives they had brought with them, intending to come back for the bomb-making material another day. Each carrying a revolver and thousands of dollars in cash, they walked to the Amagansett station of the Long Island Rail Road, bought tickets for $5.10 each, took a morning train to Manhattan, and from there went to locations in the mid-West, to lie low.

But the Germans had been chosen for their mission simply because they spoke American English. Most had little stomach for blowing up American industrial sites, and soon one of them turned himself in. He told all, including where his three comrades were hiding, and they were arrested. He also told FBI agents, to their astonishment, that another four German saboteurs had landed on the coast of Florida from a U-boat on June 18, completely undetected, and the FBI soon caught them. The agency broke the news to the press, causing a shock throughout the nation. In July, all eight were tried before a military tribunal, found guilty as saboteurs, and all were sentenced to death. President Roosevelt commuted the sentences of two of them, who had cooperated, to long prison terms. Without any advance notice to the public, on August 8, the other six were executed by electric chair, less than two months after they had landed in the U.S.  Afterward, the White House issued a terse statement: “The President approved the judgment of the military commission …,” which the U.S. Supreme Court had also approved.

A din of warplanes overhead was an East End wartime daily routine. The immense Grumman facility in Calverton — at which many people from both forks worked — during the war test-flew the amazing number of Navy planes it made, mostly east out to the Atlantic and L.I. Sound to avoid more populated lands up-west. These included 12,275 Hellcat and 7,722 Wildcat fighters, and 9,837 Avenger torpedo bombers.

But the sound of a large, four-engine B-24 bomber late on Wednesday evening, December 27, 1944, caught the attention of people on the ground, some sitting around Christmas trees. One, it was flying low over the center of the twin forks. Two, it was flying in a dense snowstorm.  And, three, one of its engines was heard to be malfunctioning. The plane crashed and exploded into flames in a farm field in Laurel next to Aldrich Lane, south of Sound Avenue, killing all ten of its crew. The explosion was so violent that it threw plane fragments, and human body parts, over a 500-foot area.

When the war officially ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, the celebration in the U.S. was muted, because fighting still raged on in Asia. In fact, each day Americans, between listening to great swing music, like Tommy Dorsey’s wild “Well Git It!” on the radio, and sad war ballads, like Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” heard news accounts of the battle at Okinawa, which had begun on April 1 and was to last until June 22, killing 6, 821 Americans and wounding 19,217. So in May, East Enders went back to their lives, with anxiety about their loved ones among the more than 14 million American service members — more than one in ten of the entire U.S. population — still at risk. And back to rationed food. People out here, like all Americans, had food-rationing books — their stamps, required to buy food, sporting pictures of tanks and warplanes. (I still have two of my books.)  And rationed gasoline, for people’s aging cars — the U.S. did not make any cars for the general civilian market during the war. Finally, celebrations broke out here when Japan surrendered on August 14, but not before the war cost 405,399 U.S. dead and 1,076,245 wounded, at a time when the American population totaled only 132 million, according to the 1940 census. Was it worth it? When you have some time in quiet, imagine a world in which the Nazis and Japanese militarists had won.

RICHARD GAMBINO salutes all Americans who served in World War II, and all those who kept faith with them at home.

Veterans Day, Sag Harbor, 2008

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