Elmer Gedeon – A True Hero of World War II
Elmer Gedeon, nephew of former American League infielder Joe Gedeon, was a three-sport star at the University of Michigan and a major league outfielder in the 1930s. He is one of only two players with major league experience to be killed while serving his country during World War II.
On May 28, his 10th inning home run beat Minnesota, 6â€“4, and when the season concluded at the end of May, Gedeon had a .285 batting average (28 for 98) and tied the team for the lead in home runs with five. In track that year, he clinched the Big Ten high hurdles crown, and was the first person to match Jesse Owensâ€™ time of 7.2 seconds for the low hurdles in Yost Field House at Michigan. Gedeon concluded his junior year by finishing third in the 120-yard high hurdles at the NCAA track and field championships held at Minneapolis on June 18, 1938.
â€œGed has been forced to make one of the greatest decisions of his life just because he is such a good hurdler. With the Olympics coming up in 1940, he would be a cinch to make the trip for Uncle Sam. But his first love is baseball and to that love he will yield.â€
As it turned out, the anticipated 1940 Summer Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. They were originally scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan, but Tokyo was stripped of its host status for the Games, following Japanâ€™s invasion of Manchuria in 1937. The IOC then awarded the Games to Helsinki, Finland, the runner-up in the original bidding process. The Games were suspended indefinitely following the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and did not resume until the London Games of 1948.
â€œHeâ€™s going to be a big league ball player if determination, love of the game, and ability can make him that,â€ announced the Michigan Daily in the spring of 1939. â€œRay Fisher describes him as â€˜the most improved player on my squad.â€™ Scouts have been on his trail all year and he has offers from more than one major league club. Thatâ€™s why Elmer isnâ€™t going to wait for 1940 and that free trip to Europe. And thatâ€™s why heâ€™ll go to work in some bush league in June. Good young baseball players are at a premium and Gedeon fits that description to a T.â€
As anticipated, Gedeon cast his lot with baseball when he announced that he had signed a contract with the Washington Senators on June 3, 1939. He had batted .320 (32 for 100) with the Wolverines that season and joined the Senators on June 8 in Cleveland, where he expected to stay with them a short time and then be farmed out to one of their minor league affiliates.
Wanting to utilize Gedeonâ€™s speed, Senators manager Bucky Harris suggested he switch from first base to the outfield, and the 22-year-old was sent to the Orlando Senators of the Class D Florida State League to learn to play his new position. But the Senators almost lost their prized possession before his career really got under way. In August 1939, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared void the Senators’ contract with Gedeon because proof of it was not submitted to his office and the American League president within 20 days after the contract was signed. Landis ruled, however, that because of the circumstances of the case, Washington would be free to re-sign Gedeon â€“ which they did in a hurry – but, warned that thereafter, if a club failed to comply with the 20-day rule it would be prohibited from signing a player to a new contract.
Gedeon appeared in 67 games with Orlando, batted .253 and stole 15 bases before rejoining the Senators at the end of the season. His first major league appearance was on September 18, 1939, as a late inning replacement for right fielder Johnny Welaj against the Tigers in Dutch Leonardâ€™s 19th win of the year. He struck out in his only at-bat but made one put out in the outfield. The following day, Gedeon was the starting center fielder against the Cleveland Indians. Batting sixth in the line-up, he collected three hits, drew a walk and drove in a run in a 10â€“9 win over the Indians. He went hitless in another three games, going 0-for-4 against the Indians on September 20 and again on the 21st, and failing to get a hit in two at-bats against the Yankees on the 23rd. In five games, Gedeon finished the year with three hits in 15 at-bats, scored a run, drove in a run, drew two walks and struck out five times.
In 1940, Gedeon was with the Senators for spring training but spent the season with the Charlotte Hornets of the Class B Piedmont League, where he hit .271 in 131 games and demonstrated his power with 11 home runs. He was recalled to Washington at the end of the season but did not make an appearance and was expected to spend 1941 with Greenville in the Class B South Atlantic League. â€œGedeon is exceptionally fast for a big man,â€ said Senators owner Clark Griffith, â€œand we consider him a fine prospect for a regular job with our club.â€
Gedeon served as assistant football coach at Michigan during the fall of 1940, and received his summons for military service in January 1941. He went to spring training with Charlotte but joined the Army in March, and was carried on the Washington Senatorsâ€™ National Defense Service List. Taking induction at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Gedeon reported to the Cavalry Replacement Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 18. He was assigned to Troop B of the First Squadron, and became an acting corporal the first day of the 13-week training program.
â€œI was assigned to the kitchens, recalled Reno Simone, a young recruit who arrived at Fort Riley the same time as Gedeon. â€œOne morning Elmer showed up and said he was tired of his men being assigned kitchen detail so he put himself on KP. Shortly thereafter, two officers showed up and gave Gedeon orders to get ready to play baseball. Elmer asked to borrow my tennis shoes as he had not brought his baseball spikes with him.â€
Playing for the Fort Riley baseball team that summer, the 24-year-old former major leaguer helped them finish third in the national semi-pro congress tournament at Wichita, Kansas.
On October 22, 1941, Gedeon transferred to the Army Air Force and was lucky to make the 200-pound weight-limit for pilots. He earned his pilotâ€™s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant as part of the twin-engine bomber crew training program at Williams Field near Phoenix, Arizona, in May 1942, and served with the 315th Bomb Squadron, 21st Bomb Group – an Operational Training Group – at MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida.
Flight training was always a hazardous time and almost claimed the young athleteâ€™s life on August 9, 1942. Gedeon was the navigator in a North American B-25 Mitchell medium-sized bomber that struggled on take-off from Raleigh Airport, North Carolina. The plane clipped pine trees at the end of the runway and plunged into a swamp before bursting into flames. Despite suffering three broken ribs, Gedeon managed to free himself and crawl from the wreckage, then realized crewmate Corporal John Rarrat was still inside. Gedeon returned to the burning plane without a momentâ€™s hesitation and pulled Rarrat to safety. Corporal Ros Ware died in the crash, Rarrat succumbed to his injuries at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, and the five other crew members all suffered serious burns and broken limbs. Gedeon was hospitalized for 12 weeks. In addition to broken ribs he suffered severe burns to his back, face, hands and legs, some of which needed skin grafts.
â€œThe ribs gave me the most trouble,â€ he told the Ann Arbor News. â€œI had to rest on my stomach because of the burns, so the ribs couldnâ€™t be taped.â€ Gedeonâ€™s weight dropped from nearly 200 pounds to 155 pounds while in the hospital. â€œI got that weight back after I started to take vitamin pills. They gave me four each meal. The ordinary dose is two a day. I never ate so much in my life. When I started eating the plates and napkins, they cut down on my pills in a hurry.â€
With his wounds healed, Gedeon told his cousin, Bob, â€œI had my accident. Itâ€™s going to be good flying from now on,â€ and returned to MacDill Field in Florida at the beginning of 1943. He was soon promoted to first lieutenant and awarded the Soldiersâ€™ Medal for his heroics. In a ceremony that was conducted by Major General St. Clair Streett, commanding officer of the Third Air Force, Gedeonâ€™s citation stated in part: â€œAfter extricating himself, Lieutenant Gedeon, regardless of the fact that he had suffered broken ribs and severe shock, re-entered the burning wreckage and removed Corporal John R. Rarrat, a fellow crew member, who had been rendered helpless, due to having received a broken back and broken leg in the crash. Corporal Rarrat would have been burned to death had it not been for the unselfish action of Lieutenant Gedeon . . . The heroism displayed by Lieutenant Gedeon on this occasion reflects great credit upon himself and the military service.â€
In March 1943, the 394th Bomb Group was formed at MacDill Field, and its personnel came from the 21st Bomb Group. Gedeon was among them. The 394th Bomb Group was developed to operate the Martin B-26 Marauder, a sleek and fast, twin-engine bomber that had earned the unflattering nickname â€œThe Widowmaker,â€ due to early modelsâ€™ high rate of accidents during takeoff. In July 1943, the group moved to Ardmore Army Air Field in Oklahoma, which had originally been Gene Autryâ€™s Flying â€œAâ€ Ranch. In the intense summer heat, the Marauder crews flew combat simulations and high altitude bombing practice. During this time Gedeon had his own experiences of how difficult the B-26 could be to handle. On July 12, he was piloting a B-26 that left Ardmore and was damaged on landing at Lake Charles Army Air Field in Louisiana. On August 8, he was again at the controls of a B-26 that was damaged on landing due to a mechanical failure at Great Salt Plains Airfield, Oklahoma.
Late August 1943 saw the 394th Bomb Group move north to Kellogg Field, near Battle Creek, Michigan, where it conducted its first simulated mission on September 1 – the destruction of a bridge at Saugatuck, Michigan. It was at Kellogg Field that the group learned it was definitely slated for combat duty overseas. Following participation in the Tennessee Air Support Command Maneuvers at Atterbury Army Air Field, Columbus, Indiana, during October and November 1943, the group shipped overseas, and the newly promoted Captain Gedeon arrived at Boreham Field, near Chelmsford in England, in February 1944. Known as the â€œBridge Busters,â€ the 394th Bomb Group was part of the IX Bomber Command and its purpose was to fly tactical missions in support of the Allied build-up to the invasion of Europe.
With his duties as operations officer, Gedeon was not a regular flyer but on April 20, 1944, just five days after celebrating his 27th birthday, he piloted a B-26B (42-96042), one of 36 Marauders that left Boreham Field that afternoon to bomb a German V1 site being constructed in woodland near the village of Esquerdes, about 4 miles southwest of Saint-Omer, and 30 miles inland from the French coast. It was the groupâ€™s 13th mission.
It was early evening when Gedeon entered the B-26 through the nose gear well and unlocked the entrance hatch sliding doors to gain access to the pilotâ€™s compartment. Alongside him was co-pilot James Taaffe of Albany, New York, and together they ran through their pre-flight check list as did the other crew members â€“ bombardier/navigator 2/Lt. Jack March of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, tail-gunner S/Sgt. Joseph Kobret of Chester, South Carolina, engineer/gunner Sgt. John Felker of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, radio-operator/gunner Sgt. Ira Thomas of Mancelona, Michigan and bombardier Pvt. Charles Atkinson of Rosindale, Massachusetts.
Pretty soon the propellers turned over and both Pratt & Whitney engines coughed and spluttered to life. Gedeon guided the Marauder from the dispersal area and joined 35 other Marauders of the 394th Bomb Group as they jostled for position in line at the runway.
When a green Aldis lamp beam flashed through the ground haze, Gedeon pushed the throttle forward and caused the Marauder to shudder. With the throttle handles pushed down as far they could go, the engines reached maximum power and through a deafening roar the twin-engined bomber hurried down the runway and into the sky.
Gedeon nestled his plane into the number two position behind group leader Cptn. Darrell Lindsey and they were soon out over the English Channel climbing to a height of 12,000 feet. It was after 7:30 P.M. when the group approached the target area and encountered intense, accurate, and heavy anti-aircraft fire. The sky was suddenly full of deadly puffs of black and grey explosions which generated hundreds of pieces of jagged steel that could easily set oxygen and gas tanks blazing, or rip through the wings of a plane and just as easily through the bodies of the men inside. Lining up to make the bombing run the flak grew heavier, thicker and more deadly, causing planes to bounce around from nearby bursts. Approaching the target, a wave of frigid air raced in as the bomb bay doors were opened and the Marauder climbed suddenly as the bombs were released on their target.
Moments later the bomb bay doors were closed and the Marauder suddenly received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire below the cockpit, instantly filling the plane with flames. Within seconds the stricken bomber peeled away. Bail-out procedure required the bomb bay doors to be opened but neither conventional nor emergency systems would open them. With flames filling the cramped confines of the cockpit, co-pilot Taaffe struggled to open the pilotâ€™s and co-pilotâ€™s top hatches and saw the bombardier, Pvt. Atkinson and bombardier/navigator 2/Lt. March heading towards the cockpit to follow him out.
Gedeon had fallen forward against the controls as Taaffe, with his clothing on fire, briefly looked back. He saw no movement from Gedeon as he scrambled to safety through the hatch, losing consciousness on the way out. Regaining consciousness at about 7,000 feet, Taaffe watched the flame-engulfed airplane spiral out of control and explode on impact.
Although other planes and French civilians on the ground reported seeing two or three parachutes, Taaffe, who, upon landing, was engaged in small arms fire with German troops before being captured and taken for medical treatment, was told all other crew members had perished.
Taaffe, who described Gedeon as a â€œsuper gentleman with a delightful sense of humor,â€ felt that Gedeon may have gone into shock after realizing he was in the same situation as he had been back in August 1942, when he was trapped inside a burning B-25 at Raleigh Airport.
Gedeonâ€™s wife, Laura, who was living in Holyoke, Massachusetts, soon received the shocking news that her husband was missing in action – his fate, at that time, unknown. It was not until May 1945 – more than a year later – that his father, Andrew A. Gedeon, received word from his sonâ€™s commanding officer that the graves of the six missing airmen had been located in a small British army cemetery in St. Pol-sur-Ternoise, about 30 miles east of the target area in France. Elmer Gedeonâ€™s body was later returned to the United States and rests at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In 1983, the University of Michigan, which had set up the Elmer Gedeon Memorial scholarship after the war, inducted Gedeon into the Universityâ€™s Hall of Honor for track and baseball.
James Taaffe, who was held prisoner for 13 months at Stalag Luft III, worked for the Veterans Administration after the war and was director of compensation, pension and education from 1968 until he retired in 1975. In that job, he oversaw payments of more than $5 billion to 4.5 million veterans, their dependents and survivors for service-connected disabilities, pensions and education or training benefits. He passed away in 2008.