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Memories of War: Local veterans share stories

May 31, 2010
By AMANDA WHISTLE, The Leader-Herald

As 1st Lt. Paul Valachovic stood in his U.S. Army Air Corps uniform outside Johnstown High School after the Memorial Day program Friday night, quietly talking about his service during World War II, a young soldier in fatigues approached him, stood at attention, and saluted him.

"Thank you for all you've done," he told Valachovic. Valachovic returned the salute, and the soldier stood at ease.

Though Valachovic, 88, knows what it's like to fly in a B-24 over enemy territory while getting shot at - what it is like to watch a fellow serviceman die - he speaks humbly.

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World War II?veteran William Galpin of Meco, at right, is shown with Paul White of Mayfield, who accompanied Galpin on a recent Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.

"The price of freedom is the loss of fellow soldiers," he said. "They all call us heroes, but we're not all heroes. We all just loved our country and we stood for it."

Valachovic remembered the story of a colonel named Vance. He didn't give the man's first name.

"Vance was on a return mission. His plane didn't make it and went down in the English Channel. Almost all the crew got out, and the colonel got out with an injured leg. But the nose gunner was stuck. He went back in to get the nose gunner out - swam with a lousy leg," Valachovic said.

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Vance was in the hospital after that, but he was killed when another flight he was on crashed, Valachovic said.

"Now, he was a hero. He saved that kid's life."

Many perils of war

Staff Sgt. Antonio "Tony" Ambrosino, of Gloversville, has the same humble demeanor, saying he and the rest of the "Greatest Generation" just "did what we had to do."

Ambrosino, 92, joined the U.S. Army on March 7, 1941. He was chosen to serve as a medic in the Medical Combat 51st Signal Battalion. He sailed to Africa after he married his wife, Lillian.

Ambrosino came to the Army without medical training or a high school diploma. He was trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., then was shipped to Africa and eventually to Italy.

On Friday, he flipped through a scrapbook filled with photos from wartime to recent times, such as the day he was presented his Bronze Star in 2002. He talked about all the dangers soldiers faced daily, not just from the enemy, but also from accidents and diseases.

"I'll tell you what really burns me up," he said. "Just before [we were leaving for] the invasion of Sicily, a staff sergeant came over with a 104-degree fever. He said, 'I feel awful sick,' and they were ready to put him on a boat. I said, 'I don't think you should transfer him.' They said, 'We have to take him with us. We're short of men.' Well, when I got to Italy I got the report on him. He died. I think he had typhoid fever. I was mad. They had no reason to take him," Ambrosino said.

He said he was reluctant at first to share his stories with a reporter, but he was convinced by his family that these are stories that need to be shared with younger generations.

"I didn't want anyone to think that my experience was more important than anybody else's," he said. "It's hard to handle that stuff. It's hard to bring it up. The heroes are the ones who gave their lives. You don't hear them because they're gone."

Danger at sea

For 3rd Motor Machinist's Mate William Galpin, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, going into the service was something he did for his "family and country."

His father served in World War I, and later his son volunteered to go to Vietnam, he said in an interview at his home in Meco on Saturday.

He served on the USS Independence and then the USS Gambier Bay.

"All of the people I knew who died got buried at sea," he said. "There are no names [gravestones] out there."

He said he remembered planes that took off from the carrier and never made it, as they went down "in the drink," he said. "You'd hear an explosion."

Galpin, 85, was 17 years old when he volunteered to enlist in the Navy.

"I had a lot of lucky breaks," he said.

Galpin was on the Independence when the Japanese hit it with about five or six torpedoes, he said.

"They told us that. They told us about two [torpedoes] went off," he said.

The day before the strike, he was transferred to the second deck from the engine room, which completely flooded, killing some men. He said he remembered standing in water up to his neck.

"I remember the chaplain said, 'We're going to get you out of here, but first we're going to say a little prayer.' And let me tell you, there wasn't a dry eye," he said. "Don't let anybody ever tell you they weren't scared because we were."

The U.S.S. Gambier Bay was sunk by a Japanese fleet 19 days after he transferred off of it, Galpin said.

He said they couldn't play TAPS at sea to honor their dead because the sound carried over the sea and could be heard by enemy ships.

"I'm not the only one out there. There's lots of stories like that," he said.

'Victory Division'

Staff Sgt. Milton P. "Sarge" Hart, 85, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 when he was 18 years old.

Hart went to basic training in Macon, Ga., and later shipped out from the California coast with the 24th Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Victory Division," which was the first to fight in the Pacific and the last to leave.

"I'd hardly ever been off the farm before," said Hart, a lifelong Mayfield resident.

"They dropped the bomb and that saved my life. I always said Harry [Truman] saved my life," Hart said. "I don't think we'd have ever made it out otherwise."

Two of Hart's hometown friends served in the 24th Division with him. All three made it home, which was probably against the odds, said Hart's son Phlan Hart, who lives in Mayfield and owns Hart's Towing.

Hart and his wife, Carol, said they made it a point to teach their three children, who are adults now, what their grandfather lived through.

"It's recognition of those who have served the country and lost their lives," Carol Hart said. She said she didn't have a World War II veteran in her family, but she is thankful she can share that with her husband.

"I have a lot of respect for him. They had thousands a day dying over there," Phlan said. "We never miss a [Memorial Day] parade. It's very important that these kids and grandkids know what that generation did for us."

Honor Flights

Valachovic, Ambrosino, Galpin and Hart traveled to Washington D.C. earlier in the month with the Leatherstocking Honor Flight group.

The not-for-profit Honor Flight Network uses donations and enlists the help of volunteers to fly World War II veterans from around the United States to the nation's capital, specifically the National World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

The World War II memorial was opened to the public April 29, 2004. Prior to that, there was no national memorial for veterans of that war.

The minimum age of veterans on the flight, which included about 55 veterans from the region, was 83, said Bonnie Peters, a Mayfield resident. Peters helped several of the area veterans sign up for the program after she said she developed a passion for giving veterans recognition.

"A lot of people don't realize what they did," she said. "Spending the day talking to these guys was just unbelievable."

The veterans fly for free. Guardians accompany them at their own expense.

Applications to participate in an Honor Flight are available at the Veterans Affairs office in Gloversville or from the Fulton County Office for the Aging in Johnstown.

To donate to the program, send a check to Leatherstocking Honor Flights P.O. BOX 621 Cobleskill, NY 12043.

For more information about the program, visit the Honor Flight Network website at www.honorflight.org.

Amanda Whistle can be reached by e-mail at montco@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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