Our Military: Four from 'Greatest Generation' share experiences with Niskayuna students
NISKAYUNA World War II veteran John Moehle recalled being on a ship bound for Japan in 1945 — the first wave of an invasion.
His command officers said the prospects were bleak after they hit the shore.
“They already came out and told us our life expectancy was just 3 1/2 minutes,” said Moehle, 87, of Scotia.
Then, there was an announcement over the ship’s loudspeaker: “This is the captain speaking. We just received word that Japan has surrendered,” he said.
“If you can imagine the pandemonium aboard that ship at that time. Thirteen days later we came into New York Harbor into the drizzling harbor and there wasn’t a dry eye on that ship — and it didn’t come from the rain — as we came by the Statue of Liberty.”
Moehle was one of four members of “The Greatest Generation” who shared their World War II experiences with eighth-grade American history students at Iroquois Middle School. Teacher Dennis Frank had invited them to talk to his social studies students as they finished up a unit about the war.
Agreement on bomb
As a member of the Army Air Force in 1945, Scotia resident Dick Gibbons was also preparing for a possible deployment with the Pacific fleet at that time.
Gibbons, now 87, had logged 2,000 hours patrolling the West Coast of the United States in B-24 bombers. However, the war ended before he shipped out. Following the war, he supervised a group of prisoners of war at Okinawa. He got into a discussion about whether the United States should have dropped the bomb.
“Almost to a man, they agreed that dropping the bomb on Japan was the best thing that ever happened for either one of our countries,” he said.
Had that not happened, the fighting would have continued and vast numbers of people would have been killed, according to Gibbons.
George Williams, 86, of Niskayuna, still fits into his uniform with the Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division. He had enlisted in 1943, went through basic training in January 1944 and then found himself on active duty about a month later. In March 1945, he was on the third-largest ocean liner going to Europe as a replacement soldier following the Battle of the Bulge.
“I found out that bullets go faster than the speed of sound,” he said. “You know the bombs are right over the top of you.”
“I do not have a Purple Heart. Thank goodness I didn’t get shot,” Williams added.
His company liberated the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, although he did not personally see the atrocity until after the war.
“I did go into the gas chamber and we did go into the crematoria and the bones were still there. They were from that corner all up to the ceiling,” he said, pointing to the wall.
William C. Rochelle Jr., 88, of Glenville, was in his freshmen year of college in 1942 when he enlisted in the Army Air Force. He went through extensive training, which shaped the young boys into men. “If you were smart, you learned very quickly that you better learn self-discipline,” he said.
Rochelle was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force and flew 31 missions over Germany. He said he only missed one target — because of the extreme wind sheer. The ordnance ended up hitting a previously unknown storage area. “In one sense we missed the target, but I probably hit another one that was far more valuable,” he said.
Rochelle recalled a mission on Christmas Day 1944. The commanders said it was going to be a day off because of the holiday but instead they went on a bombing mission on a gasoline facility in Germany. The facility had 1,000 guns positioned in circles every half-mile from the center of the target. There was no safe area.
“We brought half of our group out the other side and that was scary. That was gruesome,” he said. “In that mission, we had over 200 holes in our airplane when we got back.”
Found his sister
Moehle said his happiest memory was tracking down his older sister, who had enlisted in the Women’s Air Corps. After he landed in England four days before Christmas in 1944, he decided to try to find her with no address in London, which was blacked out because of bombing raids. He went to troop headquarters, who said that it was classified information.
He eventually found her in a London pub, where a lot of military personnel congregated. Moehle let out a whistle that his family used to get each other’s attention. She slowly turned her head and let out a scream when she saw her brother, causing her drink to go flying. “She came charging at me like a fullback on the New York Giants. All the time she’s saying, ‘My kid brother.’ We celebrated all that night,” he said. “Needless to say, we had a few more beverages — probably more than we should have.”
Rochelle recalled that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was united in a way it has not been since. “Everybody knew what had happened to us, what had to be done and what the consequences would be if it were not done.”
Many young men like himself voluntarily enlisted.
“The fate of the world, by and large, was in the hands of a bunch of people not much older than you folks. And what we did was remarkable as a group,” Rochelle said.
Gibbons told the students it was an honor to serve.
“Our reward is seeing a generation like this come up after us that might not have been here.”