Librarian uncovers stories of school’s WWII dead
SCHENECTADY For decades, 28 names were given a place of honor at Oneida Middle School. But as the years passed, the details faded, and all that was remembered were the words on the plaque: that these 28 men, once students at Oneida, had died in World War II.
When the school was closed last year, a relative of a deceased soldier asked the school board to move the plaque to a new location. That got librarian Donna Phillips’ attention.
“That’s where I got kind of curious about the guys,” she said. “They’re just names to us.”
What she found were tales of heroism, each with a Schenectady man at the heart of the story.
In the Pacific, fighting on the Japanese islands. In planes, flying bombers and shooting down the enemy. On land, hunkered in foxholes in Europe and Africa.
At the time, news reports of their deaths rarely told the whole story. Generally all that was available was the date and location of the death, and occasionally the overall mission. Phillips found much more.
As a school librarian, Phillips did not begin her research with the details of the men’s military careers. She found photos of their elementary school plays and lists of students with perfect attendance. She looked up Boy Scout awards and traffic tickets and read through obituaries to find out where the men worked before they enlisted.
Then she dug into the last chapter of their lives.
One young man died in a blizzard, attempting to complete an audacious mission to liberate Norway from the Nazis.
First Lt. Leon Gilbert Dibble Jr. was the copilot on a B-24 Liberator. The Air Force mission: drop a special operations team in Norway under the cover of a blizzard to help organize resistance fighters.
It was part of the Carpetbagger missions, in which pilots dropped teams and supplies throughout occupied Europe. In each case, the B-24s were painted black and tried to slip into enemy airspace unnoticed.
A previous drop in Norway had been successful on March 24, and those team members gathered to pick up supplies and more fighters on April 7.
But in the heavy snow of the blizzard, the pilots flew into a mountain. Everyone died instantly.
They were so close to their drop zone that the other team heard the crash and used snowshoes to get to the plane that day, according to their report. They buried the men in a cave-in and held a short funeral on the desolate mountain. They even took a photograph of their gun salute in hopes of providing some comfort to the men’s families.
They didn’t find Dibble’s identification when they buried the bodies. They sent home every dog tag they found, along with their report and their photograph, and Dibble’s family in Schenectady was told that he was missing.
Air Force Maj. William Colby didn’t think that was right.
He wrote a letter from Norway asking the U.S. Army to make it clear that Dibble didn’t survive the crash, even though his dog tags weren’t found.
He explained that the plane had 12 men aboard, and 12 bodies were found. It wasn’t reasonable to expect that everyone’s dog tags could be located.
“The plane was broken into hundreds of pieces,” he wrote, adding that the wreck was covered with snow by the time his team got there.
In another letter, he continued to insist that Dibble’s family be told of his death.
“The two officers unidentified are: 1st Lt. Leon G. Dibble, Jr. …[and] First Officer Arthur H. Bardknecht.”
The War Department agreed, and finally sent Dibble’s family a telegram telling them of his death.
The Norwegians never forgot his sacrifice. After the war, they erected a monument in 1949 to all 12 men who died on that mission. Dibble’s father flew to Norway to attend the commemoration service.
The monument still stands today. Nearby, visitors can still see remnants of the crash.
According to National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, 25 B-24s were lost during the Carpetbagger missions. Most of them crashed into hills and mountains because the pilots were asked to sneak into enemy territory “in weather considered impossible for flying” and to fly low so they could drop supplies.
The missions were a secret, so Dibble’s family was initially only told that he had died “on a special Liberator mission against Norway.”
But it was far more than that. From January 1944 to May 1945, the Carpetbaggers dropped more than 1,000 special operations members and delivered more than 30,000 packages of supplies: radios, weapons, and even food and medicine.
And they did it with planes that were almost defenseless. The belly gun was removed to create a drop hole for supplies and parachutists, and the waist guns were replaced with blackout curtains, according to the National Museum of the Air Force.
Other Schenectadians fought in the Pacific, where many of them died in the months-long battle on Saipan. They fought in the 105th Infantry Division of the New York State National Guard.
Phillips was stunned by the number of deaths she found in that battle.
“The figures at Saipan were an eye-opener, because the casualties were just unreal,” she said. “I never really appreciated some of the reasons why [President Harry] Truman opted to use the atomic bombs, but he was looking at those numbers.”
The Japanese island was an important location for the Allies, who needed to build an airport near the Japanese mainland for bombing runs.
“It was definitely necessary,” said Jim Gandy, assistant librarian/archivist at the New York State Military Museum. “But it didn’t go exactly as planned.”
The battle lasted for three weeks, and it went badly from the start.
Saipan was heavily defended, and the Allies’ maps did not accurately show that the inner island was mountainous. There were hundreds of caves and valleys where Japanese soldiers could hide.
The Marines met little resistance as they advanced up the coast, but the guardsmen had to fight through entrenched positions in the mountainous area.
They were ambushed at cave after cave. Morale was low, especially after the guardsmen’s commander was relieved of duty by the Marines’ commander, who complained that the guardsmen were advancing too slowly.
A board later determined that the Army commander didn’t deserve to be relieved of command, and the battle is studied today as an example of poor communication.
According to the Army’s Command and General Staff School, the two commanders had “petty tactical differences” which were made far worse by the combat conditions.
Because of those differences, “casualties were materially increased,” the school decided in a study after the war.
But for the soldiers stuck in the middle of it, there wasn’t any way to resolve those problems. As more and more men were killed or badly wounded, morale fell further. Then the Japanese made their final stand.
Snipers snuck into caves and began to rain grenades down on two Guard battalions, made up of companies from Schenectady and Amsterdam.
Of the 1,100 men in the battalions, 918 were killed or wounded in that attack.
As casualties piled up, one sniper began to throw grenades at the regiment’s command post.
Sgt. Michael T. Esposito of Schenectady volunteered to take a patrol into the firing zone to stop the sniper.
He found the soldier hiding in a concrete cistern, throwing grenades so quickly that no one could get near him. Esposito’s patrol hunkered down to avoid getting hit.
According to the write-up for his Silver Star, Esposito decided the only way to stop the sniper would be to charge forward, through the grenades. So he did.
He was killed by one of the grenades, but his charge “so inspired the other men that they charged the position and killed the sniper,” according to Esposito’s award.
Esposito was buried on Saipan, but his body was disinterred in 1948 and brought home for burial. Dibble’s body was also returned to Schenectady after the war, as were the bodies of many of the men on the Oneida Middle School plaque.
There was even one man on the plaque who made it home alive.
Pfc. Walter Febbie served in the Marine Honor Guard in Guam. He came home, worked as a Scotia police officer for a decade, and then became an electrician for the U.S. Postal Service.
“How he ended up among the names on the Oneida commemorative plaque is a mystery,” Phillips said. “Neither he nor either of his two brothers in the military was wounded or killed during the war.”
He died in 1993.