A dozen veterans, many highly decorated, spoke to students at Saugerties High School on Thursday, Oct. 10, part of a weekend event that included a conference of veterans in Kingston.
Colonel Roger Donlon, a Vietnam veteran and the first recipient of the Medal of Honor in that war, was the first speaker. Donlon attended Saugerties High School, where he was an outstanding athlete and his junior class president. He was a Special Forces captain in Camp Nan Dong in Vietnam on July 6, 1964 when his base was attacked by a force of some 900 North Korean soldiers. He was wounded four times during the attack, which was eventually repulsed.
He left the students with a message inscribed in his wedding band: “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.”
Donlon shared the stage with soldiers from as far away as Texas; many of them also decorated heroes. Indeed, Donlon was not the only Medal of Honor winner in the company. Ronald Rosser of Roseville, Ohio earned a Medal of Honor during his service in Korea.
Rosser went to Korea seeking to avenge the death of his brother in the war. On Jan. 12, 1952 he was serving as a corporal in a mortar company. Pinned down by Chinese troops near Pongelli, with most of his company killed or wounded, Rosser raced into the enemy troops’ lines, firing continuously. When he ran out of ammunition and hand grenades, he resupplied himself from his fallen comrades’ weapons and continued attacking. He later estimated he had killed 20 Chinese with hand grenades and another 25 with rifle fire.
“My job in the Army was to protect other people,” Rosser said. Noting that most of the veterans on the stage were well into their ’80s or more, he told the young people that “we will give you the greatest gift of all; we will give you the United States of America.”
However, these students would become the next generation of leaders, he said. “What we want from you, in return for what we’ve done for you, we want you to take care of this country, turn it over to your grandchildren as a free country, and maybe even correct some of the mistakes we’ve made.”
The former members of the military on stage are ordinary people, Rosser said. “When people ask me what I did to earn the Medal of Honor, I say I was protecting my people.”
In introducing Russell Gackenbach of Titusville, Florida, who served as a navigator on Necessary Evil, one of the planes accompanying the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Superintendent Seth Turner acknowledged that the use of the atomic bomb was controversial, but it did bring a swift end to the war. The event changed the history of the world, Turner said, “and to find out that this gentleman was willing to come to our school and speak about this, I could not believe it. This was a moment in history that changed the world as we knew it.”
While the history books usually only mention the Enola Gay, “in fact there were seven planes involved,” Gackenbach said. “There were about 150 men involved in dropping that bomb. I was just one of the 150.” Of the three planes that participated in the actual strike, only two crew members are still alive, he said.
Gackenbach told the students to speak to grandparents or other relatives who served in the armed forces in past wars. “Ask them what they did; you might be surprised by what they have to say. Some of us old grandfathers, at one time we were reluctant to talk, but we found out it was necessary for us to talk because your school–and all the other schools in the United States–have limited time to teach about World War II, the Korean War and what have you.”
Turner reinforced the message, referring to the many heroes among us, including the American Legion Color Guard at the front of the auditorium. While encouraging students to speak to them and learn from them, the superintendent warned that the memories may be painful, and the students should accept it if they are unwilling to speak about their experiences.
Sergeant First Class Dillard Johnson, who served in Iraq, told the students that they have a hard task ahead of them. “You have to take this legacy that we’ve left you and you’re going to have to build something from it,” he said. “People that will help you do it are your teachers. Don’t give up on them, guys. I was one of those rough kids that needed a lot of guidance and a lot of hits with a stick from the principal. But I made it out all right.
Johnson, who lives in Florida, demonstrated great modesty in not mentioning the Silver Star, Bronze Star, four Purple Hearts, a presidential unit citation and other medals earned over his 20 years in the service. However, his focus at the assembly was to present the school with an American flag that flew in Kuwait in 2002 and in Baghdad a year later, which he said is “to the best of my knowledge the first American flag that flew over Iraq.” He also gave the school two copies of his book, “Carnivore,” and a t-shirt that was printed for Iraqis who voted in the first free elections since Saddam Hussein took power. “These were only given to Iraqis after they voted,” he said.
During the presentation, which lasted more than an hour, the students met Walt Straka, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II; Armando “Chick” Gallella, who was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese air force attacked; R.V. Burgin, who fought at Peleliu Island and New Britain while in the Marines in World War II; Guy Whitten, a World War II paratrooper who served in the European Theater and also recalled his days as a teacher in a two-room schoolhouse; David Mills, who was severely wounded and held in a POW camp during the Korean War (sometimes called the forgotten war); and Clarence Jensen of Hurley, who served in Italy in World War II.
Turner praised the students for their good manners and for their enthusiastic cheering of the veterans who spoke.