WAYLAND — It was a big day in history for the military,, the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day.
On Nov. 11 the Wayland American Legion coordinated with Wayland Area Historical Society to bring honor to Veterans’ Day with two war heroes; Pvt Theodore Van Tassell (WWI) and Paul Gerling (WWII) from Wayland. There was also talk about Faces of the Fallen, other local war heroes from WWI and WWII, and The Hello Girls of WWI.
Legion Post Commander Kevin Mark thanked all veterans who came to the program.
“I wanted to do something nice for these guys down here today,” he said.
Legion Historian Mike McCauley started off with talk about the post’s namesake, Pvt. Van Tassell.
“I am the historian for Legion Post 402. I have been doing a lot of research for Theodore Van Tassell. Due to the fact that this is the 100th year of the Armistice; this is also the 100th anniversary of Theodore’s death on June 13, 1918,” he said. “This past June we had a small gathering on June 13 to honor Theodore.”
McCauley read a couple of old letters that came from Pvt. Van Tassell about his experience at war. He entered The Great War when he was only 17 years old, and he perished in the fields of France at 19 years old.
On May 12, 1918 Pvt. Van Tassell wrote home perhaps for the last time, “I managed to get ahold of some paper and a little ink to write with. This letter is for all, but it is especially for mother. I’m in the trenches now, and it is almost 3 p.m. I am sitting in a dugout, and the rats are playing tag with one another.”
The young soldier was keeping his food away from the rats as he collected rations, since soldiers were starving at this time.
Van Tassell continued, “They are a nice company to have at night. You have to pull the blanket over your head, as they are not particular where they run over you in your sleep. We sleep as peacefully as if we were at home in a nice feather bed. I do not have to go after any water to wash with, since I have all I want right here. The water is trickling all through the roof, and we have cans here to catch it.”
McCauley said that it got to a point that the soldiers families were restricted on what could be sent overseas, so no care packages could be sent.
“They were afraid it would get lost in transit, or spies would get into the packages. They didn’t want them to see what our home people were sending,” he said. “They would see what soldiers were lacking, and be able to use that for espionage.”
McCauley added that these letters sent home give you a window into what life was like in the trenches for these young men.
“Theodore enlisted in Rochester. He trained in Virginia. They posted him to a machine gun company, the 73rd Machine Gun Company of the 6th Marines,” he said. “When the Americans went to France he became part of the second division. Now the unusual thing about the second division is it's the only Army division commanded by a Marine Corp general. We see from the letters sent home by one of his friends and commanding officer that he was killed by shell fire. We were able to get a photo of his headstone, since he was buried in France.”
Mark was asked to give some history on Paul Gerling, and the amazing thing he accomplished in WWII.
“I was asked to give a couple stories on Paul Gerling, and most of you who knew him, or sat at the bar with him, you know he loved to tell stories,” he said. “I am sure I can’t tell the stories as good as he could’ve. Paul is sadly missed. He passed away a couple of years ago. Up in the display is what truly happened that day.”
Mark alluded to the kamikaze missions of German pilots, although the Japanese were better known for the attacks.
“They would send the German pilots out on their last missions, and they would fly into our planes causing as much damage as they could,” he said. “We cherish this picture (Gerling’s plane) because there is not a lot of these around anymore. It is neat to have this on display at the Legion.”
McCauley said that the only difference is that German pilots would try to survive the damage, so they could turn around and do it again. They would go for the gunner in the back of the plane, and that is where Gerling was positioned.
Mark read what happened to Gerling by Sarah Didas, a local who loved the story.
“During World War II Paul was a member of the 100th bomb group stationed south of Norfolk England. The total strength of the group was a crew of 36, and their ages ranged from 20 to 24. They flew their first mission on June 23, 1943, and its last on April 20, 1945,” he said. ”Paul was a member of Easy Going. He was a tailgunner on the aircraft. Being a tailgunner meant sitting in a very small cramped place at the end of the plane. Imagine sitting 10 hours with your legs up to your knees.”
Gerling knew when he saw the Germans coming that some desperate measures were needed to make it out alive.
“The Germans were told to ram the B-17 planes in midair. They would break the B-17 bomber apart. The bombing runs were so frequent at the time that Germany was being devastated. German pilots were selected and trained for the mission.
"They were purposely going after bombers,” Mark said. “Most of the crew assumed it would be an easy run to go to Munich. This was the 25th and last time the plane Easy Going would go on a mission. They heard a call for support as they got near their target. They crashed into the plane, and all communication was gone. They couldn’t get the damage assessment, so they continued on the destination. Easy Going was alone in the sky. They could see the tail bobbing up and down, and this plane camp limping home.”
It is a miracle that Gerling survived this damage to the plane given where he was stationed.
Mark also read a letter from a local soldier who was witness to the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Kay Johantgen talked about some of her family that was in WWI and WWII.
Mark talked about needing help with the Faces of the Fallen project from Springwater, Cohocton and Wayland to identify the locals killed in action.