Martin C. Evans

Posts Tagged ‘WWII veterans’

A Last Pearl Harbor Survivor, 93, Dies

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2011 at 8:28 am

Bill Halloran survived Pearl Harbor

Until his last hours, Bill Halleran, a craggy-faced survivor of the devastating Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, worked to keep alive the memory of one of history’s most pivotal moments.

But not long before he was to participate in a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack, Halleran, 93, suffered a massive stroke early this week and never recovered, according to Rev. Ann Morgan, pastor of the Merrick United Methodist Church. He died just before noon Friday at Nassau University Medical Center, Morgan said.

Halleran, who was aboard the USS Phoenix on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, had a clear view of the battleship Arizona as it’s sinking swallowed 1,177 crew members. In total, the surprise attack – Japan had not declared war on the United States – killed more than 2,400 Americans, and galvanized American resolve to become the world’s leading power.

“I was with the executive officer when I heard the first explosion,” recalled Halleran, of North Merrick. “I said, ‘Hell, this is the real thing. We’re at war.'”

“All you could see were flames and smoke,” Halleran told Newsday last week.

Halleran said he became so involved in trying to prepare the Phoenix for battle – including manually hauling heavy belts of ammunition from several decks below after the ship lost electrical power – that he had no time to locate his brother, Charlie, a fellow crew member who was stationed near the bow. His brother survived the attack – the two shared a hasty soup lunch later that day – and lived until three years ago.

Halleran became determined that America should never forget the surprise attack, and helped organize a Long Island chapter of a Pearl Harbor survivors organization. He said last week he was one of only three members left.

He had planned to attend a 70th anniversary commemoration at the Airpower Museum in Farmingdale on Wednesday.

But when the ceremony began, his chair was empty.

Halleran, who remained vigorous until his last days, was involved in local Veterans of Foreign War and American Legion activities, and had been a member of the North Merrick Fire Department.

A wake will be held today, from 7-9 p.m. and tomorrow, 2-4 and 7-9, at Walker Funeral Home, in Merrick. His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at Merrick United Methodist Church, in Merrick, N.Y., said Morgan, who said he will be buried at Calverton National Cemetery, in Calverton, N.Y.

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William Wheeler, Tuskegee Airman, Dies

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2011 at 12:22 pm

[Update: Funeral arrangements, set for July 29, may be found here]

When William M. Wheeler was a sophomore at Howard University in 1943, he swallowed his racial hurt, boarded a segregated train in Washington, D.C. and headed south.

Ahead of him awaited a groundbreaking aviation program that would eventually train the 994 black pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Wheeler, 87, who died of heart failure early Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. would become one of them.

William Wheeler, at the 2010 funeral of fellow Tuskegee flier Spann Watson

“I hated the country at the time, and wasn’t sure I wanted to fight for it,” Wheeler, a 47-year Hempstead N.Y. resident, said in 2010. “But I realized that despite our nation’s injustices, even slaves had fought for this country and that black people had fought in every U.S. war since. I felt I couldn’t let that tradition down.”

As word of his death spread Tuesday, Wheeler was praised for his work to preserve the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were mostly forgotten by history until about 20 years ago. In the last years of his life, Wheeler frequently participated in oral history projects, traveling to schools, air shows and aviation museums across the country to tell the story of the black fliers.

“He understood the role of living history, and as a result, his inexhaustible energy saw him in classrooms, assemblies and constantly at Airpower,” said Gary Lewi, a spokesman for the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, where Williams frequently participated in historic programs.

He was born in Detroit on Aug. 20, 1923, the second of four children of Ada and Leon “Toy” Wheeler. His father, who is credited as Detroit’s first black recreation employee, ran the Brewster Recreation Center – later renamed Brewster Wheeler in Leon Wheeler’s honor. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson learned boxing there during his tenure.

His father’s job shielded the family from economic hardship, but not from the racial animosity directed at the city’s growing population of black southern migrants. Wheeler said the murder of a friend by a white mob helped persuade him to leave Detroit and attend Howard University.

While Wheeler was at Howard, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to end the military’s refusal to train black pilots. With the eyes of the world watching in 1941, the Army began an all-black flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama.

Wheeler took an aptitude test, scored well, and in 1943 went to Washington’s Union Station to catch a train south.

He was surprised to find that the coaches were segregated, and blacks were restricted to seats behind the train’s sooty engine and coal car. “I tell people that when I left Washington I was brown, but by the time I got to Keesler Field, I was black, as were all of my possessions,” Wheeler told Newsday in July, 2010.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 12, 1944 – with Tuskegee’s 44C cadet class – he was assigned to Walterboro Army Airfield, in South Carolina. He received additional aerial training there from Tuskegee graduates who had already flown in combat, including Spann Watson. Watson, a longtime Westbury resident, died last year.

Black pilots who flew to liberate Europe during WWII were forced to train and fly in segregated units. (photo: Library of Congress)


He was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, in Ramitelli, Italy, and flew strafing and bomber escort missions over Europe. But his combat career was cut short on his his sixth mission when a respiratory ailment caused him to black out at 36,000 feet. His P-51 dove more than five miles before he regained consciousness.

After his honorable discharge in 1945, he met Minnie Jenkens, an 18-year-old high school student, on a Harlem street corner. Two months later, they were married.

“I was engaged to someone in Detroit at the time, but when I met Minnie, I knew that was over,” said Wheeler, whose marriage endured until her death in a 2004 pedestrian accident. “She was the love of my life.”

After the war, the rapidly-expanding commercial airline industry began snapping up military pilots, who were among the best-trained, most cool-headed fliers in the world. But none of the Tuskegee aviators were hired. (Airlines did not begin hiring blacks until 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that Continental Airlines’ refusal to hire Air Force veteran Marlon D. Green, a black pilot with nine years of experience, was discriminatory. Last year, Continental named its newest Boeing 737 in honor of Green, who died in 2009.)

Undaunted by the airlines’ rejections, Wheeler completed night classes at the New School for Social Research, started a family that would include three children, and worked in both the publishing and aircraft industries. He retired in 1990 as an administrator with National Westminster Bank.

Survivors include three children: Scott Wheeler, of Emeryville, Ca., Derek Wheeler, of Riverdale, and Cameron Wheeler, of Yonkers.

Asked in July, 2010 how he would like to be remembered, Wheeler said he was happy to have lived to see the long-ignored achievements of the Tuskegee pilots win societal recognition. In 2007, he was in attendance when President George W. Bush collectively presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian award.

“I would just want to be recognized as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots to fly for Uncle Sam,” Wheeler said. “We had a proud record, and eventually we were deemed to be heroes.”

After Making History, Left Behind

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

By Martin C. Evans, Newsday, March 27 – When you see him around town, it is hard to distinguish Lee Hayes from the many retired black Long Island farm workers who came up from the South to find work, then toiled all their lives to keep their families fed.

Though he lived mostly in obscurity, Lee Hayes once was among America's best. Newsday photo by J. Conrad Williams

You can find him most days at a local senior citizen center, where $2.50 hot lunches stretch the Social Security check that accounts for most of his income. Sometimes, you can spot him in front of the down-at-the-heels home he shares with his daughter outside of East Hampton, where wild turkeys cut across his front yard.

Hayes, 88, has never had much. Over the years, he has picked potatoes on East End farms, hauled glistening slabs while working at an ice house, pushed mops at Brookhaven National Laboratory and sold life insurance. When an injury forced him to retire at nearly 80, he was still framing houses on construction crews.

But the soft-spoken, bespectacled man once was among the most skilled aviators in America.

Hayes, still hale despite years of physical work, is one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen — 996 black men who broke the military’s color bar when they were commissioned as pilots during and immediately after World War II.

Lee Hayes, second from left on top row, in a photo taken around the end of World War II.

Beginning in 1943, he apprenticed at airfields across the South, first winning certification as a bombardier before being sent to an experimental program for black aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He won his certification as a bomber pilot in January 1946, five months after the war’s end.

“I got so good I could drop a bomb into a trash can from 1,000 feet,” said Hayes, who said he once persuaded a Tuskegee instructor to give him the controls when a stiff crosswind kept scuttling the instructor’s attempts to land.

But the arc of Hayes’ life, which in his childhood had been shaped by the Jim Crow South, would also be deflected by discrimination on Long Island.

Until he came to New York in 1930, when he was 8, he and his family had lived in a Virginia hamlet still strewn with the rubble of slavery. Hayes was born in Mannboro, Va., in 1922, just 57 years and 50 miles from where Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War. Life had been strictly segregated as he was growing up.

“The school bus would go by with the white kids in it, and we would be walking,” said Hayes, who said heavy rains or winter storms would often force him to skip school altogether. “We would have to wade through streams and cut through the woods to get to school — it was five or six miles — and we would spend more time walking than we would spend in class.”

When the sawmill where Hayes’ father worked closed during the Depression, an uncle who had moved to Long Island years earlier found his father work in an East Hampton dairy, and the family moved north.

In doing so, they joined what became known as the Great Migration of 1910-30, during which 2 million blacks fled poverty and racial discrimination in the South in search of opportunities in the North. Many of these black migrants boosted their prospects by honing technical skills in factories or in the military.

Interviewed at his home earlier this month, Hayes he thought the improved schooling he received on Long Island and his technical training as an Army pilot would propel him into America’s postwar middle class. But although white World War II veterans typically were able to find good-paying work quickly on the Island, even after serving as an Army pilot Hayes found his life remained circumscribed by the color of his skin.

The fast-growing commercial airlines hired thousands of pilots in the decade after the war. But all of the Tuskegee pilots who applied — Hayes included — were turned away.

“After the war, we all put in applications with the airlines, but none of us got called,” said Hayes, who in the Army flew B-25s with the all-black 477th Bombardment Group. “I thought I had an advantage because I could really fly, that the airlines or some outfit would give me a job because I was good at it,” he added. “I was all over looking for work, but nobody would hire me.”

Blocked by discrimination from buying a house in East Hampton after his 1946 discharge, he bought a plot of land outside of town with $300 saved from Army pay. When a bank refused him a construction loan, he deeded his property to a lumber company as collateral, and with the help of relatives built the house he lives in today.

By 1948, he had married a Harlem woman, Marion Jones, who had come to Amagansett to work in a restaurant. He enrolled at what is now Farmingdale State College, hoping that a certificate in aircraft maintenance would improve his prospects with the airlines.

When it did not, he resigned himself to finding what work he could. He said he once was so disappointed over being passed over for promotions he felt he deserved at Brookhaven that he quit his janitor’s job after about five years. But he said he tried never to let disappointment over the lack of job opportunities get the better of him.

Lee Archer Hayes

“You don’t have time to feel bitter,” Hayes said. “You just try to figure out what to do next. You can’t give up.”

He said he finds much to be positive about. He and his wife, who died in 1985, raised a daughter who went to college, and a son who opened a moving business. He once encountered a black airline pilot who, upon learning of Hayes’ background, credited the Tuskegee fliers with inspiring him to seek an aviation career.

“That made me feel real good,” Hayes said, “knowing that someone else had advanced because of the sacrifices we made.”

Spann Watson, Tuskegee Airman, Dead at 93

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Spann Watson August 14, 1916 - April 15, 2010

Services  for Spann Watson, who helped break the color bar in the military as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, then used his position as an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration to agitate for integration among commercial airline crews, are being planned for this week on Long Island, and later at Arlington, Va.

Watson, an affable but determined man who lived in Westbury, NY, died April 15 of complications of pneumonia at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. He was 93.

“He was unwavering in discipline and unwavering in love,” the youngest of his five children, Weyman Watson, of South Orange N.J., told Newsday. “You got both, whether you wanted it or not.”

A South Carolina native, whose family moved to New Jersey after a neighbor was lynched when he was 10, Watson’s path to a military cockpit was a difficult one.

He had earned a pilots license in the late 1930s while studying mechanical engineering at Howard University. That meant with war raging in Europe, he was one of only a few thousand Americans who knew how to fly.

But in 1940 an Army recruiter at Long Island’s Mitchel Field rejected him, saying, correctly, that the Army didn’t allow black pilots.

In a Newsday interview on his 90th birthday, Watson said he got back into his mother’s Buick Special and drove to his New Jersey home with the radio dialed to “The Make Believe Ballroom,” a popular dance music program.

“I cursed all the way to the Triborough Bridge, listening to Benny Goodman do ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ ” said Watson, who still had the Army’s rejection letter. “And I promised I would never give up.”

Things turned in his favor the next year, when pressure by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forced the War Department to set up an Army program that opened pilot training to black men.

Watson was in the fourth class of cadets in the program based at Tuskegee Army Air Field – only a dozen other Tuskegee pilots had their wings before his cadet class graduated in July, 1942 – and he went on to fly combat missions over North Africa and Europe.

While at Tuskegee, he met Edna Webster, a civilian employee at the airfield, and they were married on Dec. 17, 1943.

Watson often said it was an administrative snafu that led to his early return to the United States, setting in motion his role as an organizer of the Tuskegee Airmen. With his wartime service in Europe over, Watson helped to train other black Army pilots at Tuskegee and at Walterboro, S.C.

Doing so, he became familiar with almost all of the roughly 1,000 pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program – highly trained fliers who after the war were barred by racial discrimination from getting jobs in the commercial airline industry.

On April 6, 1945, 10 years before Rosa Parks sparked the Birmingham bus boycott, Watson was one of 58 black pilots voluntarily arrested for entering a “whites only” officers club at an Army base in Indiana. The incident, known as the Freeman Field Mutiny is credited with hastening the end of segregation in the military.

Watson said when he retired from the military in 1965 to become an affirmative action specialist for the FAA, he made the integration of commercial cockpits a priority.

In the past two decades he crisscrossed the country for speaking engagements and air-show visits to bring the all-black flight program – which had been virtually ignored by history – into the American consciousness. In 1997, Congress honored graduates of the Tuskegee program with the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian award.

For his 90th birthday celebration, several black airline employees traveled from as far away as Denver to attend, saying without his advocacy, their careers might never have gotten off the ground.

Watson, who at 92 traveled to Washington to attend an inaugural ball hosted by President Barack Obama, said his helping pave the way for others was among his life’s most satisfying accomplishments.

“I’ve done so much I’m proud of,” Watson said. “That’s the real reward.”

In addition to his wife and son, Watson is survived by another son, Spann Marlowe Watson, of Silver Spring, Md., and daughters Cynthia Hopson, of Bratenahl, Ohio and Dianne Capers, of Hempstead. Another son, Capt. Orrin Watson, an Air Force flier, died in 1981.

A burial is being planned for Arlington National Cemetery following a funeral at the adjacent Old Post Chapel, in Virginia, but no date has been set. Viewings this week will be held on Long Island at Donohue-Cecere Funeral Home, 290 Post Ave., Westbury. Times are 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, and 2-4 p.m Wednesday. A brief ceremony will be held 7-9 p.m. Wednesday.

69th Infantry Regiment honors one of its 7 Medal of Honor Recipients

In Uncategorized on January 20, 2010 at 12:59 am

Alejandro Ruiz, with his blue-ribboned Medal of Honor. (Photo: LA Times)

One desperate day in the final months of World War II, a soldier affiliated with the “Fighting 69th” twice charged an array of enemy pillboxes in an Okinawa battle, earning him the nation’s highest military honor.

Now, members of the New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment are honoring the solder, Alejandro R. Ruiz, who died of congestive heart failure Nov. 23 in Napa, California. A Washington Post obituary appears here.

Ruiz’s Medal of Honor is one of seven held by members of 69th Infantry Regiment, a storied unit once dubbed “The Irish Brigade” that has served in every major U.S. conflict dating back to the Civil War.

Lieutenant Colonel John Andonie, from Clifton Park, N.Y., and his senior enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge Vasquez from Jackson Heights, N.Y. will travel to Calif. this weekend to meet with the Ruiz family and present honors at Ruiz’ grave, according to a National Guard release.

The ceremony will be held in conjunction with the Veterans Home at Yountville, California, a Napa Valley facility where Ruiz lived his final years.

Ruiz, the son of a Mexican immigrant, joined the army in 1944 after being accused of stealing a cow in his native New Mexico. A judge offered the choice of jail or the Army.

Ruiz chose the Army. He was assigned to the 165th Infantry Regiment, the wartime designation of the 69th Infantry.

On April 28, 1945, Pfc. Ruiz was with a patrol seeking remnants of a Japanese battalion hiding in fortified emplacements on steep ridges near the Okinawan  village of Gasukuma.

During an ambush that killed all but himself and his squad leader, Ruiz charged at a row of pillboxes that had his squad pinned down, eventually reaching the bunkers and silencing their gunfire.

He stayed in the Army after the war, retiring as a Master Sergeant in 1964.

Vet gets overdue $$$ from WWII hearing loss

In Uncategorized on January 9, 2010 at 7:09 pm

It has been a long time coming, but a WWII vet will be getting a fat check for injuries he suffered a lifetime ago.

Vincent Busciolano, 88, of Greenlawn, will receive $89,349 in back payments related to injuries to his ears he suffered serving in the Navy in 1944 and 1945, thanks to the intervention of a member of Congress.

Busciolano first realized he was losing his hearing while serving near aircraft in the Solomon Islands as part of a Special Task Group. He has suffered profound hearing loss ever since.

“I went to the dispensary and they forced warm water into my ears,” he said. “But nothing worked.”

He first sought compensation for a service-connected disability in 1946, one year after the war ended. But his application was rejected then, and later inquiries were similarly rebuffed.

He came home, found various jobs, and got on with his life. “My wife told me to forget about it,” he said.

Delayed benefits has for years been a problem for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2008, Newsday reported that the VA’s New York regional office was the second-slowest in the nation at processing claims, and that workers there were faking data to make it appear claims were being processed on time.

Last September, an inspector general’s audit of VA regional offices found that “inefficient (VA) workload management” caused 12,000 veterans’ benefits claims to be delayed an average of nearly 15 months.

And just last week, the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” reported that as many as one in four benefits case files managed by the VA included errors.

Busciolano’s trip through the bureaucratic hall of mirrors finally ended when a neighbor told him that constituent services workers associated with members of Congress are sometimes good at cutting red tape. Busciolano got in touch with an aide in the office of Rep. Steve Israel.

It worked.

Israel presented Busciolano the $89,349 check this morning, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1469, in Huntington.

Nassau vets chief ousted

In Veterans services on January 1, 2010 at 6:54 pm

The director of the Nassau County Veterans Services Agency is out after 8 years, and he’s not happy. Neither are the leaders of several vets groups.

Ed Aulman

Incoming Nassau Executive Edward Mangano sent director Ed Aulman packing effective Jan. 31 without indicating who would take leadership of the agency’s 7-member staff. Mangano, a Republican who narrowly edged Democrat Tom Suozzi  in November, apparently wants his own guy. (See Newsday article, subscription required.)

“It was a bit of a surprise,” Aulman told me. “I don’t know why they felt they had to do without me, especially since there is no replacement yet. Without a replacement, I think the agency will kind of drift along.”

Aulman’s deputy, Pat Yngstrom, who was not among the roughly 150 political appointees ousted by Mangano throughout county government, is said to be a possible replacement. Yngstrom served as director under former county executive Tom Gulotta, a Republican, from 2001 until Suozzi took office in 2002.

Mangano forced out Aulman even though United Veterans Organization of Nassau, a collection of 31 veterans groups, sent Mangano a letter urging that he keep the leadership of the agency intact, according to past president Tom Riley.

“He didn’t listen,” Riley said. “It’s political. That’s the game when a new man comes in.”

James Stasio, president of the Nassau chapter of the 1st Marine Division Association, denounced the firing, saying Aulman had been a galvanizing force for veterans in the country.

“I think it’s terrible, because he did a great job,” Stasio said.

Aulman cited increased staff training and his production of Veterans News, a monthly newsletter with information concerning veterans, as principal achievements during his tenure as director.

But the newsletter was often filled with announcements of wreath layings, senior citizens events, tributes and legislative breakfasts, and it struggled to connect with the tens of thousands of younger veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Aulman has been criticized for not being particularly creative or energetic in his advocacy for new veterans, whose need for services are made urgent by high rates of joblessness, homelessness, post traumatic stress disorder and other maladies, but who are often skittish about bureaucratic contact.

Aulman was a platoon leader during the Vietnam War, serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from 1967 to 1971. He later was active locally with the 1st Marine Association and the Marine Corps League.

Christmas, 1944

In Uncategorized on December 23, 2009 at 12:24 am

Christmas, 1944 was a hard season that brought success for GIs in WWII. Here, troops with the 101st Airborne Division march through Bastogne.

Ex-GIs who are now in their 80s and 90s sure have things to be thankful for this Christmas season. For one, they are pretty thankful that it is not 65 years ago.

They spent Christmas 1944 fighting awful battles, like The Bulge, in Belgium, or just encamped in rotten places like along the border with Germany.

“What’s Merry about all this, you ask?” General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division that year, wrote in his Christmas message to his troops. “We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home.”

Jack Del Monte, of Oceanside NY, was a 23-year-old corporal with the 191st Tank Battalion that Christmas. Temperatures in the Rhine River valley where his unit found itself then were so low that icicles would hang from the ceiling of his tank near where he slept inside.

Members of his unit were always looking for places where they could get in from the cold and the flying lead.

“We spent that Christmas Day in the cellar of a farmhouse,” said Del Monte, 88. “We found beer and wine in the cellar, so we had something to drink. But as Christmases go, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

But Christmas brought quite a gift to U.S. troops that year.

The U.S. 4th Armored Division broke through German lines that Dec. 26, rescuing U.S. troops who were surrounded but still holding the critical French town of Bastogne. It was a key element to victory at the Battle of the Bulge.