Remembering WWII 70 years later

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Robert Friedman

Frances Lynch, 92, enlisted in WWII as a Navy WAVE at the age of 21, against her parents’ wishes. She served for five years.
Photo by Christopher Myers

On Dec. 7, 1941, Tech Sgt. Joseph Pesek of the 5th Bomber Group was waiting outside the Pearl Harbor Naval Station for a bus to take him to Honolulu, where he was going to play some rounds at the Wai Lai Golf Course.

While sitting on a bench, Pesek noticed a great number of planes approaching the naval station. “At first, I thought they were preceding our aircraft carriers coming into port, as I had seen in the past,” said Pesek. “Then the planes started peeling off in steep dives. I saw the Rising Sun emblems on the wings and realized they were Japanese planes.

“A large, torpedo-shaped bomb dropped from the first plane, followed by a huge explosion. Others followed, and the sky went black.”

Pesek rushed back to his barracks. The United States was at war.

Four and half years later, in August 1945, Army Air Force Col. Fred Holdrege was scheduled to fly a B-29 Super Fortress from March Field, Calif., in a training exercise for the invasion of Japan.

A little before takeoff, Holdrege — who previously had headed a squadron of B-24 pilots on bombing missions over Germany — learned that the Japanese had surrendered. When he got the news, he felt “very relieved.”

Instead, he took the B-29 on a sightseeing trip over the Grand Canyon, which he had never seen before.

Howard County residents Holdredge and Pesek are among the some 1 million surviving U.S. veterans of the more than 16 million who served during World War II. More than 400,000 service members lost their lives in the war and over 670,000 were wounded.

On August 14, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of VJ (Victory in Japan) Day, when the world learned of the Japanese surrender. It seems an appropriate time to interview several local veterans of the war and to share their stories.

70 years since WWII’s end

At 97 years of age, Holdredge — a native of Wyoming who now lives at the Heartland Senior Living Village in Ellicott City — remembers fairly easily the salient details of his military life, which extended from 1936, when he enlisted, to his retirement in 1970.

A West Point graduate, his career could be divided into two phases: a decorated combat veteran (two distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, the Croix de Guerre, among other medals) and, later, as a military psychologist.

Holdrege noted that during the first phase, he flew 30 bombing missions over both Germany and occupied France — including a raid on Berlin where two planes in his squadron were shot down and, on another mission, an 88-mm anti-aircraft round went through the bomb bay of the plane he was piloting.

 When asked if the round exploded in the plane, he replied, “If it did, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”

Holdrege flew still another bombing mission during the Korean “conflict.” The Air Force then sent him to Ohio State University, where he earned a doctorate. He then served as a military psychologist from 1953 until his retirement 17 years later. He went on to become the first department head of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

Holdrege, a recent widower who was married for 67 years, was asked whether he was glad to have devoted so many of his adult years to the military.

In understated sincerity, he replied, “It was worthwhile doing a job for my country, both during the war and after.”

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor survivor Pesek, also 97, said in a recent interview that while he tries not to remember the day that President Franklin Roosevelt said “will live in infamy,” it never leaves his mind. “I still think of friends who didn’t make it” on that day.

After reaching the Hicam Field barracks, he and a friend, Joe Barrett, had to hit the ground several times to avoid bombs as they ran across the parade grounds to a line of hangars.

On their way, “We ran into Dave Jacobson and three other guys trying to set up an old World War I water-cooled machine gun,” he said. He and his friend helped them put up the tripod to hold the gun.

Shortly after Pesek and Barrett left, they learned that “Dave and his crew took a direct hit that blew them to bits.” The only way they identified Jacobson, said Pesek, was “by finding a section of Dave’s finger with his ring still in place.”

“I believe had there not been a lull in the strafing, we would have stayed right there [with them]. But I guess it was not to be.”

Pesek, who was raised in Auburn, N.Y., enlisted in 1939. “The people I talked to at the gas station where I worked, many who were World War I vets, all said there was another war coming on and I figured I might as well join up.”

 On VJ Day, Pesek was in China with the famous Flying Tigers air combat unit. “We all knew about the atom bomb being dropped [a few days before] and that the war would soon end. We were happy when it was all over,” he remembered 70 years later.

Pesek retired from the Air Force in 1960, as a lieutenant colonel. Like Holdredge, he resides at the Heartland facility in Ellicott City, where he lives with Georgiana, his wife of 69 years.

Joining the Navy WAVES

Francis Lynch had to wait until 1944, when she reached her 21st birthday, to join up as a Navy WAVE. She was raring to go when the war started — but at the time, she needed the signature of her parents and they did not want her going into the military.

“They couldn’t quite understand that [enlisting] was very important to me,” said Lynch, who is 92 and lives at the Vantage House retirement community in Columbia. “I wanted to join for patriotic reasons,” she said, noting that the women who joined the service (there were approximately 400,000 of them) freed the men from desk jobs to fight the enemy.

Lynch served from 1944 to 1949, becoming a yeoman first class while doing clerical and secretarial work at the Navy base in Cape May, N.J. Soon after her enlistment, her parents came around to realizing she was doing important work. “They were very proud of me.”

She recalled VJ Day at the base and in the surrounding communities when “mothers came out of their houses, hugging one another and crying, knowing their children would be coming back home. It was a wonderful scene.”

Her five years spent as a WAVE “was an experience that shaped my life and made me a better citizen,” said Lynch, a New Jersey native and the mother of four.

“Women proved during the war that they could handle so many jobs that previously only men were allowed to do. I was privileged to serve my country,” she said.

A meeting with Patton

Donald Eddy, 91, another Heartlands resident who took part in the Second World War, was born and raised near Morgantown, W.V. Serving from 1943 to 1946, Eddy saw action as part of the 94th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge.

That well-known battle took place in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, where the German Army made a last ditch offensive in the last days of December 1944 and the beginning of January 1945. They both inflicted and suffered heavy casualties, holding the Allies at bay for several weeks before retreating to their own country, then surrendering in May 1945.  

After the battle, Eddy was in Dusseldorf, where he was wounded when a rock bounced under the back of his helmeted head during a German “screaming Mimi” rocket attack. He was taken to a nearby hospital.

The 94th Infantry was part of the U.S. 3rd Army, which happened to be commanded by Gen. George Patton. One day, Eddy recalled, “I see sitting on the side of my bed this guy who looks like Gen. Patton. He asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’”

“I answered him: ‘I got hit in the head with a rock.’”

“He asked: ‘Are you doing OK?’”

“I said, ‘So far.’”

“He looked at my wound, which wasn’t really bad, then said, ‘Well, Mr. Eddy, no Purple Heart for you.’

“I told him, “I didn’t come over here to get one.’”

Eddy said that Patton also denied to him (and others) the report that he had slapped two soldiers suffering from “shell shock” during previous hospital visits. The incidents, however, were well-documented and led then-Army Chief in Europe Dwight Eisenhower to order the fierce fighting general to apologize to the two soldiers and to the hospital staffs, which he reportedly did, reluctantly.

Prisoner of war

Sam Dalfonso, 92, a WWII vet from Baltimore, was drafted into the Army in 1943. Among his indelible memories of the time were the six months he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany.

Dalfonso shipped out to the European theater in December, 1944, six months after the D-Day invasion of Europe. He was a private in the 84th Infantry Division, which fought along the Siegfried Line — a principal German defense fortification that stretched more than 390 miles from the Netherlands down to the German border with Switzerland. It was equipped with over 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps.

“While we were in this small German town we had captured near the line, German tanks rolled back in at three in the morning and captured 32 of us,” Dalfonso recalled.

“We were put into a box car, the same type used to transport concentration camp victims, and spent five days in there being taken to a POW camp, Stalag II-A, near New Brandenburg.”

Dalfonso spent his time in the camp on a work gang fixing railroad tracks (a considerable irony as he later had a civilian career with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Amtrak). The prisoners were fed morsels of black bread (one loaf divided among seven) and “soup that tasted like it was made from horse meat.”

The German guards more or less knew they were losing the war, so the Americans were not treated harshly, said Dalfonso. However, when a Jewish prisoner was not returned from work detail one day, Dalfonso said, other POWs reminded the Nazi guards that “one day the war would end and you will be held accountable.” The Jewish GI was returned to his companions shortly afterwards.

Dalfonso noted that as the Russians were advancing close to the camp, the German guards left the gate open for the POWs to take off, “which, rather than be with the Russians, some of us did.”

He and his fellow escapees walked through heavily wooded areas for five days before coming in contact with a British tank corps. They were taken to British headquarters, then turned over to American forces and shipped back to the states.

Sometime during that period, the Germans surrendered. Dalfonso doesn’t remember what he was doing that day. But he said he will always remember his overall two years, nine months in the Army, including ample time in combat, of which he would rather not speak.   

“I’ll never forget those years,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to forget them.”