Worth The Wait

CATTARAUGUS – Longtime Cattaraugus resident Howard Gunsolus is one of a dwindling number of World War II veterans here in Western New York. His recollection of that time remains crystal clear.

“My father must have been listening to the radio on Dec. 7, 1941,” he recalled. “We didn’t have TV – or even a phone then, so it must have been the radio. But, all of a sudden he came running to tell us the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor.”

“I was just an 18-year-old farm boy from Franklinville,” Gunsolus recalled. “My friends and I all wanted to enlist right away, but our folks didn’t really like that idea.”

In fact, 14 months went by before Howard and his best friend, John Terhune drove over to Ellicottville to enlist. On the next day, they took the train to Buffalo for physicals and other tests, and from there, to Fort Niagara. “And just like that, we were in the Army,” Gunsolus said.

“We were shipped to New Jersey for basic training,” he said, adding, “the boardwalk might sound like a great place to train, but I’m telling you, it’s not where you want to be in the wintertime.”

“Somewhere along the line, the army decided I was cut out to be a radio operator,” he continued, “so they sent me to Nebraska to learn the fundamentals. From there, I went to Florida, to take what they called operational training.”

After what seemed an eternity of schooling, the eager young soldier finally headed for the action. His orders took him to the hotly contested “Pacific Theater,” more specifically, the island of New Guinea, where some of the most brutal fighting of the war took place, and where malaria could be counted among the ranks of the enemy. The Japanese viewed this strategically placed island as the ideal launchpad from which to complete their conquest of Southeast Asia, the islands of the South Pacific – and eventually Australia, New Zealand and India. Gunsolus entered this hell-hole as a Signal Corpsman, attached to the Army Air Force.

“We didn’t have a separate U.S. Air Force back then,” he said.

Gunsolus soon learned that radio operators got assigned wherever they were most needed – and those assignments changed frequently. For awhile, he was assigned to a metal airstrip, built by the Army Corps of Engineers on a tiny island just off New Guinea’s north coast. That spot has understandably ingrained itself in his memory. “To keep us from getting supplies,” he related, “the Japs were determined to wreck all our landing strips. Most days we had at least one air raid,” he said, “and they made sure they hit us on every American holiday. It was like living on a bull’s-eye.”

“It was those air raids I dreaded most,” Gunsolus said. “They’d fly in low at sunset, so our gunners couldn’t see them in the sun. The bombs were incendiaries, and they exploded with huge flashes. Once, I remember, a row of them was sort of marching across the strip, straight toward me. There was no use running. There was no time and no place to go. I just lay there waiting.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I really thought I’d had it that time.”

Gunsolus survived that attack and countless others, on countless tiny islands, as the Allies doggedly fought their way back across the Pacific Ocean, which, by that time, had been almost completely dominated by Japan. “We’d clear those islands out one by one,” he said, “ending by retaking the Philippines (which had fallen to the Japanese early in the war).

“I remember one little island,” he said, “that we took pretty fast. But then, a couple of holdout Japs booby-trapped the path where our artillery guys walked back and forth to their big guns. Our gunners got killed, and we didn’t even know any enemy was there. You could never let your guard down.”

As the tide of war turned in the Allies’ favor, Gunsolus said U.S. soldiers started viewing the remaining Japanese “almost as a nuisance. They’d been left on these islands to fight to the end, but then, they’d run out of ammo and food. They had nothing. So at night, while we were asleep, they’d sneak in and steal things – food, shirts, even our underwear. They were desperate.”

The war in the Pacific ended in August 1945, with an Allied victory, and Gunsolus arrived back in the United States four months later, on Dec. 31. “Just in time to celebrate New Year’s,” he said. “They gave us a big dinner, served by German prisoners of war. Then they drove us across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco and turned us loose. It was a wild time.”

A few days later, on Jan. 12, 1946, Gunsolus received his official discharge, having served during the height of the war, from 1943-46. He said he was always vaguely aware that he’d qualified for “some medals and stuff,” although he never did actually receive them. “But, a lot of things got overlooked at the end of the war,” he said. “Everyone just wanted to get home.”

Putting his war memories behind him, Gunsolus got on with life. He took a couple of jobs, before signing on as a truck driver for Springville’s Nason Delivery Service. With steady work, he married his girlfriend, Gertrude Decot, and moved to East Otto, where the couple raised their three children; James, Gail, and Donna. Tragically, Gertrude died of multiple sclerosis at only 45.

Eventually, the young widower met an even younger widow, Pauline (Westfall) Rupp. The two decided to build a new life together, and they married, living for a time in North Carolina, then settling down in Cattaraugus, where they’ve resided for the past 30-plus years.

As the decades slipped by, while Gunsolus thought less and less often of his war years, one of his granddaughters, Chief Master Sergeant Jennifer Hutcherson, became increasingly preoccupied with them. She’d always loved hearing her “Papa Howie” talk about his war experiences, and, as a member of the military herself, she felt it important that he receive those long-deferred accolades. Moreover, since she works in the Pentagon as superintendent of protocol for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, she found herself in a position to extend a very special invitation to her surprised grandfather.

And so it was, that only weeks ago, on Sept. 20 (luckily before the government shutdown), Howard traveled to Washington, D.C. with his wife, his daughter, Gail, and his son-in-law, Tony Swierkowski, to attend the National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day observance, held annually in the nation’s capital.

There, he was given a seat in the first row of veterans, a group regularly invited to enrich the ceremony with their presence. He occupied a place of honor close to Secretary of Defense Hagel, who later shook his hand and thanked him for his service. General Martin Dempsey delivered the keynote speech, after first commending the attendees for their commitment to those lost in combat, and others who remain missing in action.

But Howard’s special surprise came after the ceremony, and formed a fitting climax to his big day. Unbeknownst to Gunsolus, his granddaughter had researched the medals and honors due him, then rounded them up and arranged them in a shadow-box. Her presentation of that little box corrected a nearly 70-year-old oversight.

After that emotional moment, Gunsolus still had the time and energy to check off the other items on his “To-Do-While-I’m-In-Washington” list. “Jennifer took us on a tour of the Pentagon,” he said. “Then, we visited the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.”

“He really wanted to see the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” said his granddaughter-turned-tour-guide. “We were lucky. He got to see it all.”

Back home in Cattaraugus, Gunsolus has quietly returned to the job he loves, as a school bus attendant. Yes, this hardy 90-year-old veteran still works regularly, as an employee of the Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School system. His strong hands assist special needs children to safely enter and exit the bus and secure their sometimes bulky wheelchairs, while his ready smile assures them all, “Hey. It’s going to be a really great day, today.”